Virginia Barton

Barn-storming in Brentwood and Lyford


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Catholic Herald, 21 July 1989


Key to the Chronicle today is a large, unadorned, roofed building for storing hay, grain, livestock or vehicles. A barn. You may remember “poor robin, poor thing” taking refuge in one to escape the north wind; and the barn as a symbol of shelter is not inappropriate to my theme.

The 200 year old barn that houses the Brentwood Diocesan Pastoral Centre is five miles from Chelmsford. It is a skilful conversion from rustic outbuilding to a centre that preserves rural charm without excluding modern technology. The visitor can enjoy up-to-date plumbing, video, tape-recording facilities etc, only a footstep from the pond where Sr Benedicta feeds the ducks.

The centre, called The Barn, is within the grounds of the school and convent of New Hall, home of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre. Mary Rose is director of The Barn, and the influence of the community is in the quiet, unhurried atmosphere, in the spotlessly clean and tranquilly arranged rooms, and in the unfussy organisation.


Addictive welcome

A shy, first-time visitor to a centre of this kind may be faced with an over-eager welcome, an insistence on “joining in”, or by cracked cups and stale biscuits. The Barn has none of these faults; it is friendly but not intrusive, and the temptation, I suspect, is to outstay the welcome – casting Sr Mary Rose into the role of bouncer.

One of the advantages of The Barn is the opportunity to join the community at the prayers which punctuate their day. This is a bonus not usually available at similar places. For the weary layman these regular interludes of quiet reflection provide an excellent framework on which to hang the substance of the course he is attending.

The experience becomes addictive and it is then that a person might decide to return to The Barn to make an individual retreat, with spiritual direction if wanted. There is some accommodation in a well-appointed self-catering flat which should be booked well in advance. The silence is deafening and takes quite a while to adjust to; it made me realise how noisy my life has become.


st_-edmund-campionDiverse choice

What has a pastoral centre like The Barn to offer? I can give only a small sample here. In October a six week course begins (two hours once a week in the evening) entitled “A Christian in the world” and another running for ten weeks on Isaiah. In September Fr Campbell Johnston SJ will conduct a day course on “Human Rights and Freedom”; then later on there is a weekend devoted to the “Bible for Beginners”.

Two days in May proved popular; one given by Dr Martin Israel called “Healing the Whole Person”, the other given by Canon Michael McLean of Norwich Cathedral – “An Introduction to Julian of Norwich”.


Mind flexing

It’s not easy to get away for a weekend, a day or even an evening if one has a family, or a job that takes one out of the house during the week. It’s much easier to find excuses for not getting away.

With a certain amount of forethought and delegation I managed to visit The Barn when Dr Jack Dominian was conducting a two day course on “Marriage – A Challenge for Love”. The well-known author and psychiatrist was in vintage form and swiftly engaged the concentration of the 30 or so men and women participating in the course.

This lecturer encourages his audience to flex its collective mind and the group sessions between lectures were intended to produce new ideas, created out of the exchanges between group members. It was all very lively and argumentative in the best, constructive way. I came away with the vivid impression of sincere people trying to increase their knowledge of themselves, their church, their God. And that, I think, is what The Barn is all about.


Campion caper

A two-pound ‘phone card for the best suggestion for a collective noun for Jesuits. Preferably alliterative.

Actually only one was present at the Mass in honour of St Edmund Campion on June 18. This was held in the huge barn at Lyford Grange near Abingdon.

For many years a relic of the saint has been carried through the fields from the Anglican parish church of St Mary to the house where he was arrested. In a splendid ecumenical spirit the owners of Lyford, Colonel and Mrs Dingwall, play host to the eager crowd of pilgrims, mainly families, who make a real day of it with prams, picnics, dogs and footballs. The Knights of St Columba organise the event, one of several on the road to Tyburn where Campion was executed in 1581.


Martyr’s steps

The procession shuffled along behind the reliquary and banner, kicking up the hot dust of the field path. The words of the litany of saints drifted across the neighbouring pastures, startling the horses. These cantered up and down, tossing their heads and snorting with alarm, but the sober cows merely blinked, interminably chewing. The repetitive words, the gentle exertion, or the heat or a combination of all three induced a soporific, other worldly mood.

I had the fanciful notion that our little train had been joined by the victims of all the persecutions, from every place and every century; all those who have “washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb”.

The inoffensive Oxfordshire landscape was momentarily thronged with an exultant multitude. Surely this is what is meant by the Communion of Saints? And have you noticed how Martyrs never come singly but bunched, like grapes? As if to say don’t look at me and my sacrifice what about all these others? The least self-centred, the most desirous of anonymity.


People crowded into the barn for Mass; later in the year it will be filled with the fruits of summer. Inevitably, when the Bishop of Portsmouth alluded to the martyrs’ blood that is part of our heritage, the words of Christ rang out: “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest”.


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