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.
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.