Hardwicke Church, Herefordshire

Just back from presiding at the Holy Communion at Hardwicke (BCP, helping cover a sabbatical). It’s a little jewel-box of a church, built by the local Big Family whose ordained son (I was told) couldn’t find a suitable living so they built a church for him and persuaded the Bish to divide the parish. It’s also in relatively deep countryside so unsurprisingly the congregation like the church is small in number (12 communicants; but that’s what Jesus chose…) if big in commitment. The organ pipes are so finely decorated that they are listed. Blessings on the faithful few who keep the daily round and common task going and still say their prayers.

Sermon at a Thanksgiving Service for the life of her late Majesty, and the Accession of the King

At St Weonard’s Church, Herefordshire, Sunday 18th October

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I find the words we have just heard from Revelation incredibly moving. They come from the very end of the Bible, a sneak peek for us if you like of the end of the story, and tell us that however hard and grim life can be, all shall be well. Heaven and earth, all that is, will be made new, and every tear will be wiped away, and death will be no more.

That of course is our prayer for our late Queen and her family, and all who mourn at this present time.

When I was here last week for a wonderful service combining the baptism of young George Thornley with prayers for the Queen, I shared the moving little picture that’s doing the rounds on the internet of three figures walking away from us, Her Majesty, Paddington Bear, and a Corgi. “Where are we going, ma’am? asks Paddington. “Home, Paddington,” replies the Queen, “We’re going home.” It brought a tear to my eye as I thought how much the Queen deserved to be at home and at rest after a life so lived in public and so full of duties. 

Our faith gives real and deep meaning to that word “home”: not just wishful thinking but the enfolding love of the living God in whom the Queen had so clearly put her trust, and I thank God with all my heart for that hope and that truth. Without it I personally would really struggle with my mental health; with it I can find enough hope and enough strength to play my part and see the journey through.

Our faith and indeed the words from the Bible that I’ve taken as the basis for this sermon offer us, though, even more than that, 

Just as the Queen’s life of service was not only admirable in her individually as a person, but a powerful way of building up our nation and its communities together, so God promises us not just the making new of heaven, but the making new of the earth. Christianity from the beginning, and Judaism before it, has not been a religion as some are that simply offered an escape route from the earthly realities. It has been committed to sharing with God in the work of building his kingdom of peace, justice, and love “here on earth as it is in heaven”, as we pray every day in the Lord’s Prayer.

Our first reading spelled out for us the scale of that challenge:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

That was the challenge Queen Elizabeth accepted when she was anointed as our Sovereign, and which she lived out so faithfully through all her days.

Is that a call and a challenge just for monarchs then? The answer of course is no. When I baptised George, I anointed him too, with the sign of the Cross; and when I confirm and ordain people they are anointed again. All God’s people are called to be active citizens of his coming kingdom, not just trying their best to keep its commandments, but seeking to be like salt, yeast and light as Jesus put it, raising agents if you like bringing the new resurrection life of Christ into the sticky doughiness of everyday living and giving it a beautiful aroma and taste just as in fresh-baked bread.

There are some things we don’t fully know and understand here. St John in the Book of Revelation is using poetic language and it can be hard to be sure just what a new or renewed heaven and earth will look like and mean, or just how in the end evil and corruption and death will be wiped away. But that’s not a surprise really. We are very clever, and our science is very powerful, but we just don’t have the tools to look beyond the ordinary material world and answer the question of what lies there. 

We need to make an act of faith. Either to believe that there is nothing there – and that all this talk of meaning and purpose and good and evil is just invented by us and will die with us. Or to believe as I do that from the beginning God’s Spirit has been at work in the world, breathing more into it than what we call matter, loving it, teaching it to love too, calling us to be beings which share his life of love, and calling us beyond this life that we know to share in love with him for ever. And in the meantime, to not just pray “your kingdom come” but join in making it happen.

At the moment we are like the characters in the Lord of the Rings, part way through a perilous journey, faced with evil that seems beyond us to defeat, and unsure that our quest will ever be complete; but we can, if we choose, be gripped by the faith that the good is real and will in the end prevail, and be the people who find the strength and the courage to see our quest through to the end.

Today we remember and give thanks for one such life, for one such person, a person who placed her faith in God, who received the anointing of God, and lived her life his way, for him and for her people. We pray that Charles too will live such a life, but since this is not something just for monarchs, for the great and good who have gathered for the funeral and hold the reins of power, we pray too for ourselves.

There is a radical democracy and inclusion built into God’s plan and God’s coming kingdom. 

Everyone matters; you matter. 

Everyone is called into active service; you are called into active service. 

Everyone is to be anointed with the Spirit, you are to be anointed with the Spirit.

Everyone can and must play their part, you can and must play your part, in seeing the new heaven and new earth come.

We may not know how it will come, or when it will come. But in the faith of God and in the name of all that us good, surely it will come. And life will be proved to have been not in vain; not just ashes in the wind but a song in the air, building the harmony of heaven, and a world of beauty and peace.

Once when change was sorely needed in South Africa, the police entered a church where Desmond Tutu was preaching. The congregation held their breath as, risking arrest, he did not tone down his sermon but faced the police directly.

“You are powerful,” he said. “You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

With that the congregation erupted in dance and song. The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. It was but a matter of time.

A matter of time. And now perhaps is the time, as we remember the life so well lived of our late Sovereign Elizabeth, to follow her example and join the winning side too, getting ready for the time that will surely come, when the earth will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.

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?