Sunday 18 October 2009

Brighton in Dream Time

St Paul's Brighton

So you want a Catholic Anglican Church? There are half a dozen to choose from, all in easy walking distance here in Brighton. How unlike almost any other place in England! It takes forty minutes (mostly on the Motorway) to arrive at our place of worship, one of only four traditional catholic CofE churches in the entire diocese of Winchester. So this weekend was a great treat, to be able to walk fifty yards from Fr Fayers' gracious Vicarage to say the office in St Michael's, and then to go not much further down the hill for mass in his other church, St Paul's.

It was their anniversary of Consecration; the first preacher in the pulpit of St Paul's was Archdeacon Manning ... before he became a Cardinal. My sermon was also about change in the Church.

Jesus said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (St. John 4.21)

In retirement you get asked to do some strange things. A year or so ago there were celebrations at Beaulieu; they call it Beaulieu Abbey, but it is nearly five hundred years since it was an Abbey. Today it is the seat of the Montague family, heirs to the Earl of Southampton who bought the site of the former monastery at the dissolution under Henry VIII. So there we were, in a church which had once been the dining hall of the monks, celebrating the foundation of a religious house which had been purchased at a knock-down price by an ancestor of the present owner. Quite literally a knock-down price, for the church itself was knocked down to provide stone for, of all things, a castle at the mouth of the Solent. Hurst castle was built to defend England against raids by French and Spanish who were fighting, in part, for the faith which had given rise to the Abbey; and we were keeping the anniversary of its foundation. Strange world. It will have been a terrible shock for those religious who had been monks of Beaulieu, to find themselves out on the street. From some of the more submissive Religious Houses, former monks had pensions graciously provided by the king who had unhoused them. Some of the abbots became parish priests. The world had changed.
Now what has this to do with you here at S Paul’s? If you look at the Gospel, possibly a good deal. The woman in the story was very concerned to maintain that her faith was the true one; the Samaritans had always worshipped God on this Mountain. The Jews had worshipped the same God in Jerusalem. She wanted to show Jesus that her faith was the true one. And he answered her, “Woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”
In her wisdom, the Church has chosen this Gospel to read when we celebrate a church’s anniversary. What we are being told is, ‘Don’t get too wedded to buildings; they are not what matters’. St Mark’s North End in Portsmouth was greatly loved for generations. It was endowed in the 19th C. by one Brickwood, a Brewer. Many Portsmouth clergy were preaching against the demon drink, so Brickwood decided to build and endow his own church – St Mark’s was the result. They called it Brickwood’s Fire Escape. Back in the heady 1960’s it had a Vicar, six curates and a Sister from St Peter’s Convent, Woking, working in the parish. I said my first Mass there. My wife and I were married there. Now it is the site of a rather third-rate supermarket. St Mark’s was luckier than some; at least they built a successor to it, though that piece of brutalist sixties concrete is probably destined to become landfill before very long.
We pray that may not be the fate of St Paul’s; though there was another St Paul’s, very famous in its time for its Catholic faith and practice; that was sold as a restaurant has become a very dubious Oxford drinking place. At the enthronement of the bishop before Eric Kemp, (you see how old I am) Roger Wilson said he would rationalise the churches of Brighton and make the leaner fitter church appropriate for the mid-twentieth century. That is still reckoned part of the diocese’s agenda, even though the century has ticked on.
So where did your Vicar find this depressing preacher, telling you about churches which have been demolished or secularised? When I was working as Bishop of Richborough people would ask “Where is your cathedral?”. “Here”, I would reply. A cathedral is only a place where there is a seat for the bishop. If the bishop travels around, then the church where he is functioning at the moment becomes his cathedral. We learned a great deal, and are still learning, from that experiment called ‘Provincial Episcopal Visitors’ – better known as Flying Bishops. Here in the dream-world of Chichester diocese you have not yet had to face the cold winds of reality which have blown through the rest of England. Your bishops have resisted many of the innovations which have unsettled other places. There may not be much time left for such resistance.
Already the Synod is preparing to insist that women bishops shall be accepted equally, by all, everywhere. There is talk of making little exceptions to allow poor old fools like me to continue as though nothing has happened; but the expectation of the majority is that we will all come to our senses in the end, and admit that the Church of England is not a part of catholic Christendom, and is perfectly entitled to alter its faith and practice just however it chooses, just like any other Protestant sect.
So is this depressing? Only if you find the gospel depressing. Only if you do not believe Jesus when he said “Those who worship must worship in spirit and in truth”. Do this, and the physical setting of our worship really does not matter – this mountain, Jerusalem, or Brighton. We heard in the first reading about the dedication of Solomon’s Temple; since about 70 AD that temple has been no more: but the praise given to God that day, “For he is good, for his love is everlasting” continues to resound.
If part of our church declares that it alone is the true church, and that those who do not ordain women (in the words of a former Archbishop) are heretics, that will not stop us worshipping the Lord in Spirit and in Truth.
Some will try to continue to do so within the broken shell of the Church of England. These will believe it is redeemable, that it will one day admit its errors. Other of us will reckon that things have gone too far, that lines drawn in the sand just get washed away by the tide, and that our tent must be pitched elsewhere. The truth is, here we have no abiding city. If we thought this building, and the worship in it, would go on until the end of time, or at least long enough to see us and our children out, then we may have been mistaken. Didn’t you realise that all the time, you were God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God was living among you?
So, enjoy this lovely building while you can – but be ready to let it go if you have to. Many all over the world have had to give up their churches: in Constantinople, home of the Eastern Church, the great mother church of Holy Wisdom became first a mosque then a museum, and the city named after the first Christian Emperor of Rome became Istanbul. Yet the Church of the East has been reborn, flourishing as we never thought it could in Russia and beyond. Destroy this temple, said Our Lord, and in three days I will raise it again; he spoke of the temple of his body - and that temple you are, the Body of Christ. So cheer up; God will do greater things yet for our church and nation. They may both seem very different from the days of our youth, but God really is in charge and it is Him we worship, not a building, however beautiful it may be.

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