Sermon for the fifth Sunday of Eastertide.
From John, chapter fourteen, our Gospel passage for today.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”.
I walk every Saturday morning from Broadcasting House to St Pancras Station, through an all but empty London, never looking emptier than in the vast halls of a great railway terminus.
The first I pass is Euston Station, recently refurbed again, but the great refurb came in 1962, the year I was born. Then the old station, built in the 1830s and 40s, with its wrought iron roof, and magnificent vaulted Great Hall, with sculptures representing the cities and towns it served, and its famous arch, the biggest and grandest in London, was demolished. Not without protest. There were demonstrations, deputations to the Minister of Transport - complaint declined - the Prime Minister - complaint denied - a rescue package for the arch proposed by John Betjeman agreed and then torn up, on (disputed) grounds of cost.
The reason for demolition was clear. The station needed greatly to increase capacity, it needed to accommodate the newly electrified West Coast mainline, and the only way it could expand was onto the land occupied by the old building. Why not adapt it to preserve the old while allowing for the new, successfully done at its neighbour, St Pancras Station? Perhaps it was technically too difficult, but you sense also a lukewarm feeling on the part of the authorities for the old station, that it was a relic of the age of steam, expressed an antiquated view of Britain, a Britain now pioneering the age of technology. In that spirit the replacement was built, in the international modern style, a long low block of glass and stone and tile, and ever since has been hated by nearly everyone.
Vandals and barbarians, the protestors shouted at the developers, who replied it wasn’t fit for purpose, and besides, it was only a building: trains were running, passengers arriving and departing, but in greater numbers, faster, and more safely. Amazing what technology can do.
Only a building. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that said by my fellow clergy since lockdown barred us from our churches. For some of us this has been extremely painful, to lock doors that have been open to God’s people through the Norman Conquest, the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses, the Plague, the Depression, the Blitz. But not the coronavirus epidemic. Why? Because we need to ensure social distancing, we need to model responsible citizenship, we need to use imaginatively the resources of technology to reach people in a new way, because the bishops have ordered us to (although there’s disagreement about that too).
We must come together to stay apart. It’s quite right that we should do everything we can to protect our communities and ourselves from infection. But why should a priest, alone, posing no risk to anyone, be forbidden from saying her prayers, and those of others, in the church where we are normally obliged by standing orders to turn up faithfully Sunday by Sunday, festival by festival, and do precisely that? I don’t understand why this has not been permitted.
For some this enforced eviction has been a moment of liberation. Look what we can do without the building? Get it right, and we could be freed at last from the cost occasioning ballast of Grade One heritage, no longer fit for purpose, a drain on resources that could be spent more profitably elsewhere. They stand as a symbol of obsolescence, a sign of decline, a failure of mission, a vanity project for antiquarians. Never before has it been timelier, or more opportune, to explore the possibilities of new technology. Ever since the popularisation of the codex the church has been a keen early adopter. Look at how Zoom today has connected us to more people more widely, digital communications so much better suited to preaching the Gospel today, forming new online communities, instructing disciples, building the kingdom. St Mary’s Finedon? In the 21st Century? Really? It’s only a building.
I get the arguments, I really do. I zoom like everyone else. No one could accuse me of being reluctant to engage with social media. And I lie awake at night worrying about the gas bill, how we’re going to keep the building sound, the bats happy, a corner of the churchyard wilded, the organ in tune. And more troubling than that, how are we going to feed the flock, as Jesus commands us, when the flock feeds elsewhere, or doesn’t even know it’s hungry? The church clock tolls three, reminding me of the pointlessness of worrying about tomorrow.
But I am certain locking up our churches and throwing away the keys will do our flock no favours.
It’s only a building, sure; but so is your house. How would you like it if I burned it to the ground? It’s only a building, but maybe you love it, because it has been where you raised a family, loved your partner, gave hospitality to friend and stranger, weathered storms, rejoiced, tended you dying grandmother, worked like a slave for decades to pay the mortgage or the rent, passed it on to your children, and them to theirs? From the pencil marks on the door post marking the height of your kids, to the pond you dug with your grandad, the building is the place where your life happens, which contains the stories of your family, which held you together when everything was pulling you apart, which gave you a refuge if it did fall apart. It is the place you are known and where others are known by you,
Imagine that over a thousand years? Imagine a millennium of stories, from the visit of a Anglo-Saxon queen, to the anonymous babies buried at the wall of tears, the north side of the churchyard, where disobedient and tenderhearted clergy would permit the clandestine burial of unbaptised infants for the comfort of their mothers. Imagine the reordering, when Edward I was fighting the Scots, suddenly coming to a halt when the Black Death arrived and halved the workforce in weeks. You can see the last chisel mark on the south wall of the Sanctuary. Imagine your parents married here, your kids baptised, your grandma buried here, and looking through the registers, in the archive over the south porch, where your family’s history is recorded right back to the reign of Henry VIII. That matters, I know it matters to my parishioners, and to hear it dismissed with nonchalant contempt by so many fails to honour what we owe each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. I also know it is not incidental to the magnificent volunteer effort sustained in this parish since lockdown began, ensuring every household has a number to call, a person to speak to, to do the shopping, pick up prescriptions, arrange medical care, social support, and to connect them to people who have comfort for their anxiety, balm for their souls, as well as help for their material needs.
In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. Perhaps that means we should be ready to be surprised by where we end up if we follow Jesus? Yes. Perhaps it also means that we are destined to dwell with God and one another. To dwell (it comes from the Greek word μονή) means to abide, to endure, and we can’t do that, I think, without being in the same place at the same time - real place, real time. The church has always insisted on this, that where possible we come together in flesh and blood to receive the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. And the church has also insisted that when all is done it is in flesh and blood, resurrected, that we will know each other again.
I used to review opera for a living (someone has to) and I remember when the practice first started of showing stage productions from the Royal Opera House, and around the world, in local cinemas. It’s a great idea. You pay twenty quid for a ticket instead of a hundred and rather than spend another hundred getting to London you can enjoy Rigoletto in the Kettering Odeon and be home in time to catch Match of the Day.
The trouble is it’s not the same. There are benefits - you get to see the action, you can sit in comfort, and nip out for a pee without getting viciously shushed by aficionados - but these come nowhere near making up for the loss, and the loss is that you are not there. You are not in the same space at the same time, the music is coming at you in digital transcript through speakers, not from the tenor’s tonsils to your tympanum, through shared air, with its fluctuations of temperature, and the invisible but registered reactions of the audience, and the peculiar vibrations and variations in pressure that happen when we gather together.
Saying this now sounds like I’m nostalgic for a vector of infection. And I am, the intimate interaction of people, the to and fro, the breaching of our defences, our efforts to breach the defences of others. Sublime when it’s Verdi, indefensible when it’s viral. So we must wait for it to be safe enough before we congregate again.
But this is not only nostalgia for something physical, it’s looking forward to something eschatological, it’s about anticipating here and now our residency in the dwelling place Jesus has prepared for us. And there are things critical to salvation that happen when we’re together, in flesh and blood, and happen in places that have witnessed, uniquely, to the enduring story of how we are made ready to receive it.
When I was finding my way to faith, one Christmas I went, alone, to Midnight Mass at a church in central London. It was not busy, like the Cathedral and the Abbey, and I sat behind someone also sitting on his own. At the exchange of peace, when we shake hands with those around us, he turned and offered me his hand. It was Enoch Powell. To me then, Enoch Powell was a hate figure, the enemy of everything I held dear, and I was dumbfounded.
“Peace be with you,” he said.
I took his hand in mine. “Peace be with you,” I said.
Rev Richard Coles, Vicar of St Mary's Finedon, Northants