Sunday, November 16, 2008

Canon Robin Ward: Dedication Festival - St John's, Sevenoaks

Preached by the Principal, Canon Robin Ward, for the Sesquicentenary Dedication Festival of St John’s, Sevenoaks, on Sunday 16th November 2008

Evelyn Waugh has a scene in his novel Helena when the heroine, the daughter of a British chief who has become the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, says goodbye to her son. He is off to found a new capital city to mark the adoption of Christianity: no more Rome for him, he tells her – it’s all falling down and the drains are shocking. Instead, a bright new future in the East: work will start at once on a great Christian capital … a city built round two great new Churches dedicated to – what do you think? – Wisdom and Peace. He tells his mother Helena and Pope Sylvester: you can have your old Rome … with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence with Divine Wisdom and Peace. When he has gone Helena says to Sylvester: I don’t like Constantine’s idea of a new Rome. It sounds so empty and clean, like the newly swept house in the gospel that was filled with devils … you can’t just send for Peace and Wisdom, can you? And build houses for them and shut them in. Why, they don’t exist at all except in people, do they? Give me real bones every time.

When Augustine arrived in Canterbury he too wanted the old Rome and not the new. He mapped out a little ecclesiastical city around the capital of the Kentish king which mimicked for the English the sacred geography he had left behind him in Italy, the Limina Apostolorum. And so it is that to this day Canterbury possesses the remains of the great monastery of the apostles Peter and Paul; and at its heart the great cathedral church of Christ, the mother church of all English Christians, which takes its dedication from that of the Lateran basilica in Rome, where Gregory the Great our apostle had his chair in succession to Peter. And from this beginning, the whole of our land has been marked out with parishes and parish churches, bringing a consecration to England which measures it with the sureness of the surveyor’s rod as a Christian realm.

In the novel Helena tells the Pope: Give me real bones every time. The old Romans had a fear of death and of the places where the dead were buried. Shakespeare mentions this in Hamlet, that when Julius Caesar was about to be assassinated The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets. No one was buried in the City: the dead were exiled to the empty countryside, and any incursion by them was an occasion of sheer terror and ill omen. Not so for the Christians: from the moment that the saints were raised and went into the city of Jerusalem to testify to the redemption won by the Lord’s passion, we have exercised the virtue of Hope by keeping our dead near to us. Our altars are built over the relics of the martyrs; and as we come to Mass we are conscious of the faithful departed, whose earthly remains rest close to where the Sacrifice of the New Covenant by which they were fed in life is now offered for their repose.

And at the heart of all this is the House which is the House of Bread: the Church which is Bethlehem because it is the tabernacle of the most High, the risen Christ who makes himself know to his people under the sign of Bread. Human beings cannot build a house and then call for Wisdom and Peace to come and live in them: abstractions aren’t biddable, and when we start to think they are, then the sinful megalomania of vaulting human ambition brings us back inevitably to the dust from which we are made. But by the wonderful condescension of God our loving Father, something far better even than Wisdom and Peace is biddable, for as John Henry Newman teaches us our flesh and blood is refined by a gift higher than grace: God’s Presence and his very self, and Essence all-divine. And that Presence is biddable because by the effective operation of grace and the invocation of the Holy Spirit of God, when the priest speaks in the name of the one he is set apart to represent, the Body and Blood of the Lord become present to be the sacrifice and feast of the people of God.

A sacred sign, marking out this portion of our town and land to be consecrated to the glory of God; a charitable sign, housing the living in easy and loving familiarity with the beloved dead; an awesome sign, in which the presence of the most High abides always in our midst, he who is priest, victim and sacrifice under the sign of heavenly food; this has been the work of St John’s for the last hundred and fifty years. And because she is a sign that points to Jesus Christ, and because the Scriptures tell us that He was to be a sign that is spoken against, St John’s has shared willingly in the sorrow and rejection of her divine Master. For these have been years too of many passing by, of many who have not heeded the call of God’s love made from the Cross and the altar, and of many who have lived in the shadow of this building and never known its life. We cannot hope to be faithful to Jesus unless we follow him in a spirit of reparation and repentance for this neglect, with which we too through our own lukewarmness pierce his divine Heart.

Our faith teaches us that God’s grace perfects nature and does not destroy it, and a Church dedicated to the glory of God should be an image of that divine work in the souls of humankind. It is not simply a convenient building in which the faithful assemble, it is the gate of heaven, and everything about it should point towards divine realities. The care with which we undertake the sacred liturgies which are its life; the beauty of its fabric and the splendour of its decoration; all these things are not simply the fulfilment of a particular aesthetic taste, they are an affirmation of the incarnation, in which God redeems what he assumes and elects what is created in his image to share the divine life. If, as the great theologian S. Irenaeus wrote in those words placed on Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s gravestone The glory of God is a living Man, then the consecration of human art in the divine cult is the most virtuous expression of that life.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us: for here we have no lasting City, but we seek the city which is to come. This Church for the last one hundred and fifty years has pointed beyond itself to a city not yet attained, the City of God. When the great bishop and doctor of the Church Augustine of Hippo wrote his book called The City of God he was witnessing the collapse of all that the world thought permanent: the government of Rome, the established patterns of life and work and learning which had held together a civilization for a thousand years. But in the face of all this adversity, he could end his immense work with a poem of praise for what was to come in the life of heaven: we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. We began with the old Rome, city of saints and martyrs, bedrock of the Church by which the faith of Christ was brought to our land, rich with the real bones which belong to the people of faith journeying towards the Father’s House. We end with the heavenly City, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, to which we look forward with eager longing and expectation, taught by the holiness of this Dedicated House: O grant us life which shall not end/ In our true native land with thee.