Taizé service at St Denis, East Hatley –
7 September 2011
Report and pictures by Peter Mann
18 people attended the first service in St Denis, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire, for 52 years on the evening of 7 September 2011, when Ian Parker led a very simple and peaceful Taizé service dedicated to trust, peace and reconciliation.
St Denis was closed for worship in 1959, the building emptied of its contents and allowed to decay. Although the churchyard remains consecrated – the last burial was in 2004 – it always seemed highly unlikely that it would ever be used for worship again. By 2004, the building was in a very poor state and completely covered in ivy.
However, because it is Grade II* listed, South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC), now the owners of the building, could not allow it to become a ruin – and thanks to a generous contribution from English Heritage, together with funding from SCDC and Hatley Parish Council, the ivy was removed, the roof retiled, other structural work done and the building made into a safe shell, albeit with much of the floor missing. (See St Denis, the story of its restoration, and the appeal to help the Friends of Friendless Churches take over the church.)
The Taizé service
The idea for a Taizé service at St Denis was suggested after a similar service at Hatley St George church earlier in 2011, with the intention for it to be held in the churchyard. At a pre-service meeting to look round the churchyard, Ian Parker and Philippa Pearson were given a peek inside the empty church and it was felt that there was sufficient floor space to accommodate about 15 people – District Councillor Sebastian Kindersley asked SCDC for permission, which was readily granted. Chairs and candles were brought from St Mary's in Gamlingay.
With Ian leading the service, and also playing the flute, and Philippa singing two solos, a unique event was created in the tradition of a Taizé service based on music – singing very simple, repetitive, chants and periods of silence... perhaps not complete silence, for the sound of a distant tractor and occasional small plane could be heard; doubtless in Spring, the blackbirds, robins and thrushes would be at full cry too, but none of it spoilt the occasion.
Jan Cooper added to this with a beautiful reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body"...
While St Denis is no longer consecrated, outside and inside it looks and feels like a church – but one thing that no one has experienced for over 50 years is its wonderful acoustic.
In the eyes of SCDC, St Denis is a problem, for without electricity or water or a vehicular entrance and set in a consecrated churchyard, what can be done with it? As a Grade II* building, it cannot be demolished or allowed to fall into disrepair again.
The answer, perhaps, is to go back to English Heritage and ask for help with funding to repair the floor and complete work to the windows and other essential items – then give it back to Ely in order for it to be re-consecrated and used again from time to time for worship. It won't be an easy sell, but St Denis deserves a second chance rather than being laid to waste.
Our thanks to Ian, who is a lay member of St Mary's in Gamlingay, and Philippa Pearson for organising the event and everyone else who contributed to a very simple and memorable occasion.
▲ Ian Parker (standing, right) led the candle-lit Taizé service – the first service to be held in St Denis, East Hatley, since the church was closed in 1959. Among the 18 worshippers was The Reverend Steven Rothwell (back row, right), the vicar of St Mary's Gamlingay. St Denis' wonderful acoustic was rediscovered during the service.
▲ Afterwards, as the evening turned to night, everyone gathered outside for a glass of wine, kindly provided by Sebastian Kindersley. St Denis was built in the 13th Century and re-built in the 19th century to designs by William Butterfield, the eminent Victorian architect, who added the chancel and vestry (closest to the camera) plus the rather hideous chimney stack for the boiler (still to be seen inside). At one time, the church also had a steeple.
What is a Taizé service?
Taizé is a village in SW France with a community of brothers (monks) set up after the second world war.
Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe and beyond spend time there (usually camping) every year. It hit the headlines a few years ago when the brother who founded the community and led it for over 50 years was murdered during a service.
They have a particular style of worship, based on music – singing very simple, but beautiful, repetitive chants – and periods of silence.
"Our half-hour service," says Ian Parker, "usually consists of a couple of readings, three or four songs, a short silence then a longer one. We usually have lots of candles as well – however not quite sure yet how we will manage that outdoors at Hatley! Do come and enjoy a unique occasion."
Ian, who is a lay member of St Mary's in Gamlingay and likes organising Taizé services, has kindly provided some background information about how the Taizé service came into being.
St Denis – flyer about the church (June 2015).