Saturday 6 February 2010

St Agatha's Sparkbrook

What a great church to be in for a birthday; and that is what today was. St Agatha's Sparkbrook kept its festival in style (you would expect no less with Fr John Herve its Parish Priest) - so there was a fine visiting choir from Carver Street, Sheffield, a trumpeter to cheer us up, and altogether a very happy Festival Mass.

If you do not know St Agatha's, it is worth the deviation ... indeed, worth the journey. For me, that was a train (Birmingham has a direct link to Brockenhurst, very wisely) with the trip up on Friday and the return after the celebrations this afternoon.

The great East Window is a replacement - the Germans knocked out the previous one.
Someone had gone to town over the flowers; they were everywhere. Equally, the refreshments after Mass were sumptuous - there are a few pictures (below) of people tucking in enthusiastically.

Fr John is a great host, and although he has only very recently moved back into the Vicarage next door to his other church he put me up in great comfort; and also entertained me and his Churchwarden and Mrs Churchwarden to dinner at the Golf Club (honestly - Golf in Birmingham). That was NOT in his own parish, where the shops are named mostly after Lahore or the Khyber. It is a great and valiant witness that Fr John and his people make in such a predominantly Muslim area.

The very jolly imported Trumpeter kept us on our toes.

So, having gained a taste of the parish, you'd better get down to the bread and butter of a rather mundane sermon. Well, you win some, you lose some... here it is, anyway - you can skip it if you just came by for the pictures:

He has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and freedom

Do you have pavement artists here in Birmingham? You can often see them in London with their box of chalks in Trafalgar Square, doing a copy of the Mona Lisa or some other famous painting. Beside it they will write “All my own work” and expect people to throw coins into their box.

The Saints create works of art; their whole lives are a work of art; but they would never say “All my own work”. Whatever good they have done, they don’t take any of the credit for themselves. And it is what they are trying to teach all of us. S Paul said it, and S Agatha lived by it.

All her life she was trying to live up to her name; you know, I expect, that it means “Good”. Many Christian names have hidden meanings. My mother was Dorothy; which means gift of God… funnily enough, there is a man’s name that comes from the same two Greek words, but in the opposite order. Dorothy comes from Doros, a gift and Theou, of God… reverse these two and you get Theo-dore: God’s gift, instead of gift of God. Unfortunately my Christian name isn’t holy at all – it’s Anglo-Saxon and means something like Strong with a sword – which I am not!

Well, enough wandering down the byways of names. The truth is, all our names change at Baptism; from being for-names they become Christian names; and all of us have to live up to that, the Name of Christian. As for Agatha your Patron, she is called ‘Good’. What a name to have to live up to! But she did, because she did not rely on herself. She asked God to make her good. And there is St Paul, in his letter to us, saying “God has made you members of Jesus Christ… he has become our wisdom and our goodness, our holiness and our freedom.”

Every time we meet to pray, we begin by admitting we are all of us let-downs; all of us have failed. If we are honest, it is not just when we come to Mass that we need to say this. We have to admit it every day .. we’ve done what we shouldn’t have done, and we’ve failed to do what we should. And we have the blessing of the Confessional to help us, too. But we do not stop with our saying sorry; God tells us we are forgiven – here at mass all together, or individually in the confessional - and we get up, dust ourselves off, and make a fresh start.

The reason we can do this is because we are not solo Christians – in fact it is impossible to be a Christian and to be isolated. Christianity is a corporate faith; it’s about belonging - which is why Politicians who say daft things like “there is no such thing as Society” are so very wrong. In the Church, we belong to one another and depend on one another. The word for this, which St Paul underlines, is MEMBERS.

That is a very strong word; it means LIMBS. That is how we belong to Christ – we are his hands, his feet, his eyes .. and no member can say to another “I don’t need you”: from the greatest to the smallest, we depend on one another. And says the Apostle, ‘God has made you members of Jesus Christ.’ We may be a very insignificant part of the body of Christ; but we belong, even if we are only the tip of the smallest toe. The whole body relies on us, and we have the support of the whole body – and if we hurt, the whole body feels it.

There is one very strange thing about the Body of Christ. When only two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, he is present; there is the body of Christ. Yet even in the hugest gathering, say a Papal Mass in St Peter’s Square, or a thanksgiving service in S Paul’s Cathedral, that great body of people is only a tiny part of the whole body. The hand can’t say “I can’t do without you” .. and the whole Body of Christ is far greater than we can possibly imagine.

On any Sunday, millions of people gather across the world; yet even that still is not the whole body of Christ. Christ’s body is not just spread across space, to include every Christian in every corner of the globe; it is also spread across time, and encompasses every Christian who has ever lived. No, we can do better than that. Not 'any Christian who ever lived', we can’t speak about them as if they are gone. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, and so are those who belong to him. So we should not say “every Christian who ever lived”, but rather, every Christian who is alive, since in Christ all come to life. As in Adam all men die … and we are sons and daughters of Adam and so will die; yet also in Christ will all be brought to life. So when we celebrate a saint, we are praying with her, and asking her to pray for us, because she is as alive as we are – or more so.

That is the first part of what St Paul tells us in the Epistle; he goes on, though. He says ‘Christ has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and freedom’. That means it really does not matter that we don’t seem to add up to much. If here in Sparkbrook you are anything like the other Churches I come across, you are a pretty mixed bunch. Probably not specially wise, not specially good, not specially holy. Great! Because then we can rely on Jesus instead of trusting ourselves. How could anyone face up to being a martyr on their own! Your Saint, Agatha did not. Like all the holy Martyrs, she looked to Christ. We don’t have a contemporary description of how Agatha died – but we certainly know how other Martyrs died. The first of them all was Stephen, and he died looking up to Jesus in heaven, and praying that he would forgive the men who were killing him.

Some people call car-bombers and terrorists 'martyrs', but that is a terrible abuse of the word. They are not martyrs, they are murderers. The Christian martyrs give their own lives to God; they don’t take other people’s lives.

Agatha willingly laid down her life for her Lord; her wisdom her bravery, her patience were not hers but the Lord’s. May we too rely on him, who has called us into membership with him, the Lord Jesus, our Widsom, our Virtue, our Holiness and our Freedom. When we present our finished work of art, our life, to Him at the end, the inscription will then not be “all my own work” but ‘all your work’. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Bellac and about

You have been very good, trudging through acres of not very purple prose, so you deserve a few more pictures to cheer you up. These are from Bellac and around

(see my earlier Blog concerning the Anglican Use)

The great treasure of Bellac church is a wonderful early Limoges reliquary containing relics of their patrons, SS Israel and Theobald.
The harsh blue lines, alas, are part of the protective surround to the reliquary.

Good to find Our Lady of Fatima in residence, too, with the three little visionaries at her feet. Some of us are off to see her in Portugal this May; the day of the apparitions coincides with Ascension Day, and the Holy Father is making his first visit there as Pope.

Have you booked yet with Fr Malcolm Gray?

You might be too late, I fear.

In a nearby church are some wonderful misericords, and these cheery chaps sit on the ends of one of the stalls;

SS Peter and Paul, I believe.

There is a station - railway, that is - at Bellac (on the line north from Limoges) and the valley is dominated by a wonderful piece of 19th Century engineering; very reminiscent of what dear Isambard Kingdom Brunel did across the more awkward parts of Cornwall. Just now there are protests against the LGV (highspeed line) which is proposed to cut through very near here and make a fast link with the TGV at Limoges. All too likely that they will wreck the view of the Viaduct, just as the barbarian roadbuilders did when they put their pathetic bridge alongside Brunel's final masterpiece, the Tamar rail bridge. Oh, and of course Brunel's father was French, and built the first tunnel under the Thames. But that can wait for another day (when I go to Rotherhithe later this year).

Then a couple of further details from the church of Bellac: St Radegund (patron Saint of wives with impossible husbands - hard to imagine she's much needed? - feast day, August 13th), and then another image of Our Lady perched over the marvellous font.

Click on the pictures for larger versions; and tomorrow, after an hour's painting class, it is off on the train to Birmingham to help celebrate St Agatha. Oh, the joys of retirement.

Monday 1 February 2010

The Catholic Church and England

is the title of a new Tufton Booklet, its subtitle "The Pope's Offer of Personal Ordinariates for Groups of Anglicans". It is my personal reflections on "Anglicanorum Coetibus". When it appears (a few days from now, we hope) it will be the result of the labours of many people. Fr Len Black, the indefatigable webmaster of the Church Union, has seen it through the press, with the help of Fr Darren Smith and his team at A.C.S. Fr John Pitchford, Editor for the Church Union, has slaved over it for a couple of days now, knocking my rough copy into a presentable state.

It simply seemed to me that we needed to have something we could put into the hands of our congregations in readiness for the day of prayer on February 22nd, and perhaps to make the basis for discussion and prayer during Lent. It does not answer all the questions, or cover all the ground, but it is aimed at parish priests and their people. When it is published, I shall be happy to receive any amount of flack concerning it.

It is to be priced £3.50, or £5 to include postage. Initially, though, Priests on our mailing lists will be sent a free copy; and there are reductions in costs for multiple copies. This amends the original (mis)information on this blog. Sorry!

If you wish to order your pre-publication copy, or need to know about postage &c for quantities or for overseas, ask ACS:
I hope you will find it helpful in seeking to discern your own response to Anglicanorum Coetibus.

If there is not yet a day of prayer organised in your parish for February 22nd, please contact your Forward in Faith representative, or email to ask Stephen Parkinson to help:

There is an interesting article on the Apostolic Constituion in the January issue of UNITAS, the newsletter of the Catholic League,which may be found at

Sunday 31 January 2010

Candlemas: Holy Trinity Winchester

Not long before Holy Trinity Winchester has its own (House for Duty) priest. We have been going there with other retired clergy for almost four years now. So Candlemas was very special for us today. This is more or less what I said in the Sermon at Mass.

Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, Jesus too shared equally in it.

A week ago we were in France, not far from Limoges. We were visiting old friends who have a house there, and during our four day stay we saw many local churches. In each of them, the crib was still in evidence… some very grand indeed, where at the touch of a button the lights came on and music played… One had a watermill, and beyond it a caravan of camels which had, no doubt, brought the kings. Today, our simple crib, like those far grander ones, will be stowed away, as we brace ourselves towards Lent. In ancient Roman statuary, Janus, the god of the start of the year, has two faces, one looking forwards, the other back. For Christians, it is this Feast which looks both ways, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; or the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary; or more simply, Candlemas.

Over our shoulders, receding into the distance, is Christmas. It was easy then to be caught up in the beauty of it all. We also recall the Nativity today; as the time when Jesus shared our blood and our flesh, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. But mention blood and flesh, and we are alerted to another aspect of the Nativity of the Saviour. As we think of his birth, we are made to face towards his suffering. We look ahead as well as back.

In reality, this is how it is in every Mass, though we are not always aware of it. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we show the Lord’s death until he comes again. The altar is where both the death of Jesus and the birth of Jesus are presented week by week.

The symbol which the Church took for this festival is the candle. We have had so many far brighter sources of light in the modern world – incandescent bulbs, fluorescent tubes, floodlights and streetlights. Yet no one seems to write poetry about them – well, maybe John Betjeman did, you will have to remind me. But candles have always attracted us, like so many moths. “Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light” we sang in Sunday school; “My candle burns at both ends” wrote an American poet, and we know just what she meant – and ‘candle in the wind’ was adapted, as we all remember, for Diana’s funeral. It has to do, perhaps, with the inevitable end of the candle – nothing but a pool of wax. It has been used to measure time, and to light the way to dusty death. Above all, it is used in Church for the sheer wastefulness of it, like the precious ointment poured over Jesus’ feet. The mock, flickering electric replacements are always poor imitations.

The candle is individual; it can be held in the hand without being connected to a source of power – and when it is the real article, a genuine beeswax candle, then it connects us with the mystery of the natural world and God’s creatures, the bees, as the Easter Hymn exsultet puts it.
Five years ago on this Sunday we were ending our month of looking after the English Church in Copenhagen. (We dpn’t spend all our time abroad, though). There in Denmark, and all through Scandinavia, candles have a very special place; indeed, our leaving present from the church was a pair of little glass candlesticks. In those dark winter nights the Danes always put candles on their tables, not just to lighten the darkness, but to lighten their hearts – even at breakfast!

All these themes come together in this Mass; Christ who is the light of the world suddenly comes to his temple, and the temple is illuminated with his presence. Some of the great painters of the Renaissance had a way of depicting Christ in the manger as the source of light; his mother’s face glows in his reflected light as she leans over him. We light our candles today to remind us whose light it is that is come into the world; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of his people Israel.

He is come in blood and flesh; that is to say, he shares our nature. Not only our human nature though, he also shares our suffering .. and in sharing it, transforms it. Instead of being totally negative, suffering borne for the sake of Christ becomes part of his offering to the Father. Those outside the church often misunderstand this, and make us out to be masochists, valuing suffering for its own sake. Not so; but in every life, suffering of some sort is inevitable. How much better that it can be transformed, to the glory of God, rather than that it should become destructive and embittering.

This gives us a context for our coming Lent, when we shall be disciplining ourselves to be ready for Easter. We give up things which in themselves are harmless, good even, for the greater good of entering, in even a very small way, into the sufferings of Christ. Not the suffering of Calvary, but something of the self-denial of his time in the desert. It will be only very small things that we can do; but they will help make straight the way of the Lord.

Above all, though, at Candlemas, we should consider the light; that our light is to shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify – not us – but our Father who is in heaven. The candle gives itself, that is what it is for; and eventually it expires. For us, though, our hope is full of immortality; that we shall be raised up into that greater, light of eternity. There in that house we shall dwell, “where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light”. As so often, John Donne says it for us, in words we would struggle to find. No little separate flickering candles, but in the end, for us all, one equal light.