Saturday 2 January 2010

What did you have for Christmas?

John Piper took a journey from Abstraction back to Representation. Visit Walsingham, and in the Refectory and other parts of the Anglican Shrine you will find wonderful examples of his work. During my time as an undergraduate, I was able to have on my walls in college work by some of the greatest 20th Century English Painters, thanks to the JCR Art Collection. Who today could possibly afford to have a great John Minton, or a Ceri Richards, or even a Francis Bacon? Alas the college decided to flog the Bacon, to fund the better preservation of the rest of the collection. What remains is housed in one rather cramped exhibition room in the attic of the former Christ Church Almshouses.

There is no better way of understanding a work of art than by living with it. One of those works from the Pembroke Collection which I had on loan for a term was a John Piper, studies for a stained glass window. So it was a delight to be given 'Lives in Art' by Frances Spalding for Christmas this year. The book is a doubtle artistic biography, concerned not just with John Piper but also his wife Myfanwy.

In the '30s, Piper had toyed with abstraction, very fashionable at the time. His best known and best loved work, though, comes from his mature career, when he returned to Landscape and Architecture. His work at Windsor was so atmospheric that it occasioned the King's famous remark "Pity you had such dreadful weather while you were with us". But the weather, in all its moods, was vital for Piper's paintings and lithographs.

Possibly this is the direction Damien Hirst is taking; tired of stuffing sharks or encrusting skulls with diamonds, he is painting again, as I believe some of the other young Turks of Britart are doing.

It is not just painters who have to rediscover the past. The church seems to be going through a similar revolution, discarding the once obligatory hessian chasubles and pottery chalices for baroque needlework and eastward-facing altars. Is there something in the air? Perhaps it is the atmosphere of the time, in which Anglicanorum Coetibus will flourish.

Sunday 27 December 2009

The Feast of Stephen

Silence for the past few days; simply because we have been in Wales with our family over the Christmas Holidays. But a visit to South Wales would not be right without seeing friends; and among those we visited were Bishop David Thomas and his wife Rosemary. Those who follow such things will know how disgracefully the Welsh bench of bishops have behaved, by refusing to appoint a successor to Bishop David as Provincial Assistant Bishop to care for those opposed to women's ordination (and who were assured of an 'honoured place' within the Church in Wales. So much for promises. Bishop David is recovering well from a recent illness, and is still trying to give what support he can to those who, even after his retirement, pray for 'David our Bishop'.

As the snow melted, the Vale of Glamorgan managed to look very beautiful, and the sun came though from time to time though ice persisted on sideroads and pavements - and Sigginstone, aka Dresigin, aka also Tresigin, where we were staying is very much up a sideroad!

Thanks to the kindness of Canon Graham Francis, Vicar of St Mary the Docks in Butetown, I was able to celebrate midnight Mass at one of his other churches, SS Samson and Dyfrig, in Grangetown. The photo on the right is of the high altar reredos in that church, a lovely piece depicting the visit of the Magi.

The next morning, it was back into Cardiff, this time to St Mary's, which has a secondary dedication to S Stephen the Deacon and Martyr. Here is Fr Graham called to the bar after Mass on St Stephen's day, Serving at the counter is his wife Eleri. It was a great treat, having a sung Mass on St Stephen's Day.

We were at the St Stephen's altar and here, in diaconal mode, is Fr Ben Andrews, assistant priest in the parish caught in mid furniture-moving mode after Mass.

After all the pretty pictures, perhaps you are ready for some words - and since you have preached or been preached at over Christmas, you might be ready for something about Stephen, who often gets neglected. Here is (more or less) what I said at his Feast in Butetown.

The one who stands firm to the end will be saved - Mtt x.22

The new curate arriving from S Michael’s Llandaff, freshly ordained, will spend the first few months in the parish telling people what he can’t do. Well, he’ll explain, I can’t bless, and I can’t celebrate Mass, and I can’t absolve anyone’s sins. 'So what CAN you do', people ask, and he says, 'Well, I do a lovely funeral'.

All this is because he is a Deacon; and so was Stephen. He and his colleagues were set apart, ordained, to look after widows; and not just any widows, in particular the Greek-speaking widows in the Jerusalem Church. It happened like this. There were more and more people becoming disciples, that is, being baptized and becoming Christians; some were Hebrews, some were Greeks - and there was a row. So disagreements in the church are nothing new. This one blew up because some of the Greek speaking converts thought that their widows were being neglected and the Jewish widows were getting too much attention. The apostles gathered the rest of the disciples together and said “Our job is to preach… we shouldn’t have to leave spreading the Word of God to serve meals to widows! So you find seven likely lads, and we will give them that task.”

That’s how Stephen, and Philip, and five others, were chosen for the work, and the apostles laid their hands on them. That was the first ever ordination of Deacons in the Church.

The Holy Spirit, though, has a way of not being bound by man-made rules. If the Apostles thought serving at tables was beneath them, they had better discover once more just whose apostles they were. Jesus had taught them, after all, that “I am among you as one who serves” … and to show he meant it, he washed their feet. Now, he said, you are to wash one another’s feet. In so short a time after the Resurrection, the Apostles seem to have forgotten all this, and decided they were above menial tasks.

So Philip is credited with being the first of the disciples to win an African convert – the Ethiopian eunuch who was in the service of a Queen. You probably remember the story, how after being called to get up into the Ethiopian’s chariot, Philip was asked what there was to prevent him being baptized; and so Philip, the Deacon, who was chosen to serve dishes and clear up afterwards, began the work of converting Africa. Any of the Apostles would have been delighted to have such a feather in their caps – but the Holy Spirit had other ideas, and used a Deacon for the task.

With Stephen, the Holy Spirit is even more amazing. Do you recall how James and John had gone to Jesus asking for the chief seats in the Kingdom? He had replied ‘You will indeed be baptized with the baptism I am baptised with; but to sit on my right and on my left is not mine to give. The seats are already assigned.’

The Church must have remembered this when it decided December 26th was to be St Stephen’s Day. Who could be more worthy of the place next to Christ’s Birthday than Stephen, who was first to shed his blood for Jesus? None of this had been foreseen when the disciples put forward Stephen and Philip and the other five to become deacons. It was only after his martyrdom that the Church realised just what an amazing person Stephen had been. Oh yes, he was a man “full of faith and the holy Spirit” but they could hardly think that he would be ahead of the apostles, even ahead of Peter and James, in laying down his life for the Lord.

Even more extraordinary is the influence he had on the church. If Stephen and Philip were unknown quantities, what about Saul of Tarsus? No one could have thought that such a hard man, one who spent his life persecuting Christians, could possibly become a disciple, an apostle even. But we know that he did; and part of the reason for his conversion was his witnessing the stoning to death of Stephen the Deacon. As a result, Stephen is a great encouragement to the newly ordained, and those preparing for ordination, and it is because of this that he was chosen as the Patron Saint for a seminary in Oxford. He is a great example to everyone teaching or training at St Stephen’s House, a reminded that the Holy Spirit of God is not limited by our human gifts or failings.

It is not only those who are ordained, though, who should honour Stephen. He reminds all of us that the most menial jobs in the church are the ones Our Lord honours most. Your appointed task might be cleaning the brass or removing the stains from the thurible, or delivering Christian Aid envelopes or helping with coffee after Mass. Those jobs don’t limit us. They prepare us for what God really wants us to do – which is to witness to other people of God’s love for us and for everyone.

You have to sympathise with the Apostles - of course they did not have time for everything, and of course they were right to think that their task was primarily preaching. When Moses returned from taking the seventy out to meet God in the wilderness, some people were scandalised that two of those who did not go with him were also prophesying. That’s not their job. Just as, on discovering that Philip and Stephen were preaching, some will have said ‘It is not their job’. But Moses knew better, and replied, “I wish all God’s people were prophets”.

Here in Butetown, I wish all God’s people were preachers; not just the clergy, because people will always say “Ah, but he is paid to say that”. But all of you; the witness to the gospel of lay men and women can reach far beyond the church building. Don’t let anyone put you off. Every Christian has the calling to reach out to other people with the good news of Jesus Christ – we don’t always do it in words, our actions speak louder than words. May the example of Stephen inspire you to brave witness, for as the Christmas Angels said, the good news is for all people.


This little tablet is why I always feel at home in St Mary's. It is one of very few memorials to those who took part in the Russian Convoys during the 39-45 war. My father served on destroyers and I can still remember the 'whoop,whoop,whoop' of their sirens as they entered or left the port of Greenock. His health never recovered from those terrible trips to the Arctic, to Archangel and Murmansk, in bitter winter weather (not helped by going directly from there to the North Africa landings at Oran). After long spells in hospital he was discharged from the Royal Navy with a disablity pension just a couple of years after the war ended - aged only 36.