Guild Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Guild Sunday

Matthew 5: 21–37

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21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:

35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

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Hardly a week goes by without my discovering yet more astonishing facts about the history of this remarkable church and its people.  And, as its Rector, I am acutely aware of both the example and the legacy of some of the extraordinary men (and they were, of course, all men), who have held this post before me during the fifteen hundred years of our history.

These include Richard Peirson, who was Vicar of St Bride's in 1665 - the year of the Great Plague.  Most of the Church of England clergy in London fled to the hills when plague broke out - but he was one of very few who stayed at his post, dutifully burying hundreds and hundreds of his parishioners - more than forty a day when the plague was at its height - and doing so at the most extraordinary personal risk. It is little short of miraculous that he survived.

Or his immediate successor, Paul Boston, who took over from him in August 1666, and was Vicar here for precisely two weeks before the Great Fire of London razed his church to the ground.  Undeterred, he kept the worship of this church going in a tabernacle in the churchyard, amidst the charred and blackened ruins - until the foundations of the new Wren church were laid in 1671.  As many of you will be aware, the vessels containing the bread and wine which will be brought to the altar in our offertory procession this morning, were Paul Boston's gift to this church in his will, and bear his name - connecting us directly, not only with the devastation of that fire, but also with his remarkable ministry here, keeping St Bride's going, against all the odds, and in the most challenging of circumstances.

And long before either of them, during the period of the Reformation, there was John Cardmaker.  He was a Franciscan Friar before being converted to the Protestant cause by Hugh Latimer during the reign of Henry VIII, and he was Vicar of St Bride's in the year 1547 when Edward VI came to the throne.  Cardmaker was one of the foremost and most vociferous advocates of the Protestant reforms that Edward launched.  But unfortunately for him, the tide turned when Mary I succeeded Edward, and the Catholic faith was restored.  Cardmaker was deprived of his livings (his clergy posts) in 1554, and the following year he was summoned before Bishop Gardner to give an account of his beliefs. 

In fear of his life, he agreed to renounce his Protestant faith, publically.  He then attempted to flee the country, but was arrested and held in the Fleet Prison, just round the corner from here.  But remarkably, ashamed of his former weakness, and despite knowing that it would cost him his life, John Cardmaker changed his mind.  He refused to recant after all, and as a result he was burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 30th May 1555.

And then, much closer to our own time, there was of course the remarkable Cyril Armitage.  The man who, in 1951, agreed to take over as Priest-in-Charge of the blackened ruin that was St Bride's, following the German bombing raids in December 1940.  On 13th April 1954, in a service conducted in the ruins here, Cyril Armitage was formally inducted as its Rector.  And one of the extraordinary documents I have turned up recently, is the original, hand-corrected text of the sermon that was preached at that service, by the then Archdeacon of London, Oswin Gibbs-Smith. Let me read you an extract from it:

The induction of a Rector to a bombed and ruined church has a particular significance.  If anything, it is more significant than inducting one into a church which is wind- and weatherproof and perfectly furnished for divine worship.  For when we solemnly induct a minister, as we have just done your Rector, into a ruinated skeleton of a building, we thereby pledge ourselves to see to it that the church in question rises again from its ashes into its former glory as a House of God.  

The significance therefore is that the Church as a whole is very much on the offensive on an occasion like this.  It is expressing its earnest intention, not only to restore the physical building, as we shall do here as soon as possible, but also to see that the living Church in this parish, when it is clothed again with its material plant, makes a fresh impact on the district which it is built to serve.  And therein lies the whole inner purpose of the Re-organisation plan for the City of London.  In a word it is to re-equip the Churches in the City for their great task of making a fresh spiritual offensive...

... Let me conclude by reminding you of these words of Sir Francis Drake: 'There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.'

'... to see that the living Church in this parish ... makes a fresh impact on the district which it is built to serve.  The contribution of Cyril Armitage was a remarkable one - overseeing not only the restoration of this church's building, but far more importantly its impact.  And his revival of the Guild of St Bride was absolutely key to making that a reality.

Because Guild membership is not like an OBE: it is not a kind of honorary reward granted to the great and the good, and the exceptionally holy.  On the contrary, it represents a commitment to serve: to serve this church of St Bride wholeheartedly; to help keep that impact, of which the Archdeacon spoke, alive for every generation, and in every new situation.  And in particular, to do so through actively supporting its worship; because our worship of God is the key to all else that happens here, and to all that we take with us from here into our daily lives, week by week.

Those of us who are privileged to wear the Guild's medallion, carry round our necks a visible reminder of the whole history of this extraordinary church and its people.  At the centre of the medallion is a Celtic Cross, reminding us of the foundation of this church in the sixth century, and the Irish religious who established it here in the name of St Bride, or St Bridget, of Kildare. 

The formal confirmation of the Guild by King Edward III in 1375 is recorded on the perimeter, and the motif of grapes and vine leaves around it is a mediaeval symbol, reminding us of the Gospel saying of Jesus: 'I am the vine: you are the branches ... those who abide in me bear much fruit.'   We are charged to bear fruit that will last.  At the top is the image of the Curfew Bell: as many of you will know, the Mediaeval St Bride's had a curfew tower, the remains of which can still be seen in our crypt: the curfew bell was rung at about eight o'clock every evening, to warn people to extinguish all fires, and take to their beds. 

And the Celtic Cross is surrounded by a ring of fire - another link with our Irish roots: it is said that in pagan times in Kildare, a ritual fire was kept alive, to invoke protection on cattle and the harvest.  When St Brigid built her monastery, she continued the custom of the perpetual fire, to represent the light of Christ, which the darkness cannot extinguish. Today, it also calls to mind those two occasions, within recorded history, when this church was utterly destroyed by fire - and yet rose again from the ashes. 

This morning's Gospel reading recounts the miracle at the wedding in Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine.  This story is of course, about far, far more than Jesus obligingly rescuing a party when the alcohol runs out.  Rather, it demonstrates the way in which God takes the most basic and ordinary things of life and turns them into something extraordinary: water into wine; the ordinary into the glorious; hopelessness into hope; fear and selfishness into courage and self-sacrifice - the qualities we see reflected in the lives of those former Vicars and Rectors of this parish: John Cardmaker, who paid for his convictions with his life; Richard Peirson, who was prepared to sacrifice himself by staying to tend to the dead and the dying; Paul Boston, who kept alive the worship of this church in a wasteland of devastation after the Great Fire of London; Cyril Armitage, who oversaw the resurrection of this church after it was destroyed during the Blitz, when hope was in such short supply, and London lay in ruins.

Those of us, who wear this medallion should never do so lightly; we should never forget the weight of tradition that this represents; a legacy which it is our responsibility to carry forward into the future.  We owe it to those illustrious figures, to the sacrifices they made and the risks that they took, to do all that we can to keep alive the flame of faith in this holy place, and to ensure that the perpetual light of Christ burns for each new generation.  And in so doing, to inspire others to seek that light, and to hear Christ's call.


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