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The Leper Chapel's Touch

I suppose that many reading this have, like me, found themselves sitting in a queue of traffic on the Newmarket Road, and gazed wistfully across the carriageway towards a 12th century church, wondering what it is like inside. Last Sunday, I found out.

The Leper Chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene has been there for nearly 900 years, cared for now by the local charity Cambridge Past Present and Future (of which Megan and I are members). It is in the ancient parish of Holy Cross, and the priest-in-church at Christ the Redeemer, Barnwell, is fortunate enough to be responsible for the monthly acts of worship there. As the parish is interregnum, the Rural Dean gets to have a look-in: hence it was my duty, and my joy, to preside at the Eucharist there last Sunday.

Covid restrictions meant that, with 15 worshippers, we were a full house: a handful of faithful parishioners (including one from Great St Mary's), my wife, a student from the Ministry Experience Scheme, and some placement students from Ridley Hall providing beautiful music with voice and guitar, not at all out of place in such an ancient house. Swathed in fog outside (and just a bit inside too), the mixture of candlelight and flickering mobile 'phone screens made for an extraordinary atmosphere. One young worshipper was called Elijah - a gift to any preacher on the Second Sunday of Advent. As we worshipped together, I felt the building holding us fast, and safe; a hug in Norman stone, defending, caressing.

What is it about Norman architecture that has such a reach inside my soul? As I walked to Fen Ditton after the service for a meeting, I pondered it. And then I remembered.

As a student in Durham, I had the joy of worshipping in not one, but two Norman churches. The first was Durham Cathedral, in whose shadow I lived, and whose bells kept me company through sleepless nights and - just now and then - tedious lectures. The place where I went so often to Evensong, or the early morning Eucharist, keeping company with Cuthbert and Bede. The place where I had organ lessons with the legendary James Lancelot. The place where I so often, fragile and green, found in those colossal pillars the solidity and comfort of an unchanging God.

But it was the other Norman church that the Leper Chapel brought back to me: St Mary-the-Less (as opposed to the cathedral, being, in one sense, 'St Mary-the Great'). The chapel of St John's College is almost exactly the same age and size of the Leper Chapel. And if I found stability and strength in the Cathedral, it was in the college chapel that I found intimacy, companionship, and much joy. The Leper Chapel reminded me of this, and of so much more. And the memories live, telling their story in me and through me, in the sermons preached and the visits made - and the articles written, week after week.

What an irony: to be so touched by a place that was built for those for whom touch was forbidden.

At a time when we cannot touch one another, the places which have touched us, and touch us still, are worth our remembering, and our rejoicing.

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