CARLISLE CATHEDRAL SERMON 26th June 2022

Carlisle Cathedral Cloister

Readings: Romans 12.3-13, John 15.1-12

Good morning! It’s wonderful to back here in Carlisle, in the Cathedral, and with you – old friends and new alike. After a very cautious couple of years, we’re making a Grand Tour of family and friends in the north including time with Lucy in Scotland and James in Sheffield, and we bring greetings from Chris and Caitlin who both live near us now in Herefordshire, where Cate is a country vicar. The wheel goes full circle!

As it happens this coming Tuesday is also the 40th anniversary of my priesting, so I do hope you’ll be able to stay and chat a bit after the service over some fizz and cake to celebrate that with us.

Whatever else I say in this sermon, I also want to celebrate the wonderful achievement of the whole Cathedral community in the work that has been on the Fratry, and not least Dean Mark’s role that. It’s been a long time in the coming, and though things often do take longer in border areas such as Carlisle and Hereford, they also often last longer. I’m reminded of the comment of a Border Regiment colonel I knew who said that if he wanted to take a hill, he’d send the Scots Borderers in, but if wanted to hold it, it would be the Cumbrians. God willing this sanctuary in the city, rising on just enough of a hill to keep its feet dry (said he, remembering the floods) will be here for many centuries to come, shining out with the light of Christ.

But I can’t delay any longer: just what is the one thing I might want to say, if this was indeed the only chance I had? Well, at the point when I was preparing to leave here and become a bishopI went on retreat as one should – and but because it was the ordination season all the holy houses were full, so off I went to a pub on the Isle of Whithorn, and pondered on St Ninian who landed there to take the Gospel to the Picts a very long time ago. 

And in my mind, I heard God form the message that I must preach from the heart to the heart about the heart of the matter – along with the image of the Vine, from John 15 at its heart, which we heard as our Gospel reading. I hope I have done that – and would like to do so again now.

Here, in an ever more frenetic and ever more fragile world (or is that just how it seems to every old codger), here is a message of life and hope, of an underlying natural, and indeed supernatural, organic life. A message that calls us not to build Towers of Babel and trumpet our success, but to abide in the life it offers, drink deeply together of it, and go with its flow: three themes that I have sometimes – and I apologise for this – caricatured as Roots, Shoots and Fruits. Well at least that way they’re memorable. Let’s look at them in turn.

ROOTS

It goes without saying that if there are no roots, there are no shoots, and no fruits. Without the deep connections that bring life, we in the end run dry and die, whether that is as a person, a church, a country or the world. In Jesus’ image, he is the rooted vine, sharing in the life of his Father the vinegrower, and weare the branches, who – a key and favourite word for John – must abide in him, the vine. If we are to have life, and indeed life in all its fulness, we are called to abide in the living Word of God, the sap bringing that life to us, in all its forms: in the life of Jesus thr Word himself and the record of it in the Word of the Scriptures; in our prayers made in Jesus’ name; in the presence of Jesus in the eucharist; in the everyday presence of the Spirit of Jesus.

Abiding is so different from the transactional life we mostly share. We are not being asked to buy it, consume it, or pick it, today but not tomorrow, a consumer choice, a personal and passing preference, but to live in it and in relationship with it; for ever. I wonder if you long for a world where such abiding, in all aspects of our society, was still the norm. I wonder if you long for the abiding root which alone can feed those aspects to be still strong. I wonder if when you open your heart in prayer and praise today, when you open your ears not to what not I but Christ may be saying to you, when you open your hands to receive the Holy Communion, you will be longing to abide in Christ yourself. I believe you are. I believe you will be. Abide in him.

SHOOTS

Jesus’ picture then goes on to show us that the branches – we as fellow-members of the church – grow and thrive when together we are abiding in the Vine. Paul’s parallel image of the Body in our Epistle is helpful too here. It points out that no one member, no one branch, can go it alone, if the whole Vine is to bear fruit. You plural are the branches.

Paul’s image also reminds us that it is the rising sap of the Spirit that brings with it the gifts we need to function well together; and that this is a natural, organic process. We may long for the Spirit to be at work, for a particular gifting to be ours, for our church to have more teachers, or more givers, or more people of compassion; but we cannot buy in the Spirit, or order a gift on Amazon. Rather, we are called to accept ourselves and our fellow branches for who we are, and with the giftings we have been given.

We live in a time of institutional stress, even crisis. It is hard to know if the organisational and financial aspects of the institutional church as we know it will survive. But to let our worries about that control our actions, rather than to trust in the eternally renewing work of the Spirit of God, whose very hallmark is resurrection and bringing new life out of old, is to abandon our abiding, to try and out-garden the Gardener, to try to out-God God.

Abide faithfully, share generously, and love one another as God loves you. The rest in the end has to be up to him.

FRUITS

Finally, the picture of the Vine is clear that is this abiding is what in fact will lead to much fruit. Fruit: think about it for a moment. It may be the crowning glory of the plant’s life; but is also entirely designed to be given away to others, to give them enjoyment and life, in the faith and trust that it is this giving away which is also the harbinger of the plant’s own life into the future. Like Christ, it must give its life to others; and for us too, as we are taught, it is in giving of ourselves that we find ourselves, in dying with Christ, that we find eternal life.

An anxious person and an anxious church are very likely to turn in on themselves, become obsessed with their own needs and survival, and lose both life and joy. Fruits kept in the fridge or larder too long just go off. They are designed to be used and given away.

Let me go back to the Fratry. Its name of course speaks of the common life of this church, the brothers as once were, all of you now, eating and drinking together, and building up your common life, as I am sure it will. But what a resource it also is the wider community, local and from afar. It is a living icon of a church opening its doors and offering its fruits to others; not to mention scones, soups and quiches.

As together, then,  in this anniversary year you re-commit yourself to your roots in Christ, and enjoy not a few parties and plenty of prayers, growing shoots of Christ’s Spirit, so too may you bless all who come this way with the fruits of Christ’s love.

Amen.

Presteigne and St Andrew’s Church

Border-crossing again. Or were we? Presteigne is in Powys – but still in the Diocese of Hereford. We’ll call it a score-draw.

We went over partly to just enjoy the country town atmosphere – and were not disappointed, although we discovered that many shops etc are closed on both Mondays and Tuesdays. (Perhaps they have very devout and exhausting Welsh Sundays… or is trade just very slow?) And partly to look round the church of St Andrew, which is as so often an old foundation. Look at the lost Anglo-Saxon fenestration in the pictures; and “Presteigne” has the element “priests” in it (their household or their meadow), while in Welsh the place is Llanadras suggesting an early even pre-Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical enclosure dedicated to Andrew.

Also as so often, and very rightly, each subsequent generation has left its mark, including some artwork from the present day. You won’t be surprised to know that I enjoyed trying to make sense, though, of a pretty fruit salad of late-mediaeval stained glass fragments, all that is left of the original glazing. The fragments were squirrelled away in the parish chest after damage during the Civil War. Our eyes were also drawn to the many memorials including a wonderfully effusive one to Thomas and Elizabeth Owen, and two to long-serving clergy.

Also of note were the school for poor girls of 1850 (now the church hall) and – elsewhere in town – a plaque commemorating a girls’ school of 1860-70. Three cheers for a place taking the education of lasses seriously. Was the second one smarter, or for the “dissenters”, or …? However, I also read that, “All the Presteigne schools had difficulties establishing themselves. As late as 1905, a local teacher complained that there were many local children ‘who apparently went nowhere as they could be seen about the street at all hours during the day’.”(http://history.powys.org.uk/school1/presteigne/national2.shtml)

And a little treat to finish with, parked near the Workhouse Gallery and Cafe on the edge of town (https://www.theworkhousegallery.co.uk/ where we’d hoped to get lunch but were hit by the opening time problem) was an Austin A35 very like 9432WB which was my dad’s first car. You can just see the trafficators if you look hard. We must go back.

St Edburga’s, Leigh and Leigh Court Barn

More border-crossing, with friends this time, took us across into Worcestershire and to Leigh (pronounced “Lie”), prettily hidden among lovely country lanes.

First we visited the huge beautifully-preserved barn at Leigh Court, built c.1344 (when the trees used were felled) to provide storage for the Grange of Pershore Abbey, which the site then was. We remember just how rich and powerful some of these abbeys had become, and why (ecclesiastical matters apart) they were such a sitting target for Henry VIII’s asset-stripping.

The church too is no mean structure for such small place (although we remember that Anglo-Saxon foundations such as this had large parochiae, in theis case running up into the Malverns) and that is the influence of the Abbey too. The structure we see is basically a Norman rebuild on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon foundation, with the usual later mediaeval extensions and Victorian renovations.

Our eyes were caught by the striking Romanesque statue of Christ, now in the South Aisle but once in a niche on the outside of the north wall (whose core is Anglo-Saxon). Pevsner tries to make it a coffin lid of c.1220, but shape and style are all wrong for that and with the V&A I go for nearer 1100 and very likely a proud feature of the Norman re-build, looking out perhaps to the monastic accommodation.

There are some fine Devreux memorials to enjoy, but even more lively is the stained glass window by Thomas Denny (of the Traherne windows in Hereford Cathedral and much more: see https://www.thomasdenny.co.uk. (I had the privilege of dedicating some of his work in St Catherine’s College, Cambridge – see https://www.caths.cam.ac.uk/about-us/chapel/about-chapel/wisdom-window where a fine address by Denny is reproduced).

St Mary’s Bromfield

From Stokesay, our Traherne Association tour took us to St Mary’s Church, Bromfield. It happened to be across the road from our fine lunch venue at the Ludlow Kitchen (https://ludlowfarmshop.co.uk/visit-us/ludlow-kitchen/), but also boasts some fine and unusual chancel decorations from 1672 that was of Traherne-period interest.

The site was quite probably a very early – perhaps British – Christian place of worship, and by the time of the Conquest it had become a royal minster serving a huge parochia, served by 12 canons (so a first division player), later becoming monks under the aegis of the Benedictines at Gloucester Abbey. The capitals of the old chancel arch survive behind the reredos – an impressively wide opening but with strangely crude (possibly in more than one sense) carvings.

The big west tower was added in the 13th century, along with a north aisle, proving more accommodation for parishioners. After that decline set in (Ludlow had been founded as the new big local centre), and the Dissolution saw the priory sold to one Charles Fox. The original chancel was then lost, and the crossing incorporated into the house Fox made out of the remnants of the claustral buildings. After a fire that too was lost, however, and the crossing reclaimed as a chancel for parish use. With the striking decoration (the reredos was added in 1890) it works pretty well as a church now, once your eye has got used to it having all the right things, but not all in the right order. And don’t miss the fine letter-cutting of Eric Gill on the Hickman memorial in the nave.

By the way, why not look up the Traherne Association – and even join? https://thomastraherneassociation.org/

Visiting Stokesay Castle and Church

We were lucky enough to visit Stokesay twice recently, once with an old friend who was visiting (when I played the game of trying to work out the building’s history before looking at the books), and once in the company of the Traherne Association with the benefit of local historian David Whitehead’s insights.

I suspect there was some sort of fortification here, perhaps where the unusually-shaped tower with the timber jetties now is, before the very wealthy merchant Lawrence of Ludlow acquired the site towards the end of the 13th century and built nearly all of what we can see, bar the later half-timbered gatehouse. He will have added the jetties – not real defensive work – making a very nice room with a view, and services beneath, and then worked away from it adding a very large hall (again those windows barely keep the birds out) running into another tower beyond it, with which a “solar block” was created with another fine more private room.

A large timbered kitchen ran out from the first tower into the courtyard, and to the other a gabled extension (not just a pentice – see the early engraving on site) which provided a comfortable connection between hall and solar had left its ghost on the stonework. Finally a larger tower) not show in the picturtes) was also added yet further along the range. It’s original entrance was high up and it was possibly defensible, or was it just for status and effect. (Or did Lawrence’s wife and family keep pressing him for ever more spacious accommodation… The final timber gatehouse represents the final victory of domestic bliss over warrior-like aspect.)

The Traherne Association was naturally particularly interested in the church. Its mediaeval predecessor was supposedly pulled down in the Civil War – although the house itself was not touched; but whatever the real story it provided the Puritan party with a rare opportunity to build an “auditory church”. (The chancel was added later along with its large family pew when more Catholic ways and hierarchy both returned.)

A little bit of family interest for us was that one branch of Jean’s ancestors – Leghs of Cheshire – were busy building a fortified manor house near Knutsford at much the same time which is now lost, so this stood in for ours. They weere a rough lot and the fortifications may actually have come in useful for them …

Goodrich Castle

Goodrich (or Godric’s) Castle is on the Wye south of Hereford controlling one of the routes over to Wales, and dates back to around 1100. The big square early keep was built about 50 years later, but the major later fortifications around it were put up by the famous William Marshall (d.1219), who did the same at Usk and Chepstow. William’s daughter and her husband added to it and in particular developed its residential internal buildings and fittings – and it is this that makes it particularl interesting to explore. There are plenty of fireplaces, loos, washbasins and window seats, and signs of additional wooden structures and covered walkways are easy to see. Inevitably most of the colour and life has to be imagined, despite some good interpretation boards, but the modern millennium window in the chapel gives just a taste of how vibrant life could have been – as do the “3 quarters of beef and 1½ bacons, 1½ unsalted pigs, half a boar, half a salmon, all from the castle’s store, half a carcass of beef costing 10 shillings, mutton at 15 pence, 9 kids at 3s 8d, 17 capons and hens at 2s 7d, 2 veal calves at 2s 6d, 600 eggs at 2 shillings, pigeons at 2 pence with 24 other pigeons from stores in Shrivenham, cheese at 4 pence and a halfpenny for transport by the boat, all told, 22s 6d halfpenny” that Countess Joan de Valence and her guests got through at Easter 1297!

Kilpeck revisited

The last post was about Wigmore where castle and church face each other across the bailey and moat. A little further on into spring we popped back to Kilpeck (see https://wordpress.com/post/bpdt.wordpress.com/14049) to show a dear friend from Canada just how special it is. And here of course the two strongholds stand in the same relationship, at the heart of a burgh that was founded but then forgotten.

Perhaps that’s why the church has remained such an amazing time-capsule of Romanesque architecture and carving of the “Herefordshire School”, barely touched by succeeding centuries. And here is St Peter on the chancel arch on guard, holding the keys, both inviting and admonishing. What a place!

Wigmore

We went back into deep hibernation for the winter as local COVID cases skyrocketed. I like a good hibernate, but it was good to finally see the graph come down, the weather improve and start to get out and about again. One of our first expeditions was to the land of the Mortimers and Wigmore in particular, (BTW do look up the very active Mortimer History Society (https://mortimerhistorysociety.org.uk) who are in fine form at the moment: we’ve joined!)

The church sadly was closed and looked rather down on its luck, struggling to find local volunteers to keep it open or join the committee. But – like so many other of the local Mortimer and other strongholds – there it stands a stone’s throw or two from the family’s main seat at Wigmore Castle. Together they project power and presence, and even a cursory knowledge of history will tell you that the Mortimers did power in spades.

But all that of that is long past and the overwhelming feel now is of a Sleeping Beauty. The castle is cared for by English Heritage but not owned by them, and so it shows an interesting admixture of the usual well-made gates and signs with a deliberate abandonment to nature (allegedly buying time to discern what sort of conservation would be best). The gradient of ascent is still impressive though, and the stonework massive and forbidding. I wonder what turn of history might see it reoccuped as the caput of some new strong man, cocking a snook at the powers that be?

A chance to join the West Hereford Team

Our local Team Ministry is hiring! We’re looking for a creative Team Vicar to join what is already a strong team (Rector, two curates, four Readers, Families Worker, a good selection of retireds…). It would suit both someone looking for a first incumbency with a difference, ansd also a more experienced priest wanting a creative opportunity. Details on the C of E Pathways site at https://pathways.churchofengland.org/job/pathways/2672/west-hereford-team-ministry-team-vicar

Faraday Institute: upcoming Faith & Science seminars

January 2022 Newsletter No. 184
We are pleased to invite you to the start of our research seminar series for Lent Term 2022
Online Zoom webinars and hybrid events at 1pm UK time

The acceleration of neuroscientific research over the last few decades has meant that we now understand more about the human brain than ever before. Alongside this is the view that everything we say, think and do, is dictated by the activity of our brains. According to some, neuroscience doesn’t simply describe brain structure and function, it tells us who we are. What are we to make of this view? If true, this thesis has many implications, one of which is to call into question human free will. If we are just our brains then are we able to make meaningful choices or do we just do what our brains tell us? Join Dr. Sharon Dirckx this Tuesday 25th January as she unpacks the question Neuroscience & Free Will: Are we just driven by our brains?
25th January
Dr Sharon Dirckx [Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics]
‘Neuroscience & Free Will: Are we just driven by our brains?’ 
Visit faradayinstitute.online/Dirckx
 
8th February
Prof. Steve Furber [Manchester University]
‘Brains, Minds and AI – Implications for Faith and Ethics’
Visit faradayinstitute.online/Furber
22nd February
Prof. Neil Messer [University of Winchester]
‘Cognitive Science and Religious Faith’
Visit faradayinstitute.online/Messer
8th March
Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt [Oxford University]
‘Psychosis and Religious Experience’ 
Visit faradayinstitute.online/Collicutt
The Faraday Institute Summer Course 2022
Theme: Science and Faith Perspectives on the Art of Being Human
Save the date: Sunday 3rd – Friday 8th July 2022
Visit faraday.institute/summer2022