Pastoral Letter - 31st December 2021
My dear Friends,
Laurence Olivier, one of our most celebrated actors of the last century, was once asked, "What does the sweet smell of success smell like?" To which he replied, "It smells a little bit like Brighton!"
I don’t know how many of you know Brighton, but in many ways it has been a still point in a turning world for me. Graham Greene highlighted the more sinister side of the seaside town, now city, but for thousands it heralds social freedom, candyfloss, fish and chips, Regency architecture and seagulls....It spreads itself luxuriously along the south coast, languishing in intermittent sunshine. It has designer shops in the posh Lanes and more interesting junk shops and esoteric establishments in the North Lanes. It has seen the Prince Regent holding court; it has seen the IRA bombing the Grand Hotel when the Conservative Party were meeting in Conference; it has properties commanding millions of pounds; it has had hundreds of people sleeping rough on the streets, park benches and shop doorways. It is a city, it is a series of village communities. Some people live in plenty, others live in poverty. There is alcohol abuse, drug dealing, pornography; there are visionaries, artists and poets. And amongst the lanes, the avenues, the esplanades, the streets, there are also churches, particularly Victorian churches, for the Victorians were keen on building places for divine worship.
The Oxford Movement, the revival of catholicity within Anglicanism, found flamboyant as well as profound expression in Brighton. Part of their contribution to the spiritual reawakening to which the Oxford Movement was committed, was to give people, particularly those who lived in places of deprivation, a vision of the grandeur and the glory of God. They gilded everything, they accompanied worship with stirring music, they dressed in beautiful vestments, they used ornate altars. To those who lived in small and shabby rooms they offered the invitation to inhabit places of wonder for the experience of worship. To those who could not read, they offered the story of salvation in pictures. To servants who never saw the light of day, trapped as they were in shadowy basements, they offered the intensity of light. Theirs was a mission to celebrate the way in which our God-given senses can alert us to the life of the Spirit and the essence of our Creator God.
Tastes have changed, theology has been modified to suit a succession of different trends and emphasis, but part of this Victorian movement still has a home and finds expression in the potent presence of St Bartholomew’s Brighton. You may have spied it from the train as it slows to its final destination at the Brighton terminus. It looks one of the most imposing of ecclesiastical edifices, apparently built in the dimensions of the Ark, but actually what surprises many is that it was one of the very first churches in Brighton not to charge those who wanted to attend. The practice prevalent at the time was to exact a fee for a bench or pew. St Bart’s would have none of it! Free seating was available to all, indeed, for up to 1,500 worshippers. Some Brighton Clergymen at the time of the founding of St Bart’s (c.1894) were most put out by this innovation, gaining as they did reliable and substantial incomes from "pew rents" and they feared the competition of such a presence.
It is a strange church, an imposing church, the ritual now for many would seem antique, but it may perhaps still have something very special to contribute to our view of the nature of God, the manner of His reaching out to us, the way in which with respect and reverence we might approach His presence. It seeks to celebrate the dignity and unique wonder of each and every human being and our place in the great scheme of things. One enters through a modest doorway in the west of the building, so that the full force of the architecture comes as a surprise when one eventually emerges through the gloomy porch into the back of the church. Quirkily, I recall one of the many altars set in the south side of the nave, (from memory, in beaten metal, silver? bronze?) featuring the 12 signs of the Zodiac, which some might raise an eyebrow at nowadays. The High Altar at the east end of the church, is preposterous in its grandeur, a vast baldacchino giving significance to what is enacted below. The priests seem rightly diminutive as they move around it during the different moments of the Mass, the larger than life size Crucifix being the main focus of adoration and attention.
There used to be a rather eccentric priest there when I made my first visit. Most of us priests look for texts to start off a sermon from the scriptures, he preferred sourcing his texts from Operas! He used to base his talk on some moment in the drama or lyric in the music that conveyed the complex business of what it is to be human: to be in love, to be in torment, to have been betrayed, to have been broken; of what it is to seek sanctuary, absolution, guidance, peace. He would weave his words with wonder, evoking an extraordinarily powerful sense of God’s passionate, tender, courteous, sensitive, unconditional love for a humanity for whom He gave, and continues to offer, Himself completely.
He took me "back stage" once, beyond the pillared baldacchino, beyond the gilded glory of the altar, down a slope and into probably the shabbiest vestry area you could possibly imagine: drab, dank, damp, dark, and I remember thinking how fitting it was that the people of God only saw the glory of God as they worshipped, the priests inhabited the humblest of places in which to prepare. Quite right too!
But it is the music that attracts people to St Bart’s more than anything else perhaps, and I am delighted that Hamish Dustagheer, a great friend of St Mary’s who has enthralled us with piano recitals, helped us choose our new grand piano and who has written anthems which the Marble Hill Singers have sung at St Mary’s over the years, is just about to take up the post of Organist and Director of Music at St Bart’s at Easter. I have no doubt that they are in for a fabulous time with him.
The acoustic there is extraordinary. I recall going there for a concert. John Tavener was also there for a Premiere of a piece he had composed and which was played as part of the Brighton Festival. I believe it was entitled Ecstasies, though I can’t find any recording of it to check. It was an amazing experience of sound evoked by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father was sung from the centre of the High Altar, the Son was sung from the Pulpit which was a third of the way up the north side of the aisle, the Holy Spirit was sung from the Balcony at the back of the church, which meant that the audience were right in the middle of these solo voices as they reached out to the other persons of the Trinity. We were at the very heart of these waves of sound which washed all around us and through us and amongst us. We were right in the epicentre of an inverted vortex of self giving emotion, creative energy, the very making of light and life and love.
But perhaps the most striking experience I had there was on my very first visit, on an ordinary Saturday morning. It was the Missa in Angustiis, or the Nelson Mass, by Joseph Haydn, one of the six masses written toward the end of his life, it is thought, at the culmination of his composing for the liturgy of the Church. I had never before experienced the Eucharist being accompanied by a proper Mass setting. I had only ever heard such things on CD, the radio or at a concert. To experience it as it was originally intended to be heard was a revelation. It made far more sense of the music and indeed of the journey through the sequence and emotional structure of the service. The music forced one to recognise the truth of one’s darker instincts, repent of the selfishness of one’s actions, inspired one to aspire to generosity of spirit and to give oneself more completely to the adventure of faith. It encouraged one to allow oneself to be encountered by the creative force of God and filled one with the energy of endeavour. It was something new to my senses and beyond my experience of worship. Although I couldn’t worship like that every Sunday, it proved profound and memorable
But when the time came for those who had sung the Mass so magnificently and with such exquisite artistry to process down from the heights from whence they had sung, to receive Communion, for some reason, based solely on the wonder and power, beauty and serenity of their singing, I had expected to see the most glamorous of folks imaginable. Instead, and somewhat disappointingly at first, I saw completely ordinary men and women: one shuffling awkwardly, another in an old coat even Charity Shops might not have deigned to sell, one other with very badly dyed hair and colourful make up. They were not glamorous presences at all, despite the beauty and poignancy of their singing. They were all, seemingly, mundane, motley and ordinary.
Then I got it! Of course, how could I have been so stupid? Isn’t that the whole thrust and essence of the Oxford Movement, indeed, of the whole of Christian history and the potency of the Gospel? It is precisely in the ordinariness of our humanity that spiritual wonder is most at home. It is in the very mundanity of our lives that the Spirit finds fullest expression. It is through apparently unremarkable men and women that extraordinary things come into being. And perhaps more than any other time of year, Christmas reveals and celebrates that.
In the chaos of the census, in the despair of sleeping on the streets, in the danger of being far from home, in the shame of being pregnant before marriage, the light from another realm shone into the darkness of our lives. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, were all completely ordinary and unremarkable human beings. It was the God who visited them, embraced them, loved them, believed in them who reinterpreted them, offered hope through them and sang His song of salvation through them. And if He did so through them, then why not through us as well? Perhaps this, more than anything else, will offer us the confidence we need to take us into this coming new year: that God is part of who we are. He can and does use people as ordinary and compromised as you and me to effect change, influence for good, correct wrongs, impart hope, offer compassion and companionship to those who need it and bestow blessing through our noticing, listening, serving love.
God uses such as you and me to speak words of comfort, affirmation, guidance, encouragement, to others, if only we would align our lives with His and let Him. He will similarly help us to challenge injustice, prejudice and bigotry, should we allow His truth to influence and inspire who we are. The God who became flesh can inhabit our flesh too and can fill us, as He did Mary, that we too may be "God-bearers" in our own day. Perhaps our prayer at the cusp of the year should then be: Lord, as once you noticed a humble and apparently unremarkable person and loved her into wholeness and significance, Please Lord, notice and love me. Lord, as once you filled Mary with the gift of yourself, Please Lord, fill me. Lord, as once you allowed Mary to bring forth your presence into an aching, needing world, Please Lord, use me. Lord, as once you embraced the ordinariness of Mary and transformed her by grace, Please Lord, transform me. Lord, as once you entered our experience of time and blessed it with your presence and your power, Please Lord, come to us now. For we long to be part of your healing and reconciling love, Please use us creatively in the opportunities and relationships of 2022. We long to be part of your ministry of hope, Please inspire us to be encouragers of others in the months ahead. Our community and country needs to recover and rebuild, Please help us to be part of that recovery and rebuilding, That we may be part of the bringing forth of the presence of Christ in our own day. All these things we ask and pray In the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. AMEN.
PLEASE JOIN US FOR EITHER OUR EUCHARIST IN CHURCH AT 9.30am or our Zoom service online at 5pm, when we will be exploring the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 1 verses 10-18. The Hymns at the 9.30am service will be: 310, 172 and 537.
COLLECT FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS: ALMIGHTY GOD IN THE BIRTH OF YOUR SON YOU HAVE POURED ON US THE NEW LIGHT OF YOUR INCARNATE WORD, AND SHOWN US THE FULLNESS OF YOUR LOVE:
HELP US TO WALK IN HIS LIGHT AND DWELL IN HIS LOVE THAT WE MAY KNOW THE FULLNESS OF HIS JOY. THIS WE ASK THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD, WHO LIVES AND REIGNS WITH YOU AND THE HOLY SPIRIT ONE GOD, NOW AND FOR EVER. AMEN.
No booking is necessary for the EUCHARISTS. Please do not come to the church if you are displaying any Covid symptoms or you are required to self-isolate and please seriously consider whether it is wise to attend if you have cold or ‘flu symptoms, in fairness to others. We would ask that unless you are officially exempted from doing so, everyone wears a face mask, in keeping with Government instructions. Please also consider and follow the other guidance on our website http://www.stmarytwick.org.uk about Covid precautions as as we all seek to keep ourselves and others healthy.
Communion will be offered in the form of the consecrated host, which you may receive in your hands and which we would ask you to consume immediately.
5pm EACH SUNDAY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE: Zoom Service
We very much hope that those of you who are not able to join us in church for our service, join us online instead. This will take the same form which we have used from last April. Please have a candle, matches, bread and wine to hand. Click Here to download the Order of Service