Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell's sermon at St Alban's South Norwood

Last Saturday (18th June) SSC and Forward in Faith clergy from around the Diocese of Southwark converged on St Alban’s, South Norwood for the First Evensong of St Alban, in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the foundation of the church. It was very well attended. The officiant was the Vicar, Father Russell Lawson SSC, and the preacher was The Rt Rev’d Dr Geoffrey Rowell, retired Bishop of Europe, who is a Bishop of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda in the Church of England. His sermon was inspiring, orthodox, and even patriarchal. Here it is:

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell preaching at St Alban's South Norwood

“God’s grace and mercy are with his elect . . . 
he watches over his holy ones.”
(Wisdom 4.15)

The late Professor Henry Chadwick, preaching at the opening of a new session of the General Synod some years ago, reminded the congregation that ‘a church which has lost its memory is in the same sad condition as a person who has lost their memory.’ What is true of the Church in general is also true of parishes and congregations, not least of this parish of St Alban’s here in South Norwood. It is good that you are remembering your history; that you are giving thanks to God for the many good things done in God’s name in this place; that you are remembering the faith and service and commitment of many who have served God here, not least Father William La Trobe Bateman, the Vicar of St John’s through whose inspiration and energy  both St John’s and St Alban’s came into being.

In the Church today there is much talk of mission – and rightly so, for, as it was once said, ‘the church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.’ But our contemporary mantras of mission sometimes sound as though mission never existed before our day; or mission is an invention of energetic Evangelicals and is something foreign to Catholics in the Church of England. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Long before the style and language of contemporary mission-speak the church grew and spread. St Alban, your patron, who gave his life for his faith, is a clear witness to that. The faith spread across Europe, and indeed across Asia and parts of Africa, before printing and before sound-bites. Monks were often missionaries. Communities of prayer pointed to God and ministered to the needy. China teetered on the verge of having a Christian emperor because of the missionary energy of the ancient Syrian church. And in the Church of England missionary agencies sprang into being at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Evangelicals followed. In the nineteenth-century the energy and commitment of the catholic movement in engaging with a changing society, and no less with mission overseas, is indisputable. Catholics pioneered ‘Missionary Bishops’. They did not use the language of ‘church-planting’, but that was what it was. The Catholic slum priests of London, were inspired by St Vincent de Paul in their preaching, devotion and social concern. 

William La Trobe Bateman was part of that, and particularly part of what has sometimes been called ‘Catholic Evangelicalism’. In his first curacy after ordination in rural Norfolk Richard Twigg, the apostle to the Black Country, whose church of St James, Wednesbury was said to be the cradle of parochial missions, asked him to share in the mission he was conducting near King’s Lynn. Moving to the very different setting of Christ Church, St Pancras, in London he learnt the importance of pastoral care. ‘Nothing’, he said, ‘can take the place of personal touch’. There was preaching the Cross in the streets on Good Friday. He learnt from William Walsham How, the author of ‘For all the saints’, a pioneer of missions, and later Bishop in the East End and then in Wakefield, who was missioner at Christ Church, St Pancras, in the great London Mission of 1874. Fr Bateman remembered how Walsham How taught him that ‘the beginning, the middle, and the end of the spiritual life is self-surrender to God,’ and how he brought all who were part of the mission at the concluding Eucharist to come to ‘the Mount of Transfiguration’, and see the Lord in his glory. The American Revivalists, Moody and Sankey, led a London mission in 1875, but that mission was in some ways an Evangelical response to the earlier twelve day Anglo-Catholic mission of 1869 and then 1874. As John Kent, the historian of Victorian Revivalism comments, ‘a convert made through the American system became an initiate of the revivalist sub-world, the network of people, prayer-meetings, conferences and Bible Colleges….the Anglo-Catholic convert found themselves grafted into the Church Catholic, or, more mundanely, into the life of an Anglo-Catholic parish.’ 

Fr Bateman moved here to Norwood after a time in Southampton with the challenge of raising money for a new ecclesiastical district, beginning in just two small rented houses. From this grew the building of a congregation and of St John’s Church. Amongst those whom he gathered round him was the ‘Brotherhood of St Alban’, for single and married men, with the objects of ‘The maintenance of the Holy Catholic Faith, the spiritual welfare of the members, and general mission work, subject to the approval of the Clergy.’ There was a rule of life; for our lives and our Christian commitment need to be shaped by a pattern of prayer, a discipline, and a devotion. As Fr Bateman’s rule puts it, ‘undertaking some definite work for the Church. It was a shaping of Christian discipleship. With the Brotherhood the name of St Alban appears for the first time, and Alban was a splendid patron – a courageous Christian and the first British martyr.  The 1880s saw the building of St John’s, and its consecration in 1887.

But, as you will know, Fr Bateman was not content with the building of St John’s, there were further needs to be met in the poor part of the parish. ‘God would not let us rest until they had their own church as well.’ And so a foundation-stone was laid in 1889, by his little daughter, Hilda. And such was the energy that the church, though not yet as large as it became , was consecrated on St Alban’s day, 1891 – 125 years ago, for which we give thanks today. And we give thanks too for Ninian Comper who in the earliest days of his work as a church architect contributed so much to the beauty of this place. He knew that a church must speak of the beauty of holiness, and draw hearts and minds to heaven. John Henry Newman once said that ‘Christians receive the Gospel literally on their knees, and in a temper altogether different from that critical and argumentative spirit from that which sitting and listening engender.’ 

Fr Bateman wrote of how the Catholic revival, had as ‘its mission from God, the clothing of personal religion with the objective beauty of external worship: and the re-assertion of the need of sacramental grace.’ ‘We have’, he said, quoting St Paul, ‘to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ.’ St John, at the beginning of his Gospel, writes of the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, ‘and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth – and of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’ Bishop Edward King, the saintly Bishop of Lincoln, was once told by a Lincolnshire farmer he encountered: ‘I see, sir, that yours is a yon side religion’. It was a faith shaped by the awesome grace of God. That was surely true of Fr Bateman, in all his ministry and endeavours, which drew so many to share with joy in the life of Christ. The words of a friend capture what he was like: ‘Radiant with holiness, delightful in humour, almost painfully significant of deep and utter humility, bubbling over with true and Christ-like sympathy he was – like the late Bishop King of Lincoln – the ideal of what a priest and servant of God should be.’ The laughter and the humour were certainly there as well as the discipline, not only in Fr Bateman, but in the clergy who worked with him. I was delighted to discover the story of one of his curates who had a French poodle – ‘a meritorious and affable poodle’ - who promoted the Holy Days of Obligation around the parish by streaming ribbons in the appropriate liturgical colour for the seasons or saint’s day. (We should perhaps send this as a suggestion for ‘mission-shaped Church). Bishop Gore said of Fr Bateman, ‘to visit him in his parish was a spiritual delight and an encouragement all in one.’ For such a saint of God we should indeed give thanks.

The communion of saints, and the encouragement of their transformed lives, is necessary for all of us. They are, as the poet-priest, Thomas Traherne put it, ‘our spurs, our wings, our enflamers’. And the martyrs, those who give their lives for Christ, like your patron, St Alban, are those who indeed witness to the cost of discipleship and to likeness to Christ. And we have martyrs in our own day – the Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Libya, and likewise many who perished in the prison camps of the dictatorships of the last century. They show that our Christian faith is not a theory, but a reality, a transforming reality.

The four marks or notes of the church are that it is ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic.’ Unity – our belonging-togetherness in Christ is essential for every Christian community, large or small, as it is for the Church throughout the world. Holiness – likeness to Christ – is the calling of each and every one of us. Our lives are to be ‘speaking lives’. And without our lives being ‘speaking lives’ in love and in service, our words will be nothing. As St Francis said to his friars as he sent them out on mission to touch the world with the love of Christ – ‘Use words if you have to.’ And the church is catholic – universal, open to all, but catholic also in the sense of the wholeness and richness of the Christian faith – the church is open to all that all may be transformed. And the church is apostolic – it has a mission, it is sent out by the Lord himself, as he commissioned his disciples after the resurrection – ‘Go, therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ – plunging them into the life and reality of that communion of love which is the life of God himself. 

That is the faith we are to profess and to live. That is the wonderful and exciting mission of which you and I and St Alban’s is a part. This is the life we are to share with the people of this place, and with all whom we meet. In a world of violence and confusion; in a world of addiction and idolatries of every kind; in a world of selfishness, corruption and greed; in a fallen world, and yet in a world loved amazingly by the God who is love and who gave himself for us, and sustains us with his life day by day, we are to be on fire and set the world on fire. For indeed ‘God’s grace and mercy are with his elect, and he watches over his holy ones. Therefore keep the faith for there are indeed great Christian centuries to come.

St Alban's South Norwood


Alice C. Linsley said...

Inspiring. Thanks for posting this excellent sermon.

David Chislett said...

The whole liturgy was inspiring, too!

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