Monday, December 02, 2013


It's hard to express my wonder as an Old Mertonian returning to college for this year's Advent Carol Service.

I simply don't have the memory of chairs being put out in the sanctuary so that there was room for everyone who wanted to come to a service. We never had a choir like this. I never saw such spectacle as hundreds of candles flickering and glowing and processing out together. This is Merton College in its 750th year.

And then there is the brand new Dobson Organ, physically dominating the ante chapel, and thundering gloriously through preludes, hymns, anthems and voluntaries.

Mark, the chaplain when I was an undergraduate, is one of my heroes in life. He probably has no idea. I was a fairly unreconstructed evangelical as an undergraduate; vice-president of the OICCU, you name it. The years have added a little nuance for me to the black and white simplicity of those days, the odd grey here and there. And yet, for all that, I was up every morning and attending morning prayer in chapel with Mark and two or three others. He helped me to worship, and the vehicle, the tradition, was not the issue: the reality of the faith and the sight of God was.

These days, I'd be working out how he was using liturgy so well; then I just took it.

And my memory - for what it's worth - is that the life of the chapel ambled on, up and down, and Mark faithfully served us and several found a calling and went forward to ordained ministry, or into different kinds of orders. It was a warm place; he was a good man.

And now: this thing I always loved, watched over by this man I revered, has been transformed and I am truly, truly touched again by what I see and hear and feel today.

My parish here are learning that I am fussy about liturgy. It must be good, but it must be clear: I have no time for liturgy which is only useful to those who are liturgically literate. The in-crowd. Liturgy as a barrier to coming to worship is abhorrent.

Simon, Merton's current chaplain, is a superb liturgist. His materials are concise, readable, intelligent and straightforward to follow for the first-time or occasional visitor. The service booklet for the Advent Carol Service (given that we started in darkness) was excellent as a resource. The basic shape of the service was simple, with readings moving from promise in the Old Testament through the Prophets to the Annunciation in St Luke, surrounded by congregational carols and choir items, with a final procession to the ante chapel where all of us stood, candles in hand, organ blazing, glory descending. The execution of it was awe-inspiring.

The choir: This Christmas, most of us will hear choirs attempt Howells' A Spotless Rose. My heart usually sinks when I see it on a service order. It is a deceptive piece, which should ebb and flow and be like gossamer on the wind, and which more usually ends up like treacle on a spoon. Merton choir under Ben Nicholas' superb direction wove a web that was deliciously light. I can hear it still.

But the highlight was Matthew Martin's O Oriens, a magical, mysterious, breathtaking piece knotted around with glimpses of O Come O Come Emmanuel which quite simply moved me to tears. I didn't want it to end; ended, I wanted to stay in the moment of silence that followed for ever.

The organ: O Mertonians, the old days are gone. The platform, the pseudo-baroque tones that came straight from an early German period instrument recording of the 1960s, all gone. Now here be dragons. Monsters. Angels too - for a Leviathan it can sometimes play with an ethereal sweetness. And at the end, as we all sang out Lo, he comes I stood right by the Dobson and felt its full power, and the earth shook. Wonderful.

It was a real privilege to be with hundreds of others in Merton Chapel on Saturday. It is a real privilege to see what Simon and his team and his vision is achieving there. It was a special privilege to see Mark back for the occasion, and to speak briefly with him. Too briefly; I owe him so much.

It was the best start to Advent I can ever remember.


joyce. said...

soo descriptive Marcus. you have taken me to share this moment. I could see the candles and it lifted my emotions to share in the music ..thank you.

Anonymous said...

As an old Mertonian who also has so much to be grateful to Mark for, and where my own vocation was nurtured, who sang in its choir then, and who now sings for Paul Hale, the designer of the new Dobson, your piece thrilled me. I can't wait to hear it!