Guild Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

Updated 08/09/20: St Bride's Church is open for general visiting and prayer. There is a weekly 11am Sunday Choral Eucharist and recitals resume from 11th September. Choral services and lunchtime recitals also remain available online. NB: Face coverings in places of worship are a legal requirement. Further Information →

St Bride's: Sermons

Guild Sunday

1 Corinthians 2: 1-12

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1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

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I was travelling in Turkey a couple of years ago, when one of my companions, who knew the area, pointed to a small town by a lake. 'Look,' he said. 'That is the site of ancient Nicaea.'

Now, those of you who are interested in such things will be aware that Nicaea is one of the most significant places in the whole history of the Church. Because it was there, in the year AD 325, that Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to have embraced the Christian faith, summoned Bishops from across the Christian world, from Mesopotamia to Britain, to attend a great council. At the time, the Church was riven with theological disputes about the nature of God, and the relationship between the Father and the Son, and Constantine wanted this resolved. And from the work of that Council emerged a text that we say together here every Sunday morning: the Nicene Creed.

Most of you will be aware that we are currently trialling a modern language version of this service. Predictably, some of you really like it; some of you don't like it at all; and some of you don't have particularly strong feelings about it either way. But as I was saying to the PCC the other day, the really good thing is that so many of you are now thinking and talking about our worship, and asking questions about it: about the words we use and why we use them; about the fact that the same word can mean something rather different today from what it meant 350 years ago. And some of you have been going away and comparing different translations of the Bible - wonderful!

And I have had some fascinating conversations and email exchanges, answering your questions, and noting your observations. But possibly the most interesting question so far, which two or three of you have asked me, is something very simple, but extremely important. It concerns the wording of the Nicene Creed, which we shall be saying together shortly. Namely, why is it that the modern version we shall be using today begins with the words, 'We believe in one God', when the version that many of us are used to begins, 'I believe in God ...' Now, I need to give you a bit of historical background here, but you will come to see the point of all this in a moment.

Going back to the Fourth Century, the original version of the Nicene Creed (which, incidentally, was written in Greek) began, 'We believe in one God...' And there was a logic to that, if you think about it. The point of the Creed was that it was the shared affirmation of belief that was upheld by the whole community of faith throughout the Christian world. That is what the Council of Nicaea was setting out to achieve.

So, how then did we get from 'We believe', to 'I believe'? The answer is really interesting. As the Church, its practices, and its worship evolved during the mediaeval period, gradually more and more of the liturgy was taken over by the clergy - to the point where by 1375, the year in which our Guild was originally founded, the people who attended worship here at St Bride's would basically be spectators for much of the time: they would have come here to see the sacrifice of the Mass offered by our then Rector, Thomas de Hayton, on their behalf. And, of course the entire service was in Latin, which most of them wouldn't have understood, anyway. (That, incidentally, is why bells were rung at key moments during the Mass, so that the people could follow what was going on.) And, when it came to the Creed, the priest said it alone - which is why it changed to the singular form, 'I believe'.

At the Reformation, something incredibly radical happened: a Prayer Book was produced in the language of the ordinary people. For the first time, they could understand for themselves what was going on. And what about the Creed? In Cranmer's first English Prayer Book of 1549 (of which I have a copy, because I am interested in things like this), the rubric directs that the priest is to say the first line of the Creed alone: 'I beleve in one God'; and then it states, 'The clerkes shall syng the rest'. In other words, the ordinary congregation still didn't participate in the Creed - it remained the preserve of the ministers. It is only when we get to Cranmer's Second Prayer Book of 1552, which was much more Protestant, that for the first time we have full congregational participation. It simply directs: 'the Epistle and the Gospel beyng ended, shal be sayd the Crede. It still began, 'I believe' - simply because Cranmer kept the existing version, and just got everyone to say it.

So, interestingly enough, the modern version of the Creed that we shall be saying in a moment is much more true to the original, not only in its wording, but in its purpose. The form 'I believe' in this particular Creed was never intended as an individual declaration of faith, even though that is what people tend to assume.

Throughout the whole of Christian history, worship has evolved in response to developments both in the Church and within society. And there is an analogy here with the story of the Guild of St Bride.

If you think that this country is currently in turmoil, be very, very grateful that you did not live in the fourteenth century - the era of the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt and unprecedented social turmoil. Parish Guilds such as our own, were normally fraternities whose members paid a small annual fee to ensure that they were given proper burial rites (which, at a time when human life was so precarious, was understandable).

The records tell us that the primary stated purpose of our Guild when it was established in 1375, was to maintain a light to burn before the statue of St Bridget the Virgin (St Bride), in whose honour the church was founded, towards which each Guild member paid fourpence annually. So from the outset, Guild members were contributing to the worshipping life of this church, not simply securing their own path to eternal salvation. Subsequently, the yearly subscription was raised to two shillings and tuppence, to pay for a chaplain to celebrate before the saint's statue, and for two torches at the procession accompanying each Guild member's funeral.

The Guild of St Bride was resurrected in 1953 by the then Rector, Cyril Armitage. This church was still in ruins following the bombing raid that had nearly destroyed it in 1940. The constitution states that the Guild is [and I quote] 'dedicated to the glory of God and to the service of the Church of St Bride in the city of London, more especially so that Members of the Guild may assist in the conduct of public worship in the said Church.' It was an inspired decision by Cyril Armitage. By entrusting to a core group of committed church members a special duty of ministry and service, he gave to them, and therefore to St Bride's a new vision and energy - the very things that helped St Bride's to rise from the ashes once more. Today's re-formed Guild is very different from its mediaeval precursor; and yet there remain important points of continuity: above all the commitment to supporting and furthering the worship of this church of St Bride.

The world, our society, and the Church are always evolving; sometimes very obviously; sometimes without us even noticing it. Change happens. But that makes it all the more important that we hold fast to what is timeless and changeless at the core of what we do, lest we lose our way. What does that mean in the life of faith? What is it that, in terms of our Christian life, and worship, and witness we still have in common with those who worshipped here at St Bride's in 1953, and in 1375, and with those who gathered in the city of Nicaea in AD 325?

The answer is to be found in today's Bible readings. In our first reading from 1 Corinthians, St Paul tells the members of a young church that is torn apart by disagreement and dissent: 'I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.' That is the thing we need to ensure we keep in focus, because without it we are lost. That is the reason for the reredos painting behind me. This is why we are here. To know 'Jesus Christ, and him crucified.'

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus charges the disciples to go and be salt and light in the world. In other words, he tells us what we are to do with our faith: to take the knowledge of 'Jesus Christ, and him crucified' out into the world; to take it into the lives of others. To go out from this service to be salt and light.

That is a charge to all of us, not simply to those of us who are called to Guild membership. But for those of you who are Guild members, make sure that you live up to your calling; and never forget your predecessors in 1375, who committed themselves to keep a light shining in this holy place.

Amen.

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