Sermon, St James’s Day, 25 July 2021, the Vicar

Did you have an embarrassing aunt when you were young? I was brought up with many aunts, more than I could count, and they are all gone, they all had wonderful names of a particular type, Freda, Mavis, Joyce, Phyllis, Nora, Nora, Lucy, Hester, Muriel….. One of the Noras had seen Queen Victoria. They were great aunts really, most of the normal aunts were post 60s and did not want to be known as Aunt. None of them was embarrassing, but I was little and they were quite a collection, as my grandparents were cousins, most of this collection were related to one another.

It’s just possible that James and John’s mother, Salome, present at the crucifixion and on Easter morning, was Mary the mother of Jesus’s sister, making James and John Jesus’s first cousins. Salome was Jesus’s embarrassing Aunty, from Capernaum, wife of the wonderfully named Zebedee.

Aunt Sal puts Jesus and her boys in pretty sticky situation in today’s Gospel. The disciples are heading towards Jerusalem, and she asks Jesus a rather difficult question. “Go on boy, will sit your cousins either side of you in your kingdom?

There’s a bit of background needed, which might help.

The people in Qumran about whom we know a fair amount from the Dead Sea Scrolls, like Jesus, were into nice meals. There’s a lot of stuff about their Messianic banquets in a text called the Messianic rule. It was all very ordered, who came in when and sat where. A Messiah-Priest was to sit in the middle, with the next most important to his right and the next again to the left. Although the Qumran community was made up of radicals, they were not democrats or egalitarians. We don’t know, but Aunt Sal probably knew something about what was going on there, and connected what her nephew had been saying about Kingdoms and reigns and supplanting the current order, and wanted to get in a word for her boys. Can you feel your toes curling?

It’s made all the more sit-com like because Aunty is so ridiculous. Interestingly the older version of this story in Mark, has James and John themselves doing the begging. In both stories the other disciples are pretty narked by it, not because of how crass it is, but because they are kicking themselves for not having thought about it earlier! It’s a laugh a minute in this narrative. And then it suddenly all gets very serious indeed.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I shall drink of and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” They say they are, but when it comes to it, after the last supper, when he has taken the cup, and then gone to Gethsemane and prayed that that same cup might pass, where do the disciples go? James and John, the so-called “sons of thunder”, who would have called down fire onto Samaritan villages that would not hear, vanish into the night. Their thunder got stollen pretty quickly, and the cup passed them by.

In today’s story Jesus is very clear, Aunt Sal has herself melted away. All the other ways of being, whether it is Qumran or the Gentiles are rejected. “It shall not be so among you: whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” The son of Man is THE servant, just as Israel was called to be from the time of the prophet Isaiah.

Early views of suffering and exile and humiliation are summed up in the idea of the cup: “Take the wine cup, and cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it.” Jer 25: 15.

This cup is a very dense image, therefore. There are strong echoes of the exile and defeat, at the same time as the Paschal image of the cup blessed at the last supper, which in turn spells Jesus’s passion, which in turn is his identification not just with the suffering of the world but the ancient suffering of his people. Binding all of these images is the strong sense of release, ransom, salvation from bondage. The Servant’s suffering brings release, a sharing in that cup, an identification with captivity and loss.

James and John are on this path, whether they like it or not. James, as we hear in our reading from Acts dies in 44 AD. His younger brother will live a very long life. Although he did suffer persecution and exile on Patmos.

Today we commemorate St James, whom Luke tells us in Acts was killed by Herod Agrippa in 44. The latter was the grandson of Herod the Great, nephew of Antipas and Philip and son of Aristobulus. He had a strange Aunty, in the shape of Herodias, who did for poor John the Baptist. He was a friend of Caligula, a dangerous thing to be, and Josephus tells us he was instrumental in the coming to power of Claudius, so a king-maker. Unlike most of the Herodian family he gets a good write up by the Rabbis, but he met a curious end, soon after he put James to death. Luke is the only one to tell us was eaten up by worms, but the other accounts do suggest it was not pleasant.

James, poor chap, having been beheaded by Agrippa, did not exactly get to rest in peace. The Armenians think they have his head in St James’s Monastery in Jerusalem. There is a very strong belief that by one of several means, James’s relics managed to get to the Atlantic coast of Spain, either by a rudderless boat guided by Angels or even that his followers walked them there, after his execution. The legends abound. Sir Thomas Kendrick, former Head of the British Museum, archaeologist and one time lover of the novelist Barbara Pym, said in the way that post-war scholars did, dismissively “even if one admits the existence of miracles, James’ presence in Spain is impossible.”

There’s something about sanctity of place and person that casts remarks like that into the shade. Santiago de Compostella has been a place of pilgrimage since the 9th c AD. In 2019, the last normal year, it had very nearly 350,000 pilgrims who did the Camino. It will be interesting to know how many travel this year. Today, I imagine the famous church with its incense burner weighing about 13 stone and standing at well over 5 foot high, made of solid brass, will test Covid security. Near continental Finisterre – land’s end, the pilgrimage to St James’s relics represents the goal of many people’s striving after holiness and has done for over 1000 years. At the very heart of that holiness is what Jesus says to the self-serving James and his brother John, and their dizzy Aunt, as they are on the road to Jerusalem about power and authority “It shall not be so among you, whosoever shall be great among you let him be your minister (servant) and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your slave.”

Sermon for the ordination of a Diocese in Europe Deacon, Glen Ruffle, given by the Vicar at the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy on Sunday 18 July 2021

What remarkable and unique factors come together today! At the very kind permission of the Chapel Royal and the Duchy of Lancaster, the peculiar status of this historic place permits the ordination of a Diocese in Europe Deacon, Glen Ruffle to serve at St Andrew’s Moscow.

St Andrew’s may need some brief introduction. The chaplain, Fr Malcolm Rogers cannot be here today. As well as serving our community there, he is the Archbishop’s Apokrisiarios to the Patriarch of Moscow, Third Rome and All Russia. The worshipping community is made up of people of many nationalities. St Andrew’s is represented, as is the Diocesan Office, and the venerable Russia Company a historic pioneer of in the Diocese’s ecumenical work. Not being able to get to Russia, Bishop David has been to Madrid to ordain one deacon, to Milan to ordain four priests, and tomorrow flies to Norway to ordain yet another. That’s 2 deacons and five priests in four countries in five weeks with two sets of quarantine.

A word about Glen, although I am clear an ordination is not an opportunity for a eulogy. Friends, European, countrymen: I come to praise God not to bury Glen. Glen has lived and worked in Moscow for some years before training. As his DDO, it is my job with others, to assure the Bishop Glen is a good thing. Which he most definitely is, otherwise we would not all be here.

Exactly 360 years ago this week, here in the Savoy, Commissioners met to establish the contents of the Book of Common Prayer. We could even say “The Prayer Book is coming home!”

Glen you are vested in red, the colour both of the Spirit, and the blood of the martyrs, just as monarchs arrive at their coronations robed in scarlet.

Today is the Feast Day of St Elizabeth of Russia. For brevity, may she permit me to refer to her as Ella, the name by which she was known by her extended European family.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, read by Alison on behalf of all you will serve in Moscow, recounts the ordination of the first deacons. We are introduced to Stephen, the Proto-Deacon, who was also the Church’s first martyr, whose commemoration, the Feast of Stephen, is significantly the day after Christmas. The diaconate is not just about service but, martyrdom as well.

We start in 1878. When just fourteen, Ella’s mother, Princess Alice, third child and second daughter of Queen Victoria, died of diphtheria in Darmstadt on 14 December. It was 17 years to the day since the death of her beloved father, Prince Albert. The family was devastated. Ella and her sisters would spend much of the rest of their teenage years with Queen Victoria, in loco parentis. The Queen took a real interest in their upbringing, and future marriages! From an early age, Ella had been marked by her namesake and ancestress, St Elizabeth of Thüringen, foundress of the Houses both Saxe and Hesse, an interest the keen genealogist Queen Victoria greatly encouraged.

Ella’s great aunt on her father’s side had married Tsar Alexander II (d. 1880), and through that connection, Ella was courted by her cousin Sergei or Serge. Serge was a suave and cultivated man. The informed Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, regarded Serge as “one of the handsomest men I have ever seen.” She could speak as one who knew.

Serge was steeped in Russian literature and culture, a devotee of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He was also a devout Orthodox, passionate for the Holy Land and the care of its Russian pilgrims. Part of his youth was spent in Rome with his brother Paul. Despite confessional differences, Pope Leo XIII took avuncular care of them. It was he who broke the news of their father’s assassination in 1881.

Serge and Ella were married in 1884. Their match frowned on by Queen Victoria, suspicious of Romanov autocracy. Nevertheless, Serge and his German Grand Duchess dazzled court life. Ella converted to Orthodoxy to the joy of her husband and family. Ella’s younger sister, Alix met the Tsarevich, Nicholas, at the wedding. Another Princess of Hesse would make her way from Darmstadt to St Petersburg in 1894. How could any of them have known this would be the start of the final act of this dynastic drama?

1905.Nicholas II had mishandled conflicts abroad and government at home, culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of 22 January. Serge meanwhile was a reactionary Governor of Moscow. In a move about which Ella had forebodings, Serge exiled 20,000 Jewish citizens with wilful disregard for popular feeling.

On 17 February, an insurgent Ivan Kalyeyev hurled an improvised bomb towards Serge’s carriage as it passed through the gates of Nicholas Palace. The murder was horrific. Ella heard the explosion and rushed to the scene, too late.

In the aftermath, Ella visited Kalyeyev. She gave him the Gospels, which she implored he read, saying she had forgiven him. She asked that he seek forgiveness. If he did, she would plead with the Tsar for clemency. Kalyeyev would not, preferring death for the cause of revolutionary socialism. This act of mercy was unprecedented, albeit spurned. Ella’s love for her husband and Christian response to his death, marked all around her and beyond, at the tensest time of Tsarist rule.

She left court. A dear friend wrote:

The horror left a deep trace on her countenance which only passed away when, having learnt the futility of earthly existence, and she received the experience of divine beauty, and after this time her eyes seemed to be gazing at a vision of the other world.

She set about founding a women’s religious community dedicated to Ss Mary and Martha. The same friend, just quoted, described her clothing as a nun:

So it came to pass. Through the grey veil of the Sisterhood her works shone with a divine radiance.

Many give witness that the work of the Sisterhood and the offering of worship in the chapel were seamless.

Russia’s prosecution of War was catastrophic. A generation of Russia’s youth perished. The Tsar’s reign was doomed, with few to blame but himself. He abdicated in 1917.

Elizabeth’s convent was raided by ascendent Bolsheviks at the same moment as the abdication. They found only signs of an austere community, living alongside and in communion with the poor. Their leader told Elizabeth as they left “Perhaps we are heading for the same goal but on different paths.” She observed to the sisters “Obviously, we are not yet worthy of a martyr’s crown.” The Soviets seized power in late 1917. The Imperial family now a liability to their captors and possible saviours.

At Easter 1918, Ella, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, four Imperial princes, an aide, and faithful sister Barbara, were escorted to Ekaterinburg, on the Siberian side of the Urals, very near Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, but there was no contact.

104 years ago yesterday, the Tsar and his wife and children were shot in cold blood in the basement of the house named, The House of Special Purpose. We know the details from the accounts of those who took part. It was horrific. I will say no more.

The carnage did not stop there. The same direct orders from Lenin to his henchmen in Ekaterinburg outlined what was to follow. The Soviet guards were determined if ham-fisted to the end.

Early on 18th July the captives were ordered from their makeshift prison at a school in Alapayevsk and trundled in carts to a disused iron-ore mine, with a shaft some 20 m deep. Elizabeth was cast into it, the rest of the party following. Ella’s fall was broken by a ridge some way down, her nephew landed next to her. She bandaged his broken arm with material torn from her head-dress. All the while, she led the singing of Easter hymns. A grenade was lobbed into the mineshaft, then another; despite the injuries, the singing continued, haunting their inept guards. They poured a quantity of branches and dry leaves into the opening and set them on fire.

Pre-arranged telegrams were sent from the Ekaterinburg Soviet announcing that the school at Alpayevsk had been raided by “an unidentified gang”. Lenin’s ploy was to inform the world Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her companions were no more. No hint of responsibility implied, or remorse recorded.

Those close to Lenin noted his fear of Ella’s reputation. Apparently, he observed:

Virtue with a crown on it is a greater enemy to world revolution than a hundred tyrant Tsars.

Not knowing the details only that Ella had certainly died, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg wrote:

If ever anyone has met death without fear she will have, and pure faith will have upheld and supported and comforted her in all that she has gone through so that the misery poor Alickey [Ella’s sister, the Tsairna] will have suffered will not have touched Ella’s soul.

Ella was Princess Alice’s beloved Godmother. The work Princess Alice undertook in Athens as a nun from the 1940s was a deliberate continuation of her aunt’s mission. Poignantly, Alice’s choice of final resting place would be near her Aunt’s.

The bodies were found in September, when the White Russians commanded by General Smolin, occupied Alapayevsk. A drunken guard let slip his part in the gruesome murder. That is how we know of Ella’s nursing of her nephew, and that she did not die in the fire, but of starvation, possibly days after she fell.

The bodies were recovered, given funeral rites, and taken to Peking, to the cemetery of the Russian Mission. Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s older sister, in England, Princess Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, arranged for the bodies of her sister and Sister Barbara to be transported to Palestine for burial on the Mt of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the church built by Serge and his siblings to honour their mother, and Serge and Ella had seen consecrated in 1888. On 15 January 1920 the remains of the two nuns were met in Jerusalem by the British interim authorities and processed to their final resting places, accompanied by the Greek and Russian Orthodox hierarchs of Jerusalem. You might picture the onion domes of St Mary Magdalene glimmering amidst the green olives of Gethsemane, overlooking the site of Solomon’s Temple. It is the Feast of the Madeleine this week, who in another garden on the first Easter Day encountered the Risen Lord. To those whose faith causes them to hold fast to the end, Our Lord says “I am the resurrection and the life. He who liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Elizabeth had written to Countess Alexandra Olsoufieff, departing Moscow in April 1918:

“One must fix one’s thoughts on the heavenly country in order to see things in their true light, and to be able to say, “Thy will be done.” Dear friend, I am only certain that the God who chastises is the same God who loves. Thank you for the dear past.”

This was the last farewell, said as simply as everything else in her life. Knowing her as well as I did, I can say with certainty that she thanked God for throwing open to her, through suffering, a place among His elect. She was of the same stuff as the early Christian martyrs who died in the Roman arenas. Perhaps in the time of our grandchildren the Church will beatify her as a saint.

Indeed, they did. The Russian Church in Exile canonised her in 1981, and the Moscow Patriarchate followed in 1992. Elizabeth’s statue was consecrated above the West Door of Westminster, before the Queen and Prince Philip in 1998. Elizabeth stands next to Martin Luther King as one of the martyrs of the 20th c.

Our first reading pictures the call of a deacon. The Greek widows were not getting their fair share, and the lofty Apostles in Acts chapter 6 wanted it sorted and to have as little to do with it as they could. They lay hands on Stephen and Philip and their friends, and a new chapter in Church life opens.

St Luke delights in irony. His Gospel takes a particular interest in the lives of servants. There are several parables which involve domestics, one of them today’s Gospel. It is reminiscent of Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids with oil or not in their lamps. But the story is different. In the parable Glen our deacon read, the master is about to return, the faithful servants, are waiting up. The master arrives, jolly late, but far from expecting himself to be served and fawned over, the master puts on an apron, girds his loins, and serves them.

The Apostles were just that little bit too grand, and had forgotten that Jesus, their master, came not to be served but to serve.

Grand Duchess Ella had tried in 1909 to revive the ancient order of deacons for women in the Russian Church. She nearly succeeded. Had she done so she would be remembered for one of the boldest ecumenical moves of the early 20th c. Her name though is hallowed with all the martyrs, for holding firm to the end.

Whether you will be called to martyrdom or intimating to Malcolm the “estates, names and places where the needy of the parish may dwell” remains to be seen. But we trust and know that you are “inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this office and Ministration, to serve God, for the promoting of his glory and the edifying of his people.” “So let your loins be girded and your lights burning.”







Sermon Trinity V, Sunday 4 July 2021, Ros Miskin

The theme of my sermon today is perseverance. I am sure that most of us, at one time or another, have felt the desire to give up when things are not going well.  I certainly have, though my boarding school years taught me to keep going and persevere when sensing that everything was going wrong.  In my school days of the 1960s there was very little pastoral care but pupils encouraged each other to keep going and helped each other out in times of trouble.  This encouragement to persevere through difficult times has stood me in good stead over the years in attempting to cope with the ups and downs of life and keep a steady course in stormy weather.

Is there, though, something more here than just getting through hard times and marching on in the hope of better days to come?  To attempt to find the answer let us look at today’s Gospel reading.

Mark writes that when Jesus teaches in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth his teaching is rejected by his hearers on the grounds of his being a carpenter in his home town with his sisters present.  Where, they ask, can such a one get his teaching from?  ‘What is this wisdom’ they ask ‘that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done in his hands?’  Jesus is amazed at their lack of belief but he does not react by abandoning his teaching.  On the contrary we know from Mark that straightaway he went about among the villages teaching.

Here is a demonstration by Jesus of perseverance in a time of rejection and as we can read in the continuation of today’s Gospel, Jesus, without hesitation, goes on to summon the twelve disciples to further his mission of healing and teaching.  They too, are called upon by Jesus to persevere, as they are either to stay in a household until they leave or, if they are not welcome, as they leave they must shake off the dust that is on their feet as a testimony against the householders.

What, though, is the motive for this continuance of mission against the odds?  In his book ‘Transforming Mission’ David Bosch writes that: ‘Christian mission gives expression to the dynamic relationship between God and the world’.  It is, he writes, ‘an act of faith without earthly guarantees’.  ‘It is God’s ‘yes’ to the world’. It is an invitation to people to become living members of Christ’s earthly community and begin a life of service to others in the power of the Holy Spirit’.  He writes that: ‘you are challenged to be God’s experimental garden on earth’.

These are impressive words used to explain why perseverance matters.  By sticking to our guns and remaining undefeated by opposition we are engaging with life in such a way that we can demonstrate our faith in God’s ‘experimental garden on earth’. It means that we have faith in the promise of God’s covenant with us that he will never, in spite of the Fall of Adam and Eve, abandon us as he offers us an eternal love that does not fail.

An example of this love is God’s power to renew his creation. It is a feature of Jewish scripture that when his love is met by infidelity and failure it is always renewed by him.  From time to time, God breaks us down, like the potter with the clay, and then renews us.  In today’s pandemic it may well be that God is breaking up our world in order for it to transit through a portal into a renewed and better state of affairs.  This sense of breakdown and renewal should sustain us as we attempt to persevere, particularly now with all that the pandemic has thrown at us.  We can remind ourselves that every time a child is born that is creation being renewed.

To return to the mission of the twelve disciples, we learn from today’s Gospel that the journey must go on.  At this stage, though, Jesus has the advantage over them in that he knows that when he teaches it is in the sure knowledge that God is the origin of his power.  This is affirmed in the Gospel of John in the passage where Jesus is teaching in the Temple in the Festival of Booths.  In response to the anger and astonishment of his Jewish audience, he says: ‘the teaching is not mine but his who sent me’.  At the onset of their mission, the disciples embark on their journey but we know that without the certainty that Jesus possesses  their faith wavers and later on the narrative of the Gospels there is denial and betrayal of Jesus right up until the Crucifixion.  Yet, by the mercy of God, we also know that this is not the end.  After the Ascension we are told that they will go out to proclaim the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Here is an example of God breaking the pot in the death of his Son and then renewing it in the Ascension and the renewal of the mission of the disciples.

This brings a sentence to mind that I heard on the radio recently that if God opens a door no man can shut it.

In the current difficult situation that we are facing worldwide I believe it will help us to persevere if we hold on to this power of God to renew his creation. We can too pray to God to assist us when times are hard.  As the Psalmist cries to God in Psalm 123: ‘have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt’.  The Psalmist is struggling but he knows who to turn to when reaching the limit of his ability to endure.  This is a free gift of God to us that we can call upon him for strength in hard times.

So let us pray that God will see us through when the going gets rough and have faith in his covenant of promise with its heavenly reward of eternal life.




Sermon, Trinity III, Sunday 20 June 2021, Tessa Lang

What manner of man is this?
From Mark 4: 38 – 41
38 And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a
pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest
thou not that we perish?
39 And He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the
sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a
great calm.
40 And He said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it
that ye have no faith?
41 And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another,
What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea
obey him?
Moments before muttering this question amongst themselves,
the disciples on that small fishing boat with Jesus were
terrified, bailing out incoming waves, wrestling super-human
strength winds, losing control of their craft and their nerve,
fighting for their lives. Amongst them were several former
fishers from a long line of fishermen who knew all about perils
on the sea, yet finding their skills no match for the sudden
violence of the storm.

The sea now stilled, the winds calmed, and rescued from what
looked like certain death, yet they were still afraid. And they
feared exceedingly we are told. By the end of our text, we
understand why. Spoiler alert: it has everything to do with
what manner of man Jesus is.

Mark makes every word count in his characteristically fastpaced
and cinematic gospel. In the space of 7 short verses,
we move from floating just off-shore at the end of a long day
preaching to the crowds…to unexpectedly setting sail to a
destination far from home…into the maw of a stupendous
storm…unto a miraculous rescue when Jesus speaks 3 words
–Peace, be still … only to experience an even greater fear in
the aftermath. Our text today leaves the disciples on a cliff
edge, and the reader panting to keep up with events and grasp
their full meaning.

In the space of 7 short verses, a series of 4 questions shapes
the encounter into a lesson in discipleship –– 2 are uttered in
extremity by the disciples, at the start and conclusion of Jesus’
intervention (Master, carest thou not that we perish? and What
manner of man is this?) and 2 by Jesus in revelation of His
nature and of theirs (Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye
have no faith?)

Perhaps it is the lens of our shared Covid experience and
awareness of storms that threaten the church, the nation, the
international order and the planet itself that connect us to a
narrative more mysterious and existential than a blanket
assurance of comfort and help in times of trouble…a central
character more strange and subtle than a Prospero-like master
of nature…where fear is as essential to the message as peace.
Let us, like Job in verse 1 of chapter 38, listen to the voice
from this whirlwind together.

Like all foundational Bible stories, be they Old Testament or
New, this one begins at Creation, when the Spirit of God
moved upon face of the water and all things were made, set in
place and regulated. Jesus’ audience would be aware of God’s
deployment of the waters in the Flood and Exodus, and have
heard of seas calmed and stilled in many of the Psalms (65,
89, 107 et al). It is a power reserved to Him alone. A signifier
of God-ness. As God alone, not man, controls the weather.
The disciples and those who thronged to the shore that day to
hear Jesus preach would also be familiar with the Sea of
Galilee: with the River Jordan, its source; the surrounding
mountains and Golan heights; its weather patterns. In the
mornings, a lake breeze blows to the land, making it hard work
to get the boats out first thing from shallow coves and towns
dotted along a level shoreline. An essential effort, though, as
later, westerly winds begin to blow off the Mediterranean
coast, sinking when they head for the lowest freshwater body
in the world, making it harder to get back home to the western
shore. At night, winds from the land increase, combining with
katabatic winds plunging down the steep slopes surrounding
the Sea of Galilee. Sudden violent storms result.

This wind pattern has been observed since trade first began
across the Sea and agriculture took root in the sheltered lands
ringing a relatively abundant source of water. Here is the
topography of a place of borders and liminal spaces — where
earth, wind and sea, tectonic plates, rival homelands and
cultures, empire and colony, God and humanity arrive at the
threshold of the other. Here is the home of constant risk and
exposure, surely best if managed prudently and with benefit of

Here is where Mark sets his account, starting in a small cove
somewhere between the villages of Capernaum and Tabgha,
forming a natural amphitheatre so weirdly effective that Jesus
was able to withdraw to preach from a boat moored near the
shore, benefiting from a bit of distance from his audience as
well as the cooling lake breeze.

What Jesus did next was unexpected: he gave the command
to sail to “the other side” of the sea, “as he was”, without
preparation, immediately, through the gathering dark and
during the hours favoured by intense storms. It also meant
sailing eastward –– away from Jewish lands to those of the
gentile –– a foreshadowing of the ultimate direction of his
ministry unto the entire world.

Mark reports that other small boats set sail at the same time;
they then disappear from our story. Meanwhile Jesus took
himself off below and was deeply asleep when the storm
struck. In his incarnated humanity, perhaps Jesus was simply
worn out by exertion, heat and the crowd. Or perhaps Jesus
created a ‘perfect storm’ to give his disciples an examination
under pressure, to reveal His identity and His mission by
demonstration and direct experience. Perhaps both.
Up on deck, the disciples were overwhelmed. No doubt their
burden of responsibility for Jesus, and those of their fellows
compounded their distress. When they could see no other
option, they went to wake Jesus with a terrified complaint –
don’t you care if we perish? It’s a feeling familiar and all too
human when we are threatened, when things fall apart. They
call Jesus ‘Master’; like Rabbi or Teacher, even Messiah, such
titles fall short of his true identity.

For what manner of man is this? A full demonstration that
Jesus is the Lord of Creation swiftly follows.
He speaks 3 words and everything transforms upon His
command. This is not exorcism, or Kabbalistic conjuring with
complex requirements for ritual and supplication; it is an
instantaneous and effortless deployment of power. No wonder
His disciples are more deeply afraid when they realise they are
in the presence of God. Through their fear, they truly reach
“the other side” in reverence and awe. Only then will they
begin to exercise faith…receive His peace…be saved. As will
everyone who abides in faith and reverent fear, even in the
midst of our own storms and self-imposed separation from the
living God who always loves us. And who as Jesus, the man
and incarnate God, accepted a life of risk and pain for our
sakes. Amen.

Sermon, Trinity II, Sunday 13 June 2021, Ros Miskin

In today’s Gospel reading we learn from Mark that the kingdom of God is like a seed that, when it grows up, will put forth large branches ‘so that the birds of the air can nest in its shade.’

When I read that particular sentence about the birds, it brought to mind another passage from the New Testament which can be found in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke.  Here, Jesus says to his followers: ‘foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ If, as Mark’s Gospel indicates, the birds are to be included in the kingdom of God then the text of Luke’s Gospel implies that Jesus, who has nowhere to lay his head, is not of the kingdom of God but a homeless outsider.  I believe that the answer is that in the Gospel narratives, the kingdom of God is anticipated and inaugurated by Jesus but he cannot fully participate in it until his earthly body has been transformed into a heavenly one. As the Son of Man, Jesus has to wait until his destiny is fulfilled on the Cross and in the Resurrection. Nor can we rest in the kingdom until the seed has grown up and has spread its branches.

In expressing his unique position as the Son of Man, the effect is one of  sadness at being, in effect, homeless.  Homelessness is a dispiriting state of affairs, and manifests itself on a large scale today. Politicians and people alike struggle to find solutions and churches and charities do their best to help those concerned. Can the New Testament offer us a way out of this anxiety-making state of affairs?  Let us see what we can find.

I believe that we are being asked not to strive too hard for a solution.  The message that the Gospel writers are giving us is that our real and ultimate home is the kingdom of God and this is not brought about solely by us.  We harvest the ripe grain but it is God who brings it forth on his own timetable.  As St Paul expresses it in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  St Paul also asks us not to lose heart because if our earthly tent is destroyed we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  This does not mean to say that we do not suffer earthly dilemmas but that, as Paul expresses it, he would rather be ‘away from the body and home with the Lord’ than the other way round.

Where does this leave us, though, in our present day reality with its massive problems, homelessness amongst them, made worse in recent times by the pandemic?  I would say that if we want to inhabit a better, fairer, world we can, as St Paul says, look towards the kingdom of God as a source of joy and completion but there is something else we can do.  In his book entitled ‘Meeting God in Mark’ our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes as follows: ‘to understand God there are a number of clues around you. The growth of a seed and the radiating of a lamp, as in the parable of the lamp under a bushel basket, demonstrate that God does not often manifest himself in  thunderclaps but works from the depth of our being; from the heart out into the life of the everyday.’ I would say, then, that if we contemplate these clues and are aware of this earthly activity of God in our being, then whatever comes from our heart out into our everyday existence is bound, by its very nature, to work for the benefit of all.  By tuning in to God’s work in us we can cope better and resolve where possible the problems that beset us, of which there are many.

We know, in today’s digital world,that we can tune in to what is going on all over the world but if we focus on tuning in to God’s work in us that, I believe, bears greater fruit in terms of the benefit of all.  It does so because it involves the very heart of our being.

The everyday earthliness of the ministry of Jesus is emphasised by Mark to refute the charge made by his enemies that Jesus was a magician who healed by means of an evil spirit.  On the contrary, Jesus is a human figure appointed by God as his earthly regent.  His teachings, as in the parables, are grounded in the natural world.  The focus of Mark’s theology is the kingdom of God but it is brought about in nature and we are then able to reap the harvest.

What Mark asks us to do is to be patient and wait for the seed to grow.  It is a gradual process but do not be disheartened as the coming of God’s kingdom is inevitable.  Waiting is not always easy and, as we know from the falling asleep of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot always stay the course but if we can wait a bit, pray and be conscious of the possibilities that arise when we acknowledge God in our hearts, then from that little acorn the mighty oak will grow.

Sermon Trinity I Sunday 6 June 2021, Sara Wheeler

‘No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.’

Who is the strong man?

According to the context of Mark’s gospel, he is Satan, the force of evil, and according to Jerusalem scribes making a nuisance of themselves somewhere in Galilee, Jesus is working in partnership with him in the driving out of demons.

By this stage in Mark, we’ve had quite a lot of the force of good fighting it out with Satan with Jesus in the middle – in the wilderness for example, where Jesus successfully bound the strong man by withstanding temptation.

Jesus now applies logic to the arguments of those pressing forward in the crowd loudly accusing him of charlatanism. What would be the point, Jesus argues, in cooperating with one bad guy, in order to tie up another bad guy?

This is the fourth story in Mark about people’s reaction to Jesus, and one imagines the writer trying to build an argument in support of Jesus and his teaching. That, building an argument, is what writers do, perhaps the only thing in this whole sermon about which I have authority to speak. When today’s reading begins, Jesus has just healed a blind and mute man. Mark  frames him within his miracles.

By the way, the non-canonical version of the story we have heard today, the one in Thomas, says the episode is actually about the importance of careful planning. I can’t help thinking that preaching a sermon on that interpretation would be a lot easier.  A sort of Marie Kondo approach to spiritual tasks.

Who might the strong man be today?

He’s anti god, but he’s not anti just the Christian god is he? That moment in the evolution of Christianity has passed, at least within Thomas Little’s walls. Our strong man can’t be just that. Let’s say he is the one opposing the forces of good.

If that is the case, we must neuter him. Mark on this point is clear: we cannot overcome the enemy without taking away his power.

Who is the attacker then in the story, the one who binds? In Luke’s gospel he is someone stronger than the strong man. (Luke’s account ushers in the story of a man freed from a demon. This cunning demon, however, is not destroyed, he is merely displaced, and promptly joins up with seven other demons to get back inside the same man, who ends up worse off than he was when Jesus cured him.)

In verse 23, Mark writes  that Jesus called everyone round him and spoke to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan?’, for example. Jesus continues,  If a country divides itself into groups which fight each other, that country will fall  apart.’ It’s hard to know where to start with that in terms of contemporary relevance. It is a statement of fact, not a parable. To cite last week’s Economist, ‘The Holy Land remains contested by two peoples who cannot bring themselves to live together.’ We are not walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Continuing the analogy of the effects of fighting Satan with Satan,  a strategy the Pharisees accuse Jesus of prosecuting, Mark quotes Jesus saying, ‘If a family divides itself into groups which fight each other, that family will fall apart.’  Few among us could not come up with examples of that.

 The strong man story is a call for non-violent Christian political resistance, perhaps, if we can discern ideology reflected in the narrative. Scholars do often interpret Mark’s gospel as a call to overturn oppressive power structures. There is no shortage of strong man candidates if one does go down this route. I would like to see a painting of him labelled MAMMON.

A word on the strong man through a long-angle lens, one Mark often uses to view the world. The baptism of Christ at the start of his ministry achieves or represents victory over chaos and over all the armies of strong men. He’s done it for us.

I find this immensely reassuring. Viewing the verses here in a close-up shot, however, it’s for us to bind our own strong men as well. Here our Old Testament reading offers advice: don’t hide in the trees. We can surely do it, though we with giants fight. It’s a question of how hard we try.

I am reminded of a story told by George Bernard Shaw, not one of my favourite writers, but apposite here. ‘A Native American elder’, Shaw relates, ‘once described his own inner struggles in this manner: inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, The one I feed the most.’ 

Jesus, God, the Bible, someone or other in charge of events – what John Betjeman called ‘the management’ – is showing us through this story that we can do the right thing or stay on the right course by allowing the holy spirit to live with us in a kind of in-dwelling. There is a choice here, don’t you think, between binding, or letting the strong man roam and by the latter condemning our inner life to a tense stand-off with stuff that’s not good for us?

Jesus mentions the holy spirit. (But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness.) I would like to draw to a close by considering what that might be, but I imagine at theological college, if they have ten cardinal rules of sermons on the white board, number one might be, don’t try to define the holy spirit in the last paragraph.

So here’s what I think. The one characteristic that bipeds do not share with any animal is the desire to reach for the transcendental. Michelangelo’s finger on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. If anything is quintessentially human, it is the religious impulse. We detect it from Neolithic records: in cave paintings, for example, in which early man and woman crawled to the spot that was the most difficult of access to carve or daub pictograms of animals escorting their kinfolk to the next world. I do a lot of work with indigenous peoples and I see again and again the way in which their earliest myths seek to show the non-finality of death. Here is a carved walrus bone I picked up in Chukotka in the Russian Far East. It is intricately engraved with people, walruses, and scenes of the next works in which both live happily together

Mark talks of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ and you could say that means letting the strong man beat you down, letting what’s bad for you get the upper hand. By binding the strong man you take away his power. You become stronger than him.

Some say this story reflects a world-view prevalent in biblical times: one in which human beings believed they inhabited a binary universe peopled by powerful unseen forces, good or evil. They needed to control these forces, ‘or bind’ them, in order to get them on side. Certainly there’s a great deal in this passage that does not translate, culturally, to us, here, today, but it also shows how little that matters. The Bible so often crystallises moments of universality. I’ve been doing some work in my day job lately on Queen Esther, a mythical figure and one of only two women to have her own biblical book. Incidentally, though it’s not really incidental, that book, the Book of Esther, is also one of only two in the Bible not to mention god. Yet when Esther utters her fabled line, ‘If I die, I die’, isn’t she acknowledging the power of the transcendental? Of choosing the indwelling spirit of the holy over the strong man?

(You can watch Joan Collins on YouTube delivering this speech splendidly.)

No man can enter into a strong man’s house . . . except he will first bind the strong man’. We must strive to remove the enemy’s power – the enemy within and the enemy without. And as we proceed through this vale of tears we can disarm our doubts by letting them go. It is how we become authentically ourselves.

I don’t go in for eternal damnation. But I do believe one profits enormously from accepting, or seeking to embrace, that notion of the transcendental, wherever it might lead. If you can do that, the strong man really is bound.







Sermon, Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2021, Ros Miskin

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is on this day that we celebrate the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  We can trace the origin of this celebration back to our 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, whose first act as Archbishop was to ordain that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honour of the Holy Trinity. Today, in church we say that we worship and glorify the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we sing hymns of praise to the Trinity.

These confident and open expressions of our faith stand in contrast to the elements of privacy and secrecy that we find in the New Testament.  These elements demonstrate that the path to the formulation of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was not one filled throughout with the proclamation of the glory of God but fraught with debate, critique, and uncertainty.  It is this rocky path that evokes a powerful response by Jesus  in today’s Gospel reading as I shall reveal.  Powerful because the aim of John’s Gospel is to affirm the glory of God.

With this in mind, let us then reflect upon today’ reading.  John tells us that Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the night time rather than the day time for a private discussion to find out more about him as he is curious to know more about Jesus as a teacher who has come from God.  We are not told why Nicodemus comes in the night.  It might imply secrecy but it may be because John wishes us to view him as being in the dark until he has moved towards the light of faith.

Nicodemus sees himself as a fellow teacher with Jesus but Jesus is one who can do signs and this, Nicodemus concludes, means the presence of God.  In his Biblical Commentary, Jerome suggests there may be an influence here of Jewish legal tradition as in this tradition ‘the agent is like the one who sent him’.  This powerful conclusion may account for the privacy of their discussion as such a position would bestow on Jesus an authority that might not be accepted by the Jewish leaders.  If not accepted, then that would put all parties concerned in danger.

This element of privacy, though, is then blown apart by Jesus in his response to Nicodemus.  Blown apart in his openness about his fate as ‘the Son of Man’ ‘who will be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’. Jesus says to Nicodemus that he speaks of what he knows and testifies to what he has seen.  Nothing hidden here and this openness, with the exception of the furtive arrival of Nicodemus, is characteristic of John’s Gospel as opposed to the secrecy found in the remaining Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus urges his disciples to keep his divinity secret. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus orders and commands his disciples ‘not to tell anyone’ of the suffering he is to undergo as the Son of Man.

In John, though, we have the opposite.  Throughout his Gospel, John writes that Jesus is divine, pre-existent and identified with the one God, talking openly about his divine role with seven ‘I am’ declarations of his own: ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the gate for the sheep’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life and, finally, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.

These statements are bold and open but, as today’s Gospel reading makes clear, they require an understanding of what is meant by baptism as it is baptism that gives them their full meaning.  Jesus teaches Nicodemus that their meaning rests in our ability to see the Kingdom of God and we cannot have that vision without baptism.  If you are to enter the Kingdom of God it is not just to be born of the flesh but to be born of the water and the Spirit.  I would add here St.Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he writes that with our spirit we are children of God, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.  We have just come through Pentecost when we thanked God for the gifts of this spirit: wisdom, peace, healing, fruit and breath.  All this made possible through baptism.

In spite of such awe inspiring statements, Nicodemus has not heard enough to be persuaded, and still asks the question: ‘How can these things be?’  Jesus reprimands him but then produces a resounding response for Nicodemus in what will be the climax of God’s loving purpose for mankind. He says that the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  We are not given any reaction to this final affirmation by Nicodemus but we can see in the later texts of John’s Gospel that he is at least sympathetic to Jesus  and after the Crucifixion we learn that he brought myrrh and aloes to wrap linen cloths around the body of Jesus. As this was done in daylight we could say that he has shifted from the darkness of unbelief towards the light of belief.

Let us hope and pray, particularly while the pandemic hovers around us,  that we too can remain in the daylight in affirming the presence of God in our lives, as we do upon this Trinity Sunday.



Sermon Ascension Day, at St Mary’s Primrose Hill, Thursday 13 May 2021, the Vicar

Ascension-Tide has wonderful hymns, one has kept coming to me as I have been revisiting the New Testament accounts of the Ascension, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour. Let it hover in the backs of your minds for a moment.

On Easter morning a parishioner emerged from church, puzzled by the readings. “Where is He?” my perplexed friend asked? “Where is he, when Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “I am not yet ascended to the Father.”

The question about Christ’s state between resurrection and ascension struck home. I had not pondered it before.

It might have plugged into a bewilderment I think I have always felt about the Ascension, with its inference of ascending, going up, as if to a defined place. Having been born a matter days before the Moon landing, my whole lifetime has been overshadowed by the demystification of space travel, and a general acceptance of the infinite character of time and space.

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy this year, in celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, the imagination is stretched by the mediaeval world’s mapping of hell, purgatory and heaven. Implied within the Comedy is a spatial sense of the locations of all three realms. The pilgrim, Dante, descends to the earthly depths of hell, climbs the Mountain of Purgatory before taking a space flight through our known universe. Ironically, the descent into Inferno is the beginning of the ascension of the human soul. Dante is speaking in metaphors too, but the furthest reaches of space were metaphorical for him in the way that it cannot be for the modern mind.

The key readings, both from the pen of St Luke for Ascension Day present another potential conundrum.

Jesus has a busy Easter Day evening. First, Jesus meets Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. As Cleopas and his companion are recounting their experiences back in Jerusalem, Jesus then appears to the assembled disciples. Jesus takes them up towards Bethany, on the eastern side of the Mt of Olives, and “was taken from them into heaven.” No indication of what time of day, but it must have been the early hours of Easter Monday by then! The same author, says in verse 3 of chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, “To them he presented himself after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the Kingdom of God.” This time, without being precise about where the gathering has taken place, Jesus promises them the outpouring of power from on high. A cloud then envelopes him, and as he is taken from their sight. Two angels confirm that he has been taken up into heaven and he will come in the same way as they saw him go.

St Matthew’s account is different. The women, on their way back from the tomb on Easter Day, are told by the angel to tell the disciples to hasten to Galilee. Once there, on an unnamed mountain, Jesus charges his followers to “make disciples of all nations…and lo, I am with you to the close of the age.” It does not say he ascended, but it seems it is the culmination of his teaching and presence with them.

For the sake of time shall we bypass discussion of St Mark whose original version may not have included the Ascension?

In John we find intense accounts of Jesus’s presence with the disciples in those post-resurrection days. The meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden by the tomb is perhaps one of the most moving in a Gospel which has especially beautiful encounters of Jesus with different individuals, and notably women. As in Matthew, we are in Galilee. Twice John tells us of the many other things which Jesus did. He even underlines how uncontainable this would all be in a life-time’s library of books. But not a word about the Ascension.

For the sceptics, it could be said, having looked at different post-Resurrection accounts, that the Ascension is handled more differently by the four evangelists than the Eucharist, Jesus’s healing miracles, the Passion or even the Resurrection. Luke even seems to confound his own sequencing of it with two separate narratives. Certainly, Luke is the only Evangelist to imply, and only once, that the Ascension took place on the Mount of Olives forty days after Easter.

Is there a way to harmonise these dissonant testimonies?

The concluding line of the hymn I spoke of that the start, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour spells the answer in just three words – Risen, ascended, glorified.

There is more insight in the account of Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene. The understandable desire of the Magdalene to keep holding on to Jesus, matched by his gentle separation from her, with the words “I am not yet ascended to the Father”, suggests that Jesus is not in an in-between or non-place. The emphasis is that Jesus’s departure is vital. It is not that he has not yet ascended, but Mary cannot see that his rising from the dead marked his Ascension too: the start of a new way of relating. It’s as if John is playing out what St Paul says (in II Corinthians 5: 16-17) “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view…, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away the new has come.”

Mary’s recreation, in the early light of the first Easter morning, hints at what will happen to all believers, once Jesus has gone to his Father. His departure completes the promise in Matthew’s Gospel “lo, I am with you to the close of the age.”

Mary’s experience of needing to hold on to a departed loved one, is the most authentic experience of grief. Jesus is gentle with her, not forbidding her touch, just gently stopping it, for his resurrection was his Ascension too. What a comfort to many whose experience of this year has been one of managing grief in ways which have been so disrupted by the pandemic, not being with the dying, not attending their funerals, not sharing sympathy in their wake. Jesus’s resurrection placed him, Paul says (Eph 1: 22, 23), at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, the head over all things, but his humanity reaches out to the sorrowing and grieving. “Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted, blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.”


Sermon for Requiem for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, 17 April 2021, the Vicar

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.” The requiem’s prayers encompass emotions around death: fear, separation, love, memory, hope, thankfulness. This prayer for the dead calls the faithful to face mortality and finitude and situate them within the loving purposes of God, whose justice is true and who longs to forgive. We pray for eternal rest for the souls of the righteous, in the hand of God, beyond the torments of Hades, awaiting the final resurrection and joyful consummation of all things.

How very good to welcome Fr William Whitcombe, who serves in the Chapel Royal. Normally he and his colleagues would be keeping vigil with the body of Prince Philip before the His Royal Highness’s final obsequies. Thank you, William for being with us. We feel a very personal and particular connection with Prince Philip here, through our beloved Anne Griffiths, who worked with Prince Philip (albeit with a break) from 1952, dying in office. It was not insignificant that 48 hours after Anne’s memorial service, in May 2017, which Prince Philip attended, that he announced his retirement. Amongst Royal representatives and many guests and from the Household were members of the wider Mountbatten family, attending in their own right, in recognition of Anne’s encyclopaedic grasp of their history.

In speaking now, I am mindful of the Prince’s well reported comment that “the brain cannot absorb what the posterior cannot endure…”

Much has been said already, in moving tributes, especially by the Duke’s close family. I wish only to make a few points, beyond underlining what Joanna said on Sunday about Prince Philip’s vision in founding St George’s House in Windsor: a place of high level discussion, before the term networking was even coined.

On Sunday, Simone Chambers kindly sang the Kontakion for the Dead. This was in memory not only of Prince Philip, but her own 97 year old mother-in-law, Joan, who also died last week and whom we remembered on Tuesday. Our thoughts remain with Mike and family.

The Kontakion is a funeral text from the Eastern Orthodoxy, which in the last 100 years or so the Church of England has borrowed. In 1863 William, Prince of Denmark became King George I of Greece. His marriage to Olga of Russia, assured the Greek Church that the Danish prince’s Lutheranism, would be replaced in subsequent Royal generations by indigenous Orthodoxy. Prince Philip’s Lutheran mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, converted to Orthodoxy in 1928. This was of her own accord some years after her marriage to Prince Philip’s father, Andrew of Greece. I will return to her story shortly, which itself is very moving, but I would make one point about Orthodoxy in relation to Prince Philip’s heritage. I know Orthodoxy well, having shared my last church with an Orthodox congregation. There are many ways to differentiate Orthodox and Western Christianity. The simplest is a visual distinction in their respective architecture.

St Mark’s own high pointed arches, and great spire point us to heaven – typical of the Western idea of striving upwards. Eastern churches are known by their domes. Orthodox thereby presents a vision of heaven descending to earth. There are big implications of this for how each views creation. There is nothing wrong with reaching towards the heavens, but the vision of heaven stooping to earth is a reassuring one. And one which reminds us that the stuff of creation, and we ourselves, are heavenly creatures, in our essence, and the world around us charged with divine potential. It’s no surprise there is no worked out doctrine of the Fall in Orthodoxy. But there is a very developed Theology of creation. We can see in Prince Philip’s love of nature and grasp how concern for the deep interconnectedness of all life, ran through his thinking.

He was no “bunny hugger” (not a turn of phrase to be used after a glass of wine). But he understood the delicate ecological balance of the environment. It should be added, remembering Anne’s work in his library, that there were nearly as many works of Theology as conservation on its shelves.

It may just be that the combination of both disciplines holds the solution to the aversion of climate catastrophe. And if that is true, Prince Philip will have been one of those who paved that path.

There may be a key to understanding Prince Philip’s motivation and faith in exploring his mother’s continuation of the mission of her Aunt Ella; Elizabeth of Russia. Did you hear Prince Charles’s story, when his grandmother announced her hope to be buried on the Mt of Olives near Grand Duchess Ella, at the monastery of St Mary Magdalene? The family exclaimed some concern about not being able to visit her grave. She replied confoundingly (whilst in Buckingham Palace at the time, 1967) “Nonsense there’s a bus which runs from Athens once a day.” Whilst working amongst the most deprived, during the privations of war, unbeknownst to anyone, she gave refuge to a Jewish family. Without her they would have been deported and murdered. Alice is commemorated at Yad Vashem as Righteous Amongst the Gentiles. There could be no more fitting resting place for her than the Mt of Olives overlooking the ancient site of the Jerusalem Temple. The place three world religions believe the Messiah will reclaim at his final Advent. It was to this otherwise tranquil place that Anne took us in 2015. In the tomb’s alcove were many laminated photographs and family trees, which Anne had sent years before. Digress: “You are family.”

When Prince Philip retired, he gave an, a rebarbative encounter. Prince Philip was asked whether the things he had done, not least the scheme which bears his name, and the countless other causes he had supported, was all about leaving a legacy. His response, disarmingly sincere and utterly Christian, to my ears chimed in with the selflessness and perhaps even eccentricity of his mother. Doing what he did, he explained, was about doing what needed to be done, not considering what would be left in his memory. Jesus’s injunction about our treasure, holds true here. Our treasure should not to be earthbound, but heavenward – where your treasure is there will your heart be also. This is about the renunciation of earthly glory and vanity. It concerns striving, with all pureness of heart, for the kingdom to come.

Prince Philip served as liege-man of life and limb his and our Queen & Governor. Throughout their remarkable marriage, they have demonstrated through service to the Crown, that this kingdom must bow the knee to the one to come.

Earth’s proud empires do and must pass away. They are of this world.

The Kingdom we serve is not of earthly legacies and glories. The Christian task now and at the hour of death is to pray with the Saints is to pray: Our Father which art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done… For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Easter Day sermon, 4 April 2021, the Vicar

One of my favourite poems by John Donne, begins the third verse:

I have a sin of fear

 I hope it is not inappropriate to admit that as I shut the church door on Mothering Sunday 2020, I was afraid.

St Mark, has the oddest ending to his Gospel “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Something very similar happens in today’s Gospel reading from John.

“Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping.”

went away again unto their own home!

 Are there any Italians in the House?

 What did you celebrate last Thursday, on 25 March?

 Yes, the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante in 1321.

 His most extraordinary work, The Divine Comedy, marks one of the great shifts in European literature. This epic poem, composed over several years from 1307, could be said to have shaped the modern world.

 It covers the span of a single weekend. Not any weekend, but Good Friday to Easter Day 1300.

 Dante quite literally goes, as the phrase says, “to hell and back.” Dante travels through the nine circles of hell Inferno, to its very pit. He climbs from there, encouraged by the sight of the stars that he can see in the distant heavens, up the Mountain of Purgatory and then to Paradiso itself. The work is a combination of references to classical literature, contemporary politics and reflection upon the path to salvation. Not forgetting a range contemporary scandals. He sees two Popes is in one of the lowest circles of hell, Nicholas III (d 1280) & Boniface VIII (d. 1303!). Dante’s Easter journey, down, so that he might rise, is the journey of the poet’s soul, mirroring Christ’s.

 We have left Mary Magdalene at the tomb.

 The earthly events following Jesus’s death, on Good Friday are very hurried. Jesus dies, the Sabbath is falling. His body must be buried, out of the way before dusk, the Passover celebrations and the curfew.

 The Sabbath stands for the very first Sabbath, the seventh day of creation – God’s day of rest.

 On Friday, Jesus cries out “It is finished.” It is clear from the start of John’s Gospel that John means to revisit the work of creation. The crucifixion takes place on the sixth day, from that moment, God’s work of re-creation is complete.

 As scrabbling, by bit-part-players takes over in the Gospel narrative, the seventh day is beginning. God will rest in the tomb.

 Like Mary, we have a text from Isaiah ringing in our ears

 And he will destroy the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.

 The Sabbath rest is over.

 When the men have gone – to their homes – Mary looks in. It is the holy of holies. The two angels are the proof that the mercy seat is there, that only the high priest would visit once a year. “Why are you weeping?” they ask. She does not know where they have laid him.

 Outside, a stranger, “Why are you weeping?”

 She realises she is in the holy of holies, which was Eden: this might be Adam – the gardener. The only other alternative is that it is God himself who walked in the garden in the cool of the day. In fact, we know He is both. When he names her, as Adam named the creatures in Eden, she is reborn. Significantly, He does not come from the tomb. There is no account of his rising. The tomb is as redundant as the burial clothes. The door is open, its purpose complete.

 As Dante has descended into hell, he has found Jesus’s death had shattered the very base of hell too. Sleeping in death, death was swallowed up. It is all as Isaiah foresaw. He saw too the wiping of tears from all faces. Mary, weeping at the tomb has her tears wiped away, and her soul recast. The primordial place is sanctified.

 Fear, fear, fear, the memory with which we began, and which has done its best in the last year to take hold of us, is done away.

 Like Dante, climbing towards paradise, guided by and enlightened by the stars we might say:

“O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
so deep my vision was consumed in it!

I saw how it contains within its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves:

how substance, accident, and their relation
were fused in such a way that what I now
describe is but a glimmer of that Light.”

(from Canto 33:82 John Ciandi translation)

Or, like John Donne, another poet of the soul’s ascent to God through love, riffing on his own name – Donne:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

And, having done that, thou hast done;

I fear no more.

Sunday 7 March 2021, Lent III, the Vicar

Our OT lesson is the gift of the Law to Moses. The Ten Commandments give shape to human interaction and the proper sense of the holiness of God. The Gospel reading, not from Mark this week, is from the start of John’s Gospel. Jesus comes from Galilee and as his first public act, makes straight for the Temple, and drives out the money changers.

I want to think about three things this morning which arise from these two lessons. Sabbath, The Temple, the symbolism of the turning over the tables. Each of them points in the direction in which we are going in this Lenten journey towards Easter.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: …For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Many of us will have Jewish friends, and will know that the keeping of the Sabbath in the Jewish household is age-old. It has no exact equivalent in Christianity. Sunday is not the New Saturday. Sunday is the First Day of the Week. Saturday is the day of God’s resting at the culmination of creation, and that resting is not an afternoon nap, it is the representation of divinely ordered peaceable harmony. It is about completion, that which is finished.

If you have ever been to the Synagogue for the evening service, soon after the start the assembly faces the door and greets the Sabbath, like a bride. The Sabbath is personified and hailed like a lover. There is a sense in which this time is time out of time. It’s hard to get our heads around. But the Sabbath is a hint of a time still to come, and yet it is here. It is a moment in ordinary time, when God’s new age would arrive in advance. You would not be wrong to think this sounds a bit familiar. Jesus prays in the Lord’s prayer “Thy Kingdom come… give us this day our daily bread.” The kingdom and day of bread-giving are very connected in the Lord’ Prayer. Give us today tomorrow’s bread is one possible translation. The Sabbath is tomorrow today. Early in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” The healing miracles on the Sabbath make this plain. What John does is to place Jesus in the Temple to “cleanse” it at the start of the narrative of his ministry. Let’s talk about the Temple and then see how these two things are connected, Sabbath and Temple. And then let’s not forget the table-turning.

The Temple in Jerusalem was first built by King Solomon in the middle of the 10th c BC. His father David had been impeded from doing so. Before then, the Ark containing the tablets of the law and other ancient and holy objects had been peripatetic. When Solomon dedicated the Temple he prayed “The highest heaven cannot contain God, how much less this house.” (I Kings 8: 27) When Isaiah had a vision of God in the Temple itself, only the hem of God’s garment filled the Temple. The glory of the vision filled the whole earth. God’s glory dwelt in the inner sanctum but was not contained by it.

To summarise Israelite History…

For Jeremiah, when the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, something terrible happened beyond the wanton destruction, desecration and deportation of the inhabitants. God’s glory departed from the most sacred place.

From the moment of Solomon’s consecration of the Temple, not only was there a sense of God’s glory being present in that holy place, but what the Sabbath was for time, so the Temple became for space. The Temple spoke of the life of heaven in the midst of the earth. Sabbath and Temple in their own ways were propositions, not just symbols of God’s presence in the midst of his people. The Sabbath represented the end and completion of God’s creation. The Temple was the microcosmos of the whole cosmos. Humanity, which according to Genesis 1 bears the image of God, takes its place in the created order as the image-bearer. Something about who and what we are is to take forward God’s creative purpose. The roles of priest and king embody that image-bearing, creating-stewardship.

The message the Temple gives is the same as that of the Sabbath, heaven and earth are designed to belong together. They intersect. Creation was very good, stewarded by the image-bearer – us. The Temple is the physical focus of this. It is presided over by the High Priest. Adam in the Garden, perfect. Just as the Sabbath is lived experience of God’s age touching this world, week by week in the lives of the Jewish faithful, so the Temple was the sign of a perfect past and a perfect future towards which God is drawing his people. That was what the Temple was for.

Deeply bound in with this is the renewal of the Temple, both with its daily, weekly and annual sacrifices and cleansing rituals. The Day of Atonement in the Autumn each year, saw the High Priest, as image bearer making reconciliation for his own sins, and then transformed he lays the sins of the people upon a goat cast into the wilderness and expiates the sins of the nation.

Today’s account of Jesus in the Temple portrays him full of zeal for the Lord’s house. Psalm 69 is quoted, and he drives out the money changers and stall-holders. Is he just railing against trade in the Temple, or is there a deeper symbolism here? It is not quoted, but it is implied. Zechariah 14: 20-21, the last words of the penultimate book of the Bible:

On that day ….the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

“That Day” is the day in the coming age when “The Lord will be King over the whole earth” (Zech 14:9). Injustice will be overturned, and the reign of God made manifest. Crucially, on that day they won’t need money changers and people to sell unblemished offerings. None of this will be necessary, just as every saucepan will be as holy as the vessels of the Temple, so every coin and animal will be pure and ready for sacrifice.

Jesus starts his ministry turning over tables, not to implicate the traders or even to do away with the sacrifices, but to declare that that day is now here. What Zechariah saw and Ezekiel had seen, “The Lord your God will come and all the holy ones with him.” (Zech 14: 6). God’s glory has revivified the Temple. Indeed, as John foresaw, the glory of the Lord now dwells with his people. The place which symbolised the Sabbath, the connection between heaven and earth is being relocated. It is visible now in the Son of Man (who is Lord of the Sabbath). John will tell us as Jesus is crucified, so are the Paschal lambs sacrificed for the Feast. The Image bearer, humanity, thanks to what that day will show, truly will reflect the divine image, and those who follow will be admitted to the new sanctuary.

Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, The Vicar

Sermon Lent I, 21 February 2021, the Vicar

There are elemental factors with which we must deal before we look at Mark’s telling of Jesus’s time in the wilderness.

Some years ago, rather baldly, one of the children, said, “Look what you have done to the planet, that we will have to manage!” It was a sobering moment. Aged about 12, and with a lifespan of at least another 80 years she had been shown the predictions of weather patterns, flooding, winter and summer extremes, the erosion of fertile lands, and the rise in sea waters, and knew that before her was a life of climate uncertainty and foreboding. I don’t blame the school for scaremongering when the scientific modelling has become incontrovertible. That was long before the current crisis, in some measure environmental, as well as health-related.

The urgency of discussion about global action to prevent unnecessary interference with the natural order, through reduction of emissions is in the consciousness of most now, and action to see a fundamental change is a spur and inspiration.

The sequence of the early chapters of Genesis, which sees the beauty and balance of creation at its outset corrupted by human selfishness and murder, shows the immediate consequence of sin to be death. The flood, which Noah’s ark and its precious cargo of specimens of all living things, just escapes. It is the scouring, the cleansing of that death-wish. The rainbow, we read of in today’s lesson sets a seal of promise that nothing like this will be repeated. But Noah’s own intemperate reaction is to make wine and become drunk himself, an acid postscript to an otherwise sobering story. For all the cleansing and the rainbow, the death-wish of humanity still remains. As the G7 meet, and as America re-enters the Paris Climate accord, and as Cop-26 is being prepared for later this year, God-willing in Glasgow, may the world’s sober attention be trained on all that is possible. We are doing our best, following an environmental audit to see if we can be carbon neutral by 2030, with efforts to harness the very best insulation and energy technologies. The forty days and nights of rain, were followed by 150 days of gradual ebbing of the great flood, then 40 days more before a raven was released, then another 7 and a dove.

Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness echo some of this symbolism. Two things underlie this imagery. Jesus goes from his baptism. He is revealed there as the Beloved Son, and then driven into the wilderness. As usual Mark does not mess about in telling us the sequence of events. But each word is loaded with symbolism. The prophets underlined that Israel in the wilderness, after its passing through the Red Sea, became God’s beloved own. The sense of being driven into the wilderness, which the Greek suggests, highlights the driving back of the sea, and the escape of the Children of Israel, the impulsion into their desert wanderings.

I mentioned the elements at the start, the threat of destruction of the world as we know it. Sea and desert, driving forces, all combine to cast Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness as a recapitulation of two key moments of promise and salvation, the flood and the desert wanderings.

But before the sentence even ends, Mark says, “he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan”. Unlike in Matthew and Luke there is no diabolical dialogue. Instead, Mark says almost charmingly, “and was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.” Whatever testing Satan tried is brushed off. Jesus, as the Beloved is vanquisher before he even starts his ministry. The wild beasts are no threat, if he was able to dismiss Satan. Jesus is hailed as the Beloved three times. Twice by his Father, at his baptism and then in chapter 9 at the Transfiguration, and then again in the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells of the coming of the beloved son, whom they kill. It is the precious, beloved connection between Father and Son, which is the source of the unending victory.

This Lenten journey is in companionship with the Beloved Son, whose relationship with his Father is above all division. Their bond invites, sustains and repels all evil intent. This journey with them is dynamic, a driving force of nature. It recalls seasons when the elements might overwhelm, flood and desert but in fact it takes us to the primal season of balance and harmony. Eden.

The Orthodox liturgy at the start of Lent prays in the voice of Adam restored to Eden:
The Lord my creator took me as the dust of the earth and formed me into a living being, breathing into me the breath of life. He honoured me, setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible and made me companion of the angels. Satan the deceiver, using the serpent enticed me by food, separated me from the glory of God, and gave me over to the lowest depths of the earth. As master and compassionate, call me back again…. bring me to paradise again.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us.
By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion;
by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.
In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity;
in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, Good Lord, deliver us.

Sermon 14 February 2021, the Transfiguration, Ros Miskin

In today’s sermon I am going to attempt to reflect upon the love of God, drawing upon today’s Gospel reading and the fact that today is St Valentine’s Day.  This reflection will, I hope, offer reassurance and comfort to those who have suffered and are suffering from Covid and those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic.

Let me pick up on the expression ‘lost loved ones’.  It is natural to believe that when someone you love dies, you have lost them because their earthly life has ended and you feel deeply and lament the loss of their presence in your life.  Yet if we look at today’s Gospel reading we can say that the loss of presence on earth is not the end of the story.  In this Transfiguration narrative there is the reappearance on the mountain of  Elijah and Moses, both of whom had long since died and are now seen talking with Jesus. Elijah represents the Old Testament prophets who looked for the coming of the Messiah and Moses represents the law.  When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain and his clothes become ‘dazzling white’ this is a manifestation of the glory of God triumphing over death.  It is so because, although Jesus has not yet gone to his death, the Transfiguration reveals his post Resurrection glory yet to come. Jesus then goes on to let his disciples know that he will rise from the dead.  This is all made possible by the voice of God from the cloud saying: ‘this is my Son, the Beloved’.  This love of God, which defeats the power of death, is for us all to share in now and hereafter when the kingdom comes.  All that is required of us is to have faith that God, the King of Love, our Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.  We nothing lack if we are his and he is ours forever.

This faith will not diminish the pain and mourning at the loss of loved ones but it may help the sufferer to look beyond the valley of the shadow of death towards the light of the abiding love of God. Light as an expression of God’s love is often found throughout the Bible.  We have just passed through Candlemas when Jesus was presented as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’.  In Matthew’s Gospel, during the Transfiguration, Jesus’s face ‘shone like the sun’.

In Psalm 50, God ‘shines forth’ and this passage echoes the Transfiguration in calling to the heavens and to the earth to gather the faithful.  Light is a common element shared by the three key moments of baptism, transfiguration and the Crucifixion.  All this triumphs over the darkness of the valley of death.

So the light of love is there for us all.  How else can love be expressed?  Well, it  can lift us up into a new dimension of being.  In the wonderful painting by Raphael, the sixteenth century artist of the High Renaissance, Jesus is depicted in the Transfiguration as lifted up just above the mountain top. As a song written in 1982 expresses it: ‘love lifts us up where we belong, where the eagles cry on the mountain high’.

All that having been said, in today’s Gospel reading the three disciples Peter, James and John, who witness the Transfiguration are not transformed by the experience.  At first Peter wishes to stay with Jesus and to make dwellings for him and Elijah and Moses but then as Jesus descends the mountain with them fear and confusion reign as they puzzle over what is meant by Jesus saying that he will rise from the dead. We do not have a definitive explanation of why Mark portrayed the disciples in this negative fashion.  What we can say is that in spite of all their fears and uncertainties which we also experience in our daily lives, love continues and is given particular expression upon St Valentine’s Day.  Legend has it that a third century early Christian priest named Valentine was the originator of this day.  This legend reveals that before his martyrdom for looking after persecuted Christians, Valentine wrote a card in prison to the jailer’s daughter who he had cured of blindness, signing it ‘your Valentine’.  This may be legend but there is no smoke without fire and from this legend has sprung centuries of expressions of love, from the courtly love of the High Middle Ages to the cards and flowers and chocolates given to lovers today.

One aspect of this legend that I love is that St Valentine brings on the spring and plants and flowers start to grow on his day.  It gladdens the heart to see the emergence of the snowdrops, aconites and crocuses in our church garden. So as we battle against the pandemic let us hold this spring time in our hearts and remember that love never dies.

Sermon 7 February 2021, Tessa Lang and Sermon 2 May 2021, Tessa Lang

It is an honour to embark on my maiden sermon in front of our St Mark’s community…and what a treasure trove of gospel riches I’ve been given to consider and share with you…briefly, I promise.

When William sent the options for today’s readings, he noted that the Prologue to John’s gospel was included for the third time so far in the 10 weeks of this liturgical year. This struck me as meaningful, resonating with current experience when we are being asked over and over to pay attention to the same messages, for our own good and most vitally, for everyone else’s sake…as is fit in matters of life and death. So…what is John’s message repeating to us this particular Sexagesima Sunday, in the midst of lockdown with its widespread anxiety, loss and separation? Poised at the back end of winter but still far from spring? What could St John’s divine Word …and the compilers of the Church of England Lectionary…intend for us today, the 7th of February 2021?

Let us consider its timing, for last Tuesday we concluded the season of Christmas and Epiphany with the Feast of Candlemas. Already we find ourselves at the midpoint of the 3- week-only ‘Gesima Sunday season’ …then the Lenten journey to Calvary follows on … in preparation for the Feast of Feasts – Easter Day. As Easter occurs roughly 60 days’ time from today, this explains the origin of the racy-sounding prefix to -gesima, the middle sister in a series of 3 that form this short season of preparation… for a longer, more austere preparation in advance of Christianity’s central event. This is subtly underscored by a visual modulation of the service. During the 3 Sundays of this transition period, our magnificent reredoses remain open and the Gloria is sung although ministers now appear in purple vestments, last worn during Advent, also a season of preparation, penance and sacrifice.

Yet here we are, once again treated to John’s Prologue, a grand piece of prosody, soaring and resonant as any symphonic overture, with great themes set out in poetic rhythm, its skilful parallel images and diction crafted to embed a dazzling logic…building a veritable stairway to heaven by which we ascend, from the Beginning to re-birth through belief, solely by the will of God and our openness to its acceptance. We are introduced to the Johannine key terms that make his narrative of Christ so powerful and able to communicate across all faiths and disciplines to anyone who ponders the nature of God: the Word; life;
true light; sons of God (meant more broadly as children of God); belief; grace, and truth. This is another realm from the customary seasonal one of exhortation to examine, atone and improve our Christian life; here is a full-on foretaste of glory, a packing list of life-giving essentials for our Lenten knapsack.

In today’s gospel we also encounter John the Baptist, characterised not as another miracle of birth within the extended family of Jesus as a slightly elder and mortal cousin, but by the role he fulfils in God’s plan. His special purpose is to prepare humankind for receiving the sole presence who can prepare us for the ultimate feast that brings us to God’s table. He is a man [human being – anthropos] who did see and give witness to the true light — that is, the Baptist saw the glorious nature of God manifest in its human form, as Jesus, flesh and blood, upholding creation and all life with his Word. Perhaps John the Baptist’s witness could be seen as the model, an ideal form of -gesima sermon in and of itself, shining a light on the living embodiment of the Word.

This Sunday, we, too can turn to the light found in revisiting St John’s Prologue, experience it as a beacon in the darkness of a global pandemic. Indeed, it has illuminated those who gathered centuries before us, from the first Christians raising their voices together to exult in the good news…to its liturgical role as the Last Gospel, routinely said quietly by the priest after the mass from the fourth century until the end of the 1960s – and still said quietly by the late Father Kent White every time he proceeded out after celebrating the Eucharist, here in St Mark’s, in the 1990s. We can find comfort in the repetition of our Church’s cycle of liturgy and observance, upheld through so many other times of trouble, pestilence and conflict…we can remember that 69 years ago yesterday, the young – then Princess – Elizabeth, acceded to the Throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, and that she wasn’t able to be there for his passing; a personal dimension to a public event, now a tragic circumstance that so many
families in their thousands across this nation have suffered…we can have faith that those we have lost remain children of God and live in perpetual light.
All this is possible because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, a connection forever available to us between the personal and the absolute, the human and the divine, what is above and that which is below. Here indeed is a message worth repeating…and the best possible preparation for what lies before us.

Sermon 2 May 2021, Easter V  – Branches in the Vine

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
+ The beginning of the Holy Gospel according to John.
Glory be to thee, O Lord.
John 15: 1 – 8
This is the word of the Lord
Praise be to thee, O Christ
From the Gospel for today, John, Chapter 15, Verse 1
1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
And Verse 8:
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be
my disciples
+ In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon – Branches in the Vine
We have arrived together to the fifth Sunday of Eastertide, and there is
much to celebrate as we continue to welcome the risen Christ amongst
us. Soon our thoughts will be directed to the duties of the growing
season actual and metaphorical as Christ is taken up and we remain –
to increase his Kingdom and to get on with unlocking society and
rebuilding our lives.

At this hinge moment in the Church year and in 2021, we are given
today’s text, surely one of the New Testament’s richest and most
instructive passages.

For here is teaching by allegory, a sparkling illustration of how to
understand the spiritual structure of our Christian life:
The true vine is Jesus Christ. The husbandman (meaning farmer and in
this example, a specialist vinedresser) is God the Father.
Who then are the recipients of their support and attention?
The branches. Each one of us, individually, and all of us collectively as
a church, are a branch, one of only two kinds: one that is fruitful so
subject to pruning to increase its abundance, or one that is taken away
to wither and be cast into the fire.

What is the end purpose of this divine horticulture?
To glorify God the Father by bearing an ever-increasing luxuriance of
the fruits of faith, made possible by uninterrupted connection through
Jesus Christ…by abiding in Him and He in us, branches in the true vine.
What sort of crop is this?

It can only be the sort that glorifies God, so anything and everything
that truly matters, has value and endures forever. Varieties of this
celestial fruit can be love, joy, peace … faithfulness, kindness, patience
… truth, beauty, righteousness. …good works … sharing His gospel,
listening to His direction, living in community … answered prayer.
When we make ourselves available to bear this miraculous fruit, we too
abide in a realm beyond daily sustenance – serving to God and each
other a boundless, transcendent feast.

When the disciple set down the words of our text, he invited us into the
intimacy of that last night with Jesus, one that John shared as a
teenager in disrupted and troubled times. The clock is ticking to the
foreseen final act on earth; Judas’ departure reduces the disciples to 11
in number, rising with their Master after the Passover meal as He begins
the long walk to Calvary. The next 3 chapters, starting with Chapter
15, are an outpouring of love, instruction and example to the dear ones
He must first leave behind before He can join them to Him
forever…preparing them for what comes next, and from then on, for all
the Children of God.

Imagine Jesus leading the small, anxious band through the streets of
Jerusalem, approaching the west gate to the Temple Mount. Josephus,
a first century historian, reports that all entries to the sacred area were
adorned with magnificent decorations in the form of golden vines laden
with fruit, with the most impressive wreathing the 60-foot-tall main door.
Every Jew would know that the vine symbolises Israel since (in the
words of Psalm 80) “Thou has brought a vine out of Egypt, though hast
cast out the heathen and planted it.” In this Mediterranean country,
vines equate to prosperity and posterity. Here indeed is a powerful
image to implant within his disciples, to associate Himself and them
with their root tradition but “growing it” to include more than one nation
in one location. With Jesus as the true vine, all of creation is invited to
connect to the divine life source. In the confused and troubling days
immediately after the crucifixion and resurrection, and the turbulence
stretching ahead, every time a disciple lifted their head to the hills,
visited or just thought of the Temple, they would be reminded of their
life in Christ, bearing fruit pleasing to God.

Each Eastertide, I marvel at the faithfulness and courage of the women
at the foot of the cross and at the tomb. Particularly as they were not
present for Jesus’ last master class and tender farewell, so far as we
know. What a bounty of fruitfulness they embody, a perfect example of
how abiding in Jesus, staying close, remaining connected, keeps you in
life-giving contact with all that is true and good. No special treatment
or instructions are required by the Christian and there is nothing we can
do alone to effect anything.

But God the Father’s work is never done. As husbandman, He is the
one who cultivates the branches in the vine. This is an endless and allconsuming
task, as in Biblical times, vines were not set in straight rows
supported as we see them today but grew along the ground. The task
of vine dressing involved lifting and cleaning dust or mud away,
perhaps propping a cluster on a stone to enable sunlight to do its
magic, routinely and decisively pruning branches that had come adrift
of the vine, never hesitating to cut as deeply and as often as necessary
to let in the light and multiply the crop – pruning to enable the fruitful
branches truly to thrive. More profound than ‘tough love’ and
emphatically not random or meaningless, here is a way to understand
our losses, our separations, our troubles and disappointments, and
remain connected to the true vine without falling into isolation and
spiritual death.

As our text teaches us, so shall you be a disciple of Christ when you
expect and accept pruning to the greater glory of God. This removes
what is dead – unfruitful – and makes room for the real thing – real joy,
real purpose, real communion with God, by remaining in Him as He is in

How straightforward as a message…life-changing in
application…wondrous in its source, which is the pure love and power
of God the Father whose plan and pleasure is to experience us as we
bloom and fruit. So much so that He transforms our reality with the gift
of his Son, whose Word cleanses us so that we can abide in Christ and
through our fruitfulness, glorify God.

We need only abide to learn what He intends for us, which often starts
in an unexpected way and ends with a new beginning…as Philip
experiences when God directs every step of his encounter with the
Ethiopian official in today’s reading, then whisks him away to the next
task; no doubt, you have experienced such upheavals and sudden new
directions in your own life. Pruning is evidence of God’s presence in
your life. Pruning reveals God’s purpose for you. Pruning produces
more fruit.

Good news indeed in uncertain times. Good news indeed when the sun
shines. Alleluia. Amen.

Sermon 6 December 2020 – Advent II – Rosamond Miskin, Licensed Lay Minister

In the current situation of being in the midst of a pandemic we long for good news.  That might be the arrival of a successful vaccine, or a steep decline in the number of people infected or, best of all, the knowledge that the virus has either burnt itself out or at least mutated into a much less harmful threat to our health.

What are we left with whilst waiting for good news?  Primarily, whilst the professionals seek to provide a cure, the rest of us are left with just that, waiting, and whilst we wait we peer ahead to seek a light at the end of the tunnel.

In attempting to stay positive, let me begin with a negative. Let me consider what it means to be in a tunnel, using the analogy of a train journey.  There is a sense of being confined, albeit in a lit space, surrounded by a dark exterior.  If the train gets stuck in the tunnel, I, for one, can feel a bit claustrophobic.  Others may also feel this and an anxiety about not reaching their destination on time or how to cope if they suddenly felt unwell.

So what might a passenger do to stay positive?  In normal circumstances you could distract your mind with chatting to your travel companion about pleasant things, or have a joke with them to ease the tension.  If you are travelling alone you could exchange a pleasantry with another passenger.  In the current situation, though, where we are required to maintain social distancing, this might not be so easy.  So instead you could read a book or listen to music or use the imagination to take your mind elsewhere.

Some of these ways of staying positive may ease your mind.  The problem, though, at the moment is that the tunnel we are currently in that has been generated by the pandemic is very long; we have already been in it for quite a while and may be in it for some time yet.  During this time many people have lost loved ones and the situation is exacerbated by money worries as ways of making a living are heavily reduced when everything is on hold.

So to stay positive perhaps the best way forward is to dig a bit deeper, beyond distracting our minds and find solace and hope in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To consider this bigger picture to address the anxieties that have arisen following the onset of the pandemic.  The non-believer might also wish to at least take a look at this life of Jesus; after all, we are all in this together.

Let us see why this is so.  Well, we have the words ‘good news’ in the opening sentence of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel.  Thus he writes in his opening sentence: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.  Without any preamble, Mark affirms head on that this ‘good news’ which is about to be proclaimed by John the Baptist, is now with us.

Why is Jesus Christ good news?  We can say this as it is salvation in Jesus made possible by his death on the Cross for our sins and his resurrection with its promise of eternal life for us all.  We can take comfort from this promise of eternal life in a situation whereby many people have passed away. This promise is there for us in the offer by God to us of baptism when by water, oil, and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the body of Christ.  This is what John the Baptist is calling people towards in today’s Gospel reading.  Here we find John as the messenger who is preparing the way for us to have this participation through baptism.  John baptises with water which is to be followed by Jesus baptising in the Holy Spirit. Once baptized, Jesus is within us and we are within him.  Baptism opens the door for us to become faithful people of God, armed to resist the Devil and his destructive purposes.  For those of us who live on, this faith in God and his son Jesus allows us to find ways out of trouble and to be renewed and refreshed.  It does so because, whilst seeking to provide practical solutions to problems, we can not only pray for the souls of the departed but also commune with God through prayer to ask for his help in our times of trouble and to show us the way forward.  We can do this because he is the way, the Truth and the life and that is all positive for us as it has a beginning and a new beginning in its narrative.  That is to say the Bible begins with the positive act of creation and ends with the positive event of the resurrection with its promise of eternal life, and we are all in that story.  This gives us hope for now and the life to come –  a hope to dwell in, in the current situation and the promise of eternal life for those who have died.

So we have the good news offered to us by God through his son Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Let us hold on to that whilst we are in the tunnel and pitch the onset of the virus, which came as a bolt out of the blue, against the sudden appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness summoning people to baptism and the abrupt beginning of today’s Gospel reading both of which affirm the good news that we are urgently seeking today.

Sermon 25 October 2020 – Trinity XX – Bible Sunday – the Vicar

The subject of the Bible is a vast one to undertake, let alone complete in 5 minutes.

I want to mention one person, who in the history of the Bible stands out. His approach to it is remarkable and gives us a key to interpreting it and understanding it as the whole that it is for us.

We know him as St Jerome. The Latin name of his birth was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymous. We see one many medieval depictions of him, a serious and intent face. Anachronistically he is depicted in a cardinal’s hat, as a onetime prototype of a Vatican official.

He was born in 347 in Dalmatia, modern day Croatia into a wealthy family. He was not baptized until 360 or so, so as a teenager, and this is the period when Christianity is both official and more or less undisputed in the Roman Empire. He studied in Rome, the typical education of a Patrician of his day. Aged about 26 having travelled in Europe, he journey to Asia Minor where he was gravely ill and he experienced a profound personal conversion, which caused him to lay aside his other studies and to concentrate on Biblical study. In some ways this is the most interesting and formative period of his life, from the mid-370s, living almost as a hermit, he sat at the feet of converted Jewish Rabbi from Antioch. Jerome learned from this master Biblical Hebrew. He was probably the best versed scholar of the Old Testament of the Ancient world as a result. In these four years or so his grasp of classical Hebrew was unsurpassed. I shall come back to the significance of this in a moment. He returned to Rome in the early 380s. En route Paulinus ordained him priest. Pope Damasus I greeted his friend and employed him as his secretary, aware that his scholarship was unique. Damasus commissioned Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin. There were earlier beloved texts circulating, translations of the Greek Gospels and the Septuagint [LXX] into Latin. But it was known there were problems of embellishment and scribal error in them. What was the LXX? The Jewish diaspora, notably in Alexandria, was largely Hellenised. A story went in the ancient world had it that the great Ptolemy II, Philadelphus, whose library in Alexandria was one of the great treasures of the ancient world invited 6 scholars from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to meet and prepare a complete translation of the Hebrew scriptures for his library. It is not certain this took place exactly like this, but what is clear is that a pretty standard Greek text of the OT, now known as the LXX was produced by the 2nd c BC and it was almost more widespread in use in the time of the New Testament, than the Hebrew Bible texts, preserved mainly in and around Jerusalem and Galilee. The early Church was dependent on the LXX.

Jerome in the 4th c, in his detailed dialogues with his Hebrew master and many Jewish scholars, understood that although important as a text, it was not original, and so scholarship of the Hebrew would be key for the best work of Biblical translation. After Damasus died in 384, Jerome and other ascetically minded clergy made for Egypt and the Holy Land. They sought to follow the teachings of Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Monasticism. And by 385 Jerome settled. Significantly he chose Bethlehem. Bethlehem is arguably the oldest place of Christian pilgrimage and worship in the world. The church of the Nativity apart from occasional sackings and skirmishes is almost as it was when the mid-6th c by Justinian, and it was very much on the site of the Constantinian church, which itself was built over the grotto the earliest Christians regarded as the place of Jesus’s birth

From 385 until 404 as well as guiding the monks of Bethlehem, Jerome undertook his work of translation. In terms of the NT, he had a tidying up job to do. The Latin fathers who had translated the Gospels had tried to cover up differences between the Gospels, Jerome set about disentangling the errors. To a large extent he was dependent on sources now lost, but they were very comparable to the twin great ancient Greek texts, the Codex Vaticanus (in the Vatican) and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library.

The work on the Old Testament was even more complicated and it is not surprising this took well over 10 years. Setting the Hebrew text alongside the long-inherited LXX, he like many of the contemporary Rabbis in Judaism, who by then had jettisoned the LXX, recovered from the more ancient texts a more robust translation of the Jewish Scriptures. This was not always popular with Christian exegetes.

The Rabbis rejected several of the later books of the LXX, books like Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, parts of Daniel. Jerome understood perfectly why. They were later Greek texts, devotional and hortatory in nature, but not with the same character as the Law and the Prophets.

The Church though, because its dependence for the last 350 on the LXX had held onto these books. If seen as a whole, the Apocrypha is not quoted once in the NT. Reformers much later would side with the Rabbis, and push for the excising of the whole Apocryphal section of Scripture. This was but one of many things to row about much later. Its origins, in a way unsuspectingly came from the method of Jerome in his approach to the Bible.

This is not to denigrate him, quite the opposite. His method would be employed by later Reformers, Erasmus, Luther and others. He was the Biblical scholar par excellence.

Jerome helps us to see Bible as a whole. Its origins are vast. Our understanding depends on linguistic experts such as he. People prepared to engage with the minutiae of translation, which itself is so dependent on close textual analysis and ensuing exegesis.

Our collect prays that we might hear, read, mark learn and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures. This is a life-time’s work for all Christians. The Liturgy we celebrate is the word of God, scripture, made visible, audible and our life in response is the word made flesh. How we live our lives in conformity with this marking, learning, inward digesting is the proof of our dependence on Scripture. As St Paul says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord”.





The Parable of the Wedding Banquet, Ros Miskin, Reader – 11 October 2020


In the opening sentence of today’s Gospel reading, we learn that Jesus was once more going to speak to the chief priests and elders in parables.  The purpose of the parables was to teach of the kingdom of heaven by way of comparison or illustration for those who could not understand the teaching.  This is confirmed by Jesus in an earlier chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when he informs his disciples that he will speak in parables to the people because ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’.  He goes on to affirm that many prophets and righteous people longed for this sight and hearing but were unable to possess it.

The disciples, then, are blessed in their ability to see and hear the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.  They have, so to speak, the inside story denied to others, many of whom would consider themselves to be righteous and therefore worthy of this knowledge.  Thus it is that the chief priests and elders addressed by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, who would consider themselves to be righteous, are taught of the kingdom of heaven in the form of a parable, in this instance the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

What emerges here are themes of inclusion and exclusion. Some are included in the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven, others not so readily.  For them it will be a question of grasping the inner meaning of what they hear and so interpretation is required.  For the chosen few the secret of the kingdom of heaven is laid bare.

Why should this be so?  If we are all equal in the sight of God and the promise of the kingdom is given to us all, why the need to make division between those who can have the inner story directly and those who must work it out by means of comparison and illustration?  I believe the answer can be found if we read on through the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.  In this parable, the kingdom of God is given as a Messianic banquet.  God invites us to this banquet freely, as an act of kindness.  He is under no obligation to do so.  Everything is well prepared and there is an eschatological urgency in the words of the king: ’everything is ready’.  Yet in spite of this loving preparation, the invitees, who have status in society, make light of it and ignore the call to the feast.  Enraged, the king destroys them and their city.  The invitation is then sent out again, this time to the outcasts of Israel, saints and sinners all, and they all accept the invitation.  One such guest is condemned to being thrown out by failure to wear the wedding garment that represents conversion to a life of good deeds but the rest remain.  What we learn from this story is that if people do not turn to God in faith they will not be amongst the first to enter the kingdom of heaven, whatever their status in society may be.  Those who do accept the invitation, whether they be saints or sinners, attend the banquet.

So within this parable we can find a reason for the distinction in what is revealed and to whom it is revealed.  Your position in society, and your perception of  yourself as a righteous person, does not mean that you have priority in entering the kingdom of heaven.  What accords you entry is being open to the love of God and accepting him into your life.

If this is so, then we find within a parable itself, in this case the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, the reason why some are chosen to receive the inner story of the kingdom of heaven, while others are given the secret of the kingdom in the form of a parable.

There is a harsh note in today’s Gospel reading: the rage of the king, the destruction of people and property and the ‘wailing and nashing of teeth’ in utter darkness.  This is, as Ian Boxall describes it in his book ‘Discovering

Matthew’ the apocalyptic atmosphere that pervades Matthew’s Gospel.  Where Matthew differs from this apocalyptic tradition is that the true revelation of heavenly secrets has been made not to ‘the wise and intelligent’ but to ‘infants’.

In spite of this division and severity, I believe that we can in faith have trust in the loving purpose of God for us all and that in the end we can all participate in the heavenly kingdom.  All that is required of us is to respond to his freely given invitation to be with him, now and to come.

Sermon by the Vicar to mark the 80th anniversary of the bombing of St Mark’s, 20 September 2020,

Today’s lectionary readings picture moments of destruction. Jeremiah, in his Lamentations sees the devastated wastes of Jerusalem after the Babylonians had invaded and destroyed it before the exile. The picture he paints is one of despair. Over 500 years later, Our Lord is in the Temple precincts, all newly rebuilt and burnished; he foresees what indeed was to happen forty years later, that once again, the Temple would be razed to the ground. The prophet holds out hope for restoration; and Jesus calls us all to watch. Here at St Mark’s we know something of the experience of devastation and restoration. Our remembering what took place exactly 80 years ago is not a mere looking back, but an honouring of a key moment in our national history and local experience; the echoes of another age, which can ring strangely, at moments capture something of the spirit which sustained our forbears here, and which might renew our own courage and hope in the current moment of crisis.

 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on 13 May 1940. The German threat to the whole of Europe could not have been more intense. His speech on 4 June 1940 makes plain the significance of the collapse of allied strongholds in the rest of Europe. The Battle of Britain was in sight, and that Battle was as much as anything to destroy to morale of the British people. Edward Murrow, US journalist commented in 1954 that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended”. The powerful rhetoric and detailed straight-talking of Churchill’s speeches in the Summer of 1940 helped a bombarded people hold firm. On 4 June 1940, the Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons as he recounts of Dunkirk and its aftermath.

The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never had been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into a prosaic past: not only distant but prosaic; but these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:

When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight,

deserve our gratitude.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

 The Fall of France, and Dunkirk were deep traumas. Many urged a negotiated peace. Having begun a War of words, Churchill had to intensify the onslaught. On 18 June he gave this memorable speech on the Eve of the Battle of Britain.

 However matters may go in France or with the French Government or with another French Government, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye. And freedom shall be restored to all….

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over… the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Rhetoric was one thing, military strategy was another. It was vital if Britain were to prevent a full-scale invasion that its Air Force should prove itsmastery. A massive campaign of bombing of German military and industrial targets was carried out. This was matched with comparable targeting of key installations in this country by the Luftwaffe. On 20 August 1940 the signs of Britain’s air supremacy were there. The Battle was by no means over or won, but Churchill  pronounced as if it were.

Almost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field.

As in Nelson’s day, the maxim holds, “Our first line of defence is the enemy’s ports.” Now air reconnaissance and photography have brought to an old principle a new and potent aid.

The great air battle which has been in progress over this Island for the last few weeks has recently attained a high intensity. It is too soon to attempt to assign limits either to its scale or to its duration. We must certainly expect that greater efforts will be made by the enemy than any he has so far put forth. Hostile air fields are still being developed in France and the Low Countries, and the movement of squadrons and material for attacking us is still proceeding.

It is quite plain that Herr Hitler could not admit defeat in his air attack on Great Britain without sustaining most serious injury. If, after all his boastings and blood-curdling threats and lurid accounts trumpeted round the world of the damage he has inflicted, of the vast numbers of our Air Force he has shot down, so he says, with so little loss to himself; if after tales of the panic-stricken British crushed in their holes cursing the plutocratic Parliament which has led them to such a plight; if after all this his whole air onslaught were forced after a while tamely to peter out, the Fuehrer’s reputation for veracity of statement might be seriously impugned. We may be sure, therefore, that he will continue as long as he has the strength to do so, and as long as any preoccupations he may have in respect of the Russian Air Force allow him to do so…..

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

The late Summer and early Autumn saw by the far the most intense reprisals and determination by the German command to beleaguer the civilian population.On 7 September, a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in the East End of London, day and night. The German press jubilantly announced that “one great cloud of smoke stretches tonight from the middle of London to the mouth of the Thames.” Göring maintained that the RAF was close to defeat, making invasion feasible.The Luftwaffe began to abandon their morning raids, with attacks on London starting late in the afternoon for fifty-seven consecutive nights. The assumed defeat of the RAF never came. By 13 October, Hitler himself postponed so-called Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain until the Spring of 1941. This was not before large parts of London had been devastated and St Mark’s, amongst so many places, lay in ruins. The church took two direct hits during the nights of 21 & 26 September.

The October Parish Magazine begins soberly:

Many of our readers will probably be surprised that no mention is made in this magazine of certain events last month. The editor can only say he is unable to allude to them and will of course do so at the earliest moment. He feels sure those who read will understand. Mr Wheeler, Newsagent in Princess Road, is kindly allowing us to put notices in his shop window of certain of our services and arrangements. I ask you all to keep your attention on these notices.

By the time of The November 1940 magazine’s publication, we read:

The Disaster

 (Permission has been obtained from the Ministry of Information and Air Ministry to publish the following statement. It was not allowed to be published earlier and certain details such as the date of the disaster, although well-known to everybody here, have been omitted.)

 St Mark’s Church was struck by incendiary bombs during a recent raid on London. The roof quickly caught alight and the fire rapidly spread from the west to the east end of it. By the time the hoses were brought into action most of the nave roof was ablaze, and it was soon evident that the destruction of the interior of the church would be complete. The fire was all over in a few hours.

The church was again struck by a high explosive bomb at a later date. The tracery of the east window, hitherto intact, was blown out and the wall around and above it so damaged that it had to be taken down later. This bomb apparently struck the High Altar steps, going right down into the church room and making a good deal of material damage to the chancel wall.

St Mark’s now stands in ruins. The walls and pillars remain, although the chancel walls are badly cracked. So is the steeple which, to our grief, will have to be taken down, and, indeed, the process of doing this has already begun.

This great calamity which has befallen the parish will I know, meet with the sympathy of all, wherever they may live, who knew and loved St Mark’s. It is too early yet to see far ahead…..It is unnecessary to tellyou of the great grief of our congregation and of the many kind expressions of sympathy which have reached me and touched me deeply. We can but look forward to the day when St Mark’s may be restored. Indeed, it has been remarkable how, in letter after letter which I have received, the conviction has been expressed that out of the present ruins will arise a new St Mark’s, beautiful and fruitful for the future years.

I know this great calamity will unite our congregation, and keep them loyal to the things for which St Mark’s exists and yes, still exists. We shall continue of course to “hold fast the profession of our faith”, to worship together and to have our sacraments. We shall, I hope be more faithful and regular than ever. We will not be dismayed but will remember, in the words of His Majesty the King, that “after winter comes spring” and we will do our best to show that our Christian faith is big enough to ride over our present distress.

The then churchwardens, Mr S A Davis and Mr F A Wallis wrote this in the same issue:

The loss of our church is keenly felt by every member of St Mark’s, many of whom have over the period of years, given so much time and care to its beautifications and maintenance.

To one man, however it has been grievous and personal shock – the Vicar.

As a little group of us stood with the vicar watching the flames creep relentlessly towards the High Altar, we thought of the years of devotion he had unsparingly given to make St Mark’s Church truly beautiful, as beautiful as it was.

Like the artist he is, the Vicar has given the highest and noblest in him to his church – a labour of love – and in a few minutes, it stood out against the starlit sky a grim charred ruin. Had  the vicar pressed words of bitterness none could have wondered. His first words however were of concern for his people; that the spiritual life of the parish should go on.

We are addressing these few words to you, the members of St Mark’s, because we feel that you should wish to know of these things. The Vicar’s courage is a challenge to each one of us. We must accept that challenge as a sacred trust. The work of our Church must go on, our Church must be rebuilt.

In the meantime, we earnestly appeal to you to all to do your utmost to maintain the income of the Church and indeed to increase it, that hurried and maybe unwise decisions may not be forced upon us by economic distress. That St Mark’s Church shall again stand proudly as a place worthy and beautiful is, we are sure, the will and determination if its people.

In the December edition of the magazine, the Vicar announced, under the title RIP George Langford:

The death of Mr Langford came to us as a real shock: not only because of its unexpectedness – he went from us very suddenly –  but because our affection for him brought with it that unwillingness to believe we should see him no more. He has been associated with St Mark’s for so long – all his life, I believe. Not only was a he a sidesman, not only had he served on the Parochial Church Council, but he was a faithful and regular member of the congregation….. It must have brought great trouble to him when his house was badly damaged in a recent air-raid; and the destruction of St Mark’s perhaps meant more to him that we can ever know. Such disasters were in all probability contributory causes of his death.

The Vicar’s spirits were despite these sadnesses were undimmed. He writes in the same edition:

I have recently come across a bound volume of the St Mark’s Parish Magazine of 1900. Such ancient volumes must be rare…. One of the most valuable functions of  a parish magazine is to record parish history, and therefore it may be of interest and profit to look back to the life of St Mark’s forty years ago as it was portrayed in the magazine….Queen Victoria was still alive.. but they were not days of peace. We were in the middle of the Boer War. The vicar was then Dr Sparrow Simpson who is happily still with us. His name is known throughout the Church of England as one its greatest scholars and theologians.

He goes on to describe aspects of parish life, not least the management of the schools, the teas for the children on St Mark’s Day, the daily mass, the choir football and cricket teams. He concludes in the evocation of this bygone age:

As we read these accounts of calm happenings in the life of the parish 40 years ago, we are inclined to think that there is something to be said for the despised Victorian age after all. There is the sense of well established Church life, with its well run schools and organisations, with nothing to upset its ordered progress. In in 1980, if someone discovered the bound volume of this year’s parish magazines, and wrote the article “Forty Years Ago”, I wonder what he would think of 1940?







Sermon by Fr Hugh Stuckey 7 July 1940 – given by the Vicar on 6 September 2020

On Sunday I read a sermon that was preached in St Mark’s on Sunday 7 July 1940 and published in the August 1940 parish magazine, just one month before the church was all but destroyed (as given below with the title ‘Overheard in church’). The campaign of enemy bombing was in full swing, and the proximity of the church to the Euston mainline  meant it was no surprise it was in the line of fire, but no one knew as this was preached how severe the destruction would be. Fr Hugh Stuckey had been vicar already 12 years by this time. In the late 1930s he had commissioned Sir Ninian Comper to restore the interior in his recognisable neo-gothic style, but the glass of the Victorian church was untouched. Fr Stuckey clearly loved the interior and was at one with it. What follows is an evocation of those windows, for some of which there is no record, and we can only visualise them from his lively “parable”. Like another clerical story teller, the Revd Wilbert Audrey, my predecessor gives voices to the different windows and in so doing varying characters. It is poignant to read as so soon afterwards all but the three roundels in the baptistery were destroyed. Hearing the echoes of real and imagined conversations in the church on the eve of its devastation help us to gain some sense of that time, to bring it to life in some important way at this anniversary, and to gain inspiration. The endurance of a community which was so beleaguered then helps us to take heart now, in the midst of ongoing uncertainty.