Author Archive

CLOSED FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP AGAIN.

Monday, January 4th, 2021

With a heavy heart we have taken the decision that, with the nation in lockdown again, public worship at St Anne’s should cease for the time being- a move supported by the majority of the Parochial Church Council and the Bishop of London. Services on Sunday will continue to be held behind closed doors and live-streamed on youtube (see link on the Worship page), and we will continue to create a written service which will be emailed and also printed and delivered to those without internet access.

Our feeling was that whilst public worship is allowed to continue under lockdown, that does not mean that it necessarily should, and that we have a pastoral responsibility to remove from people the temptation to make unnecessary journeys to join in worship, when we provide materials for them to worship safely at home.

Many of our congregation live locally and walk to church, but even for them their risk of exposure is increased by coming to an intimate environment where they are more inclined to unintentionally interact closely with those they are pleased to see.

Twelve step meetings will continue as usual.

The effects of neither this pandemic nor recent lockdowns should be underestimated. Please reach out to us if you, or someone you know someone is struggling in any way. We are here to support you spiritually, but also practically and emotionally.  No one should feel alone at this time.

Fr Simon ( Rector)

 

Can’t get to church?

Friday, January 1st, 2021

There are now two ways to join St Anne’s in worship from your own home:

Through our live-streamed Sunday Morning Service on Youtube (click on the word ‘HERE’ on the Worship page)  or through our emailed (or printed and posted) Prayers to Say at Home.

To join the mailing list and receive Prayers to say at Home each week contact:

info@stannes-soho.org.uk

We’d be delighted to send it to you for as long as we produce it.

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

Remembrance Sunday 2020. The Rector, Fr Simon.

This Sermon followed the gospel reading : Matthew 25: 1-13, The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

The parable is a call to readiness; a summons to live not in fear, but in anticipation of the arrival of the bridegroom. The only thing to fear is of not being ready and missing the bridegroom – who is of course Jesus. This parable is about being ready to welcome and receive Christ- whether in the flesh as he was 2,000 years ago, at his return at the end of time, or as he shows up to us in the faces of those we encounter in our daily lives. But parables rarely have one application and within this parable lies a warning which,I think, we can apply to many circumstances about the need to be vigilant and ready, both for the things we might reasonably anticipate and the things we might not. As the motto read on my cub scout badge ‘Be Prepared’.

Someone recently pointed out to me that when the Church of England revised its worship books at the end of the 1970’s, unlike all previous prayer books, it contained no prayers to be used in a time of plague or national sickness. It was assumed that the days of such things were over. That particular and unwelcome Bridegroom had not come for a generation and was considered unlikely to show up now. Well, how wrong that has been proved to be. It reminds me of the Roman general Vetegius who famously wrote “in peace prepare for war”. Vetegius’ observation was that, before the fall of the Roman Empire and during a long time of peace it had ceased wearing its protective armour. This made them vulnerable to an enemy for whom they were unprepared.

Vegetius therefore concluded that the time to prepare for war is not when war is imminent but rather when times are peaceful, and indeed a strong peacetime army could signal to would-be attackers that the battle may not be worth trying to fight.

I’m not suggesting that if the Church of England had been armed with one particular prayer, or the NHS stocked with sufficient PPE the coronavirus would have seen us and fled, but we would have been better prepared to face it. But,  we had come to imagine we were immune to such things. As in times of peace we should prepare for war, so in times of health we should prepare for sickness.

Today we remember the sacrifice of millions of men and women who responded to the call of a nation that seemed to live alert to the possibility that war could shatter peace-time. Women and men who were prepared: prepared to give themselves for the sake of their country, to fight against evil, to try and secure peace for the loved ones whom they bravely left behind- prepared for the unthinkable reality that they might never see them again. They understood the reality of the threat and were quick to respond in huge numbers; how differently we in our day, have been slow to respond to the threat imposed on the world by this virus, whose approach we were unprepared for and slow to respond to, and which some still need persuading of its danger.

Reading a book about London in the blitz a few years ago I was astonished to read that even as bombs fell across the West End, one of which destroyed the interior of this church and another the fire station on Shaftesbury Avenue, even as the bombs fell buses still trundled along the Strand. The theatres were closed, as they are now, with the exception of the Windmill which famously ‘never shut’, but much of life continued, as people lived afraid but not in fear: alert to the dangers but not paralysed in terror. Those who could, stepped up to fight the enemy, though it must have felt like a very invisible enemy to the Shropshire farmworkers who put down their pitchforks in peaceful countryside to bear arms; whilst those who could not, simply took the precautions they could to protect their neighbours and families, volunteered in their communities and carried on as best they could.

It strikes me, and the omission from some prayer books maybe reflects this, that we no longer live with any sense of things either beyond our expectation or beyond our control. And when I say ‘our control’ aren’t we often working on the expectation and assumption that it is someone else’s responsibility to take control of the situation for us? Those whom we remember today, we do with sorrow at their deaths and also great admiration and gratitude that they did not leave fighting the foes to others, but stepped up themselves to face the horrors of war in the hope of peace for us.

Yes, in peace we should be prepared for war, in health be ready for sickness and I would add in life be prepared for death. But, as before, not fearfully. Though in our youth we may feel immortal and invincible, we know that, in time, death will come to us all – and at a time as uncertain as the bridegroom’s arrival in the parable. We may discern signs of its approach – some bridegrooms after all are very heavy footed- but for many it may creep up unawares. One of my favourite prayers in the long sequence of prayers called the Litany asks that we will be ‘prevented from dying unprepared’. It does so, not just in the hope that we do not leave this world with things left unsaid, amends unmade, or untidy affairs for our next of kin to untangle. It does so because the gospel, the Christian faith, the good news of Jesus Christ assures us that, if we live truly prepared for it, then we need not fear it.

We should, as the line of the hymn puts it ‘live this day as if thy last’. It is an invitation to be prepared (there’s that word again!) fully, not fearfully, making the most of each day, relishing each face, each flower or autumn leaf (each raindrop) as something of life-giving beauty, whilst making peace with any with whom we have been at war. Living each day as if our last, unsure which one actually will be, we will be ready for night to come, and trust that because Christ died and was raised again, we too will see dawn in a new and everlasting morning.

The names of those who fought and died in the ‘Great Wars’, as they are called, are engraved on granite monuments and written on family trees across this country and indeed across the world: for people of diverse colours, faiths  and countries joined in the fight for good .

They live on in our appreciation and the collective memory of this nation, even when the individual names fade, obscured by the weathering of stone. They, and all they were prepared to do, live on- our liberty is their living and lasting legacy. But the Christian faith is not only of names engraved on fading stone, but of souls- our essence- living on in the presence of God where each are remembered, known and loved, each name engraved on the palm of God’s hand, as the prophet said. And in a place, as Jesus said ‘prepared for his followers’. Yes, God is prepared… prepared  to receive us.

May all whom we remember this day, rest in that place prepared for them …and let us live this day with our lamps lit, in faith and hope and at peace with others, prepared, in time, to feast with the bridegroom in the place prepared for us.

Amen.

The authority to serve

Sunday, October 25th, 2020

Proper 21 Year A 2020

A sermon preached by the Rector on the day after our curate Paul Gurnham’s Ordination as a Deacon. Gospel : Matt 21. 23-32

 

Through a peculiar, happy or Spirit led co-incidence one of the reflections we read at Morning prayer this week included the words with which I had planned to open this sermon. It is that Scripture is a gift. Scripture is a gift.

Earlier you heard Fr Paul affirm his allegiance to the faith revealed in Holy Scripture. To be ordained he had to accept one of the historic, and defining, documents of the Church of England, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Agreed in 1562, one of the articles states that Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation. No wonder then we can say that holy scripture is ‘a gift’. It’s why at ordination the newly ordained deacon is given a copy of the New Testament and when Paul is ordained priest next year he will be given a Bible; just as I was twenty years ago.  Though this caused great amusement to one of my friends who asked “could you not ask the bishop if you could swap it for something else, as you already had one?”.

Scripture is a gift because it contains all things necessary for salvation, it tells us the story of a creator God and his relationship with humankind and his ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ for the hope and salvation of the world. Now why would you want to swap that for something by Richard Dawkins or a box of Ferrero Roche? The best gift in the world. Not that it hasn’t been abused or its message distorted to suit certain political agendas; not that bits of it aren’t a bit tedious or hard to understand, but it still has the power to speak to us and connect us to the magnetic character of Jesus Christ. But this is not just a book about him (as if that weren’t good enough) it’s a book about us, too. We find all life in the pages of scripture and we can recognise ourselves in there too: both in the diverse characters of the stories, and in the questions and comments put to others thousands of years ago that are also addressed to us today.

Two sentences addressed to others leapt out at me from today’s Gospel as being also addressed to us. Let’s remind ourselves of the scene: Jesus has been healing people in the temple and teaching, but the chief priests and the elders rather than rejoice that the blind regain their sight and the lame are walking again ask “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”. Now putting their apparent churlishness to one side, authority is important- if someone in the street tells you to do something isn’t your natural reaction to ask why this person has the right, the authority, to boss you around. One of the issues with the artist Banksy is that he paints on buildings without permission – he may be a clever and valuable artist, but he has no authority to paint on my wall, not without my permission (not that he’s tried to, by the way!). And no matter how much we all may be equal in the sight of God there needs to be some order to the life of the church, it’s why from the very beginning as Scripture attests, there were orders in the church of deacons and presbyters- priests and bishops.

So as Fr Paul, as a regular baptised member of the church, assumes the role of a deacon to serve this community we can ask ‘by whose authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’.  To which he can answer: Sarah, by divine permission Lord Bishop of London. Which under normal circumstances many of us would have witnessed at the cathedral yesterday, if its usual two and a half thousand capacity hadn’t been reduced to thirty, to comply with the government’s authority to limit the numbers of people gathering for ‘life events’.

Now we all know how people can get carried away with authority. Give someone a title, a uniform, a badge or a peaked cap with ‘security’ printed on it and suddenly it, quite literally in the case of the cap, goes to their heads.

But this is where scripture is so often a gift. Here is Paul: resplendent in his new white alb, over the crispest, blackest, fresh -from-the-ecclesiastical-outfitters clergy shirt and bright white collar; set apart by the church, with a new title ‘reverend’ , at the start of a new ministry after his gruelling and learned studies at Wescott House in Cambridge and what does scripture say to him and us today?…..  “truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”.

I said scripture was a gift.

Scripture is a gift because it contains all things necessary for salvation. We cannot receive it with pride that we’re worthy of it, but rather with humility because we need it. We cannot earn it and no matter how hard we may try we never deserve it, we can only receive it as a gift.

Authority, as I’ve mentioned, can be seductive, but that’s when it is confused with power. The authority to shine as lights in the world which we are all given at baptism, as Ellie was two weeks ago, and to preach and teach as Paul and other deacons were yesterday are not given as power but by permission. And whatever any of us do in church whatever our role, title or position both gives us authority but recognises we are under authority: parish clergy can only function with the permission of the bishop, to whom we are answerable and with whom we are all answerable to God.

The key to understanding this is to be found in our first reading: one of my favourite passages from St Paul. It’s also one of the most challenging of all- not because it’s hard to understand, like some of St Paul, but because it’s overwhelmingly demanding. “let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”…. Just let that phrase sit with you for a moment. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.

The passage goes on to explain the mindset of Christ we are called, baptised or ordained to share:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death- even death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name….

That’s what it looks like to be given and to live under authority. It is because of Jesus’ total humility under God that God could then highly exalt him.

Jesus models for us the way to the kingdom of God, to that exalted place beside him and it is through genuine and costly humility: that’s why clergy must wear the trappings of their office both seriously and lightly. They should be a reminder that any authority we have is authority that is given by one whose authority we are under.

The paradox of the gospel is that the first shall be last and the last first. That to become great we must become servants. That even those who gave the right answer to the question Jesus put to them would enter the kingdom of heaven behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes.

So why become a Christian, let alone an ordained one in full time ministry? It seems from what I’ve been saying that the higher up the ladder you climb, the further you get from the top. Don’t we, in all sorts of ways, want to climb the ladder- not just materially or professionally but spiritually too? Well, the fact is that Jesus identified with those at the bottom of the ladder and those who couldn’t even get a foot on the bottom rung of the metaphorical ladder; and so to know our place, to be at the bottom of the ladder, is to be in the place of Jesus who came not to climb the ladder but to hold the ladder for others. If that’s the position taken by Jesus, if that’s where he is, isn’t that the place we should long to be, to find value, purpose and dignity in?  In the place of the one who came to be served but to serve.

The role of servant is fundamental to the role of a deacon, right back to the Acts of the Apostles where the role of the first deacon, Stephen, was one of distributing alms to the widows and the needy.  Even today that servant role, after the servant hood of Christ, is characteristic of a deacon who still wears their stole- which is a symbol of authority- diagonally over their shoulder and tied at the hip, just as a Roman slave would have worn his or her towel to wash the feet of those who came to their master’s table. Under authority and with authority to serve.

Today we rejoice that Paul has been made a deacon by one with authority to do so, under the authority of God. We pray for him in this new phase in his life and ministry, which seems like a funny progression from university graduate to Barrister, to theological student to…. servant, at the back of the queue behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes.

But the Christian way, which is to have the mindset of Christ is not for those looking for prestige or for the faint hearted, for it can end in crucifixion as it did for Christ and stoning as it did for Stephen. But it is the way of Christ, of life in all its fullness, of service to others, the way to the Father, the way of salvation. This is the pattern revealed in scripture- the gift placed in all our hands by one who says “come, follow me… I will be with you”.

Join us on Wednesdays from home

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

All are welcome to join us on Wednesdays at 7.30pm for the following events on-line

14th October – Bible Study: The Passion Narrative in St Matthew’s Gospel.

28th October -Discussion: Hospitals and the Coronavirus- with Hospital Chaplain       Rev’d Frances Nestor

11th November- Bible Study: The Resurrection Narrative in St Matthew’s Gospel

25thNovember- Discussion: Schools and the Coronavirus- with Louise Ritchie, Headteacher of Soho Parish Primary School

9th December- Bible Study: The Birth Narrative in St Matthew’s Gospel.

Zoom code: 893 8126 0017

The evening lasts an hour and ends with a short form of Night Prayer ( Compline).

 

Giving to St Anne’s

Friday, July 10th, 2020

The pandemic has affected the finances of people, businesses and churches in different ways.

At St Anne’s we have seen our income fall by over 80% in recent months and the future looks uncertain as people are not hiring our facilities and we, in turn, have needed to give rent breaks to our tenants.

We are therefore even more dependent on the support of those who value what St Anne’s stands for and what, under normal circumstances, it provides.

If you are able to support us financially we would be extremely grateful.

You can send a cheque made out to ‘St Anne’s Church, Soho’ to:

The Administrator, St Anne’s Church, 55 Dean Street, London, W1D 6AF

or make a donation or set up a monthly standing order directly to our bank:

Charities Aid Foundation Bank

Account no. 00022443

Sort code 40-52-40

PCC of Anne with St Thomas and St Peter Soho

Whatever you can give will enable us to keep serving others.

Thank you.

Holy Week 2020

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

With Public worship suspended the Rector has included a short reflection each week to accompany the service that people are being encouraged to use at home. Here are the reflections for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Day:

PALM SUNDAY (The Rector)

I was listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury the other day reflecting on the fact that on Palm Sunday Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem as a stranger, just one of thousands of pilgrims arriving for the Passover festival. I thought this was odd, having always had a picture of Jesus being welcomed by a huge crowd whose allegiance was changed by the end of the week. But Matthew’s retelling of this event makes it clear: a crowd may have greeted him outside Jerusalem, but once inside the ‘whole city’ (which is maybe a bit of tabloid exaggeration) was asking “who is he?”. We forget the distances between places, the difficulty of travel and that communication didn’t arrive with the speed that even our grandparents were used to. All this meant that Jesus was very much a provincial and ‘local hero’ of whom news was yet to filter through to the ordinary inhabitants of the great city. In his own day most people didn’t have a clue who he was.

The Diocese of London has an ambition to ‘make Christ known’ to every Londoner by 2030…. which is ambitious indeed. However, all Christians should share this ambition- it’s one of the reasons we sent out Christmas cards from St Anne’s to 1800 households in December. Cities, and especially capital cities, can simultaneously be places at the forefront of the latest news and activity whilst also being places of intense loneliness, quite disconnected from and behind the reality and experience of the majority of the country’s population which live outside it.

One of our challenges is to make Christ known in ways that connect with diverse people’s lives and experience, whether they live in a country village, urban sprawl or a gleaming metropolis. We may feel ill-equipped as evangelists, nervous or even reticent to be thought of as ‘pushing our faith on someone else’. But each of us has a part to play in simply inspiring others to ask of Jesus “who is he?”, just as the city was roused to curiosity by the reaction of a smaller crowd to this enigmatic man on a donkey. How does our response to Jesus as a small crowd (and individual members of it) occur to others? What questions does it make them ask – not so much about us- but about Jesus? We can only answer that question for them if we can answer it for ourselves: What it is about Jesus that has us cheering him on Palm Sunday, rather than joining in with the scoffers and those who saw him as an inconvenience later in the week…… “who is he?”.

Holy Week helps us to answer that question, though we may miss the celebrations that articulate it. “Who is he?” he is the one who came from God for all people: those who cheered and those who jeered. He is the one who set us an example by washing the feet of others. He is the one who out of love for humankind laid down his life. He is the one who was raised to life and who we trust is with us now, even now.

GOOD FRIDAY ( Rev’d Dr Canon Keith Riglin)

In the midst of the current pandemic, with so much suffering, and not a few dying, it can seem odd to turn today to a tale of yet another person suffering and, indeed, dying. It’s often said that this strangely named day is all about inevitable human suffering (balanced by an inevitable, yet divine, resurrection at Easter). However, the thrust of the Gospel seems to be the reverse – that on Good Friday (God’s Friday) we see what God is really like, about God being on our side.

So, if you want to know what God is like, consider today. The Word of God has become flesh, says St John. St Matthew says that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” – for God has bridged the gap of sin, of all those things (our sins of negligence, weakness, and our own deliberate fault) – those things which have destroyed our natural created relationship with God and with creation. Good Friday is God’s Friday – here is God.

During this current crisis we’re not able to gather together to celebrate the sacrament. So, especially during these days, we can remember that Jesus is God’s ultimate sacrament, Jesus is the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual (that is, really real) grace. And Jesus’ action, which is God’s action, on the cross, being the sacrament it is, accomplishes what it symbolises.

Today we know the extent of God’s love, for here is the depth of God’s passion with and for us – God’s compassion – here is the fullness of that desire to bring about something new. Here God changes the old ways of religion – if only I was good enough, if only I hadn’t said that or done that or thought that, maybe God will love me. It’s not like that. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” champions St Paul. Today is the day when the Gospel says, Enough! So, don’t blame God – God has acted, and here, on the cross, we see and know what God is truly like. And if you want to know what we humans are like, or, rather, what we, all of us and each one of us can be like, stay with us to Easter Day, and learn of your true destiny.

EASTER DAY (The Rector)

It probably doesn’t feel much like Easter to many people today. But it didn’t feel much like Easter to the first disciples on the first Easter either. Though John and Peter raced to the tomb in response to Mary’s news that ‘she had seen the Lord’, the rest of them ‘locked indoors’ (oh the irony!) had to rely on their testimony. I’m sure some of Peter and John’s excitement must of rubbed off on them, but it wouldn’t have been the same as if they’d seen Jesus for themselves that day, or it had been safe for them to gather together at the empty tomb.

It’s easy to be a fair-weather disciple, to give thanks to God when life is good- much harder to do so when life is challenging. And yet much of the Old Testament was written by the Jews when they were exiled in Babylon and trying to make sense of God’s special covenant relationship with them there. Similarly, most of the New Testament, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, was written by Christians facing persecution and trial: think of St Paul writing to the church quite literally whilst chained in a prison cell. Faith is forged in times of difficulty and adversity rather than prosperity or ease. Listening to people in some ‘churchy quarters’ agonising about not being able to get to church on Sunday, a priest friend of mine quipped- they should try being a Christian in Iraq or Syria … this is the norm for them. Our current experience and the restrictions upon our lives should give us all a new appreciation of those who have kept or found faith in circumstances of hardship: whether caused by persecution, war or pandemic.

Our gospel tells us that on that first Easter day Mary went to the tomb while it was still dark and it was there she encountered Christ- the light in the darkness. Well, we may feel as though despite the light of day having dawned, the light of Christ is yet to break upon us; on this muted day when we cannot gather as we normally would to celebrate the resurrection we might fail to feel his presence. But look around, the risen Christ is present and with us – though like Mary we may mistake him for a gardener… or a doctor, a nurse or a care worker, or a neighbour doing shopping, or a church member checking in on you. Christ remains risen, present and triumphant, even today. Christ is risen, he risen indeed.

 

 

Regular Events & Meetings

Saturday, January 4th, 2020

Outside of lockdown, our usual pattern of worship is:

Sunday Eucharist at 11am, Tuesday communion at 1.05pm, Morning Prayer Tuesday-Thursday at 8.30am

Thursdays 6pm (second Thursday of Feb/ April/ June/ Aug/ Oct/ Dec) Evening Prayer with the Sybils, a group for Trans Christians, their friends and allies. This event is currently taking place on-line. Enquire for details.

See the ‘Wednesdays’ post on the the News page for details of on-line Bible studies and discussion groups.

In addition to many individual events there are lots of regular activities that take place here. Contact Jake Lee the administrator for details about how to attend.

Monday:

AA-7.30am         NA – 11am            AA- 5pm         AA (LGBT+)  Step – 6:30pm

Tuesday:

AA 7.30 am        NA  11.30 am             ACA 2.30pm        AA Soho Sober – 6pm
AA Soho Step – 7:20pm

Wednesday:

AA 7.30 AM       NA   1oam       AA Soho Sober – 6pm

 

Thursday:

(Our usual Lunch for Over 60’s – is currently unable to be held)

AA 7.30 am

Friday:

AA 7.30 am   NA  (LGBT+) 7.30 pm

West End Ward Councillors Surgery – 5-6pm (Last Friday in the month)

Saturday:

AA 10.30     ACA   12pm

AA-Alcoholics Anonymous.      NA – Narcotics Anonymous   ACA- Adult Children of Alcoholics

 

First Sunday of Christmas 2019

Monday, December 30th, 2019

I haven’t counted the exact number of Christmas cards that I’ve received this year, but there are an awful lot of them. Some of them were from some of you- so thank you very much!

I’ve noticed several trends amongst the Christmas cards I’ve received in recent years. Firstly, the rise in personalised ones- photographs on the front bearing pictures of people’s children or dogs (Not guilty- the picture of my dog was on the back this year!), secondly an increase of cards with a religious theme (well it’s what Christmas is really about isn’t it?) and thirdly a drop off in pictures of Dickensian Christmases- with snowy London streets and carol singers gathered beneath a gas lamp outside bow windowed shops.

I’m not surprised by any of these developments. It’s so easy to print your own cards now, a religious card is the obvious choice to send the Rector and the Dickensian Christmas is a bit of a myth. Not once in 56 years have I walked through the snow to church on Christmas Day, and the more familiar group of carollers (singing Frosty the Snowman in the underground station… and in November) is a world away from the romantic imagery of the Dickensian card. Christmas is not like that today – if indeed it ever truly was.

But the religious Christmas card… now that gets us back to the heart and truth of what the birth of Jesus was like doesn’t it? Well, does it? Setting aside the fact that in Christmas cards Mary never looks exhausted after giving birth or shocked to find herself surrounded by shepherds, the nativity stories themselves are riddled with ambiguities: How many wise men? Stable, cave, shed? Not even the essential character of the donkey is attested to in the Biblical account) so much has been pieced together in the popular imagination across the millennia since it happened, that for all they help us picture the scene of Christ’s birth they can’t help but mythologise and romanticise it. And whilst I’m not averse to a little romanticism (though sadly when it comes to romance I’m more familiar with the theory than the practice!) It’s not helpful when it actually obscures or detracts from the awesome event of the incarnation Christmas celebrates.

For our carol service this year I chose a poem by Malcolm Guite[1] called Refugee which I want to reflect a little on now:

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font.

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up an on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the lamb upon the throne.

As the sentimentalised images on our Christmas cards begin to curl as they hang above the central heating radiators, on this Sunday when many of us will sing our last carol, and on the day after the feast of the Holy Innocents when the church remembers Herod’s frightful massacre, this poem feels particularly appropriate.

It can also feel poignant when after one day of indulgence and bon-homie, the world seems to return so quickly to its dangerous normality, with a plane crash, 85 killed in a terrorist bomb in Mogadishu, three members of one family drowning on holiday, a rabbi stabbed in New York…. the list could go on.

The truth behind the glittering Christmas cards is that the world into which God chose to be born was then, as now, fraught with danger and menace. Indeed we cannot understand the light that shines at Christmas if we remove the dark backdrop from the world against which it shines and into which it breaks. It was into a scarred and wounded world that Christ was born, it is to a scarred and wounded that he will continue to be relevant, and it is in a scarred and wounded world that he will continue to be found. That’s the message of the God born in the chaos of a stable, rather than the comfort of a palace. A child at the mercy of adults, a child like those slain by Herod and countless thousands who today find themselves ‘fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel’. The story of the flight into Egypt seems utterly contemporary: and if God emptied himself and became as human as we Christians believe then we must acknowledge the experience of the Christ child as being the same as that of the disturbed and bewildered children we see being carried by their mothers in desperation out of war zones. The Christmas card may show the holy family plodding steadily across open sand dunes towards the pyramids, but the reality is a child who is regarded as an enemy of the state being smuggled out of the country.

And Matthew, the gospel that gives us the story of the slaughter of the innocents under Herod, also records two vital sayings of Jesus. They come towards the end of his Gospel: firstly that “whatever you did to the least of these who are my brothers and sisters you did also to me” and “I am with you always to the end of time”. With the first we can make an obvious connection to the story of the slaughter of the innocents: what Herod did to them he was indeed trying to do to Jesus. And whilst Jesus may have escaped Herod’s sword, he was scarred by the slaughter of the innocents and so we see his life being one of championing the innocent, the vulnerable, those abused or downtrodden by the power of the state or of religion: you could say that he gave his life to their cause. And it is not fanciful to make the connection that when Jesus said to his disciples that he would be with them to the end of time, that we should see in the face of every child refugee, child factory worker or abused child the face of Jesus himself. They are who Jesus was. They are Christ today.

But far from being hopeless this means that we can still meet him and help him in his need. And- as the poem reminds us- for what we do, or don’t do, like Herod we will be judged by the lamb upon the throne: the God who became man, the shepherd who became the paschal lamb, the judge who has been the victim.

The astonishing, shattering, beauty of the scene that adorns so many Christmas cards and which stands beneath our altar, is not just that God was born among us to share our life, our humanity; but to do so from the dirt of the stable floor through to the rough wood of the cross. Unafraid and most present where life was hardest, unfair, painful and dark. It is into the utter darkness that the light of Christ breaks- that’s what we celebrate at Christmas a truth that is not cosy or romantic but challenging and bloody and real. It’s what makes it Gospel- good news- that people have been willing to die to proclaim rather than a fairy story for children at bed-time.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font.

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up an on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the lamb upon the throne.

 

Christ is with us, may we be where he is this Christmas and in the year to come.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Guite,M. Waiting on the Word. (Canterbury Press, Norwich; 2015) p115

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Feast of the Virgin Mary with Admission of Churchwardens.

8th September 2019.

Whilst Mary, the mother of our Lord does get a special mention on one of the Sundays in Advent it struck me that we hadn’t routinely observed an annual feast in her memory here at St Anne’s. We’ve given Jesus’ granny about whom there is no scriptural information more prominence over his own mother for whom there is plenty. Of course, whilst some Christians swoon in adoration of her, others get twitchy at the mention of her name.

But the Book of common prayer provides for today, 8th September, as her principle feast day- The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it seems to me the better date on which to pause and honour her than the 15th August which has rather overtaken it.  That day is usually called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is when, some denominations believe, like our Lord she ascended body and soul into heaven, but is called in the Orthodox tradition, the Dormition of Mary – her falling asleep. So whilst Christians may be divided about how her life on earth ended, we can be united in celebration that it began. We can be sure she was born!

And having been born, what titles she has accumulated over the years: Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Star of the Sea, Mystic Rose (which does make her sound like an astrologer in the Daily Mirror), Morning Star, Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Church…. She seems to have held every title other than Churchwarden.

And yet…. And yet… it strikes me that on a day when we formally admit Mark and John as our Churchwardens at St Anne’s – one of them thankfully having got here without falling off his bike again- there is something about Mary which provides them and us with a model for what it means to be a church warden and indeed for all of us to be members of the church.

The first is perhaps an obvious one: Just as God had a plan for which he needed human co-operation and was reliant on Mary saying ‘yes’ to God, so Mark and John have responded to the call to serve God and this church through the particular ministry of being Church warden. And, of course, like Mary, thoughts went through their mind about being honoured to be asked by me to take on this role (probably the only time I’d compare myself to the Angel Gabriel!) and perplexed as to why they should be asked and whether they were good enough. In John’s case too, like Mary there was the thought of “how am I going to I break this to my other half?”. But both, like Mary, said “yes, I’ll give it a go, I’ll give it all that I can”.  For all of us our relationship with God begins with us saying ‘yes’:

  • ‘Yes’ in spite of all that seemingly points to the opposite I believe that God exists.
  • ‘Yes’ there is something about the person of Jesus that makes me want to try and follow him even though I’ve a feeling I won’t do it very well and I’m not even quite sure where following him will lead.
  • ‘yes’ I am going to set my alarm to get up for church on Sunday morning.
  • ‘Yes’ I can see there’s a need and a job to be done and so I’ll step up for the sake of others.
  • And perhaps most importantly ‘yes’ I believe my life does have a purpose, and often it is others who can identify that purpose for us, better than we can for ourselves.

The angel didn’t call Mary ‘full of grace’ as a compliment or accolade for responding positively to God’s call, but because he recognised God’s grace within her from the start: her divine potential to be uniquely useful to God. Well, Mark, John, you and me… do we not have some God-given unique potential? The question is whether is whether like Mary, we’re prepared to take a deep breath, say ‘yes’ and find God’s meaning for our lives.

The second thing is that Mary occupied a critical and central position in the life of Christ and yet one that never sought to be centre stage. Her humble ministry was one of support and encouragement to Jesus, of unwavering faithfulness but also not without a willingness to be a questioning presence when needed. Mary courageously stuck with Jesus right through his ministry and the one who catholic piety often shows with dewy eyed tenderness (along with the palest skin, bluest eyes and blondest hair ever seen on a Middle-Eastern Jewish mother) when in reality she was a gutsy woman of steel who stood by her son as he hung on the cross when all the men, bar one, couldn’t be seen for dust. Mary models for churchwardens and for us all what our saying ‘yes’ to God should look like. What making a commitment and sticking to it means: not for personal glory, prestige or power but as a servant of Christ and his church. Yes, the churchwardens are given staves of office, topped with royal and episcopal insignia, to represent the authority they carry as officers of the bishop, but they do so as servants who will spend vastly more time dealing with the unglamorous work of ensuring the building is functioning, maintaining the fabric and to quote my favourite one of the declarations they will make “co-operating with the incumbent”. That’s the role they’ve said ‘yes’ to and for which the staff with which they will escort dignitaries into church is not a reward but an honour. The highest place at God’s banquet always being the place of service. Mary invites us to consider whether our place in the church is one in which we seek to serve or be served, where we must each ask “if God has a purpose for me, what might it be here?” Just being here as part of the body of Christ is crucial, but we must always ask whether we are fully playing our part.

And whilst we may think that Mary was spared the work of looking after a church building and contents, which is so often viewed as the primary responsibility of churchwardens, she undoubtedly had a pivotal role in holding the church- the Christian community- together. At the cross Jesus put the disciple he loved into the care of his mother and her into the care of the disciple, and Mary –that most faithful of disciples- was there with the eleven, praying on the day of Pentecost when the spirit descended. She is like the backbone of the early church, just as Peter was the mouthpiece. And there is something about being churchwarden that is about being the backbone of this church. John and Mark will accept their duty of representing the laity, of encouraging the rest of you in your faith and ‘promote unity and peace among you’ as the declaration says.  You might think that’s my job description, or Father Keith’s job, and to a large extent it is. But whilst I have absolutely no plans to leave St Anne’s, we all know I won’t be here forever, and that’s fine. Because this is your church and when the time does come for me to leave, move on, retire or just go doo-lally, it is the churchwardens (whoever they will be) who will be the ones who will remain as the core leaders of this church community. Churchwardens are the Mary-like backbone, when the Peter like mouthpiece (which is the incumbent) goes. And really if someone wants to know what St Anne’s – your church – is like they shouldn’t look to me, but to you and principally to the churchwardens who are those you elected as your representatives. The Christ-mandated exchange of care we see at the foot of the cross between Mary and John, the beloved disciple, is something that the church wardens should exemplify but one that we are all called to imitate. So, the other question that Mary poses to all of us is “do I accept my duty of care for the other members of the whole body of Christ: of which I am a part?”.

  • Saying yes to God’s purpose.
  • Being faithful in service.
  • Caring and holding one another together as the Body of Christ here.

This was Mary’s calling. It is the Churchwardens’ calling. It is the calling of us all. It is a high calling and so it is unsurprising that many Christians call upon her in prayer to help them fulfil that calling in the same way that she undoubtedly did. Today we give thanks for her example, we give thanks that Mark and John will follow her example, but we remember too that – and this is probably one of the best churches to say this in – what are we called to be here…. is ‘a great big bunch of Marys’!

May we all find our potential and purpose and fulfil it in the service of God and of one another.

To God be the glory, this day and for ever. Amen.


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