Mirfield

When I was an Anglican, I used to make an annual personal retreat of a few days to the House of the Resurrection.  As many will know, this is the mother house of the Anglican monastic Community of the Resurrection.  I would go each year for four or five days surrounding the feast of the Conception of the Mother of God.

For a suburb-dweller from South Manchester, accustomed to 20-hours-a-day public transportation, meals available at all hours of the day or night, and the hustle and bustle of city life, a Yorkshire village in December was an entirely different world.  It was a very easy journey.  I lived near to Manchester Airport at the time so only needed to walk to the airport to get the train to Huddersfield.  From there, it was a short walk to Huddersfield bus station, and this is where there was the first sign that I was about to enter something entirely alien to my experience:
the people queued for buses.  In Manchester, this simply does.not.happen, (apart from perhaps the most northerly extremities, which are really old Lancashire areas and don't really count).  People just sort of congregate around the bus stop.  Then, when the bus arrives, politeness dictates that those who were there first are generally allowed to board first, but this isn't followed strictly and, as long as there is enough space on the bus for everybody, no-one seems too bothered.  But no - not in Huddersfield.  This was Yorkshire (well, West Yorkshire, to be precise, but it's all the same really), which avid Monty Python fans will remember was classified as "The Third World" when they dealt with the subject of birth in their documentary-style film, The Meaning of Life.  So each bus stand had a neatly-formed queue, and the local queueing science was so precise that obstacles such as bins, benches, timetable displays, and such like, were easily accommodated by the wrap-around method.  It was certainly an eye-opener.

From there, a short bus ride took me to the village of Mirfield.  I would always arrive in the late afternoon.  In winter, it was dark and misty, as though shrouding some great mystery, protecting it from the polluting stare of the world.  Then I would get off the bus, cross the street, and ring the bell to be welcomed into a small, warm vestibule - the entryway to a whole complex of buildings and silent corridors that housed the community and its guests.

The life of the monastery revolved around its worship, in which I would be delighted to take part fully each day, from Matins at shortly after 5 o' clock in the morning until Compline at night.  On Saturday nights, the brotherhood would replace Compline with a home-produced form of service known as the Vigil of the Resurrection, restoring the ancient mindset of the purpose of Saturday night worship that once prevailed in East and West, and which the Byzantine East has never forgotten.  In fact, the Mirfield brotherhood did sing a Byzantine hymn during this: the Svete Tikhi, (or Phos Hilaron), in the "O Gladsome Light, O grace" version found in The New English Hymnal.  From a recent video, it seems that they also now include "Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ".  It may be that this has always been the case but that I simply didn't recognise it when I was there, not having any experience of Orthodox worship at that point in my life.

Here is somebody's photo collage of the house and church largely as I remember it:



Since these photographs were taken,, much renovation work has gone on in the chapel itself.  This was in part to remedy the poor heating system, which could have led to all manner of structural damage and could not have been beneficial to the health of some of the brethren of more advanced years, but also to improve the very poor lighting system in the church.

However, in the process, some quite significant changes have been made to the liturgical space, generally for the better.  The fixed pews are a thing of the past, and chairs are now used, allowing for much freer use of the space available, which is much more open and conducive to worship than before.  The antiphonal seating remains.  The trademark prominent Cross remains a focal point.  I particularly welcome the baptismal font.  I do not remember there being a font at all in the past but there is now a permanently filled font allowing for a proper form of baptism of both infants and adults.  A largely unused space to the south of the Resurrection chapel seems to have been converted into a counselling/confession space, while the Holy Cross chapel to the north remains largely as it was before.  (The altar in this chapel houses a relic of the True Cross, presented to the brotherhood some decades ago by a former Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.)

The loss of the screen is perhaps unfortunate: I always loved being able to take part in the worship yet with the reminder that these were conventual services at which, though welcome, I was a guest.  Also, I know that many will lament the disappearance of the hanging pyx from the Resurrection chapel.  Whether this has been retired or rehoused elsewhere, I do not know.

A video detailing some of the changes has been produced by the brotherhood, and may be viewed here:



Seeing novices is also encouraging.  There was one there when I last visited, shortly before I began to explore Orthodoxy - a former parish priest from London - but he very quickly disappeared from their photo gallery and I can only assume that the monastic life was not for him.

Whatever my ecclesiastical affiliations and ecclesiological beliefs may be today, I think that there will always be a special place in my heart for the Mirfield brothers.

Here are some video clips of their worship in their refurbished church, starting with the aforementioned video excerpt from their Resurrection Vigil.










6 responses:

Gregory said...

I am amazed at how much this church looks like the interior of New Skete. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

I've never visited Mirfield; it looks lovely.

Michael Astley said...

Apart from the reports of the walls bearing icons of adherents to heretical churches, I'm really rather fond of what I have seen of the New Skete church, Gregory.

Of course, there are adjustments I would make. I would get at least the Annunciation depicted on the Holy Doors if the Evangelists could not fit as well. I would also have a veil added to the iconostas, but the design would have to be in the western style, that draws across the whole screen (due to its open design), and not just the portal, as is customary in the east.

The antiphonal seating is fine as it is. This is, after all, a monastery, and if reading the kathisma is most commonly a monastic practice, and they perform the full round of services with extensive readings of the kathismata every day, then it is proper that they have somewhere to sit. This is ancient custom and is, after all, why the name kathisma was given to this part of the service in the first place. On that point, eastern and western practice converge.

Elizabeth, it really is a beautiful place. They keep silence in the corridors and hallways, and at most mealtimes, apart from the spiritual reading. There is also the great silence from after Compline until Matins the next morning. Solemn Mass is every Sunday and on feasts. The grounds are lovely and extensive. The monastic cemetery is incredibly peaceful, and there is an old quarry which makes for part of a good walk. There is a river that runs through Mirfield, as well, so guests can always go down there. The parish church next door is middle-to-high but looks like a fire station, as the original building burnt down.

I really miss the plainsong, actually. Nowhere else did I find myself with people for whom it was just a natural part of life. :-(

Anonymous said...

I made the journey from South Manchester to West Yorkshire and never regretted it. It's not exactly gentle over here but it is definitely something

I also spent one Holy Weeek at Mirfield. On Easter morning I was swigging port by half six and gin by seven. Lovely.

I liked your description of the mist.

Louise said...

It's really interesting to read your account of your visit here. I've lived in Mirfield for nearly 10 years and have always wondered what goes on behin the monastary walls. I find it interesting that your first impressions of Mirfield are that it#s kind of a sleepy, out of the way village - when I see it as rather busy and bustling having moved here from an even smaller village 8 years ago. I love living in Mirfield as most of the people are really welcoming and friendly, which kind of feels a bit alien at first, but you soon get used to it and enjoy it. Best wishes, Louise x

Michael Astley said...

Thanks for your comment, Louise. It kind of came as a surprise as this blog is really from my previous life. :-)

Isn't it funny how our perceptions depend so much on what we bring to the view ourselves. I'm now only 8 miles from Manchester City Centre, in Oldham, but find it removed to a stifling and oppressive degree from the hub of activity, and plan to move to somewhere much closer to central Manchseter by the end of this year. Perhaps I'm just a natural-born city dweller.

Why not pop in to the monastery for a visit? The services are open to the public, and they're not pushy about faith. I'm sure they'd welcome a local neighbour seeking to satisfy curiosity. If you email them first to ask them about visiting they might even feed you. :-)

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