‘It’s a mystery’

During Advent I was invited to a parish in Kingston to preach at their morning service.  It is one of the things that I really enjoy, getting out of the Cathedral and into the diocese.  Don’t get me wrong; I love being in the Cathedral.  But as I keep reminding people, being a Dean is not just about looking after life in the cathedral, it is also about being the Senior Priest in the diocese.  Knowing what that means will vary between people and places but for me it has always meant getting out into what is a very large and populous and exciting diocese.  So, I arrived at this church where I had had the joy of acting as Patron for the last appointment.  I went into the vestry and the vicar said to me ‘We found this when we were clearing out a cupboard.  I thought you might be interested.’

All Hallows

From the vestry cupboard

What it was was a copy of the Southwark Diocesan Gazette from 100 years ago. This was the forerunner of ‘The Bridge’, the present Diocesan newspaper.  But in this edition was included an article on All Hallow’s Southwark.  This is a church that is now in the Cathedral parish. However, it is no longer a functioning church and the building that is referred to in the article no longer exists as it then did.  During the Second World War the building suffered terrible damage and only part of the Victorian structure now exists.  A new aisle was added in the 1950’s to enable the church to continue as a parish church, but with the changes in demographics and churchgoing in the 1970’s the parish ceased to exist and it was put instead under the care of the cathedral.  We have plans for the future of the church but until we have the money they remain just plans.

What this article describes, however, is the rather exotic ecclesiastical life and practice at All Hallows.  The tradition of the church was at the top end of the candle.  Such scandalous things were happening, as are described in this piece, including ‘wearing a stole, making the Sign of the Cross and using the mixed chalice.’  Can you imagine?! The church was under regular attack from more protestant groups for these Popish practices.  At one stage a petition was made to the House of Lords to get all of these excesses stopped but the then Bishop of Winchester (the parish then being in his diocese) defended the priest and the Clewer Sisters who were at that time based there.

I was thinking of all this as I was saying Mass this morning.  I had said the Offertory Prayer, ‘Blessed are you…’, over the bread and then took the empty chalice to meet the verger who was serving me.  He had the cruets in his hands, wine and water, and I charged and mixed the chalice.  What was a scandal back in 1878 is much more commonplace now.  The congregation hardly noticed what I was doing. Not a glimmer of a reaction to what was going on!

When the priest mixes the chalice they often say the ‘Secret Prayer’ that accompanies the action.

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

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‘By the mystery…’

I have said these words so many times over the last 36 years, day in, day out, as I have stood at the altar, presiding at the Eucharist.  But as I said them today the words struck me.  We are still in the Christmas Season, still celebrating the mystery of the incarnation and here in the chalice part of that mystery is expressed.  As the water and wine mix together in the chalice, so in Christ these two natures, co-mingle as it were, divinity embraces humanity, humanity embraces divinity.  That mystery, celebrated in a backstreet church in Southwark, a scandal to so many, is still in its essence a scandal to some.  How can this be, this mystery of the incarnation, this deep truth of Christmas, that as St Athanasius described

‘God became man that man might become God.’

In the film ‘Shakespeare in love’ we meet a former Warden and Vestryman of St Saviour’s Southwark, now the Cathedral, Philip Henslowe, who has a phrase which recurs throughout the story.

Philip Henslowe Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman How?
Philip Henslowe I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

It’s a mystery.  That is what we are drawn into at Christmas and drawn into in the Eucharist and drawn into in every liturgy.  It may have been shocking at the time but that is what churches like All Hallows were seeking to rediscover and re-present, through ritual, through teaching, in mission, the wonderful mystery of God.

God of majesty, God of mystery,
take the water of my life and make of it the wine of the kingdom,
take the worship that we offer and make it a window into heaven,
take the stuff of today and make it the sign of our eternal tomorrow,
take our flesh and make it divine.
Amen.

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