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The Liturgy of the Hours at Oxford

‘Seven times a day will I praise thee’

The Schola was made very welcome on the weekend of 11th-13th August at St Stephen’s House, an Anglican theological college tucked away in a peaceful enclave on the outskirts of Oxford. Our purpose was twofold: to immerse ourselves in the monastic experience of the Divine Office, albeit for just an extended weekend; and to commemorate the centenary of the birth of our founder Dr Mary Berry.

We were led by a magnificent triumvirate of Christopher Hodkinson, Philip Duffy, and Father Guy and – as is customary on these occasions! – we became very quickly embedded in a cycle of rehearsal, singing the liturgy, and instruction, which was the pattern for a deeply moving and enjoyable experience, to be remembered and savoured for a long time.

Mary Berry was particularly in our thoughts and prayers this weekend, with the opportunity to hear from those who had been fortunate to know her, to learn from her, to be inspired by her – a poignant blend of admiration, humour, together with a commitment to ensure that her work would flourish. This was perhaps the crucial message that, while Mary had ‘run the race and kept the faith’, she had now handed the torch to us to continue the all-important work of promoting plainchant and ensuring that it was done well; this is the best memorial that we can provide. In addition, Fr Guy led us in a Requiem Mass for the repose of Mary’s soul whilst later on Sunday afternoon we sang at a Vespers and Benediction at the delightful St Birinus in nearby Dorchester-on-Thames. Mary’s grave is tucked away in a peaceful corner of the graveyard, and we finished there with prayers and a most moving Sarum version of the Salve Regina.

Requiescas in pace, Mary …

As in a monastic setting, the Divine Office was our structure for the weekend, from Matins at 6.00am for those who were brave enough to rise early (many did!), through the various Hours permeating the day, to Compline at 9.00pm. To enhance the ‘Retreat’ aspect, Christopher provided us with additional helpful readings for use during times of reflection and prayer, whilst during rehearsals we endeavoured to live up to Mary’s expectations in terms of performing plainchant to the best of our ability. We were certainly led well in this regard – Christopher’s scholarship sits lightly on his shoulders, but gives a most reassuring authority that our endeavours are focussed in exactly the right direction (although I must confess the advice to ‘clench the buttocks’ for additional vocal support is new to me – clearly buried in the treatise of some medieval writer that I haven’t come across yet..!). A similar drive for perfection was evident in Philip’s leadership – patiently (with a most efficient rehearsal style) coaching us to do our very best (but how does he stay so charming and positive when we’ve forgotten about a quilisma for the umpteenth time?!). To help us place the Office in proper context, we were guided by Fr Guy’s wisdom – there isn’t space to detail all of that here, but it was helpful to be reminded that the Office was meant to be recited by the whole Church together in song (the singing being intrinsic), whilst the very word ‘Psalm’ implied a sung text. It was striking to consider the concept of the antiphony back-and-forth as mirroring the rhythm of human life, transcending merely human thought. It was indeed possible to feel in St Stephen’s church the sense of Fr Guy’s comments –

The singing of the Office contributes to the whole welfare of the whole Church; the Holy Spirit is praying in us as the Office is offered to the Father’.

Seven times a day will I praise thee…

Alan Gardner