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The Holy Living column with Rev Peter Dodson

St Mary Magdalen Church in Ripon.
St Mary Magdalen Church in Ripon.

When I came to live in Ripon, Magdalen Road’s Grade 1 listed 12th century building was commonly known as “The Leper Chapel.”

It is Ripon’s only remaining medieval fragment of what was originally the site of a hospital managed by nuns and a priest.

Their duties were to feed and shelter leprosy sufferers. As leprosy became less prevalent in England, the House sought to accommodate blind priests born in Ripon, and to feed and shelter the poor.

In Bible times, leprosy sufferers were among the world’s most stigmatised people (see Matthew 8.1-4). Later, words of a funeral service were used as part of the procedure for excluding leprosy sufferers from society. In other words, they were treated as though they were dead.

In the early 1950s, I visited a Hong Kong island “Leper Colony”. It was called Hey Ling Chau (Island of Happy Healing). I found it a harrowing experience because, at that time, there was very little control of the disease.

I will always remember the terribly disfigured face of a woman, with no feet or hands, doing embroidery with her teeth. I asked the doctor in charge why he did such gut-wrenching work. He exclaimed, “Jesus loved lepers and what was good enough for him is good enough for me!” That same philosophy continues today, with the Christ-motivated work of, for example, the international Leprosy Mission. The Magdalen Road “Leper House” eventually closed. The term “hospital” came to mean something more like “hostel”. Today, the almshouses continue to provide a home for people in need of accommodation.

Currently, under Trustees chaired by Ripon Cathedral’s Dean, the Chapel congregation celebrates the Eucharist on Sundays and other Christian festivals. The Magdalen Fellowship grew out of a regular Cathedral prayer group. The Fellowship’s members meet, in the Magdalen Chapel, on Mondays at 10am. The Fellowship’s main commitment is to pray for the world’s peoples, individually or collectively.

This kind of prayer is “the greatest work of love of which human beings are capable”.

The Chapel warmly welcomes all who seek an awareness of the presence of God.

It is good to learn that Muslim and Sikh visitors have used that sacred building for prayer.

The leper in the Bible story pleaded with Jesus, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” All human beings are, in varying degrees, spiritually and morally “dis-eased”.

The members of the Magdalen Fellowship are committed to loving people.

That was Jesus’ role and “what was good enough for him is good enough” for those who are his devoted followers.

Writing this May column very much reminds me of a quotation from Saint Teresa of Calcutta. When, in 1979, she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, she boldly said: “I choose the poverty of our people. But I am grateful to receive the [Nobel] prize in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people [who] ... are shunned by everyone.”

This Thursday also celebrates the Ascension or Exaltation of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus Christ. The language Christians use is metaphorical rather than literal. The metaphors struggle to express Jesus’ “transcendent destiny.” The Church sees him as gloriously elevated, as having supreme authority over everything that ever did, does or will exist. He is the reason why church buildings, often with spires pointing poetically skywards, are so evident in and around Ripon and across the world.