The story is told of a vicar who, when delivering leaflets to the homes of his parishioners, encountered a lady tending her garden, who was evidently not best pleased to see him. She was quick to make her views absolutely clear, and in no uncertain terms: ‘You won’t catch me coming to church, vicar,’ she said. ‘The church is full of hypocrites.’ ‘Ooh, I don’t know,’ replied the vicar, ‘there’s always room for one more.’
It can be fascinating and exasperating in equal measure to discover how the Church and its members are perceived by those outside the Christian fold – which is what makes this tale as alarming as it is amusing.
There are those who dismiss churchgoers as being hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch with reality; or as sad people who need some kind of self-delusional prop to enable them to survive the rigours of ordinary life. There is, of course, the accusation of hypocrisy, as we have just heard. And, of course, very often, those outside the Church haven’t a clue what to make of clergy like me.
During my lecturing days (when most of the time I didn’t wear a clerical collar to work), some new neighbours moved into the house next door to ours. I got to know them a bit over the next 18 months or so. And one morning, quite by chance, the woman next door came out of her house, just as I was arriving home in clericals. She looked at me in utter amazement and incredulity, and the colour drained from her face – such was her shock and alarm. At which point I suddenly realised that she had absolutely no idea up to that point that I was ordained. And I could just see the mental wheels whirring in her head, as she desperately tried to think back and remember if she had ever said anything naughty, or used bad language that I would have found terribly shocking.
I have absolutely no idea where that strange notion has come from that clergy are basically naïve, delicate little creatures who have to be protected from the realities of life because we are very easily shocked. If anything the exact opposite is the case: many of us have to deal with some of the most horrendous human situations imaginable: death, suicide, victims of sexual violence, people struggling with extreme mental illness, or alcohol or drug dependency – you name it, most of us have been there, and it can be pretty bleak sometimes.
So there is a deeply unfortunate gulf between many people’s assumptions about the life of the church, and the actual lived reality. This includes the curious assumption that people have that those who go to church have got it all taped: they know all the answers; they have a faith that is rock solid. And if that is the case, what place could there possibly be for the person who isn’t at all sure what he or she believes, but who nevertheless feels drawn to come near? Or the individual who wants to ask hard and deep questions about sin and suffering, and meaning and meaninglessness, and needs somewhere to take those issues but doesn’t think the Church will take them seriously?
Or the person who fears rejection because of who and what they are, or fears that the Church will try to change them into someone they are not? Can there really be a place for people like them in a gathering of worthy Christians whose lives are all squeaky clean, and perfect, and totally sorted out?
They may sound like caricatures, but I can assure you that I have known individuals who have held every single one of those erroneous beliefs. So, if the Church is NOT a gathering of hypocritical, patronising, antiquated, naïve individuals, who are easily shocked, and profess to have all the answers, while being completely out of touch with reality – what is it, then? And what is the role of our church here – St Bride’s?
To begin with the glaringly obvious, the purpose of the Church has got to be something to do with our encounter with God. As most of you will know, there has probably been a church on this site since the 6th century. And I find that I have a particularly acute sense in this church – more so than I do in many other church buildings – that here we really are on hallowed ground. This really is sacred space: a place sanctified by the prayers of the faithful, who have worshipped here down the centuries.
St Bride’s is open every day now, and if any of you have had the chance to come here quietly and spend some time here when the place is empty, or still, you may well have discovered, as I have, a quality of stillness and silence that really is quite extraordinary.
I continue to find the atmosphere here extraordinary – particularly sometimes down in the crypt chapels, where one feels in such direct contact with all the worship of past ages on this site (because the walls of some of those previous churches are still visible): one really is on hallowed ground. This really is a sacred space, sanctified by the prayers of the faithful who have worshipped here throughout so many centuries. A sense of the all-embracing love of God that is so powerful that at times you can almost touch it.
St Bride’s has had an incredibly complicated history over the past 1500 years. We have lived through plague, fire, civil war, the Blitz – you name it, St Bride’s has seen it. And yet despite all of that – or possibly because of all that – the community of the faithful here have prayed life into our very foundations; into our walls; into the space; into the light.
A church is a community that exists primarily in the here and now, but which also transcends space and time – and in our case, has deep roots that reach down through the centuries. When we are here, we are engaging in a reality that is far greater, far more ancient, and far more profound, than anything that we can see and hear today. The world in which we live, here in central London, can seem so rootless; so starved of stillness and silence; a world that has so little sense of the sacred, while being so at ease with the profane – and it is a world that is greatly impoverished by its lack of those precious and essential gifts.
And it is within the context of this sacred space that we can encounter God, through our worship, through its silences, and through our relationships with one another. It is in this context that we can learn to grow, not only as individuals but as a community of love and grace and service. And, those of us who are able to come together, whether physically or online, Sunday by Sunday, can then, restored and renewed, take something of those qualities into our daily lives, and into the people and situations around us.
One of the things that I most love and value about our congregation here is that we are so wonderfully diverse – not only in the details of our daily lives, our stories and our backgrounds – but also in our journeys of faith. That is one of our strengths, because the Kingdom of God is like that – it is a place where all will find a welcome, regardless of who and what they are. All are welcome. All are accepted. All are loved. And because we undertake this journey together from our very different starting points – we are all the richer, and we can all continue to learn, and to grow.
The priest and poet John Donne became Dean of St Paul’s, just up the road from us here, in 1621. In one of his sermons, he said this – and his words are just as appropriate to us, here at St Bride’s today, as they were to his original hearers, in the original setting in which they were uttered. He said this:
These walles are holy, because the Saints of God meet here within these walls to glorifie him. But yet these places are not onely consecrated and sanctified by your comming; but to bee sanctified also for your comming; that so, as the Congregation sanctifies the place, the place may sanctifie the Congregation, too. They must accompany one another; holy persons and holy places. 1
A church is made up of its people – that is why we are the Body of Christ; but the church, as a sacred space, a place of encounter with God, is also our home: the place where we come for refreshment and renewal; to be loved and supported by our fellow travellers on the journey of faith; to learn to grow in love and grace by working with one another to work through our differences, and our disagreements, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and always recognising the image of God in one another.
Thank you – all of you – for being part of our church family. Even if you have never been able to visit us here in person, it really does matter to us that you are joining us by listening in – and you are contributing to our life as a community of faith by doing so. I hope that through our worship you are able to renew your sense of being salt and light – to help bring savour and illumination to a world that is in such dire need of it.
And thanks be to God for that.
1 John Moses (ed.), One Equal Light: An Anthology of the Writings of John Donne (Norwich: 2003) p. 225.