Goodbye Garden Congregation

The text below is updated from a previous version.

If all good things must end, then the impending conclusion of broadcasts from the Deanery Garden of England’s Canterbury Cathedral illustrates Chaucer’s dictum accurately. While faith, hope and love endure forever Anglican Dean Robert Willis’ global online worship broadcasts will originate for the last time on Monday, May 16, 2022.

Given the Dean’s forced retirement on the cusp of his 75th birthday, an event already extended past the customary 70th year, literally thousands of viewers including this blogger will be left spiritually adrift and in search of other inspiration and guidance. Words cannot adequately state my own disappointment at the loss of this most wonderful and uniquely prayerful, informative and uplifting worship experience. These online broadcasts have grown and developed in style of delivery and incorporation of content from the early days of the pandemic in a most amazing and unpredictable way.

Many in the UK and here in Canada have attempted to change the minds of ecclesiastical lawyers who are allegedly bound by the strictures of Canon Law which in this case seems to be at odds with secular practice. (That noted, a previous Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson (the so-called Red Dean) retired in 1963, the year of his 89th birthday — best not to try to figure out the machinations of the Church of England – a headache will likely result.)

On Monday, March 30, 2020 early in the COVID-19 pandemic Dean Robert commenced with his production partner, Fletcher — whose influence, technical support, research capabilities and imaginative capacity cannot be overstated — a series of broadcasts aimed at anyone, anywhere who might listen in, as the UK and many parts of the Anglican world at that time entered total lockdown.

To my knowledge (I have watched almost without exception every broadcast since the summer months of 2020) they have not missed a single day! What began as simple prayers, morphed over time into longer and more ambitious productions, growing in scope and deepening in reflection drawing content from multiple sources including the occasional special guest visitor bearing hedgehogs.

Speaking of animals, how can we forget the announcement, which rung from the belfry that “Clemmie is pregnant!” All the animals hold special affection for the Dean and for us viewers, especially Mr. Robin, Duckie, Russel Crow, Winston and Clemmie, and the three cats — each a scene stealer par excellence.

Other special Garden Congregation features include visits to the pig barns, the aviaries and the greenhouses during rain and thunderstorms. Together we explored multiple nooks and crannies within ancient walls, decorated rooms in the Deanery proper including the fish tanks room. Broadcasts took up positions proximate to buttresses which afforded unique cathedral viewpoints throughout the property, all giving the impression that the garden must be the size of Belgium.

Congregants heard of Augustine landing on Anglo-Saxon soil, of King Æthelberht of Kent and his Queen, Bertha. We heard tales of T S Elliot producing the verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, itself telling of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury within the holy sanctuary. We watched Archbishop Temple’s wartime encouragement prior to his untimely death in 1942. We enjoyed images of Gandhi’s visit to the Deanery in 1931 along with any number of visits by Queen Elizabeth II accompanied by her husband, the late Duke of Edinburgh. We learned of the history of Penguin Books. I must say however that I am disappointed not to hear about Dr. Who.

The full range of Cathedral assets including music and worship, the Chapel of the Modern Martyrs, ancient bibles, modern sculptures, and specially commissioned altars have been displayed and connected to daily scriptural and to seasonal themes. The Dean is obviously proud of the King’s School, Canterbury next door to the Deanery and its sister school in Hong Kong.

The Dean’s love of character, event, art, music, poetry and prose is unbounded. He draws our attention to literary figures such as Margaret Atwood and Willa Cather alongside spiritual writers such as George Herbert, C S Lewis and Hugh Walpole. At other times we learn about the English singer Cliff Richard’s connection with Canterbury. We celebrate the gifts of actors including Dame Maggie Smith and the film director David Lean. In a more popular vein Eastenders star June Brown receives a flattering review. One does wonder where he has found the time to engage and enjoy all these people, places and projects.

David Lean

The Dean’s exhaustive love of people and places illustrates his theological anthropology — God is glorified when particular people do particular things in a particular way, whether intentionally or not, through their own agency and initiative, all in collaboration with the creativity of God. For Dean Robert, and for myself, creativity joins hands with initiative and opportunity, enriching all of life, demonstrating love all for the common good.

More recently the invasion of Ukraine has received daily attention since the first attacks. We garden congregants continue to undergird with prayer those affected by this horrific violation of human rights and of the sovereignty of Ukraine itself. Daily, since the invasion, garden congregants pray for peace even while peace seems so distant and elusive. We pray for those not known to us, and for and with those within the cathedral community who are directly affected.

Speaking of direct connections, imagine my surprise when I tuned in on Friday Sunday April 30, 2021, as Dean Robert kindly noted my retirement from ordained ministry at 1:30 into the broadcast. It was a lovely gesture facilitated by an Episcopal colleague who I think met the Dean at a Lambeth Conference.

So what is the way forward for us congregational alumni? Once broadcasts cease, there will be a huge hole in my spiritual life and practice. I can say with all honesty and not a titch of exaggeration that this ministry helped me personally through a horrible bout of depression. At one point I could no longer pray or had forgotten how. I thought my love of people and places had supplanted any genuine spiritual connection. Then I discovered Dean Robert’s approach to life and love, a passion and practice deeply connected to the Jesus of the Gospels, enriched by the very best elements of Anglican Christian tradition, deeply engaged with the culture, creativity and beauty which surrounds us and which abides within and amongst us.

I cannot say THANK YOU enough to both Fletcher and Dean Robert. I appreciate that you both regret this untimely interruption. Sadly, it is what it is! Nevertheless, I wish you both a wonderful retirement. You leave such a beautiful and profound legacy. I hope this is recognized through at the very least a Lambeth Doctorate or a Knighthood. The Garden Congregation has been a Fresh Expression if there ever is one.

As Malcolm Muggeridge said of Mother Theresa, you have given us all Something Beautiful for God. May God bless you in the transition ahead.

21 thoughts on “Goodbye Garden Congregation

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  1. What a beautifully written tribute, Ken! A side benefit of this series was knowing that I was united with friends like you in watching, listening, together, so often in awe and many times in laughter as well as in prayer.

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  2. You said all of the things I have thought but really have no forum in which to post. I have sent three posts as well as regular comments on Youtube addressing relevancy vs. irrelevancy. The future of the Anglican church has been on the skids for decades. Relevancy has just been dropped in their laps–and the higher ups don’t know what to do with it. Success and relevancy came too quickly, not unlike superstars where too much success obtained too quickly messed up their lives and the lives of others. The responses which I get from the dean’s office are polite and in one case stated that “he would still be in the precinct” (in the states I would relate that to police location/structure, not to where the dean might be). And, yes, I think there is a very strong possibility that there are forces at work here who have wanted him out for reasons obvious but that have a more convenient way of dismissal. I don’t know if the dean actually ever came out–nor do I care–and am not going to go looking for ‘his story” and just who Fletcher is. Obviously they are comfortable in their own skin but there are forever the “Men in Gray” looking to protect an institution even if it means grinding it into irrelevancy. I shall miss terribly the spiritual boost and direction that the dean has provided through this horrendous time. Yes, there is a library on YouTube but it’s not like the live dailies, especially when addressing a liturgical season. What will I miss the most? The final blessing each day.

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    1. Thanks Keith. True confession, I don’t always stay around for the blessing. It is the biographies, particular people doing particular things which catch my interest and inspire me. The precinct eh? That’s interesting. See what happens.

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    2. This may not get posted as a follow-up, but I’ll try it anyway.

      Dean Willis was called of God as an instrument to share Jesus Christ to all who would listen. Jesus Christ is the head and cornerstone of our faith. Dean Robert strengthened our resolve and comforted us through this trying time. Had the disciples been paralyzed at the ascension, the gospel would never have gone forth. Let’s not be paralyzed by our loss but rather motivated to be instruments in spreading the gospel. And how? Just live it every day.

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      1. Dean Willis talked to us as friends- and family- not as congregants and anonymous worshippers. We were drawn to his humanity, his love of life as he showed it to be infused by God’s spirit, and his obvious passion for the Word of God as a living manifestation of God’s love and presence in the world. He rarely used any kind of notes, just talked spontaneously and warmly from the heart. What a wonderful and inspiring communicator- we really miss our time with him each day.

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  3. Thank you, Keith. I am a cradle Anglican and I was educated in an Anglican Girls school in Toronto, Canada. I have always been a faithful congregant and for over forty years, I taught Church School. That said, my husband and I learned more about our faith than we ‘could have asked for or imagined” from the Cathedral garden morning prayer. I am so very grateful to Dean Robert and to Fletcher, for giving us this transcendent experience…

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  4. Thank you for this. You have expressed so many of my thoughts and feelings as our time in the Garden Congregation draws to an end. A lifelong Anglican living in Regina (SK), I began watching Morning Prayer from the Canterbury Deanery Garden occasionally in 2020. As time went in, I began to watch more regularly but it wasn’t until Lent 2022 that I became a daily viewer – or, more accurately, participant for Dean Robert truly has the ability to draw people in and make them part of the garden congregation. It provided a ray of light as the pandemic and the prairie winter went on amd on. I can honestly say that Dean Robert’s readings and reflections made Passion Week and Holy Week the most meaningful I have ever experienced. Throughout the pandemic, I watch the online Sunday services provided by my own church. While that has allowed me to stay in touch, those have not provided the intimacy of the garden prayers and reflections from half a world away, as ironic as that seems. The ability of Dean Robert to give such life to the Gospels and to make them meaningful, the breadth of his interests, experience, and knowledge, and the connections he draws using all of these are something very special. I, too, feel that the end of the Garden Congregation will leave an immense hole in my spritual life. I will, no doubt, be going back to YouTube, to view many of the broadcasts again – for as long as they are available. I do wish Dean Robert and Fletcher well as they move on. They will be sorely missed.

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    1. Hello Joanne. You continue my reflection so well. Totally agree about Holy Week and Easter reflections. I have not watched today’s broadcast yet but I am told that he will announce tomorrow and Wednesday “how we might be together” in the future. I wonder . . .

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  5. Hello Kenneth,
    You have summarized my feelings & those of my family perfectly. Dean Robert’s departure will be a huge loss for those of us who followed his Garden Congregation, and I for one am very disappointed that the Anglican Church will do nothing and just allow this global community of 40,000+ to just dissolve. Out of necessity during COVID 19 lockdown Dean Robert used these marvelous videos to expand the Anglican Church and keep spreading the word of God and message of Jesus in such an interesting and beautiful way.
    It would be wonderful if the COE would allow the Garden Congregation to continue but listening to Dean Robert today 5/11, I think he put that to rest.
    One family in New York is very saddened by this turn of events.
    Suzanne

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  6. I love the above articles and comments, which CLOSELY match my own thoughts and observations (not least a growing feeling that the Deanery Gardens there in Kent (as Garden of England) are INDEED the size of Belgium, beautiful beyond compare of course, and with a biodiversity of mega-proportions). Bede spoke of God reaching us through Scripture and Nature, and here we really are! For about a year now, I have watched in from Poland (as a Brit totally separated from his homeland until April 22nd). So not from the very outset. Still, even in that time, Dean Robert has become more noticeably polished – and by that I do not mean in a shallow or slick TV-presenter sense, but rather in the sense of spritual conviction and fluency. Given the existence and presence of the undoubtedly-also-gifted Fletcher, I would like against that background to allude to my own onward journey – with them – into understanding and acceptance. Robert and Fletcher just as they are are Brothers for me now, and let nobody say different!! Hopefully, we remember the BBC’s “Pilgrimage: Road to Rome” in which a marvellous, Godly Pope Francis speaks to Stephen K. Amos about the noun more than the adjective? I will NEVER forget my life being changed by those words of beauty, love, mercy and joy from the top Catholic…

    Have we all seen how the words from Robert flow more smoothly, how he becomes more word-perfect? That is the Holy Spirit at work – a concept very dear to me since my own case of being born again on February 28th 2021 (Transfiguration Day in Poland). Like many in that situation, I became extremely “hungry” for spiritual inputs, and I suppose I might say that Dean Robert was cosy and comforting from the outset, but with time more and more and more of a spiritual teacher for me as well. An important thing for me is the belief – also alluded to above – and beautifully espoused in words by the Dean – that the Holy Spirit inspires accomplished artistic performance, finding 21st-century ways to reach us. It strikes me that the Dean is more and more inclined to refer to this, which is scarcely surprising since he has been part and parcel of that process – to which I have also been bearing witness (and offering dissemination) for over a year now.

    Since the pandemic and war have been dark days indeed, it may truly be that we are all moving towards the End Days, with all the good-bad-sad-ecstatic-melancholy that that entails. And if that is so then part of that is greater and greater revelation and discernment for many of us. Bizarrely (one would say, if one did not know different), Dean Robert has recently made reference to places and things that matter much in my own life, not least the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. There are not too many of us Brits around who know that place, but I do! I know crazy people always think that the world revolves around them, but it truly is possible to make out here a growing and strengthening web of connections between us and among us. Perhaps all good things really do come to an end, and perhaps there is a next step for lovers and afficionados of the Garden Congregation.

    But I do hope total dissipation is not going to be our fate…

    Having said that, the Disciples did scatter when Jesus moved on as that was the way it was meant to be…

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  7. I have been living the most stressful 10 years of my life and the pandemic put me at the bottom of a pit; then quite by accident I found Dean Willis on YouTube and began my “climb” back to spiritual strength and comfort. I am still dealing with health issues for myself and my adult daughter but praying with Dean Willis and the Garden Congregation has kept me going. I am able to watch my church’s services online but I so love the beauty of the gardens and the animals and the calm, comforting voice of Dean Willis and that feeling of this caring community praying together. Like so many others, I have learned more about scriptures, the church, the saints and other people, places and things than ever before in my life of 81 years. I wish the best for Dean Willis and the talented Fletcher and for all in the Garden Community.

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  8. I am so sad about the end of the Garden Congregation. I know we are all on a new journey. All will be well.

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  9. I have been part of the Garden Congregation over a year. What a blessing! Thank you Dean Robert and Fletcher. Not forgetting the menagerie. I am tucked away in Guyana, South America.

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  10. Thank you, Ken, for your wonderful tribute message. Your reflection and the heartfelt comments shed light on one important thought – the Garden Congregation is still here!
    All of us are connected in ways we may never have imagined the first time we clicked on the YouTube ‘play’ button. Perhaps it was unintentional at the onset, but Dean Robert and Fletcher (and all the others who helped with the services) brought us together from around the globe to help us show the world what the Creator’s Kin-dom looks like. Most of us will never meet in person, and we probably never worshiped at exactly the same time, yet daily we prayed together, listened and learned together, sang, laughed, smiled, and wept together, felt each others presence across time and space, and grew together in love for God, for one another and for all creation.
    How did you find your way to your first visit to Morning Prayer at Canterbury Cathedral? For some, it was an accidental click. I dare say most of us were invited, either virtually or personally, to connect and join in. That connection cannot be severed by an arbitrary date or the flick of a technical switch. With the help of the new YouTube channel and the existing services going back over two years, we are generously being given the opportunity to remain connected. It’s not ‘good-bye,’ but God be with you as we all set out on this new beginning!

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  11. Ken, we are so pleased to read your very meaningful reflections -your tribute to Dean Robert- which precisely mirror our own thoughts. We are from Florida, and we had the privilege of attending Canterbury Cathedral and meeting Dean Robert in December 2019, just prior to the pandemic. That wonderful experience left us with a strong desire to continue connecting to the Cathedral in some way or another, especially as the restrictions and frustrations of the pandemic began to affect our lives. We were excited to see the launch of the Morning Prayers from the Deanery Garden start in March of 2020, and like you, we haven’t missed a single one of them- although sometimes it meant watching a couple in a day to catch up with those we couldn’t see because of other scheduling demands.

    These Morning Prayer times became an important source of daily inspiration and strength, and also many new insights about God’s work in the world and God’s part in the lives of so many people who have changed the world in so many ways. Like you, we have also wondered how the Dean and Fletcher have found time to read so many books, see so many plays and operas, learn so much poetry, hear so much great music- and especially to remember so many details of what they had seen and heard to connect them to spiritual truths in these wonderful morning reflections.

    We wrote the dean several times about some of our concerns for world issues- such as in Myanmar/Burma, and he would often bring them to morning prayer, and when we mentioned a couple of personal health issues, he called us on the phone to express concern and pray with us. He brought so many blessings to our lives. When we were able to return to Canterbury for Christmas, 2021, the Dean came over to the Lodge to welcome us personally, and we felt that he had become not only our friend, but our pastor. That meant so much to us!!

    On the last morning prayer, Dean Robert said he might do some more book readings- which he does so beautifully and dramatically- but we do hope that he will be able to find a way to continue doing what he does best: providing spiritual insights and inspiration connected to nature and culture. He has such great intellectual and spiritual gifts which the church needs, and which the world needs, and we hope his voice will not be silent.

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    1. Thanks Kirk and Jan, lovely stories so similar to so many others. We are now a dispersed community (well we were anyway) longing for connection once more. We shall see what happens. Ken

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      1. Thanks, Ken. We appreciate your initiating this, and hope that these comments get to Robert and Fletcher.

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  12. Thank you. Thank you. Everything you have written touches all that is on my heart and in my mind. Morning Prayer with the Dean, Fletcher, and all the critters was the best food for the soul to begin one’s day. There will never be enough said about the greatness of his teachings and prayers. I pray for them often and wonder how they are doing, such a great loss for so many. I pray they have found a new ministry, even in retirement. And, the critters, who is caring for them so lovingly? Maybe some day, somehow, we will learn. No eggs at the gate anymore, either. They did so much for the congregation and the community. Thanks, again, for this tribute.

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