Thursday, May 25, 2006

Beating the Bounds

Leaving S.M.N.G.

"...we mark this, our Parish Boundary, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Site of the execution of the Oxford Martyrs in front of Balliol College

Crossing the High Street by Brasenose College

Ok, this was cool.

Today is Ascension Day, when Christians celebrate the event in Scripture when Jesus was assumed bodily into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the Father.

Some time in the 14th c., parishioners at St. Michael's at the North Gate decided that Ascension Day would be a good day to walk around Oxford, checking to see that the stone markers that delineated the parish boundaries had not been moved or stolen or somehow altered in the previous year. This mattered, (and still does) in England, because boundaries of the Church of England parishes mark out governmental territories for things like marriage, birth and death records.

So, today, I attended 9:00 Holy Eucharist at S.M.N.G. followed by the annual 'Beating of the Bounds' of the parish. Following the postlude, we all exited the church and were handed an 8' long green willow wand, and marched directly onto Cornmarket Street to find the first boundary marker. Sure enough, on the front of a Boots Pharmacy, there was a brass marker attached to the front of the building. I should say that the Processional down the street was headed by the Crucifer, two Vergers, and Priest, in full vestments.

Upon arriving at the first marker, the Priest read a collect, and then proceeded to mark the brass plaque with a cross, the initials S.M.N.G (St. Michael's at the North Gate) and the year (2006) with a piece of chalk. The 150 persons in the Procession were then invited to strike the marker three times with their willow wands crying out "Mark! Mark! Mark!" It was quite a scene. We proceeded into a back corridor of the Clarendon Shopping Center, across the street to New Inn Hall lane to a marker in the garden of St. Peter's College, back up New Hall Inn St. to another marker on a wall behind a skip (dumpster) where we prayed for a more environmentally aware society...and on and on. On the Broad St., we stopped at a stone cross set into the street and prayed for the souls of Archbishop Cranmer, and Bishops Ridley and Latimer, who were martyred by fire in front of Balliol college in 1555 and 1556 by Queen Mary for refusing to renounce their faith in the English Church and return to Roman Catholicism. At Brasenose College, we stopped for refreshments. We also ran across a group doing the same thing from the University Church...St. Mary the Virgin. I left the Procession just as we were leaving Brasenose College and they were on their way to Lincoln College across The Broad Street, where the group would have lunch and ivy beer.

It was incomprehensible to me that businesses, normally very private Oxford colleges and the Lord Mayor of Oxford (who read the Gospel at the Mass - S.M.N.G. is the Oxford City Church, where S.M.V. is the University Church) would allow such a thing to happen. Nearly 200 people of all ages walked all through the center of Oxford, through normally off-limit areas of businesses and colleges. More incomprehensible is the thought that S.M.N.G. has records of this happening every year since 1430 or so, and think that it was happening for at least two centuries before that. The Priest was very appreciative that so many people showed up and it was clear that he took his responsibility for making sure that this event happened and went well very seriously. An annual event that has happened for nearly a millenium is something to be cherished and encouraged to thrive. It was a wonderful day and I am glad I experienced it. Marching through Oxford with an eight foot long willow stave in the way that people have done longer than almost anyone can comprehend made me feel a part of an incredible history.

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