Worshippers at Holy Trinity will soon notice a seismic change in our worship on a Sunday morning. After many many years of faithfully playing the organ and accompanying the singing, Maurice Greenham has decided, at the age of 7…, to step down as our regular organist. He will still be with us on the fourth Sunday of the month and at funerals and weddings – but not for the other three or four Sundays or feast days. This puts us in the same boat as many other churches. I shall be playing on the second Sunday of the month (Father Kevin holding the liturgical fort as he does anyway.) and I am looking for a kind soul to play on the third and fifth Sundays. Recorded music (either through CDs or via a digital organ machine) or unaccompanied singing will be the order of the day for the All-age Mass.
I have to record, even with Maurice continuing in a part-time capacity, that he has been a wonderful colleague and has coped with the vagiaries of the ancient Compton pipe organ – and with the last-minute changes introduced by my good self during the course of various masses. During Maurice’s time, the repertoire has grown considerably and we have all enjoyed the spectacular voluntaries her has played after mass each Sunday. May he enjoy his semi-retirement and feel free to join us in worship without the responsibility of playing. (It is a curious thing being the organist. Although a very rudimentary player, I have to confess that sorting out the next piece of music and playng on time does make for a slight detachment from the actual worship. It is extraordinary how easy it is to have a mental blank in the middle of playing a hymn – and forgetting which verse we have arrived at!)
Need I add that, if there is an organist out there looking for a fun experience, then please make contact. Maurice arrived when i was painting the church ceiling and a neighbour brought him to see the church. Maurice told me that he was an organist and that he wasn’t playing at any church. I invited him along and , voila, we had Hilda’s successor. (Hilda Burgess ceased being organist when her sight failed. We had a good six months without an organist and John Baillie operated the recording machine.)
While on the subject of music, Daisy-Mae Goodwin continues her studies and Holly-Mae is having a wonderful time doing her degree at Bangor in the University of Wales. She also serves at the cathedral and is learning to sing in Welsh. (Surely Welsh and Latin are the only languages in which to sing the praises of God.)
So the holy season of Advent is upon us – and on the first of the month so the Advent Calendars are actually in synch. with the church. Time to ask ourselves (and God) how well we are doing in our discipleship. Are we becoming more joyful, outward-looking Christians – or are we lazy and introspective? Will the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) be part of our pre-Christmass discipline or will we arrive at the Lord’s Birthday unprepared? Paradoxically, while the Catholic wing of General Synod are fighting (with others) to retain the “Seal of the Confessional” (No telling others what is told in “the box”.) – the use of the Sacrament seems to be almost non-existent in the Church of England. I can remember going to confession on Shrove Tuesday and having to wait for the six or seven earlybirds to make their confession before I could take my turn. It is a sacrament that seems to be used by the clergy rather than the laity. Do we sin more or is there a lack of awareness of what sin is? I can remember hearing confessions at Walsingham and being astonished how little penitents understood what they were meant to say. (There are plenty of manuals available. All the people I have presented for confirmation have the excellent volume “Some daily prayers for Church of England people.” by Father Harry Ogden (R.I.P.) which includes a form of self-examination which I still use.
So – have a good Advent. The sun is shining as I write this. Could it be that the rainy-season is over? Some decent, freezing bright weather would be very welcome.
Oh – and don’t forget to vote. For all my ranting last month, I shall be voting for Ruth Smeeth (Labour) without apology. No party is perfect and Brexit isn’t the only issue. I believe that Labour has the interests of people like us at heart. Certainly the interests of places like Stoke on Trent. I really don’t understand why so many people think that Boris is a Good Thing and complain about Jeremy. We haven’t had a proper Socialist Government for some time. I fear that people don’t realise the effect that so-called austerity is having on our city and on the provision made for the people of this city, especially those (unlike me) who are having a hard time.
Take care and enjoy this holy season.
‘Living Stones’ – Sermon given at the Dedication Festival (19th November) by Father Michael Fisher
Brother Jude was a member of a community of Benedictine monks living in ‘Middle England’, round about the middle of the twelfth century. The 12th century was a time when monastic communities like Brother Jude’s were springing up all over England; and when all of those large abbeys whose ruins attract sightseers nowadays, were being built – like Fountains Abbey, Walsingham Priory, and Croxden here in Staffs. When a community grew beyond a certain size, a small group of monks would be sent off to set up a daughter-house in another area, and this is exactly what happened in the case of the abbey to which Brother Jude belonged. So Father Abbot had the job of deciding which of his monks would leave their mother-house to build a new abbey in another place. He had to make sure that within the group there were enough skills and talents to do the necessary work. So he made his choice carefully. He chose Bro. Mark who was a skilled stonemason; talented Brother Cyprian who could carve and sculpt stone into the most wonderful patterns and shapes. Then there was Brother Joseph, a carpenter who could make all kinds of furniture such as choir-stalls and refectory tables. There was the multi-talented Brother Ambrose whose artistic skills were put to good use in creating those beautiful coloured miniatures which decorated the books and manuscripts in the abbey’s library. More than that, Ambrose could design and make magnificent stained-glass for the windows Then there was the metalworker, Brother Stephen, who could produce anything from locks and latches to candlesticks and chalices.
Finally there was Brother Jude. Now Jude wasn’t chosen because of his potential usefulness; far from it. Not for nothing was he named after the patron saint of lost causes, for Brother Jude had a problem. He was clumsy on a monumental scale, and accident-prone to the ultimate degree. Imagine a combination of Mr Bean with the physique of an all-in wrestler, and that cag-handed magician Tommy Cooper in a monk’s habit – and that’s Brother Jude. If there was anything to fall over or fall into, Jude was sure to fall over it or fall into it. Valuable books in the library would just shed their pages in his hands. Refectory benches would collapse underneath him. If he was asked to ring the Angelus bell, he would forget how many chimes he was supposed to pull, or the bell-rope would fall off. But in spite of all this, Jude was a happy soul whom everybody in the community liked, because in spite of everything that happened to him, he always managed to remain cheerful.
So, on the appointed day, Brother Jude and the others set off for the place where the new abbey was to be built, and when they got there the big question was what sort of job Brother Jude could be given that wouldn’t be a danger to himself and to the rest of the community. Help with Woodwork? Metalwork, stone-carving, stained glass – all completely out of the question… But there was one thing in which Brother Jude absolutely excelled – he was physically very strong; plenty of muscle-power and stamina. So a job was found which matched his one big asset.
The walls and pillars of large churches and abbeys are not made out of solid stone. The procedure was – and still is – to build cavity walls of dressed stone, then fill in the cavities with rubble and cement. The pillars too are built hollow inside, then filled in in the same way. Tons and tons of rubble and scrap stone were used up in this way, and it was this which gave the real strength to the building, binding everything else together. So this was the work that Brother Jude was given to do – carting barrow-load after barrow-load of rough stone, mixing it with cement and tipping it into the wall cavities. And he did it without too many accidents or mishaps. And he went about this repetitive and tedious work day in and day out, come rain or shine, without a moan or a grumble; doing it willingly for love of God and the community.
Eventually the abbey was finished, and the time came for its dedication; and how splendid it all looked. There was Brother Mark’s impeccable stonework reaching right up to the roofs; Brother Cyprian’s fine window-tracery, carved pillars and statues; Brother Joseph’s exquisite woodwork, Brother Ambrose’s glowing stained glass windows, and Brother Stephen’s silver cross and candlesticks on the altar. But of Brother Jude’s hard work there was just nothing to look at or admire. All those tons of rubble and cement that he had heaved and mixed and barrowed and poured – all out of sight, hidden away behind Brother Mark’s perfect ashlar, or Brother Cyprian’s finely-moulded pillars and arches. ‘Ah well’, thought Brother Jude. ‘It wasn’t meant to be seen anyway. Just a load of rubbish really.’
Now turn the clock forward five centuries and more, and we find that the abbey on which Brother Jude and his fellow monks had built and loved is now a ruin, as a result of the so-called ‘Reformation’ – just ‘one of the ruins that (Thomas) Cromwell knocked about a bit’, and now cared for by Heritage England. Gone – long gone – is all of Brother Joseph’s fine carpentry, Brother Ambrose’s beautiful stained glass. Of Brother Mark’s and Brother Cyprian’s fine stonework there are some survivals; but what stands out more than anything else is that where the stone facings have crumbled or eroded away, you can now see the solid core of cement-bonded rubble that was always the real strength and the invisible heart of the entire building. Those barrow-loads of rough stone that Brother Jude had pushed and hoisted day after day have outlasted nearly everything else; and by a strange irony the contribution of the least-accomplished member of that community has survived the longest.
A bit far-fetched, you might think; and of course it’s only a story. But think of this; on every such building –abbeys, cathedrals, parish churches – there would have been the equivalent of Brother Jude who did the most menial and least-skilled job of filling in cavity walls with rubble and cement; and it is a matter of historical fact that these masses of cement-bound rubble are the most enduring part of any medieval building.
Tonight we give thanks for this house of prayer and worship, and for all who were involved in its construction and dedication. Some can be identified by the beauty of the decoration and embellishment, making it a fitting place for the celebration of the Liturgy. But there were others too, who did the more menial tasks whose names we may never know, but they all had their part to play in making this building what it is today.
In tonight’s New Testament Reading, St Paul who compares the Church to a building in which all the various parts stand together, function together, built firmly on the rock that is Christ Jesus – you and me joined together in the faith we profess, and every one matters. Not all are called to be priests or Readers, churchwardens, cantors or altar-servers, but every single person has been given something which they can offer for use in God’s service and the building-up of his kingdom on earth. But above all and in all, and more important than anything else is what we might call the ‘cement’ which binds us all together like the barrowloads which poor old Brother Jude poured into the cavity-walls of that monastery – for love of God and for the love of the community; and they outlasted everything else. The spiritual cement is of course that precious gift of divine love without which everything else is pointless, St Paul tells us; and which – like Brother Jude’s cement-and-rubble walls, will stand firm and secure after everything else has vanished away. And remember this too, that the church building – whether the one which Brother Jude helped to build, or this one here in Hamil Road, is the place where mortal men and women of every age and ability may keep the company of angels, receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, and know that whether they are a Brother Ambrose or a Brother Jude, a Sister Mary or a Sister Martha, they are all, in the eyes of God, utterly loveable and utterly redeemable.
Much as we love our church buildings, there is a danger that we can become so attached to them that they become an end in themselves; at worst an exclusive ‘private members’ club’. It’s that kind of attitude that Our Lord Himself confronted in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in tonight’s Gospel reading. For the Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem was quite literally sacrosanct, and you couldn’t worship God properly anywhere else; while for the Israelites in the south, the hill of Samaria was their special sanctuary. The holy people of God – yet divided, and hating each other on account of where they worshipped. Jesus told the woman – and he tells us too – that true worship has more to do with attitudes of mind than with specific buildings.
The famous early-twentieth-century architect Sir Ninian Comper – whose work inspired some of the decorations here at Holy Trinity – said that a church building was like a lantern, and that the altar was the light inside it. If the light goes out, then the lantern – however beautiful it might be – is useless. So our church buildings should focus attention upon the altar, with the Eucharist as the light of the Christian life. Whenever the people of God gather for Mass – be it a Solemn High Mass with all the trimmings, or humbly and quietly at an 8 o’clock in a remote village church, we worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ as we obey the Lord’s command to do this….’, so that wherever you may be – as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it – ‘What you come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a first-born son, and a citizen of heaven (Heb. 12.22-23). The Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the church Triumphant, at one in Christ, present both on His throne of heavenly glory, and upon our altars on earth.
Now here’s another text; this time from Revelation ch. 3: ‘Hold fast to what you have been given, and let no-one rob you of your crown’. It’s the text upon which the homily was given at the funeral of the first Bishop of Ebbsfleet, John Richards, in Exeter cathedral, exactly sixteen years ago tomorrow – 20 November 2003.
His appointment as a so-called ‘flying bishop’ at the age of sixty-two back in 1994 was taken by some to be a sign that provision for alternative episcopal oversight was just a temporary expedient, and that it would sooner rather than later fade away. How wrong they were. Though he was Bishop of Ebbsfleet for only four years before his retirement, he set a pattern of pastoral care and support of clergy and parishes that has become hallmark of alternative episcopal oversight right across the board, and an object lesson to many a diocesan of what episcopacy is – or should be – all about. He also fought hard for the parishes in his care, if ever they came under threat from wily archdeacons and the ‘liberal establishment’, so that some compared him to Cardinal Ratzinger, aka ‘God’s Rottweiler’. Today – and thanks to the tenacity of people like ‘JR’ as he was known, traditional Catholic parishes such as this one enjoy a much greater measure of security than was the case even a decade ago, and together we form a recognisable province within the structures of the Church of England. Fresh challenges may lie ahead, as it never was just a single-issue body; but the glass is always half-full, never half empty; so – rest secure upon those spiritual foundations that others have laid, and – to give that text in full :
‘Hold fast to what you have, and let no-one rob you of your crown. He who is victorious – I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.’