5 years ago I was serving as ‘cover musician’ for 2 weeks in Iona Abbey, Scotland. It was a special 2 weeks in which I met for the first time two sets of visitors from across the pond. One was a large group of youth and their leaders from St John’s Ellicott City in Maryland, USA. I was to meet them again 2 years later on their return visit to Iona and then the following year they invited me to join them as Musician-in-Residence for 2 weeks in Maryland.
Among the others I met on that first occasion were a husband and wife from Ontario, Canada. Kevin was the Church of England priest there and his wife, CatherinAnne, was the Roman Catholic Chaplain at the University of Huron. It was a special time for them too and as well as sharing in the sessions (many of which I led) we also shared great moments in the pub after the evening services each night.
When they learned that I had landed on their side of the pond they offered me the opportunity to visit them and do some work with them. So on Thursday 19 November I packed my bags and set off to Tampa’s airport en route to Detroit where I would be picked up and driven to London, Ontario Canada.
It was a remarkably short flight and I was among the last to board. It was a busy flight but I managed to find space in the overhead compartment. “A perfect fit” exclaimed the attendant. “That’s more than I can say for my seat”. I had glanced briefly towards my allocated seat and could discern that it would be a tight squeeze. “We’re going to get cosy” responded the guy in the seat next to mine. To be more precise a substantial part of his voluminous body was also in my seat. In fact part of it was oozing under the armrest and another part oozing above it. As I attempted to recline I knew this would not be a comfortable flight. I had a real sense of his perspiration seeping into my shirt. The discomfort was slightly relieved when my request for a brandy and ginger was met with the assertion that there would be no cost since the attendant had neglected to collect her card machine. Oh happy day!
At the airport I spotted the welcoming Jennifer and Clare who would drive me to London. we had to pass through the Border where I was quizzed about my favourite football team!
I got to Kevin’s church in time to be part of a conversation about recent terrorist attacks in Paris and what a Christian or biblical response might be . My friend John Bell had sent me a new song a few days ago on just this subject so I chose to read the text to the group. It was all about imagining that among refugees that some might refuse could have been Mary and Jesus. They were clearly moved.
After this I went home with Kevin and renewed my acquaintance with his wife, a bottle of red and several rather large Lagavullins taking the conversation into the third hour of the morning.
Friday began rudely as it can when you have drunk too much and slept too little. We adjourned to a local café for breakfast. The sign above a local bar caught my attention: FREE BEER, TOPLESS BARMAIDS AND FALSE ADVERTISING. we then went to a local shop to get some photocopying done. At 1230pm I was in Huron University preparing to give a lecture and workshop in the Chapel to seminarians. In the event we discovered that some foul fiend had scheduled an organ tuning to coincide with my visit and the event was moved to the Great Hall. We had a quick bit to eat before I started with a talk entitled ‘We must not allow ourselves to be robbed of the Gospel’ (Pope Francis) before moving into a session focussing on the music and areas of engagement of the Iona Community. It was intimidating at first as I discovered that the assembled persons included the expected seminarians but also the lecturing staff of the Theological Faculty. Just before I started a man in a purple shirt with the word Chaplain printed on the back waltzed into the Great Hall. “You must be the Chaplain?” I mused openly. There was no response. Instead he strode purposefully towards a grandfather clock and proceeded to wind it up. As he locked it closed I pointed out that it was 20 minutes slow but again received no response. I later learned that he had just been appointed Bishop of another Diocese. He must have had a lot on his mind … like grandfather clocks and vestments, I suppose.
After the session we all adjourned to a local pub which looked surprisingly English.
In the evening Kevin led me through the city to play the large organ at St Paul’s Cathedral and then we ate at a Mongolian restaurant. CatherinAnne had had to leave on an overnighter to bless a stone frigate of the Canadian Navy. we were both so tired that I can recall returning home but barely managing one beer as we dropped in and out of consciousness watching some TV.
Saturday began well after a good sleep. It had snowed quite heavily overnight. My ‘Retreat Day’ would run from 10am until 3pm in St John’s Church. I offered four sessions: two I had offered the previous day and another introducing the latest collection from Bernadette Farrell. We concluded with my version of a Liturgy of the Word with Washing of Feet derived from the Arche Community. It was great to see the Archdeacon bending down to wash my friend Kevin’s feet. Kevin was the presider and the Arch was a punter attending the day!
We finished a bit early so they asked me to play the organ there. It was a fine instrument by a local builder 2 miles down the road. I played some Durufle and improvised a bit. They had just lost their organist so it was good for folk to hear the organ again. Next door in the hall that we had used for lunch some 200 homeless were gathering for a meal. Wonderful witness to the Gospel.
We were invited to join a few folk at the pub after the event but Kevin couldn’t resist stopping at the Catholic Seminary on the way. He took me into the Chapel where we met a priest-member of the teaching staff who invited me to play. Kevin had met his wife in this very chapel several years ago so it was a good moment.
Jenifer, Clare, Kevin and I went to Evening Mass at the Catholic Cathedral and thence to a Chinese restaurant where we pigged out. It was snowing heavily outside the cathedral where we met a homeless man who had eaten earlier at St John’s. I was struck by Kevin’s insistence on sharing names and asking his. After a gift of a woolen hat and scarf he was off into the darkness.
After the Chinese we enjoyed a few beers in a local brewery.
On Sunday I was to preach at the Anglican Communion at St Aidan’s Church. I chose to focus on the gospel and Christ’s references to truth in his conversation with Pilate. I also included a new song ‘In these times’ by Marty Haugen which, like John Bell’s, reflected on the refugee ‘crisis’. I was really pleased to see Todd the Theology Prof from Huron University among the congregation. He was very positive about what I had to say and offered to endorse me as a preacher to my own bishop!
Also among the congregation was another Englishman from Lincolnshire whose marriage had brought him to Canada. He joined us at a rather fine bar where we had dinner. I had fish and chips!
In the evening after a bit of chill time I took my friends out for a sushi meal. They took over as I am not conversant with this cuisine. we ordered 49 courses between the three of us!
On Monday I needed to be at the airport for a 1230pm flight. Customs showed a more professional interest this time … in the number of Indian visa stamps in my passport. we made good time and were able to stop for lunch at a Turkish café close to the airport.
After fond farewells it was not long before I was on the plane with a good seat watching the ice being removed from the wings!
By 4pm I was back in Charann’s Tavern … the perfect place to unwind after a successful trip!