Into The Garden (1) Garden Congregation.

Courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral

What will I say twenty years from now when my then 21-year-old great nephew, Miles, asks his doddery then 90-year-old great uncle, “Tell me, Great Uncle Kevin, what did you do during the roaring twenties? You know, those vaccinated COVID years of long ago.”

Assuming I’m still this side of the daisies, I will pause to gather my thoughts, and after attempting to cross my gnarled arthritic fingers in the hope that I really understood his question, I would begin:

“Well, Miles, there were pigs, hens, a black cat, and a tabby cat with a missing leg.”

He would look alarmed, his fears confirmed that his gaga great uncle was having a bad day.

“I spent a lot of time in their presence. In fact, Miles, I went there most days, rain, shine even snow. I found it reassuring, in a strange kind of way.”

Miles would probably try to guide me back to reality. “But you lived in a city then, didn’t you?”

“Indeed I did, but this was on the screen of my computer. You probably covered this in your history courses, but in those days before the Omni-Virtual-MetaScreen, we used a flickery, jumpy system called, erm, YouZoomTube, or something like that. Every day, well most days anyway, I would spend an hour in what was called The Garden Congregation. I can tell you, being there changed my life during that difficult time of uncertainty and disruption.”

“A congregation?”

“Yes, it was how a very smart man called Robert Willis brought people together from around the world. We never saw each other, but we knew from what he said that we were not alone. He was, back then, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in England. Every day, he sat somewhere in the grounds of that famous old building, a steaming pot of tea and a blanket beside him on a small table, and he would be surrounded by animals and birds. He read from his prayer book and Bible, and then he would talk about important things that had happened on that day in history, sometimes just a few years back in time, and sometimes going back centuries.”

“So it was kind of documentary?”

“No. It was a prayer service. Morning prayer, just like monks and nuns have done for as long as they have been around. There’s still a few of them left, even today. But that man, he was the Dean, the most senior member of clergy after the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was so alive amid the ever-changing world of creation: the plants, the trees, the flowers, the vegetation all around him. He read prayers and sections from the Bible as animals, yes there pigs, wandered in front of the camera and cats jumped on and off his knees. Then he would make remarkable connections with the words from scripture with those creatures, the garden, and artists, scientists, writers, musicians, philosophers, and thinkers throughout history.

“During that strange pandemic time of wave after wave of isolation, it was a time to pray and ponder the meaning of so many things. Ordinary things. Mysterious things. It was rich and deep, and endlessly fascinating. And the music! It was, Miles, an opportunity to do what a famous old Jesuit charged us to try and do in our daily lives: no matter the challenges we face, be sure to look around and seek God in all the things around us. And keep looking. For those strange almost three years that we lived through and that you now call history, Miles, being welcomed into that garden made such a difference for me. But then there was a horrible war and it upsets me even now to think about all that happened next. Perhaps it’s time for my nap now. Yes?”

Morning Prayer with the Very Reverend Dean Robert Willis – photo courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral from the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral can be accessed here:

NB: The Dean will soon turn 75 and formally retires from ministry on May 16. It is likely that the Morning Prayer Videos will cease after that date.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Marilyn Wray
    Posted at 08:44h, 04 May Reply

    I am a fan of the Garden Congregation, but did not know that Dean Robert is retiring. We will miss him. Hopefully someone will continue.

  • Marilyn Wray
    Posted at 08:46h, 04 May Reply

    I am a fan of Garden Congregation and try not to miss a morning with Dean Robert.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 09:12h, 04 May Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

    Posted at 20:47h, 04 May Reply

    Elequently said and my heart again cried. I have been a proud member of the garden congregation for 2 years. It has pulled me through in good times and bad!! We all wish PRAY and hope he will continue somehow somewhere.

  • Susanne Prue
    Posted at 22:18h, 04 May Reply

    This was such a heartwarming description of all Dean Robert Willis did for so many of us suffering through the difficult time of Covid. People throughout the world will miss Morning Prayer with him. Of course, we will miss his faithful companions: Lilly, Tiger, and Leo. I pray that he may discern another online ministry as he was a veritable balm of comfort during an especially trying time in my life. God bless you and may your retirement be restful and fruitful!

  • John D. WEBB
    Posted at 17:49h, 06 May Reply

    Please read Mark 16 . 15, and think again

  • Gillian Glean-Walker
    Posted at 12:24h, 08 May Reply

    What a powerful and positive and true description of our Garden Congregationand all that we continue to enjoy . There must be a way for it to continue. It is touching so many lives . And, if it does continue, how will we be informed ?
    This has been my way to start each morning for more than a year. I will feel lost without it..

  • Tyler Montgomery
    Posted at 17:49h, 09 May Reply

    Those of you for whom the GC has been significant: it would be lovely if you might put a face to your names in a short video tribute for Dean Robert using this link:

    It would be a small act of kindness for him as he moves to a new call.

  • Linda Murphy
    Posted at 18:26h, 18 May Reply

    You have described The Garden Congregation experience precisely. I am at a loss to understand how the Anglican powers that be could let it expire…Dean Willis seems to be the picture of health. I can understand him relishing a rest but it seems he shares our enormous regret that this treasured daily opportunity has come to an end. The archive will be available on You Tube The Garden Congregation but that is certainly not the same…Like those who have posted comments before me, I grieve the loss of Dean Willis’ presence in my life.
    It is hard to comprehend or explain to one who is not familiar with this daily event, available throughout the entire day, how a computer screen experience could offer so much comfort, refresh one’s soul, hearten one’s shared experience of the world, and encourage courage in the face of devastating world events.
    I grieve this loss . But I am hopeful that those in a position of right mindedness will create a new opportunity for those of us who benefited so greatly from our daily online connection to Dean Willis.

  • Cygnet Huzil
    Posted at 09:04h, 20 May Reply

    This is so lovely. Thanks so much for posting!

  • Matilda Parrish Stoddard
    Posted at 10:47h, 20 May Reply

    Dean Robert Willis, Fletcher & all the animals including the “feathered choir”
    always set off my day the right way! The creativity morphed into the profound over time as our prayers found a reality of it’s own. In so doing it gave us relief as no other could from the world’s troubles, war and sense of isolation due to the pandemic.

  • Margaret Furphy
    Posted at 21:41h, 30 May Reply

    Thank you Kevin Burns for your wonderful tribute to Morning Prayer from the Deanery Garden at Canterbury Cathedral.
    Many Garden Congregation members are watching the services again. The last Morning Prayer was on 16 May 2022 and hearing and seeing Dean Robert again on 17 May 2020 overcame the sense of loss.

  • Young-Oak Lee
    Posted at 17:16h, 31 May Reply

    I am so sorry that Dean Robert had to retire. I became a regular member of the Garden Congregation rather late, last March. I came to realize that every day is God’s gift to rejoice through Dean Robert’s morning prayers. Since then, Canterbury Morning Prayer entered my life and has become a vital part. I will haunt Dean Robert’s Morning Prayer website and continue to listen to the rich, inspirational service until the end of my life. Praise the Lord and much blessings to Dean Robert! Young-Oak Lee from the Republic of Korea.

  • Irene Rush
    Posted at 22:20h, 10 June Reply

    I also am doing the morning prayer for the current date going back to 2020 I thank Fletcher for getting the videos on line. I also hope and pray Dean Robert continues this ministry from wherever he goes. The world needs you Dean Robert even though canon law says different

  • Edith Cunningham
    Posted at 23:56h, 05 July Reply

    I am 90 and not the least bit doddery… mentally or physically. So please, no more of the ga-ga bit!

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