All Saints Margaret Street | ALL SAINTS FESTIVAL SUNDAY PROCESSION AND HIGH MASS Sunday 3 November 2013


Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

3 November 2013

The American novelist Donna Tartt has just published a new novel after a 10 year silence. Her publishers have got her out on tour to publicise it. In a question and answer session in one newspaper, she was asked to tell a joke.

Hers was – and it should be remembered that she was born and brought up in Mississippi which is as Deep South as you can get:

Q. “How many southerners does it take to change a light bulb?”

A. “Twenty. One to do the work while the others stand around saying how much better the old one was.”

An All Saints, Margaret Street version of this might go like this:

Q. “How many servers does it take to change a light bulb?”

A. “About the same. One to do the work, others to hold the book,  cross, lights and incense, the replacement bulb on a silver salver and with any luck the ladder,   and the rest to stand around trying to remember how we did it the last time.”

In fact, this is a bit unfair.  It is the servers who change the light bulbs.  A couple of years ago, Fr. Pritchard and Chris Self and I took on this task when we realised how much it cost to get men in to do it.  Our system is so antiquated that even long life bulbs expire within weeks.  I am grateful to those who have relieved me of this task.

We would normally have had a rush round before a great celebration like this and replaced all the duds – but we decided that it would be a good idea to leave them this once as a visual aid.

This is all by way of a warm-up for the launch today of Phase 4 of our Internal Restoration Appeal. You can read all about it in the leaflet enclosed with the order of service – but don’t do it now; wait until after the service!

There are two principal reasons for undertaking this work: one practical, the other aesthetic.

1. The wiring and light fittings are worn out, inefficient, expensive to run, difficult to maintain, and potentially dangerous. There would have been little point in expending all that effort and money on restoration, only to allow the building to burn down a few years later.

2. The present lighting system looks terrible and does not light the church well. The lamps in the nave produce on the one hand, lots of glare, and on the other, not much light to read prayer book and hymnal when it’s dark.  Most of you are spared the close-up, in your face, effect of the chancel lighting, which is the same but more so.

Why did we not get this all done when we were having the restoration work done?  We thought about that but, on the advice of our architect, decided that it was better to wait until the cleaning of the church and windows was largely complete. Then we would be able to see what the church looked like in natural light.  And of course, there has been a transformation.

No longer do we come to a place of “darkness and gloom” like that the Letter to the Hebrews describes; that dim religious light our Victorian forebears are thought to have favoured. Instead we have a building vibrant with colour and design.  Surfaces and materials, freed from the grime of a century and a half, reflect the light of the sun around the place. 

Well, now that we have had chance to see the restored church over an extended period and in a variety of conditions, the time has come to get on with it. After much consultation and thought, about not only what the building looks like, but also what it is for, what goes on in it, a scheme has been produced which we think will meet our various needs.

It will light the building to best advantage – without over-lighting it. It will be the servant of the architecture, rather than its master. The light-fittings – based on Butterfield’s original electric light fittings – will be more discreetly positioned, so that they are not “in our face.” 

It will:

  • Provide us with flexible and effective lighting when we are using the building for services and other activities.  We will be able to see what we need to see. 
  • Be more efficient, using bulbs which will not need to be changed with anything like the present frequency; so it will be cheaper and easier to run.
  • Be safer because the wiring will be entirely renewed, all the way back to the street. The new will not simply be patched onto the old garment.

While we hope that this work will not be as disruptive to our daily life as the earlier phases, it is going to take considerable effort and this does not come cheap. As you can see, we are aiming to raise £250,000.  Of this sum, about £40,000 is already in hand – the fruit of on-going giving and fund-raising by parishioners – and the All Saints Foundation has pledged £60,000. 

So, you see, the target already begins to look less intimidating, more within reach.  It looks even more attainable if we consider our track record in fundraising over the previous phases and the replacement of the roof and the renovation of the organ before them. All these have been funded without recourse to professional fund-raisers. I am sure that what we have been able to achieve, when the worldly advice of professional fund-raisers said that this was quite out of the question, was because there is among us a depth of devotion to our Lord and his Church among us.

We will once again be applying to trusts and grant-giving bodies, at the same time as we are appealing to our parishioners and friends.

Well, this is a celebration of the Eucharist not just a fund-raiser, so a preacher and a congregation ought to think about how this relates to our celebration of All Saints-tide. As Archbishop Richard reminded us on Friday evening, this feast asks us to keep a number of ideas in our heads simultaneously – difficult sometimes, I know, when sometimes we struggle to hang on to one for more than a few minutes.  But these ideas which complement and inform each other need to be held together in a creative tension, if they are to bear fruit. 

“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” says the Psalmist – and this was taken up by a 19th century hymn writer to become one of our best-loved Epiphany hymns.

What do we mean by saying holiness is beautiful?

Holiness is beautiful because it reflects something of the being, the grace, the love, the beauty, the holiness of God, as it is revealed most perfectly and completely in Jesus Christ. We have a problem of course in our world because ‘holiness’ is often thought to be anything but beautiful and attractive.  The so-called “holy,” the fundamentalists of one kind or another – who are usually Philistines bent on the destruction of the beautiful – have often made it harsh and judgemental. But that is an antiseptic sort of holiness: one concerned with the avoidance of sin; with keeping up appearances; with respectability and reputation; with making sure other people conform.  True holiness comes from a positive adoption of those qualities spoken of in the Beatitudes – which are first of all not ours but Christ’s and then his gift to us – 

  • Poverty of spirit which is utter dependence on God,
  • Mourning, sorrow for the tragedy of a fallen world, 
  • And that hunger and thirst for justice which spring from it,
  • The meekness and mercy which save us from our own self-righteousness,
  • Purity of heart – that focus of attention on God which we see in Jesus – an attention which does not exclude others but makes us more open of them;
  • A desire not simply for peace as the absence of conflict but a rich and enriching common well-being;
  • And finally, willingness to pay the price of these.

But what of the holiness of beauty; of art and architecture, music and poetry? Are they necessarily holy? Well, not always. But when they reflect something of the beauty of the Creator and the love from which Creation overflows – then yes indeed.  And they can then encourage that same creative love within us. They are the product of an attention and discipline which is not unlike that required by the Christian life.

We can of course use them just to give a certain aesthetic tone to our spiritual lives. But membership of the Royal Academy or a season ticket at the Wigmore Hall will not guarantee entry to heaven, any more than attendance at All Saints, Margaret Street, without a longing for a changed life.  If we become spiritual as well as artistic snobs, dabblers and dilettantes, then we are in serious trouble.

But if they are held in creative and critical tension with other voices, the prophets and apostles and above all Jesus, then they can lift our souls to God; they can show us something of another world beyond the veil which we fail to glimpse in a world soiled by trade, deafened by the noise and blinded by the flashing images of advertising and propaganda. That’s why we work so hard to restore this wonderful building and to encourage art and music to the glory of God.

At the end of this mass, we will give thanks for those who have worshipped here before us. When our founders built this church they were derided by protestant-minded muscular Christians as effete aesthetes. But there is nothing effete about this building. It and it’s like have been described as “muscular churches.” They are serious places for serious religion.

 If we really get to know them, we discover that they were not simply devotees of an aesthetic fashion – but seekers after holiness. Like the French Pastor and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I wrote about in this week’s parish email letter – they wanted to be saints. Not out of spiritual pride but because they believed that was what God was calling them to be. 

In an essay I read a few weeks an American theologian asked what the Church would look like in the future. Would it survive the threats it faces in western society? He quoted G.K. Chesterton speaking of the five deaths of Christianity – great crises which it should not have reasonably been expected to survive.  And yet it did survive because God raised up saints and artists among us to meet the hour. In every crisis in the Christian past, it has been saints and artists – from St. Francis to John Wesley, Dante to Dostoevsky – who resurrected the faith from one of its many deaths.  

And so, among his prescriptions for a renewed Christianity was a Church oriented toward beauty and sanctity:  “the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”   

We need more of both. Neither will look or sound like those of the 1850s –   that would be play-acting – but to give ourselves to what motivated them is a different and far more profoundly transformative matter.

The future of religion depends on believers who can demonstrate in word and deed alike, what the possibilities of the Christian life are; what the imitation of Christ can mean in a fallen world.

“For us,” said T.S. Eliot, who knew something about holiness and beauty in an age hostile to both, “there is only the trying.”  “The rest is not our business.”  The rest is up to God. The deeper trends that might inspire a Christian renaissance are beyond our control. But the kind of faith that will form the basis for such a rebirth can be lived out by christians and congregations, day by day.

This feast and the dedication of our church calls us to holiness. That holiness is not some pious attitude – but a dedication to prayer and service.

The social and communal life of this parish is important and a vital element of its mission – but people will be drawn in the end not by jolly sociability but by holy community -they will see people who are committed to prayer and each other. And they will see people whose prayer life, whose scripture and sacrament-shaped lives, make them generous with time and attention and possessions; and make them disciplined in the use of those things – people who fast as well as feast.  They will see people whose lives have been transformed so that they reflect something of the beauty of God.

If they are to see that then we will need that communion in those holy things which make us holy, one of the meanings of Sanctorum Communio – the Communion of Saints.  They will punctuate our days and shape our thoughts and actions. We will hunger for them as much as do our daily bread.