Playing our Part (but not Playing God), an evensong sermon from the Leominster Priory Pilgrim Service

Leominster Priory have a beautiful weekly “Pilgrim Service” which is being released as a podcast during Lockdown. You can catch up with the services here. The one for the 9th August took the form of a traditional BCP evensong, and I recorded a short sermon for it on the theme of “Playing our Part (but not Playing God)” reflecting on Acts 14.8-20. You can listen to just the sermon on the link below, or go to the one above for the whole service.

St Bartholomew’s, Richard’s Castle: a border church that’s become a place of peace

Richard’s Castle lies plum on the border between England and Wales, patrolling the marches where it’s fortress was first built by the eponymous Richard in the 1050’s – a Norman but before the Conquest (which shows that Anglo-Saxon eleventh-century politics was rather more complicated than Harold and the English vs William and the Normans). A large church grew up in the castle’s outer bailey, and a substantial burgh was founded too – but over time the trade and the threat moved away, as did the Mortimers whose castle it became, and the site of battle and bustle has become one of peace, with the church sleeping in the care of the Churches’ Conservation Trust.

The core of the church is of course Norman – look at those massive round-headed splayed window openings in the north wall. But as so often Topsy grew, and a north transept was added with a roofline higher than the present one of the nave and a striking north window with its six-pointed star. It’s side windows are square-topped and must be later, but in the east ones are fragments of late mediaeval glass – perhaps the Coronation of the Virgin. An earlier mediaeval king’s head hides elsewhere, while the Victorian main east window offers a slightly unusual answer to the question, “What did the risen Jesus wear?” with its red and green cape. More decorous than a loincloth, or less. (The graveclothes of course had been left behind …)

The timberwork of the roof is open to view throughout and catches both the eye and the interest. Look out especially for the huge screw-ended beams propping up the (lat medieval again) south aisle which was added with very substantial arcade openings and correspondingly less substantial steadiness. You’ll also see a fine array of timber seating, from box pews and (perhaps) servants’ benches, to a banked grandstand at the back (was it for the schoolchildren?), and the large piece of furniture in the transept which looks just a bit like a disused ticket kiosk, but is in fact a fine “family pew” still used by the Salweys when occasional services are held.

The heraldry of the Salweys is set out on display, and contrast the complicated quartering of the hatchments, from an age when showing off your connections mattered, to the severe single coat of the latest memorial, from an age of discretion in such things.

It’s good to know that this sleeping giant is still open for visitors and still connected for occasional services too. It’s worth the excursion to the edge of the world.

Stop, look listen or A Tale of Two Picnics

Credit: Network Rail

Today’s talk is about the story of the Feeding of the 5000. I’ve called it A Tale of Two Picnics. There’s the big picnic for the 5000 – more in fact because in those days they probably only counted the men, shame on them. That must have been quite something! I’ve asked the Zoom congregation to bring along their teddy bears and other friends to join in the fun.

But there is another picnic in the story too: a picnic which was no picnic at all. Jesus has just heard that his cousin John the Baptist has been killed by Herod. That had come hard on the heels of his rejection at his home town of Nazareth, where they had so little faith in him that he could do very little for them.

So he decided to take time out, to recharge, and to listen to God for his word for what was going to come to next. He goes off into the wilderness. It was no picnic. he probably didn’t take any food and intended instead to fast and pray – as he had done not so long ago before his ministry began. And like then, though we can be sure he was trusting that God would strengthen and feed him with his word, as Isaiah promises in today’s Old Testament reading: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat;” he no doubt also expected a wrestling match with both God and the Satan, as he had done before (and another of today’s readings is the story of how Jacob’s wrestled with God).

Now it will be no surprise if I point out we too are living through a time of profound change, as a society and as a church. We have had some very unwelcome news. We need time to take it in, to process it; we need space to think it through; we need sustenance because all this is very exhausting; we need to hear the word of God, because the best way forward is not at all clear.

To go back to picnics for a moment, do you remember Tufty from the Tufty Club, which was a Road Safety initiative that many of us oldies will have been part of at school. As time went on it was joined by the Green Cross Code: can you remember it? In its simplest form it was just this: Stop! Look! Listen! Then when it was safe, you could cross the road.

That simple phrase Stop! Look! Listen! has been used in many places before and after that. It’s there on our railways. UK Youth use it as the slogan for National Safeguarding Week.

And it can serve us well as a reminder of how Jesus got ready for a new start, and we can too.

Stop! comes first, because that’s what we need to do first. When times are tough we are often very committed to action, and keeping calm and carrying on famously has a lot of merit to it. But as we have probably experienced for ourselves, the energy to carry on starts to run out after a while, and the batteries need recharging. And more than that: if we just carry on doing what we’ve done before, there’s real danger that we’ll sleepwalk into danger, and end up trying to cross the road with our eyes shut; which is not safe in human terms and may not lead to salvation in spiritual ones. Stopping isn’t easy, but that’s the first thing we need to do – to decide to try and stop.

Next comes Look! When I was at infant school, the PE teacher would tell us to “find a space”. Once we’ve decided to stop, the next thing is to look for somewhere where we can find some space to recuperate and be with God.  The classic way is to do as Jesus did, to book some time away. I used to go a nearby religious house where they knew me and would leave me be, first to recover and then do business with God. Not everyone can get away like that of course, but with some imagination perhaps everyone can find a way of at least breaking their routine, and creating a bit of space. John Wesley’s mother Susanna trained her 19 children – yes 19 – to know that when she pulled her skirts over her head it was time to be quiet and leave her alone, because beneath them she was in her prayer space, just her and God.

And then it’s time to Listen! Just having a break is good for us. But we can hope to do better than that: not just to have a human re-charge, but to connect with power from on high that is the Spirit of God, and so find not just resuscitation but resurrection, the possibility of a real new start going the way God wants. So listening for God and to God is what comes next. Audible words and signs in the sky may be rare, but my experience is that in one way or another God is both good and faithful and will get his message across to us at the times when it really matters.

At three points in my episcopal ministry some very simple words came to me in a way that made me sure they were from God: Speak from the heart to the heart about the heart of the matter; the image of the church as the Vine with roots, shoots and fruits; and the command to Feed my Sheep. His words for you will probably be different, but if they feel good and godly, good for God’s people, and ‘good to go’ giving you energy and purpose, then I’d suggest they are well worth sharing with someone you trust and giving them time to take root: you may just have received your marching order for the next stage in the journey of life.

Picture credit: Network Rail

Locked down but not locked out: a visit to St Mary the Virgin, Burghill

A lovely day to visit a lovely church, St Mary’s Burghill just outside Hereford. Most of the church is roped off for Covid safety’s sake but the south aisle was helpfully open for us to say a prayer for the people of the parish and enjoy their historic place of worship. Thank you!

It’s a large building, the sort that has a bit of something from every century in it, telling the story of the place in stone. As we approached the flag was fluttering bravely from the tower, overseeing the well-kept churchyard, whose stones were lined up like Easter Island moai, looking silently out into the future. Keeping an eye on them too was a bishop, or at least the head of his effigy, set in the outside south aisle, with stylish hair fluttering out on each side (or was it just a Plague time then too and barbers were hard to come by?).

Inside the nave and aisles are of their early mediaeval proportions though tidied up by restoration, and the main arcade marches strongly east towards a huge rood-screen, elaborated with a high and deep canopy facing the people: a spectacular frame for proclaiming the gospel, and room enough to hold a choir-full of angelic boys to sing it at Easter. The HMSO author even thinks there might have been an altar up there.

Only on the way out did we really spot and connect with the Norman font, not one of the dynamic Herefordshire Romanesque dramas this time, but more classically composed with Christ and the Apostles in an arcade supporting a simple round bowl. Lovely indeed.

Visiting St Margaret of Antioch for her Feast (in Wellington, Herefordshire)

We were a day or two late for Margaret’s feast, but were delighted to find her place open at Wellington, off the Hereford-Leominster road, all the same. Congratulations to the local team who have done a sparkling job at making it all so shiny and clean for visitors, despite the ever-present bats.

It’s a large building, especially the massively-sized Norman multi-storey tower. (Why was it built so large?) The inside space is plain for all its generous proportions, but nobly so, and under fine roofs (the bosses are very fine but take a torch…). I wonder who the haloed bishop or abbot is hiding in a 15th century fragment of window by the altar? (He is tonsured but at that time that might just have implied being in orders, not necessarily a religious.) An inscription fragment possibly reads “[ec]clesie qū . . . propi[etur].”

Perhaps the church’s most striking interior feature is its collection of memorial plaques. Many are the work of local craftsmen and have a rustic feel; and the most moving are in memory of women who died in young adulthood, most likely in childbirth. They are complement by a more finely-worked memorial by the pulpit to Benjamin Tomkins who developed the Herefordshire breed of cattle. We enjoyed some of their descendants’ self-offerings that evening.

A privilege to pray at St Weonard’s, Herefordshire: a gem of church

“This gem of a church dating from the 13th century rightly merits its Grade 1 status from its commanding hilltop position overlooking beautiful rolling south-west Herefordshire countryside.” So begins the article on the church on the Visit Herefordshire Churches website, and justifiably so. We called in earlier today to say a prayer for the parish, and found it a place of peace amidst the Covid storm.

Although it has, as so often a 13th century core, much of what we saw was a little later than usual, 16th century, and the church must have had a make-over just before the strictures of the Reformation changed everything.

St Weonard (say Wonnard) a himself probably, is lost in the mists of time. Old stained glass in the church, now destroyed, described him as a hermit and showed him with a woodcutter’s axes and he is perhaps to be identified with the Welsh St Gwennarth. Of more personal interest were the memorials to the Mynors family: the north chapel his named for them, with its box pews, memorials and a massive and venerable hollowed-out chest.

Here was a place to give thanks for the life and work of Sir Roger Mynors in particular, a Latinist of the first water, covering both the classical and mediaeval periods (he edited the Nelson/Oxford edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History), and was also on the Literary Committee for the New English Bible. He remembered the Cathedral Library at Hereford with a bequest, and was working on the catalogue of their manuscripts when he died. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Where Scudamores sleep: a visit to St Cuthbert’s Holme Lacy

A sunny morning woke our sleep lockdown spirits today, and after a brisk local walk and restorative bacon baguettes (and a bit of magic in the kitchen to set up a salad for tonight) we sallied forth church-crawling again. Thanks to the Churches Conservation Trust we have not just active churches to visit locally but sleeping ones as well, and St Cuthbert’s, Holm Lacy, just a few miles south-east of Hereford is in their care, and is where generations of the locally famous Scudamore family sleep. You can sleep yourself there in style (champing) in safer times, but our mission today was to meet John (d.1571 who lies beside his wife decked out in full armour) and James (d.1668, now wearing Roman costume in heaven [I presume]) and more. It’s makes for quite a display of both sculpture and heraldry (the S’s show off their connections with royalty and the Howards in it: good for them).

A sleeping church is perhaps rather a good place for monuments to sleeping ancestors in these questioning times: nothing is claimed for themes it were, and there is room for interpretative display. I haven’s chased up the Scudamores’ record, but the internet tells me that one Peter S., quite probably no close relation to this lot, was, “surgeon on a pirate vessel, encouraged a slave rebellion, insisting that he could sail the ship himself.” Good for him too.

The church as we meet it is the usual mélange of medieval periods – a few 13th century survivals given a major makeover in the 14th century ending with a very substantial tower which kay be as late as the 15th, but then a 17th century porch reflecting the ongoing investment in the church by the Scudamores throughout the 16th-18th centuries. There was then a lot of remedial work in the 1920s (presumably led by new estate owners the Lucas-Tooths) from which the church now benefits: despite its sleeping status it is in good shape, and the CCT continue to keep it that way.

In the end what caught my eye most were the rounded-up fragments of medieval stained glass in a window in the north window of the chancel. It was moved there during the 20th century restorations, and the Woolhope Club much regretted the alterations when it visited in 1918. It may be archaeological heresy to like member disjecta out of context like this, but actually I liked the grouped effect and of course they were easier to see too.

It’s a typical “fruit salad” and most of the glass is not in great condition, but out of it peer some striking faces, the sort of ones that make you wonder whether a particular person inspired them, though I’ve seen enough to recognise that like most others they probably follow the workshop style. Still, in what is still a consecrated building there is room for a moment of ora pro nobis. Which is the sentiment I’ll leave you with rather than that of anonymous sonnet displayed near the entrance which is decent poetry but slightly defeatedly, in my opinion, chooses to end with an invitation to find not faith but joy. In these troubled times joy may not be so easy to find, but faith remains our rock for ever.

Down another country lane in Herefordshire: St Mary’s, Wormsley

We ventured out again yesterday down another hidden country lane, opposite the Herefordshire Golf Club west of the city, to visit the little church of St Mary, Wormsley, sleeping prettily in the care of the Churches’ Conservation Trust. I see from the Church Crawling Facebook group that we were in the footsteps of fellow-crawler Richard Jones, but as we all see things slightly differently, I thought I’d post as well, all the same.

The first thing you notice is that you go up a grassy bank to the get into the round-cornered churchyard – the smoking gun of a likely Anglo-Saxon site, and indeed the settlement is there in Domesday, with every likelihood of a simple church, now lost, serving it.

What we see though, as we pass the base of a later medieval preaching cross, is an archetypal twelfth/thirteenth century Norman rebuild (itself rebuilt over the years but along the same lines). The proportions and simple structure remind me of many other straightforward small two-cell churches that still survive often in more remoter rural areas where there was no need for enlargement, speaking of that great age of stone. If you look carefully over the south door as you enter you’ll see a simple tympanum decorated with diamond ‘opus reticulatum’, and inside the font is undecorated deep bowl though well-proportioned and in its way majestic: no cash here then for the fancy work of the Herefordshire Romanesque school. But for me the simplicity is enough and it makes a perfect place for quiet prayer.

A display set up the CCT tells us of the parish’s most famous son, Thomas Andrew Knight, who went on to be president of the Horticultural Society; but more importantly for us locals published the Pomona Herefordiensis, the Bible of apples and pears, and developed new improved varieties dome of which were recently planted in the churchyard near Knight’s fine memorial. We resisted the temptation to do an Eve and pick the apples though so there may be some there for you when you make your own visit (and drop a decent banknote in the wall-safe for the CCT whose income will have taken a hit in these troubled times).

Visiting St Mary’s Monnington-on-Wye: one of Herefordshire’s Hidden Places

A few miles west of Hereford, down a track off a path off a narrow lane lies the secret church of St Mary, Monnington-on-Wye. The settlement was already established by Domesday, and the Court claims an early mediaeval Moot Hall within its fabric. So I suspect an early ecclesiastical site, and while the tower (and general footprint of the church) are claimed for the 15th century, I would not be surprised if the lowest stage of the tower was 13th century and earlier remains still were buried underground.

What is so striking about the church, though, apart from its picturesque and remote setting, is that it is a time-warp from the Restoration, a rare survival of a Royalist cry of triumph as Uvedfale Tomkins repaid the execution of his grandfather with a rebuilding that was then frozen in time. So we still see his chancel furnishings and pews, and oil lamps still hang, though not in the gloom as the church is flooded with light by its re-worked “double-decker” windows from the same period.

Owen Glyndwr is said to have taken refuge at Monnington (probably wrongly), and Kilvert who had relatives at the Court saw the grand mile-long Walk whose vista the church tower closes when it was still a youngster. John Kent the mathematician and poet also lived there and perhaps it is the sort of atmospheric place that could led credence to the legend that he sold his soul to the devil and constructed a bridge over the Monnow in a single night.

A further treat is the 18th century lych-gate, sympathetically restored, with its unusual fretwork balustrading filling the sides. We picnicked there in style, and rejoiced that while the Court is private, the Walk and the church, and the adjacent Bulmer’s orchards, are open to visit for those who can find them.

Interdependence Day?

Interdependence Day (to borrow a meme from Derek Chedzey). That’s got to be our ultimate aspiration as Christians, even if independence is a step on the way.

But interdependence comes at a cost. Alongside all the benefits and feel-good factor, if you go down, I go down.

So, choose your interdependents carefully? Well, no. Not if you aspire to be the body of Christ, and build the kingdom of God, and not just add to your own weight or build your own security. In Christ men and women, enslaved and free, ethnicities of all sorts, respected and shameful, sinners and saints all hang together.

A dumb choice to go down that route then? Some would say so. But if the alternative is beggaring my neighbour, or worse, then it’s the one I’ll make. And here’s a long, hard look in the direction of anyone who chooses differently.