Bright and Beautiful! - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Bright and Beautiful!

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At around the time when our restoration work here was fully underway earlier this year, I can remember musing that there must be a serious shortage of scaffolding poles throughout central London - because all the available scaffolding was apparently inside this church!

I have to say that I have never before seen quite such an impressive construction within a building of this size.  Indeed I was completely unaware that such a thing was possible.  It really was a marvel, and a wonder to behold. Forget the Eiffel Tower!  Forget the Menai Suspension Bridge!  The cathedral-like edifice of scaffolding within St Bride's was quite simply breathtaking.  I remain awestruck by the skill of the scaffolders who created it, and by the courage of the intrepid contractors who scaled its dizzy heights each day in the exercise of their labours, while the essential restoration work was underway.

During those months, we did all that we could to make it 'business as usual' - although inevitably, of course, some things had to go: our lunchtime recitals had to be suspended - and, very understandably, a few key services had to be rescheduled, or relocated because, for reasons either aesthetic or logistical, it really wasn't possible to hold them here.

But our heartfelt thanks are due to all of you who continued to support us throughout what was inevitably a very challenging time: those who continued to worship here, Sunday by Sunday; and our profound thanks also to those companies and organisations who were happy to go ahead with their annual services here undeterred - including our Livery Companies.  Indeed, the Stationers actively entered into the spirit, proudly adorning our scaffolding poles with ribbons in the Stationers' colours of blue and yellow!

And special mention should also be made of the Friends of Cathedral Music, who months earlier had arranged to hold their Diamond Jubilee celebratory service here.  It was with some trepidation that we had to break the news about the scaffolding to their Chairman, Peter Toyne.  To our astonishment, far from being deterred, he was actively enthusiastic at the prospect, pointing out that when FCM had been founded here at St Bride's in 1956, the church was still being rebuilt after the bombing of 1940 - so the backdrop of scaffolding could not have been more appropriate!  (It is worth noting, by the way, that there are some here today, including Terence, our Guild Marshal, who remember the church when it was in ruins that time round - against which our recent restoration works must have seemed a relatively minor inconvenience!)

Now, as chance would have it, during the three months when this work was underway, I was engaged in a task that might appear to have been completely unconnected with our interior restoration - but which in fact proved to have all kinds of resonances with it.

Because I was putting together materials for the digital display that we have down in the crypt called Pepys, Plague and Fire - which tells the story of this church and its people in the years 1665 and 1666, and in particular the impact of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London on St Bride's.  For me it was a profoundly moving experience to rediscover the human story of those catastrophic events, and their effect upon our predecessors here.  If those of you who have already seen that display will bear with me for a moment, I would just like to revisit some aspects of that story for the benefit of those of you who may be less familiar with it.

Exactly 351 years ago this month, in September 1665, the Great Plague was at its height, and its impact upon our parish and its people was devastating.  In normal times there would have been around forty burials a month here - which, given the mortality rates of the period was not unusual.  But in September 1665, there were occasions when my predecessor at the time as Vicar here, Richard Peirson, was burying more than forty people a day.  Just reflect on that figure for a moment.

Earlier in the summer I spent a very moving and memorable morning in the London Metropolitan Archive, looking through our original burial register for that period.  At a time when many London clergy fled the city in fear of their lives, Richard Peirson stayed at his post.  We know that because his signature appears at the foot of every page of the register.  He buried his senior Churchwarden, Henry Clarke, whose brother William (who took over from him) also died of plague, and yet still Richard Peirson stayed at his post.

Remarkably, Peirson survived the plague, and was succeeded as Vicar of St Bride's by one Paul Boston - who had the misfortune to take up his post in August 1666 - a mere fortnight before a fire broke out in a certain Baker's shop in Pudding Lane, which turned into the Great Fire of London and completely destroyed this church and virtually the whole of our parish.  Dazed and bewildered by the catastrophe, our poor parish clerk felt moved to record the event in our burial register: 'Ye parish was burnt down but Sixteen Houses in ye brode place by newe street.'  Only sixteen houses remained standing.

By the time Paul Boston left here in 1671, the foundations of the new Wren Church were being laid, but the building was a long way from completion.  And famously, in his will, he left £10 specifically to assist those who had been distressed by the fire; another £10 for the poor of the parish; and of most interest to us today, £50 to our Churchwardens to purchase new communion silver for St Bride's.  And it is those silver vessels, which are inscribed with Paul Boston's name and dated 1671, which in a few minutes time will be brought up to the altar in our offertory procession, as they are every single Sunday morning.

That is Paul Boston's very obvious legacy to us here today, and a remarkable point of connection linking us with the people and events of 350 years ago - but Paul Boston's deeper and more important legacy is one that is more easily overlooked: namely that for five years he kept the worship of this place going in a temporary tabernacle erected in the churchyard, surrounded by rubble and devastation, and in a parish that only a year before he had arrived had been devastated by plague.  Paul Boston's ministry here was an act of faithfulness and steadfastness that was second to none. 

And his congregation also rose to the challenge, raising the necessary £500 (of what we would now call 'match funding'!) to enable the rebuilding work to take place.  In those days, £500 was a phenomenal amount of money - but when one remembers that this was a congregation, many of whom had lost their homes and their livelihoods, their achievement was quite simply astounding.

And we owe a similar debt of gratitude also to another of my predecessors in more recent times: Cyril Armitage, whose steadfastness, vision and energy enabled the 'Phoenix of Fleet Street' to rise from the ashes once again after the Second World War.  His successors, Dewi Morgan, John Oates, and David Meara, have also each played their part in creating a legacy that has benefitted, and will continue to benefit, those who follow them here.

When I was appointed to this post two years ago, most of the hard graft, planning and fundraising that made this restoration work possible, had already been done.  So I have an acute sense of being a beneficiary, too - of all of your generosity, commitment and vision, which made this work possible.  Because what those of you who helped to fund this work have done, is not merely to help pay for the redecoration of an historic building; you have also invested generously, graciously, and selflessly, in the future of this church for the benefit of future generations. 

This holy place has proclaimed the goodness and grace of God, and brought healing and hope to its people, often in the most unbelievably challenging of circumstances, for 1500 years.  And we owe it to our predecessors, who sacrificed so much for our benefit, to play our role in preserving that same legacy for the future.

This morning's Bible readings contain some stark messages about wealth: 1 Timothy tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil; and our Gospel story of Dives and Lazarus tells the frightening story of how one who has everything in this life, but lacks compassion and generosity, will lose everything in the next.  For such can be the corrupting power of riches: which can distort our priorities and ultimately destroy our humanity.  Compassion and generosity and concern for the stranger at our gate - or indeed, the strangers who are the future generations who will come after us here, are the things that truly count.

So thank you.  Thank you for all you have done to support St Bride's in the past, and more specifically, during the recent months when the building work was underway.  My thanks to those of you who oversaw the fundraising - particularly to our former Churchwarden Ian Locks; thank you to all of you who donated, or taken part in fundraising activities.  But above all thank you for believing in St Bride's and in its future. 

In being here today, we are all privileged to be part of the unfolding story of this remarkable church - and in pledging ourselves to support its continuing ministry and preservation, we are, with God's blessing, offering a legacy to all who will come after us here.  And a legacy like that is truly beyond price.


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