St Bride's: Sermons

60th Anniversary of the Guild of St Bride

60th Anniversary of the Guild of St Bride

Cyril Moxon Armitage by Elliott & Fry, bromide print, NPG x86182
© National Portrait Gallery, London

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"Sunday 5th June 1951, was a perfect summer evening in London. It was an augury of the incumbency [of St Bride's Church] of Cyril Moxon Armitage, who for 21 years had been Precentor of Westminster Abbey and was Chaplain to four monarchs. In a ruined nave, amid bracken and willowherb and alongside a small plum tree planted by no human hand, he stood where once had been the pulpit and delivered his inaugural address. Along the long line of St Bride's clergy, few had gifts more appropriate to their particular moment[...] He could visualize the new church that was to be, he could work persistently to make it a reality, and he could inspire others to work with him."

Those words, describing the beginning of the ministry of Cyril Armitage at St Bride's after the Second World War, were written by another of my illustrious predecessors as Rector here, Dewi Morgan, in his famous history of St Bride's entitled Phoenix of Fleet Street. And in the passage I have just quoted, he captures very beautifully and very movingly, one of the great turning points in the life of this church.

The German bombing raid on the night of 29th December 1940 had rendered this building a charred ruin. The then Rector of St Bride's, Arthur Taylor, already aged in his 70s, nobly soldiered on, enabling the remnant of the congregation to continue worshipping here in the repaired vestry, until his death in 1951. But it was Cyril Armitage who embraced the challenge of fully restoring this wonderful church, and ensuring that the many, many centuries of faithful worship and witness on this site would continue. And it is worth remembering that he did not merely resurrect a shattered church in a ruined city - but he did so working alongside people whose individual lives had also been devastated by war. Because nobody in this city, or indeed in this nation, remained untouched by its impact.

Which is why it seems to me, looking back all these decades later, and standing here with a church full of worshippers in front of me, and a glorious building around me, that one of the reasons why Cyril Armitage was so amazingly successful in achieving all that he did, was because he had the wisdom and the insight to recognize the need to reconnect this church with its extraordinary past, whilst at the same time looking forward to a new future - and to do so in a way that directly engaged its people, to 'inspire them to work with him' as Dewi Morgan puts it. And one of the ways in which Cyril Armitage did that, shortly after his induction here, was by reconstituting the mediaeval Guild of St Bride.

For any of you who are unfamiliar with the historical background to wonderful world of Guilds, the mediaeval world was absolutely full of them - the word probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'geld', which simply meant to pay a due, or make a contribution - in other words, they were associations whose members paid a subscription. There were occupational guilds, based around particular crafts and skills - the apothecaries, and stationers, and cordwainers; but there were also parish guilds. These were societies whose members supported one another in various ways, but more significantly they had a very particular religious function: they would ensure high standards of religious observance and appropriate behaviour amongst their members; they would support the worshipping life of the church with which they were associated; and, in an era that was absolutely obsessed with notions of purgatory and the fate of the soul in the afterlife, they would oversee burial rites and pray for the souls of the dead.

Now, the world has moved on, and I am fairly certain that today's Guild members do not normally devote substantial amounts of their time praying for the souls of the deceased. However, it is interesting to note that the constitution of the modern Guild of Saint Bride states this:

'The Guild is dedicated to the glory of God and to the service of the Church of St Bride in the city of London.'

And this is, first and foremost, what today's Guild is here for: it is dedicated to the glory of God, and to the service of this church. The constitution then goes on to define that role particularly in relation to our worship:

'... so that the Members of the Guild may assist in the conduct of public worship in the said Church according to the godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers and the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England.'

Back in the 1950s, the reconstitution of the Guild of St Bride was one of the visible signs of a spiritual transformation and reawakening that was already underway here. It gave confidence, identity and purpose to core members of the congregation, many of whom had inevitably been left shocked and disheartened by the scale of the devastation here. And as we commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of that re-founding, we have much to be thankful for, in the dedication and commitment of Guild members, and Guild chaplains who helped to make that vision a reality, and continue to do so today. For, as it says in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs (29:18), "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Those of you here today, who are members of the Guild of St Bride, I hope you will remember always to wear your gowns and your Guild medallions with pride: because you are inheritors of an extraordinary tradition, the roots of which go back to the year 1375, when the original Guild was founded. And I hope you will wear them as a source of inspiration, because it was in no small part due to the vision and energy and dedication of your more immediate forebears, over the last sixty years, that this church was fully restored to life, and the quality of its worship rendered second to none. And I hope you will also wear them with humility, acutely mindful of the message of this morning's Gospel reading.

Because all of us, regardless of whether we happen to be Guild members or not, are called to be salt of the earth and light to the world. That truth lies at the very heart of our Christian calling. And we are called to live that out visibly. But for those of you who wear the gowns and the medallions, those external signs of your Guild membership make that calling a literal reality: you really are the city on the hill; the candlestick called to make the light visible; because you are here to help make the love of Christ visible: you are here to exhibit that love in the warmth of the welcome you offer to our visitors; in the support and encouragement that you give to members of our congregation; in your prayers; and of course, for those of you who are Guild Chaplains, in the ministry you exercise here. Because what you do, and what you are, really is there for all to see.

St Bride's was richly blessed in the vision and insight of Cyril Armitage; St Bride's has been richly blessed in the contribution made by members of the Guild over the past sixty years. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, in sixty years' time, my own successor was able to say: '2015 was another turning point in the history of St Bride's, when the congregation discovered an amazing new lease of life - in its generosity of heart; its commitment to the Gospel; and its ministry of service - and the Guild of St Bride was at the forefront of making that vision a reality.'

Because we can do that. We really can. But we can only do that together. Because this church is, of course, far more than simply its Guild: we are ultimately a community of love and service in which every one of us has a place, and a role to play.

And thanks be to God for that.

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