Sermon for TRINITY 18 – Feast of Dedication HIGH MASS Sunday 4 October 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 28.11-18; Psalm 122; 1 Peter 2.1-10; John 10.22-29
You would not expect to find a reference to All Saints, Margaret Street in a history of Communism – but my brother-in-law Andrew did just that: while reading Owen Hatherley’s “Landscapes of Communism” which he studies that movement through its architecture.
Hatherley is discussing the Moscow State University building, one of a Stalin era group called “The Seven” meant to dominate the city skyline in the way that churches once had. The university is not, he says, “Gothic in detail” – there is not a pointed arch or a rose window to be seen, – but it is completely Gothic in effect, in the most violent, “burning-of-heretics” sense.
He compares the “folkloric” aspect of these buildings to the way that high Victorian architects like Pugin thought that by designing in the medieval way, they could reclaim the medieval spirit. Then he gets to All Saints:
“In something like William Butterfield’s Margaret Street church in London, the architect palpably wanted to blast himself, through the pulsating, polychromatic force of his spatial will, right back into an allegedly superior past.”
Hatherley points out that what differentiates these Stalinist buildings from ones like this is that they are a wildly unstable, furiously kitsch assemblage of disparate elements.
Butterfield’s contemporaries were born too soon to know the 1920s German term “kitsch” meaning melodramatic, overdone, garish, gaudy and tacky, sentimental or folksy. When All Saints was opened, many did think it was melodramatic, overdone, garish and gaudy.
Butterfield did draw on different buildings in the past for his design, but he forged them into a unity. More than that, he was not simply producing a copy of something from the past but a church made of modern materials to serve a modern, rapidly growing and urbanizing society. His vision was not so much one of the Middle Ages as of the holy city, the new Jerusalem.
At the same time, the priests and laypeople who conceived this building and its ministry sought inspiration from the past in developing a radically new way of being a parish church in a new age: one of rapidly increasing population and social change – so rather like our own. It was not much back to the past as “back to the future.”
The Bishop of London used that film title in a lecture at Lambeth Palace last week. The subject was church growth and decline in London over recent decades. You can read it on the diocesan website.
His theme is that growth is vision-led not problem led.
He spoke of a period – from the 1950s onwards – when buildings were increasingly seen by the church as problems not opportunities, as burdens not assets: to be closed down and sold off. A diocese beset by financial problems saw retreat as the only solution: the budget could only be balanced by selling off buildings – mostly churches and vicarages at the end of each year. Needless to say, the church would usually do badly out of these piecemeal measures. Worse still, if the property was in central London, with its ever-escalating property prices, as we know to our cost here, it is virtually impossible ever to get it back again.
One of the first decisions the Bishop was faced with was on a proposal to close Holy Trinity, Sloane Street in Chelsea: the cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement. The archdeacon and various committees had all agreed that it had no future. The Bishop disagreed. Instead he instituted Bishop Michael Marshall, a former Vicar of this parish as the Rector. The result was a turnaround in its fortunes – not least because it now had a pastor who not only cared about the building but had a sense of what it could be as a place of worship and mission.
Bishop Michael is not the only former Vicar of All Saints who gets an honourable mention in the lecture. Bishop David Hope is credited not only with steadying the ship after the departure of Bishop Graham Leonard but helping the diocese begin to give its attention to mission and growth rather than a dreary and dispiriting combination of ecclesiastical politics and managing decline.
So, we can take a vicarious pride in their contributions.
We can take some pride too in a more recent development. Last week the Council of the Two Cities Area decided to lift the suspension of the benefice of the Annunciation, Marble Arch. This arcane legal procedure means that the parish is allowed to have Vicar rather than a priest-in-charge again. In plain English, it means it’s out of intensive care, or “special measures” as they say of schools. It’s off the naughty step.
It is recognition of the extraordinary transformation which has taken place at the Annunciation over the last decade. This began with something very small: as Area Dean I had to become priest-in-charge because the Vicar was too ill to carry out his duties. It might just have been a caretaker role until we found some else to take it on, but we sensed that it had the potential to be something more.
Dear Beryl Harding who died last year, said to me after a weekday mass, “What have you done at the Annunciation, Father?” That’s the kind of question that puts you on your guard: there is usually a complaint close behind. So I asked her what she meant. She told me that the previous Sunday her train had been late, so she had gone to the Annunciation rather than come here. “The last time I was there, Father, there were more people in the sanctuary than in the congregation (not unknown in Anglo-Catholic parishes). But this time there were fifty or sixty people in the congregation and quite a few children. I said, “Well Beryl, I try to smile at people a lot, and if they suggest trying something, I say “yes – let’s give it a go.” It’s not rocket science.
Things really took off when our assistant priest Fr. Gerald Beauchamp took over the role as priest-in-charge – and of St. Cyprian’s which we had also taken under our wing. We had recognized that simply adding more and more churches together under one priest does not lead to growth: it just means he has to go to more and more meetings. With some help from All Saints, the Annunciation was given a breathing space. This, by the grace of God and a great deal of hard work has enabled something quite unexpected to happen. Instead of a faithful but dispirited remnant, the church is now full on a Sunday and there are over 100 children in the Sunday School. Anglo-Catholic parishes are not supposed to be able to do this sort of thing. Only somewhere like Holy Trinity Brompton can pull it off!
Clergy and lay people from here have played a supporting role in this. Two of our servers, Stuart and Quentin keep the church open on weekdays. Martin and Jasmine Cullingford are leaders in that enormous Sunday School. Andrew Prior is a governor at the parish school, where I help out with the chaplaincy. Of course there are challenges and problems – but they are now those of growth rather than decline. Which would we rather have?
Bishop Richard points out that a century and more ago, church-planting was largely an Anglo-Catholic business. It led to places like the Annunciation and St. Cyprian’s. But over the intervening century or more, missionary enthusiasm waned. We are not perhaps yet at a stage where we can engage in church-planting but we have at least been able to mount a rescue operation or two.
When I came here twenty years ago, I was presented with a report by professional fund-raisers. It said bluntly that there was no way in which the congregation deeply divided over the issue of the day, could engage in a major restoration and the appeal necessary to fund it. I think we still have a copy of it somewhere but we decided to ignore it.
With no further help from professional fund-raisers, we have spent two decades on a massive programme of restoration work which has been funded in very large part by the generosity of parishioners past and present. As we look around this church, there is hardly anything which you see which has not been restored.
We said at the outset that we were not doing this simply for our generation but for future ones. We had inherited this place from our forebears, profiting from their generosity. Our calling, our responsibility, is to hand it on to those who come after us; to make it ready for another century and half of life and work.
Another of the points which the Bishop makes in his lecture is that our churches are parish churches. They belong to everyone in the parish – not just those who worship in them. We who do worship here have a responsibility for all those who live and work around us in this parish. There are many more of the latter than the former. From the beginning, this church had a reach far beyond its parish boundaries. In today’s evangelistic jargon, it was a kind of “network” church. It was in its day a “fresh expression of church.” Its founders sought a new and more effective model of ministering in a rapidly-changing urban environment with an ever-expanding population made up of people pouring into London. In those days they came largely from the rest of the British Isles – now from all over the world.
Bishop Richard refers to the American theologian Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between “tradition” and “traditionalism.”
- “Tradition” is the living faith of the dead – who are in fact not dead but who live in Christ in the communion of saints.
- “Traditionalism” is the dead faith of the living; usually a clinging to the ways of the last generation or an attempt to retreat into some golden age – whether gothic or baroque – which no longer exists – rather than a following of the Good Shepherd whose voice we hear and who leads us into the future of the kingdom of heaven.
This place exists in part to be a Bethel, the place of Jacob’s vision: a place where people can encounter God in the midst of their daily lives, even when they do not expect it. It is meant to be a place where we can dream dreams and see visions; where we can see a ladder set up between heaven and earth and the angels of God ascending and descending on it; where we can see that there is more to this world than meets our eyes.
Jacob was just looking for somewhere to sleep while on the run from his brother Esau’s anger when he reached the place which would be called Bethel – “the house of God,” and the “gate of heaven.” Some of the people who come here every day are seeking somewhere to rest – they have been on the streets all night. Sometimes they snore a bit, sometimes they snore a lot. Sometimes they smell a bit; sometimes a lot. But we just carry on with our meditation and Morning Prayer and Mass. Others come looking for respite from the stresses and strains of city life, of commuting and computers, of juggling work and family. Others come simply from curiosity.
Some – whether members of the regular congregation or people from other parishes who come into town, come to share in our worship. People who were pretty obviously not born in the London or anywhere near it pop in to light candles on their way to work. The paint on Our Lady’s foot is getting worn away. Religion for them is a tactile thing. The defensive response to this would be to move her six feet further up the wall, safely out of reach or even to keep the church closed. We’ll leave her just where she is and get her foot repainted from time to time.
We are not concerned just with the restoration of a building but with the renewal of a congregation: with a deepening of its life of worship and prayer. This must be place where we listen to Jesus, where we hear his message of mercy and peace, but also his challenge to act on what we hear; to become not just consumers of the comforts of religion but active co-workers in the mission of the kingdom of God.
This must be a place where people worship and pray together, where we share our faith with each other, where we bear one another’s burdens. It should be a place where we care not just about those who come but about those who don’t. We need to pay attention to what God says to us in scripture and prayer within these walls. We need also to hear what he is saying to us through those outside them.
So then, as we look to another year, our motto must be: “Back to the future.”