Open doors

In all honesty I can’t say that I’ve ever lived in a place, at a time, when you could leave the door of your house open and you wouldn’t come back to find the place robbed.  But I know that there were communities where this was possible and I believe that there are places where it still is.  What did impress me, a year ago, when I was spending six weeks of my three months sabbatical in Jerusalem, was to see something that I simply could not imagine happening here.

I was walking through the souk.  It was a Friday, around midday and people were heading into the Old City towards Haram al Sharif, what we call the Temple Mount, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands.  The people were all off for Friday prayers.  But so were those who have shops in the souk.  But instead of pulling down the shutters, as happens at night, they simply turned the lights off and put something, like a broom handle, across the open front.  Then they left it! I could have walked in and grabbed something, but, of course, I didn’t and nor did anyone else.  It was unimaginable in the kind of society that we live in – a very sobering experience, of trust and openness.

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The invitation of an open door

 

I’ve been thinking all about this, about keeping places open, in recent days and weeks.  When the first of the present series of horrendous hurricanes struck the USA there was a story in the news that the successful pastor of a very successful megachurch in Houston, locked the doors of his very successful church and was reported as saying something along the lines that his church ‘was a place of worship not a refuge’. Of course, he rightly changed his opinion about that and the church did open and much needed help was given.  But it was his first instinct that disturbed me.  Then over in the UK we have had reports that some churches which should be open are being kept locked.

It was the Victorian Society who was complaining about this. Christopher Costelloe, its director, said: “These churches are an important part of our heritage. They should be open both for visitors to appreciate their architecture, history and beauty, and for people who want to pop in and pray.” The churches being identified were ones which have been planted on the HTB lines – places like the deeply wonderful St Augustine’s, Queens Gate in Kensington.

St Augustine’s I remember well when a friend of mine was the Parish Priest.  It was designed by William Butterfield who was also the architect for Keble College Oxford.  It is a jewel box of high Victorian art inside, the most amazing murals, telling stories from the Bible, a place built for liturgy, a masterpiece of the Gothic Revival movement.

In reports about this the Diocese of London was quoted from its own website as saying

“A locked door is a universal symbol of exclusion, while an open church expresses God’s welcome, His presence, His creativity, His justice, His healing and His forgiveness.”

I thought it was a great statement of the principle that we should be embodying.  It is the kind of understanding of what church is that we saw in the neighbourhood of Grenfell Tower in which the parish church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale under the leadership of Fr Alan Everett became the community hub, for prayer, yes, of course, but also for all the other things that churches do.  And we do those things not as an afterthought, not because we have lost confidence in the gospel in someway, but because this is the gospel.

The Acts of the Apostles is a great book for helping us to understand some of the difficulties and dilemmas that confront us even now, even after we have had two thousand years of trying to work out how to be the church that God wants us to be.  In Acts 6 we are given this insight into a problem that has a modern resonance.

The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ (Acts 6.1-4)

Deacons

To serve the word and the people

 

The Apostles knew that they were called to prayer and ‘serving the word’ but they also knew that the church needed to make a practical and just response and serve the needs of the body.  That was why they chose seven men to be the first deacons.  These included Stephen. And from that initial solution the church has always understood that its calling is to serve the word and serve the people and that this is as much the task of our buildings as the ministers themselves.

I had three lovely churches in Leeds but we couldn’t keep them open all the time. I have huge sympathy with those who want to have their church open and cannot do so for reasons of security , or lack of volunteers, or whatever.  But the principle of being open and accessible, being a place to serve the word and serve the people, being the repository for community history as well as the community at worship, being the place of refuge, physical and spiritual, being a place of feeding at the altar and the table, being a place of warmth for the body and the soul, is what we shall all be ascribing to.

T S Eliot in his beautiful poem, ‘Little Gidding’ one of his ‘Four Quartets’, muses in part on the experience of entering that small church in the middle of the fields. At one point he says

‘If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same’

We do not always know why we wander into a church in springtime, at night, broken, not knowing why we came, but when there is an open door we can enter and find the home and refuge we sought all along.

God,
you open your doors to us,
you open your life to us,
may we close neither.
Amen.

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Diakonia

One of my grandmas, my Nanny Nunn, was in service. That was what a great many girls did in the early part of the last century.  School would have ended at around the age of 14 and then a family, or someone who needed a maid, would have taken the girl in.  They would have left home and began some years ‘in service’. Nanny was evidently good with a needle so she ended up as a sewing maid, working for some Lord and Lady who had a castle in Scotland but kept an apartment in Whitehall Court on the banks of the Thames close to the centre of power. The maids all lived in dormitories in the top floors of this apartment block.  Her employers were kind and bought her her wedding dress from Liberty of London when finally she left their service to become the wife in her own home.

Maids

Girls dressed for service

 

Not all her employers were as good.  She used to tell me about working in a Vicarage where both the Parson and his wife drank rather too much for everyone’s comfort.  But she generally had a good time and on the stairs hung miniature portraits of two of her employers, Judge and Lady Matthews, a fine looking Edwardian couple who looked sternly at us children if we dared to go upstairs in the house without permission!

As fans of ‘Downtown Abbey’ became aware it wasn’t all bad ‘below stairs’ but it is a side of life that has now all but disappeared.

Last week I was preaching at the ordination of priests in the Diocese of Southwark, this week I was welcoming to the Cathedral the supporters of the 13 women and men who were to be ordained deacon.  These are weeks when the church really thinks about what ministry and especially ordained ministry means.

Everything we think about ministry, the ministry of deacons and priests, really finds its source and focus in the Upper Room on the night before the crucifixion. There at table Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup and gives us the Eucharist at his priestly hands. But it is around that same table, in that same room, that he takes the bowl, takes the jug, takes the towel and washes the feet of his disciples.  If saying to them ‘This is my body’ as he held up the bread, broke it and gave it to them, was shocking, even more so, I think was the Master taking the tools of the servant and washing the feet of those who followed him.  Jesus, as on so many occasions, reverses the roles and the expectations, subverts peoples understanding.  In Acts 17 the disciples are accused of being people who

‘have been turning the world upside down.’ (Acts 17.6)

They were, and they were taking their lead and their example from Jesus, who turned their world on its head as he knelt before them and gently, and with a servants devotion, washed their feet and dried them on the towel.

I was watching the Bishop of Southwark carefully vest in preparation for the ordination in the Cathedral. Before he put on the chasuble he placed over his alb a thin, silk dalmatic, the robe of the deacon.  It could not be seen by the congregation, but there it was, close to his skin, close to his heart.  It was a reminder to him and to me, that we are all deacons, that we are part of a servant church.

As Jesus put his clothes back on and took his seat as the Master at the table he said to his stunned friends

‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’. (John 13.14-15)

Whoever you are, whatever ‘robes’ you wear, beneath it all you are ‘in service’, part of that diakonia. ‘Never forget it’ says Jesus to us, ‘I have given you an example’.  But not just those to us who are ordained but to all of us.  Just as priests are set apart on behalf of the whole priestly people of God to offer the sacraments of the New Covenant, so deacons are set apart on behalf of the whole servant church, not to do it for us, but to do it with us.

In these last few, challenging months, we have seen people of faith ‘in service’ to their communities.  The fantastic example of the Parish of St Clement and St James, the church for the Grenfell Tower community, has been exemplary.  I see from their website that they describe themselves as

‘Breaking bread, sharing God’

This is the Upper Room church at which, the broken bread and the sharing of the God who is the servant God of a servant people, make real the nature of the kingdom that breaks in around us.  And when it is needed that means doing precisely what that community has been doing, along with so many from other churches and faith communities and people of no faith but of good will, being the servants of others and, sometimes literally, washing feet.

washing_feet

‘I have set you an example’.

 

Brian Wren’s great hymn, ‘Great God, your love has called us here’, that we often sing on Maundy Thursday, sums it up for me

Then take the towel, and break the bread,
and humble us, and call us friends.
Suffer and serve till all are fed,
and show how grandly love intends
to work till all creation sings,
to fill all worlds, to crown all things.

There is a lot of serving to be done and Jesus hands on to us the bowl and the towel and we simply get on with it.

Lord, you wash my feet;
may I have the humility and love
to wash those of my neighbour.
Amen.

Suffering, endurance, hope

Thank God for Oscar Wilde who bequeathed us so many epigrams in his plays and writings.  In that wonderful play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ he writes

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’

What can be said of truth can be said of life, it is neither pure nor simple. If it were simply grim then we couldn’t bear it, but it isn’t. But these have been some grim weeks for those of us in London and these have been a grim few months for us as a nation as a whole. For some what is grim for others has been life-changing and life-destroying.  For the injured and the bereaved, Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge mean that life will never be the same again. For the residents of Grenfell Tower the horror that they have gone through is unimaginable, the real stuff of nightmares. The loss of life, the injuries, the stress, the implications for ongoing life when your home, your things, your papers and documents, the stuff that holds your memories are all taken from you in an instant must be beyond description.  I was with someone the other day who had been through a devastating fire herself.  The pictures from Kensington brought it all back.  ‘I can still smell the smoke’ she said and she always will.  The smell lingers in the memory as much as physical scars which are always reminders of horrendous experiences.

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Prince Harry with Paul in the Borough Market

 

This past week has been one of trying to begin to get back to some kind of normality, a new normality, in the community around Southwark Cathedral. The church was the first of the major places to reopen. The Borough Market opened on Wednesday and in between the bars and restaurants gradually opened.  Just before the Market bell was rung by one of the traders at 10.00am on Wednesday morning to announce the commencement of trading, the Bishop of Southwark with some of the Cathedral clergy and servers went out with holy water and incense to cleanse and re-hallow the area after the horror of what had happened.  The procession then arrived in the Market as it reopened.

I was talking to Paul, the trader who rang the bell, who was visited, amongst other by Prince Harry on Thursday.  He runs a fruit and veg stall in the market, a proper east-end market trader. And he told me that not only was he reopening and supporting the market in that, but he was organising his fellow traders to send food over to Kensington for the people now made homeless.  It’s acts like that which relieve the grim reality and reveal that deep-seated goodness that is a true part of human nature.

On Friday we hosted at Southwark Cathedral a ‘Service of Hope’ at which were survivors of the attack, families of the injured and those who lost loved ones gathered with first responders in an act of solidarity and hope.  The stories of bravery and the acts of goodness that I’ve hard in the past two weeks, the tremendous images of community acting together around the base of that burnt out tower are humbling.  Good people are everywhere.

I was reminded of a passage from the Letter of St Paul to the Romans.

‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5.3-5)

Hope

Suffering, endurance, hope, an experience of community – and every part of that needs to be recognised for what it is, along with the acts of goodness, generosity and love that are woven through it.  The grim reality remains in broken lives, destroyed homes, shattered dreams but into that is shot the transcendent love of God that is revealed in broken humanity and transformed in divine and everlasting life.

God, take our suffering,
build our endurance,
crown it with hope
and may all be suffused
with your love.
Amen.

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