For any of you who are new to St Bride’s (and particularly those of you who join our services online), let me tell you a little about the story of the Guild of St Bride, as this is our annual Guild Sunday service.
The Guild of St Bride was originally established in the year 1375. It was a Parish Guild – which was a kind of cross between a social club and a friendly society for lay people. Its members paid a small annual membership fee, to ensure that they were given proper funeral rites, and to support other charitable aims.
But for the Guild of St Bride that was not in fact the end of the story. Because our Guild was resurrected and reconstituted in 1953, by the then Rector here, Cyril Armitage. Like so much of central London, our church had been left in ruins following the bombing raid that had all but destroyed our building in 1940. In the wake of this crisis, Armitage’s vision of reconstituting the Guild was inspired. He entrusted to a core group of committed church members a special duty of ministry and service. In doing so, he gave both them, and our church, a new sense of vision and energy – which was what enabled St Bride’s to rise from the ashes once more.
Guild members wear distinctive russet gowns, and Guild medallions which bear the symbol of a Celtic cross, the perpetual fire of St Brigid (keeping alive the light of Christ), a curfew tower (we are called to be watchmen for the Lord), and the Celtic cross is surrounded by vine leaves (we are charged to bear fruit that will last).
The specific stated purpose of our own Guild of St Bride was to maintain a light burning before the statute of our patron saint, St Brigid of Kildare. Each Guild member paid a membership fee of fourpence a year to finance this. The fee was subsequently raised to the grand total of two shillings and tuppence, to pay for a chaplain to celebrate the Mass before the saint’s statue, and for two torches to be carried in procession at each Guild member’s funeral. But, as with so many other church traditions, parish guilds were swept away at the Reformation.
Although today’s re-formed Guild is very different from its mediaeval predecessor, there remain some important points of continuity: above all the commitment to support and further the worship of this church of St Bride. Indeed, as the present Guild constitution states, 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.’ Guild members are therefore called to a twofold service: to God and to this Church of St Bride.
When Cyril Armitage was formally inducted as Rector here on 13th April 1954, in a service held in the bombed out ruins of this building, the then Archdeacon of London, who rejoiced in the name Oswin Gibbs-Smith, declared that all those present had pledged themselves to see this church rise from the ashes to its former glory as a House of God – and he was referring not merely to the physical building, but also to the living Church, which was called to make a ‘fresh impact on the district which it is built to serve’. And the remarkable thing is that our Rector, our Guild and our congregation succeeded in doing precisely that.
Fast forward to the present day, when we ourselves have lived through our own very different crisis: a pandemic that has made some profound changes to the pattern of our lives, to our relationships, to our loved ones, to our economy, to our finances, to our ways of working, to our worship, and to our ways of being a congregation. Mercifully, many things are now opening up once again – yet many aspects of life will never be exactly the same again. This transition will inevitably bring its losses, but also some new and rather different and exciting opportunities.
So this is a time for us to reflect and to regroup, as we discern anew what our calling is as individual Christians, as a church community (both local and now global) – and for those of you who are Guild members, to reflect how the Guild can continue to do what it has always been here to do: in faithful service to God and to this church, to help support us in our acts of service and in our worshipping lives.
Guild membership is, in one sense, a sign of Christian discipleship in a particularly focused and visible form. Those of you who have committed yourself to the service of God and of our church in this tangible way, are here to give inspiration to others by your example: through your ministry of welcome (hopefully soon to be fully restored), by your commitment to our worship and to our life as a community of faith.
But the most important point about Christian discipleship is that it is always outward looking. Our call to service; our call to be bearers of light and hope, is to the world that exists beyond the walls of St Bride’s. And our calling is also a prophetic calling.
Reflecting on today’s Bible readings makes one aware that it can’t have been much fun being a Biblical prophet. If you are bold enough to speak truth to power, as did John the Baptist, the consequences can be grim. And the best possible way to earn yourself widespread unpopularity is to alert a nation to the fact that its self-indulgent and self-centred conduct is going to lead to catastrophic disaster on a very grand scale. Hearing those Biblical passages in my youth, they always felt rather quaint and remote – the theologising of a long lost era, that had little to do with the present – because those were primitive days in which it was naively believed that there was a connection between people’s sinful behaviour and national disaster.
Except that, these days, those same biblical passages no longer feel remote. Indeed, they bring a chill to my soul. They do so because they speak so powerfully and accurately to the crisis that we currently face. Over the past few days we have seen Canada in flames following an unprecedented heatwave; landslides in Japan, and Tropical Storm Elsa battering the Florida coastline at the start of what is already another higher-than-normal hurricane season.
And the cause of all of this is human behaviour. The consequence, not of intentional and malign evil by other people – but much more worryingly, something in which we are all implicated. It is a consequence of our shopping habits; our travel arrangements; what we eat; and how we spend our leisure time. The lifestyles that we have all come to assume are ours as of right, here in the wealthy Western world without ever taking full account of their consequences, are starting to have consequences that we can no longer ignore.
There have been prophetic voices warning us of this for many, many years: I can remember seeing a small newspaper article warning of the shrinking of the polar ice caps that was dated around the year 1910. But nobody ever wants to listen to prophets, do they? And in any case, their message never really applies to good, law-abiding citizens like ourselves, does it? It is other people who must change their ways.
But this is precisely why the decisions that we make, and the ways in which we choose to live, both as individuals, and as a community of faith, matter. The encouragement that we can give one another, matters. Keeping our sense of duty and service to God and to our neighbour, matters.
In discerning our path into the future, we are discovering anew the significance of our relationship with our patron saint, Brigid of Kildare, and with the Celtic Christian tradition of spirituality – a church that had a profound sense of the wonder of the created world, and our role within it. Discovering a spirituality that has at its heart, a recognition of our need to respect and to protect our environment, and treasure our beautiful, precious, and fragile planet – is the first step to ensuring that we play our part in transforming the world around us. Change has to start somewhere – and the best place of all is within the individual human heart, and with our actions as individual human beings.
Therein lies the challenge – but therein lies the hope – and the restoration of St Bride’s after the war, aided by the reconstitution of our Guild – shows that hope can indeed become reality.