Thursday 2 September 2010

Fareham Licensing

Bishop Keith Presiding: Fr Woodman setting the Altar
Once again the powers that be have downgraded a major parish by licensing a priest in charge instead of inducting a new Incumbent. This time it was in the Parish of SS Peter and Paul Fareham, and I am not sure what the excuse was for suspending the living. Something, no doubt, about 'pastoral reorganisation'; or perhaps the diocese in in the process of selling off the Vicarage, and does not want there to be an incumbent with the power to stop it. Fr Christopher Woodman SSC comes to Portsmouth from Chichester diocese.

The parish has fairly recently passed the third resolution, so Bishop Keith was there resplendent in cloth of gold to celebrate the Mass. The licensing took place within the celebration, but instead of simply getting over the legal requirements we were subjected to the CofE's notion of 'commitment': to Renewal and Growth - a little walk to the font where a Churchwarden had to say "We, the people of this parish, for our part must, by word and example, encourage those who are baptized to be active .... and so on and so on." Then, a walk to the Lectern (there being no pulpit - is that legal?) and another little quintet (it would be better set to music) for Bishop of Dorking, Area Dean, Priest-in-charge designate, churchwarden and lay chair, leading into another choral offering by The People of The Parish "We will, with the help of God".

Kenneth Stevenson, lately retired, was of course a leading light in modern liturgy, so no doubt most of these golden phrases came from his erudite pen. The See is now in vacancy, and it was for the Bishop of Dorking, Ian Brackley, to operate (for the last time, he said) as Commissary.

We had further commitments; to Prayer. As I recall this used to happen at a litany desk; you don't come across them much nowadays, so the procession was to "the body of the Church" - that is to say, the Nave.

The bit about the Eucharist was called "Commitment to Unity". This had been the theme, too, of Bishop Ian's sermon; how the parish must play its part in the town and among the other parishes. The catholic element in the CofE was very important, he averred, and "we" were doing everything to enable catholics to remain loval Anglicans. Bishop Keith did not look terribly enthralled by what the Commissary was saying - and told him so in very direct Liverpudlian after the mass.

The new P-P

I did notice one happy phrase; something about "Don't just find the beauty of holiness in catholic worship: find the beauty of human beings touched by grace" - it was a faint echo of Frank Weston's words at an Anglo-Catholic Congress. But of course what Weston envisaged was a Church of England reclaimed for the Catholic faith. Since that is now no longer possible, we must all look elsewhere to find our Catholic home.

It was good that there were SSC brethren there to support the new parish priest. Fr Graham Smith, local Vicar of the Chapter, assisted at Communion. Fr Ron Gwyther, the ancient of days, has helped greatly in the parish for many years, and it was good to see him in conversation with Fr Kenneth Forster. Kenneth had been an NSM priest in my Hull parish decades ago and now he too is landed in Fareham, where he has family. Good, too, to have Fr Waller from S Saviour Walthamstow gracing the procedings.

Altogether, a curate's egg of an evening. Some good hearty singing - but a turgid bit of Taize, a well-ordered Mass, and at the heart of it those increasingly impossible claims that "The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church". I hope Fr Woodman kept his fingers tightly crossed as he made the Declaration of Assent.

Monday 30 August 2010

Watching me watching you

Sometimes a word or phrase leaps out from a familiar Gospel passage and demands attention. That is how this little sermon came about, preached yesterday at St Francis' Bournemouth. For lack of any fresh expressions for this blog, this will have to do.

They watched him closely [St Luke xiv.1]

The Queen must suffer this whenever she eats in public; being watched closely. Unlike her predecessors, though, she does not eat all her meals with thousands milling around. Earlier English monarchs had to be visible – even if it meant hordes surrounding them when they walked out, or when they ate. For our present Queen, it will mostly be State banquets and such when her eating habits are on view. Queen Victoria’s family and guests had good reason to watch her; she ate very quickly, and once she had finished a course everyone’s plate was whisked away – so woe betide you if you were a slow eater! But we know they watched Jesus in order to find fault with him, or his disciples. “Why do your disciples eat with unclean hands?” they asked on one occasion. Today, though, he turns the tables on them. They have been watching him, but he has been watching them, too. And he has seen how they have been looking for the best seats for themselves.

Even his own followers were prone to do this; you remember how the mother of James and John asked for them to be given the chief seats in the Kingdom. Today, Jesus tells the story to bring them, and the Pharisees, to their senses. It is the story of the wedding feast.

Now James and John had been looking for the best places in the Kingdom of heaven: and Jesus might have been referring to this today, for the wedding feast is often the picture he gives of the Kingdom. So, for instance, the bridesmaids must be prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom even if it is in the middle of the night; they must have oil for their lamps. If they are un-prepared, they may be left outside. Then again, when you are invited you must not make excuses, or others will be called, even from the highways and byways, to fill your place.

St Paul uses the same picture; he speaks of the love a man has for his wife, and then says “but really he is speaking of Christ and his church”. The marriage of the lamb, the bride coming down from heaven in all her array, throughout Scripture there are pictures of weddings; and the first miracle Jesus did, which led his disciples to believe in him, was at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.

Today, as so often in the gospels, Jesus is eating and drinking. He had been invited, S Luke tells us, by “a leading Pharisee”. It was at a meal like this that the penitent woman washed his feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair; when the Host, again a Pharisee, remonstrated with him, he reminded him that he had not even offered the courtesy of ordering his servants to wash Jesus’ hands when he arrived. Perhaps there was a similar discourtesy on this occasion – at any event, Jesus witnessed the pushing and shoving that went on among the guests to grab the most important seats: the ones nearest the host, the ones above the salt. So Jesus teaches his hearers how humility is what is most needed in the kingdom of heaven; the readiness to take the lowest place. He went on, though, to teach his host a lesson. This important Pharisee was showing Jesus off to his influential friends, fellow Pharisees, maybe even some of the occupying Roman officers. Friends, rich neighbours, close relatives. Certainly these are the people Jesus goes on to mention.

When you give a lunch or a dinner, he says to this important Pharisee, don’t ask the sort of people who are here today; friends and relations, rich neighbours; because they may repay your hospitality by asking you back in return. But of course that is just what the Pharisee wanted. His dinner parties were times for cementing business relationships, keeping in with the elite, schmoozing, as they say, with men of influence.

If you want your hospitality really to achieve something worthwhile, invite those who can’t ask you back; the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. You will certainly be repaid for asking them to your house; but it won’t be the sort of repayment expressed by the business ethic of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. We are to give without even letting our right hand know what our left hand is doing. It is to be a humble action, like sitting in the lowest seat at table. Feeding people who can never do anything for you is a real blessing; that they cannot pay you back, says Jesus, is fortunate; because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again.

So we don’t know any blind people, or poor, or lame? Oh but we do, we see them in every newscast, from Niger or Sudan or Pakistan or Bangladesh. We are so fortunate; we have such opportunities of helping other people, and they will never be able to repay whatever we do. And, says Jesus, inasmuch as you did it for the least of these my brothers, you did it for me. Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, it is more worthwhile than any dinner party circuit.