A Community in Space and Time - St Bride's: Reflection

Updated 21/04/21: We are delighted that St Bride’s doors are now open six days a week for those wishing to worship, pray and visit (closed on Saturdays). Our two Sunday choral serices have also resumed.
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St Bride's: Sermons

A Community in Space and Time

Were this any other year but this one, today at St Bride's we would be celebrating an annual event that we call our 'Inspire Sunday'. It is one of my favourite occasions in our church's calendar, when we invite back as many members of the St Bride's family, from past and present, near and far, to join us for a special celebration of our life as a community of faith.

For obvious reasons, we are unable to mark this event in the way we normally would - and yet, interestingly enough, it feels particularly appropriate to take this opportunity to pause and reflect on our life together as part of the body of Christ during this strangest of years.

The lockdown period, and all the restrictions that are still in force in response to the pandemic, have disrupted our congregational life in some very obvious and tangible ways. The lockdown months were hard, especially for those members of our church community who found themselves isolated and alone - and the more so for those who were without internet access. But all of us, who are normally able to attend Sunday worship here, missed meeting each other; and worshipping together; and we all missed our wonderful music. Because however impressive and creative the alternative responses have been, in the end there is surely no substitute for real human contact.

And yet, despite that, there are ways in which, contrary to all expectations, our life as a faith community has deepened and grown during this time. So the news is not all bad. The practical support, and acts of friendship that many of you have been able to offer one another has been wonderful to see.

And many of you have told me that our online services have been (and for some of you continue to be) an absolute lifeline throughout the pandemic. Developing our ministry in this way has also enabled us to reach, on a weekly basis, those members of our church family who, for reasons of distance, ill-health, or increasing frailty, have only ever been able to attend services here on an occasional basis. And one of the greatest blessings of all is that our online services have drawn in a number of new people, from across the globe, who discovered us online, and now listen regularly - not only from within the UK, but in places as far afield as the United States and Africa. As the Journalists' Church, we have always served a profession that is international, but what we have seen in recent months is something new and rather wonderful.

But this sense of a widening community is not merely geographical. For me, it has acquired another dimension, too. Because I have become ever more conscious throughout these difficult weeks and months, how much it also embraces past and present.

Like many of you, I have always been fascinated by the history of our amazing church. Given that this has probably been a place of Christian worship, here in the very heart of the city of London, since the sixth century, St Bride's and its people have seen everything: fire, plague, famine, revolt, as well as all the joys and hopes that are part of human living. And, although it may sound rather peculiar, I know that I am not alone amongst parish clergy in feeling a strange duty of care to those members of our community in past ages.

Just to cite one example of this: one of the very last things that we were able to do here back in March, just before the lockdown began, was to install a memorial plaque to Polly Nichols. Polly was born in our parish in 1845, about 100 yards away from where I am now standing, and she was married here in 1864. Tragically she was to become the first known victim of the Victorian serial killer commonly nicknamed Jack the Ripper.

Polly's tragedy was a dual one: not only the manner of her death, but also the fact that history has only remembered her name because of her murderer: her own life, and Polly's own story, were largely lost and forgotten until the historian and writer Hallie Rubenhold, amongst others, recognised how very important it was that they were retrieved, and that her own story was finally told. Those of you who have seen our memorial plaque will know that it ends with the words, 'Remember her life, not its end'. I retain a profound sense that Polly was one of ours; and that we owe it to her to remember her as a human being, and to honour her life, however traumatic and complicated it may have been, because she was a precious child of God, and because she was once part of our life here.

In the darkest days of lockdown, when I was here alone for many, many days, I became newly aware of that same historical trajectory in additional ways. Some of you will know that when the Guild of St Bride was founded here in the fourteenth century, its principal purpose was to keep a candle burning in front of a statue of St Bridget - St Bride, our patron saint. Following in the footsteps of those first Guild members, I kept that tradition alive during lockdown, lighting a candle before the altar here each day, as a reminder that the spirit of St Bride's remained alive and active, even though our doors were closed. And we have continued to keep that candle alight each day even though worship here has resumed and our doors are open. I can see it before me now, flickering away, as I speak these words.

And some of you may have heard me preach a sermon during lockdown in which I spoke about Richard Peirson, who was vicar here in 1665, during the Great Plague - and who, at extreme risk to his own life, stayed at his post here throughout that terrible time, serving his people, and burying as many as thirty or forty of them every single day at the height of the plague. And Paul Boston, his successor, who, when our church was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, kept our worship going, in a tabernacle in our churchyard, until our church was re-built by Sir Christopher Wren. And there is Cyril Armitage, the vicar here who rebuilt our church after it was destroyed in the Second World War. These amazing figures do not feel like they belong to a distant and forgotten past. Far from it. I have never been more conscious that, in some strange way, they also remain part of our present, and indeed of our future, too.

And then there is Edward Winslow, who is of particular significance to us this week, because it will not have escaped your notice that Wednesday was the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. Edward Winslow was one of the leaders of the Pilgrim Fathers, and was three times Governor of Massechussetts. His parents, Edward Winslow senior and Magdalen Oliver, were married here at St Bride's on 4th November 1594. The family lived in Droitwich and their son, Edward, was educated in Worcester, but in 1613 he was apprenticed to a Fleet Street printer, John Beale, so he returned here. (John Beale was known for his Puritan sympathies he smuggled puritan works from Holland.) Given that we had been the printers' church for over a century by that time, and that St Bride's already had quite a strong Protestant tradition, it is very likely that Winslow worshipped here, so our connection with the Pilgrim Fathers, through him, is highly significant.

The fine wooden reredos that is behind me now was unveiled in memory of Edward Winslow and the Pilgrim Fathers on 19th December 1957, when our church was re-dedicated after its post-war restoration. I am not entirely sure how Winslow, being a good Puritan, would have felt about having a very beautiful and ornate altar-surround dedicated in his memory, but the intention was honourable, and it is wonderful that we have such a fine, and very visible memorial to him here, in our very midst.

However, our Winslow connection does not end there. Not only did some of Winslow's direct descendants come over here from the USA for the unveiling of the rereods, but in 2006, his descendent Ted Winslow came from Maryland to marry his wife Jennifer here. That wedding was itself a wonderful metaphor for the life of our community of faith, weaving together past and present, and drawing people together from across continents, from the most diverse of backgrounds and traditions.

To those who faithfully worshipped here at St Bride's in the sixth century, and the fourteenth century, and the seventeenth century, and the twentieth century - to those people there would be much about the nature of Fleet Street, and our life as a church today, that they would find very different, if not unrecognisable. And yet, we are, and we shall remain, part of the same family, worshipping the same crucified and risen Lord, and discovering anew the meaning of discipleship and the power of the Gospel in each generation.

And in these days of anxiety and uncertainty, as we face a future that has never been more precarious, not only economically and socially, but in terms of the very survival of our precious planet - perhaps that marvellous and rich tapestry of connectedness, weaving together past, present and future, and people near and far, can also provide us with a means of encouragement, and support, and hope.

St Paul, writing to the Christians of Philippi in this morning's epistle, gave them a message that retains its relevance to us, here at St Bride's, two thousand years later. St Paul wrote this:

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel.

As a message for the family of St Bride's today, what more need one add?


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