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A service from Chester Cathedral, a place of worship for nearly two thousand years and the site of a Benedictine monastery in the 11th century. The service explores the question the abbott would ask someone exploring the religious life: "What do you seek?" and extends that searching question to all looking for meaning in life today. The service reflects traditional Benedictine spirituality with psalms and plainchant hymns. The Chester Cathedral Nave Choir is directed by Benjamin Chewter and the organist is Geoffrey Woollatt. The service is led by Canon Peter Jenner and the preacher is the Bishop of Stockport, Robert Atwell.
Producer: Clair Jaquiss.

Release date:

40 minutes

Last on

Sun 14 Apr 2013 08:10

Chester Cathedral, 14/04/13

BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship:  14 April 2013



Opening V&R              O Lord, open our lips;




Welcome to Chester Cathedral.  For several centuries in this place of worship each new day began with the words we’ve just heard.  The sound of plainchant can help us imagine the time before this church became a cathedral when it was a large and influential Benedictine Abbey. This morning we’re in the Quire of the Cathedral, the heart of the building, in the very same intricately carved wooden stalls where the monks gathered for their devotions long ago.  They would have entered this place of prayer as night was ending and the first shafts of dawn light pierced the dark interior.   An important part of their early service was the Venite, Psalm 95, sung as a commitment to the monastic life of worship and prayer.                                                                                 






Chester Cathedral is built of red sandstone and it almost seems as if centuries of prayer and worship have been absorbed into the very stones around us.  A few yards from where we worship this morning, one wall of the cathedral still remains from the first monastic church built over 900 years ago.  And through every one of those years, Christians have celebrated the festivals of the church which tell the story of Jesus.  In their worship, the monks would always sing hymns which reflected the themes of the liturgical season.  So today our first hymn is a proclamation of resurrection faith, an Easter hymn based on an ancient Latin text:  “The day draws on with golden light”.                                     ’



Hymn: The day draws on with golden light  (Tune:  Deus tuorum militum) 3.02’



The life of the monks of Chester was shaped by the teaching of St Benedict. Benedict lived in Italy around the year 500AD and towards the end of his life he distilled his experience as a monk and abbot into a monastic Rule – a set of written wisdom and instruction.  Meditating on Scripture and ‘listening to God with the ear of our heart’, as Benedict put it, was central to the life of the monastery.  We especially ‘listen to God’ as we read the Bible, and our first reading today takes us back to the first Easter Day and the meeting between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene.



A reading from the gospel according to John, chapter 20:


Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping and, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb.  And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.  And they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping ?"  She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him."  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom do you seek?" [i]


This is the Word of the Lord.

All       Thanks be to God.                                                                                     ’



“Whom do you seek?” asks the risen Christ of Mary as she weeps by the empty tomb.  Seeking God is a key theme in Benedict’s Rule, but he talks also about a different sort of seeking, about the God who seeks us, inviting us to live our lives transformed by grace. This is what Benedict says:



Seeking workers in a multitude of people, God calls out and says: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” If you hear this and your answer is “I do,” God then directs these words to you:  if you desire true and eternal life, “keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim”. [ii]



Benedict’s monastic Rule centred on a call to stability and, in his words, ‘to prefer nothing to the love of Christ’.  When Benedict wrote in the 6th century, he wouldn’t have realised that he was living through one of the great periods of transition in which the face of the world changes.  During his lifetime he witnessed political instability, widespread famine, violence and war, and it’s against this dark backcloth that he wrote his Rule. Benedict continues describing how God calls people to a life of faith:



God says, “Let peace be your quest and aim”.  Once you have done this, my “eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers;  and even before you ask me, I will say” to you: “here I am”.  What is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?  See how God’s love shows us the way of life. ”. [iii].                                                  



The psalms were fundamental to the Benedictine community’s prayer and worship.  Here is the entry point into the whole of scripture and the gateway to becoming more receptive to the work of God in our lives.



The prophet says, “Sing wisely” and “in the presence of the angels I will sing to you.”  We must always remember that we are in the presence of God and his angels, and ought to sing the Psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices. [iv]                                                 42’



One Psalm particularly important for Benedict was Psalm 34, which begins with thanksgiving to God.


MUSICPsalm 34: 1-14



Whatever our circumstances, the Psalms give us words to express what we’re going through and words to help us make sense of our world and words for our prayers to God.

The Psalms also enable us to hear God’s word calling to us in Jesus Christ, the one who invites the weary to leave with him all that weighs them down:  I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and rest.”



Hymn: I heard the voice of Jesus say (Kingsfold)    



A reading from the gospel according to John chapter 1:


John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”   The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.  And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?”  They said to Him, “Rabbi, where are You staying?”  He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”  So they came and saw where He was staying;  and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” 42  He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas” . [v]


This is the Word of the Lord.

All       Thanks be to God.                                                                                     45’



Bishop Robert

I remember the room vividly to this day: the maroon velvet sofa, the Chinese porcelain cups and saucers, the grand piano and the French windows giving onto immaculate lawns.  Grandchildren in silver frames smiled down on us, as my host began to tell me the story of their marriage, when suddenly he cast a hand around the room and cried, ‘Look at it all! I have everything I need, and nothing I want’.


Over the years I have taken many funerals, but that funeral visit when I was a young priest has always stayed with me.  The man’s grief was intense.  His wife had just died unexpectedly in her early-50s.  But as he wept uncontrollably that afternoon, I sensed a more searing pain: the bitterness of regret.  So much of their life together had been lived in the future.  They looked forward to a retirement that never materialized.  In their preoccupation with what they did not have, they lost sight of the good things they already had, and in the process lost sight of each other.  As I left their house I thought how important it is not to postpone our living until tomorrow.


Television and magazines are full of adverts promising to satisfy our every want and need.  Yet we rarely step back and ask ourselves what it is that we really want.  What are we looking for?  What are we seeking?  For a host of reasons, part laziness, part fear of what we might discover about ourselves, we prefer not to ask the question.



The first time I asked myself what I really wanted occurred not long after I took that funeral.  To say I asked myself is inaccurate.  I was visiting the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, and I was asked the question in French by the old abbot, a great bear of a man, as I sat incoherent and tearful in his study, overcome by the beauty of the monastic liturgy and a powerful sense of a call to give myself to God in a life of prayer.


The question he asked was not, ‘What do you want?’, but ‘What do you seek?’  Sometimes we don’t know what we want, and find ourselves on an inner journey to find out.


The Rule of Benedict, under which the monks here in Chester lived, and which the monks and nuns of Bec still do, is all about seeking God.  Benedict urges an abbot to ask such questions to help a person discover where their heart is leading them.  The question isn’t random.  According to John’s Gospel, ‘what do you seek?’ is the first recorded question of Jesus, and Jesus asks it of each one of us.


The question drills down, putting us in touch with what’s driving us.  Until we can answer it truthfully, we run the risk that life may pass us by because all we do is skate on its surface.


In the Gospel the two men answer Jesus with a question of their own:  'Rabbi, where are you staying?'  And Jesus replies, 'Come and see.'  And with this invitation their discipleship begins.  Being a Christian is about being a disciple, and being a disciple is about being in the company of Jesus.  In Benedict’s words, it is about ‘listening to God with the ear of our heart’.


We know the name of one the two men who followed Jesus that day:  Andrew. He was so excited that he dragged his brother Simon to meet Jesus.  ‘You are Simon, son of John,’ said Jesus. ‘You shall be called Cephas, that is Peter’ (meaning the Rock).


You are Simon.  You will be Peter.


Note the change of tense.  I often find myself unconsciously pigeon-holing people.  Life is easier that way.  But Jesus is different.  He looks beyond appearances into hearts and minds, and sees what we can become by his grace.


Over thirty years have passed since my conversation in the abbot’s study.  Today I am a bishop here in Cheshire and, although no longer a monk, Benedictine spirituality still inspires me.  We have only one life to live, and each of us is seeking a life that is worth living.  In the choices I have made, to quote the American poet, Robert Frost, my own decision has been to take a road ‘less travelled by’, but it has been life-transforming.


Benedict sets before us a vision of human-relating founded on the love of God, permeated by prayer, and obedient to the call of Christ. And this theme is echoed in Howard Skempton’s setting of the opening verse of Psalm 119: ‘Blessed are those whose way is pure, who walk in the law of the Lord’:  Beati quorum via.    




Anthem:                    Beati quorum via                                                               2.02


Bishop Robert

If nothing else, my years as a monk taught me how confused human motives can be.  Some people go to a monastery kidding themselves that they are seeking God when they are actually seeking friends because they are lonely.  They become disappointed when they discover just how much time you spend by yourself, but in the silence learn to make friends with themselves.


Some go to get away from people, but find themselves stumbling across ghastly people at every second turn of the monastery corridor.  As a seasoned old monk once said to me, 'It's not the vows that are the problem; it's the brethren.'


I remember one would-be monk saying he felt called to a life of contemplation, and was highly put out when on Monday morning he found himself on the rota to peel the potatoes.


It’s why Benedict called the monastery a ‘school of the Lord’s service’.  God is full of surprises and he has lessons to teach each of us, whatever our age, wherever we may be, as we try to make sense of the ordinary, sad and funny events of life.


Each of us wants different things, but my guess is that at root we all want to be happy.  Unfortunately we sometimes confuse pleasure with happiness.  Pleasure brings relief, but not necessarily happiness.  For that we need to dig deeper.


How we cope with sadness and disappointment when it is more than a passing phase is a huge challenge.  It is a test not only of our maturity but of our faith – if we have it.  I remember a friend once saying to me, ‘I know I looked alright, but I was crying on the inside of my face, only you didn’t notice.’  When pain is this intense, instead of attempting to understand what is happening to us, all we can do is to hang on, and to ‘stand-under’ the experience and let it explore us.  Sometimes in the very things which seem to deny the possibility of hope we meet God.


‘Who do you seek?’ the risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene as she weeps beside the empty tomb on Easter morning.  Jesus’s words echo that first question he asked the two disciples.  It is only as he speaks her name, ‘Mary’, that the penny drops and she recognises him.


I remember as a six year old being taken to a fair and getting separated from my parents.  I can still remember the panic at being lost in the crowd, and the huge relief of hearing my father’s voice calling my name.  In our journey through life we too can feel lost and panic.  But we can also discover to our amazement and our joy that God is seeking us.  What is more, we discover that God knows our name and that he holds us safe.



O for a closer walk with God                              1.40’



Now for ourselves, for God’s world, and for those in need today,

let us pray to the Lord: [vi]



For a heart which searches for God;

for a heart which seeks truth boldly and loves deeply;

for a heart of restless and uncomfortable with, half-truths and superficial relationships;

let us pray to the Lord:


Kyrie eleison                     (Missa Orbis Factor):                                                        06’



For those who are blessed with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation;

for those who work tirelessly for justice, freedom, and peace among all people;

for those who strive for stability and hope in Syria, Afghanistan and Congo;

let us pray to the Lord:


Christe eleison                        (Missa Orbis Factor):                                                                    06’



For the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish;

for compassion to reach out a hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy;

let us pray to the Lord:


Kyrie eleison                        (Missa Orbis Factor):                                                        06’



For the blessing of enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world;

for God's grace to do what others claim cannot be done;

let us pray to the Lord:    


Christe eleison                        (Missa Orbis Factor):                                                                    06’


Today’s Collect:  for the third Sunday of Easter:

            Almighty Father,

            who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples

            with the sight of the risen Lord:

            give us such knowledge of his presence with us,

            that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life

            and serve you continually in righteousness and truth;

            through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

            who is alive and reigns with you,

            in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

            one God, now and for ever. Amen.                                                      23’



Let us pray for the coming of the Kingdom as Jesus taught us:

            Our Father in heaven,

            hallowed be your name,

            your kingdom come,

            your will be done,

            on earth as in heaven.

            Give us today our daily bread.

            Forgive us our sins

            as we forgive those who sin against us.

            Lead us not into temptation

            but deliver us from evil.

            For the kingdom, the power,

            and the glory are yours

            now and for ever. Amen.                                                                                   25’



The worship of the Benedictine community followed year in year out the pattern of the church’s year based on the life of Christ.  Our final hymn this morning takes us through the story of Jesus as we celebrate it from Christmas to Easter and beyond:  ‘We have a gospel to proclaim’.                 10’


We have a Gospel to proclaim                                                              


Bishop Robert:

            God the Father, by whose love Christ was raised from the dead,

            Open to you who believe the gates of everlasting life.

All:      Amen


            God the Son, who in bursting the grave has won a glorious victory,

            Give you joy as you share the Easter faith.

All:      Amen


            God the Holy Spirit, whom the risen Lord breathed into his disciples,

            Empower you and fill you with Christ’s peace.

All:      Amen

            And the

blessing of God almighty,

            The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,

            Be among you and remain with you always.

All:      Amen.[vii]                                                                                                        40’



Voluntary:    Fugue (Sonata No. 2 in C Op.65) – Felix Mendelssohn       3.45’


[i] John 20:11-15a (NASV)

 [ii] from The Rule of Benedict: A spirituality for the 21st Century by Joan Chittister (published by Crossroad) p10f

 [iii] ibid p10f

 [iv] Ibid p130

 [v] John 1:35-42 (NASV)

 [vi] Based on a prayer of Sr Ruth Fox OSB (1985) from

 [vii] Common Worship