On Wednesday 14 July, the Thames Gateway Prayernet made a Celtic Prayer Pilgrimage to St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell.
The idea of the pilgrimage was to make a connection between all the prayers that have been said up and down the Thames over the past 18 months with another kind of source – the place where Cedd brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the East Saxons.
Cedd was sent down by St Aiden from Lindisfarne in 653 to Essex because he was born a Saxon. A year later he used the rubble of the Othona Roman fort to build St Peter’s-on-the-Wall. The structure has been through a number of rebuilds, but parts of the current building are original. That means people have been worshipping and praying on this site for 1356 years!
St Cedd also planted communities in other parts of South Essex, including Chadwell Heath, Upminster and East Tilbury. He later was called upon to be the official translator at the Synod of Whitby in 664, where the history-changing decision was made to go the Roman way rather than the Celtic. Cedd died the same year of plague, having planted another monastery in Lastingham in Yorkshire.
St Peter’s Chapel is the only ‘Celtic’ building in the entire South East of England, hence its attraction to pilgrims. But it has to be said, this attraction is warranted – it is indeed a ‘thin place’, thick with the presence of God.
Eight of the Thames Gateway Prayernet (four from Kent, four from Essex) gathered to make the 15 minute walk from the car park down to the chapel, where we were met by Rev Laurence Whitford, formerly of St Catherine’s, East Tilbury.
Laurence told us the story of Bradwell and St Peter’s from earliest times to the present, taking us on a walk around the simple box that is the building. The little chapel is, he said, “both an ancient monument and a living church”, used today but stretching back into the dim and distant past. To the east, the North Sea waves lapped on the shore of the Dengy Peninsula. Mersea Island could be seen to the north, and the wind farm off Foulness to the south.
Laurence painted a vivid picture of Bradwell-on-Sea over the millennia, charting the comings and goings of invaders and floods and dwellings. Of Cedd himself, Laurence described him as being “Bishop not to a place but to a people – the East Saxons”.
We then entered the chapel – high and airy, plain and rugged, with spartan wooden benches but a brightly coloured Orthodox/Celtic-style cross high on the end wall. Laurence then led us in a communion from the Iona Community in Scotland, during which we heard more of Cedd’s story. The monastic rule he followed was a rhythm of prayer, work and simplicity of life. Cedd prayed and fasted for forty days and nights before building the chapel in order to heal the land of its influences.
Laurence began the communion with the words, “You found out what we were doing and you interfered. ‘Come and do it together, come and do it with me,’ you said.” To which we, the participants, replied, “So, thank you Lord, for interfering in our private lives.”
The communion also included the scriptures of Isaiah 35:1-10 and John 15:12-27. The words of the communion were deep, compelling and challenging. As we gathered around the altar, we felt God’s presence, interfering.
All the time, an interfering wind blew against the sturdy walls of brick and stone; and interfering swallows chirped in the rafters, flying past the big wooden door at the entrance; and the occasional interfering tourist came in.
Once the communion was over, Laurence left us to our own devices. We decided to pray, immediately making the connections along the Thames with this ‘Celtic well’ and all the places the TGP have prayed at over the past 18 months since that first windswept day in February 2009 at Tilbury and Gravesend. Not only are there geographical connections but also historical connections going back to Roman times and spiritual connections across south Essex and maybe north Kent – Cedd was a prophetic-apostolic missional intercessor and an early church-planter and societal transformer right across the region. So there is a real sense that the TGP had come back to the ‘beginning’. Bradwell is both a start and the end, and it’s the centre.
We prayed for the Celtic well to be opened, and there was some forgiveness between ‘Celtic’ Essex and ‘Roman’ Kent (which had been evangelised by St Augustine in the late 500s). Because of Cedd’s connection to the Synod of Whitby, we prayed about the division that occurred in time in 664 across Britain, and yet from this place there seems to be a stream that flows down through time to this present day. And so the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ could be outworked in St Peter’s, being a place that predates the schism and represents unity.
We prayed for the Bradwell area, and a land that took a decade to replenish after the 1953 floods, such was the effects of the sea’s saltiness on the inundated land. We thought too about the nuclear power station just down the road. It’s now being decommissioned but still represents immense power and its distribution.
As is the ‘tradition’ of the TGP, we read out in unison Psalm 24, noting that St Peter’s is itself a geographical, historical and spiritual gateway – a landing strip for God. Spring water was poured from a ‘Pure Life’ bottle from ‘under’ the altar so it ‘flowed’ out of the door, symbolic of the river in Ezekiel 47. The pure life of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ and the missional spirit of Cedd flowing into Essex and across to Kent and London. One of the group had a vision of an angel with a sword, challenging us, “Are you going to walk a different way? Are you going to walk like Cedd walked?”
This was confirmed when someone said they’d felt there was a sense of ‘going out’ (as opposed to ‘coming in’), and that we were to ‘receive without question and on trust’. We are to take this out to change the nations and take back what the enemy’s stolen – it can’t, it mustn’t, it won’t be kept.
We stood in the ‘river’ between the altar and the door, conscious that we were making a geographical, historical and spiritual connection between St Aiden, St Columba and Lindisfarne, and the here and now.
We anointed each other’s feet with oil, making them sweet as they continue their pilgrimage through this life, carrying the Gospel of peace and ministering the reconciliation of the Cross, whose vertical and horizontal beams represent the relationship between God and man, and man and man.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Love, not law.
“We cannot celebrate the feast of your family and forget our divisions. We are one in spirit, but not in fact. History and hurt still dismember us. Lord, heal your church in every brokenness.”
So much else was prayed, and so much more was felt, too much to account here. But after this time of prayer, we wondered over to the nearby Othona Community, who afforded us great hospitality with tea and comfort, and graciously allowed us to eat our sarnies in the refectory.
Pictures taken by Jonny Harrold:
- The intrepid pilgrims head down the track to St Peter’s Chapel
- St Peter’s-on-the-Wall from across the fields
- Rev Laurence Whitford recounts the story of Bradwell while Tim Harrold listens
- Laurence ministers the Iona communion
- Roy Edworthy (Thurrock), Liz Pooley (Dartford) and Linda Holt (Hornchurch) listen to Laurence
- The Thames Gateway Prayernetters’ party (from left to right): Roy Edworthy, Jonny Harrold, Linda Holt, Edward Wright, Liz Pooley, and Joan & Brian Bannar-Martin (pic by Tim Harrold)
- Liz anoints Roy’s feet with oil
- St Peter’s Chapel
- The Celtic / Orthodox style cross showing Christ with Cedd at his feet (photo taken by Tim on previous visit)
- frontpage: the Iona communion
Our many thanks to Laurence for his warm welcome; for his storytelling, which ignited all our imaginations; and for his leading us into and through the communion.
“Take us, shake us, remake us. No longer is what we have been important. It is what, with you, we can be, starting now.”
Quotes in green from the Iona Communion. See www.bradwellchapel.org for more info.