The Sunday School at this moment is in the crypt learning how to pronounce the word Septuagesima so they are word perfect by the time they come back again. Let us wish them all very good luck with that. Before getting the weekly email that gets sent to the families about what is happening in Sunday School, I had not really given a thought to this. But why not let us start with today’s strange nomenclature and work from there to today’s Gospel from the early part of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s ringing call “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father, which is in heaven.”
Last Sunday we had the Candlemas Procession. This was joyful keeping of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The procession, all candlelit, with no electric light, echoes Simeon’s prophetic words that, first, Jesus is The Light to lighten the Gentiles; and he becomes this because, he addresses Mary: A sword shall pierce your own soul also. Jesus’s death brings about his illuminating glory. We turn from Christmas and all its attendant celestial light and joy now towards Easter. Septuagesima is not exactly, but very nearly, 70 days before the solemn events we shall keep in Holy Week. Jesus’s glorification. We turn from white vestments to violet ones. It is not Lent yet, but the Old Testament reading is clear about the nature of fasting.
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him.
And the Gospel is Matthew’s particular take on what Simeon had said.
A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Jesus is the light to lighten the nations, just as Jerusalem is City set on a hill that cannot be hid. He in turn will be set high on a hill outside that city, and his selfless sacrifice on the Cross will be the means of the light shining in the darkness.
Septuagesima is our turning point then to the very heart of our faith.
I want to ponder something of the parish’s history, from what we can reconstruct and explore how it has sought to Let our light so shine before the world that they might see the good works and give glory to our heavenly father.
There’s something of a problem and that is that part of the history has got a bit lost, let me do my best to reconstruct some of it. I will need to borrow from the annals and muniment room of our neighbour St Mary’s, and the library of Cecil Sharp House. Let’s start at the turn of the 20th c. In 1901 the Revd Percy Dearmer was inducted as the third vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, and in 1904, his friend, the Revd Maurice Bell, was inducted as the third Vicar of this parish. We shall need some visual aids: the biography of Percy Dearmer, by his widow Nan; a photograph of Bell, the English Hymnal; a vestment. I shall try to use each of these to explain something of our history.
Dearmer is almost regarded as a saint of the Church of England. What he did whilst at Primrose Hill between 1901-1915, with his friend and collaborator Maurice Bell 1094-1912 was perhaps the consolidation of the quiet revolution which took place throughout the 19thc. You may remember that in the Autumn I told the story of John Henry Newman, who was the first of the Tractarians. He left for Rome in 1845, but for those that did not, the Church of England changed almost without recognition in terms of its aesthetics. The emerging Neo-Gothic architecture of the early part of the 19th, which was Romantic really, rather than scholarly, became increasingly studious. Later 19th c architects, such as Street, and Bodley created spaces for ornate ritual which the preaching boxes of the 18th c had never envisaged. The bold pioneers who succeeded the Tractarians got themselves into huge trouble as they ornamented the liturgy attenuating Papistical practices within the framework of the Prayer Book. Outside several of the Anglo-Catholic shrines there were riots, protesting against the popish goings on, stoked up by extreme Protestants. Some clergy got arrested. One Bishop went to prison for mixing water and wine at the Eucharist! One of the related cases got as far as the judicial committee of the Privy Council! It all became quite a to-do! Percy Dearmer’s ministry was beginning when much of this had died down, but the accommodations reached were compromises brought about by exhaustion more than anything else. The Church of England was quite divided, and liturgically things were a hotch-potch. Dearmer was the son of an artist. Dearmer himself at studied at Oxford with a view to becoming an architect. Like his father he was gifted artistically. He had been greatly influenced by the writing of Ruskin, and the work of William Morris. Behind the careful work of both was a strong underlay of Liberal Socialism, which saw good architecture and design as one of the key instruments of social justice and change.
Once acquainted with this vision, Dearmer never wavered from a deeply held Christian Socialism, strongly advocated during his time in Oxford by Charles Gore, one of the founders of the Mirfield Community. What developed in his thinking at this time, alongside Conrad Noel (later to be Vicar of Thaxted), and our own Maurice Bell, of whom we hear frustratingly all too little in this period, is the need for a clear expression of Anglican worship, heavily reliant on the pre-Reformation sources, and as clearly distinct from contemporary Roman (Tridentine) practice as possible. He had visited Italy in the 1890s and while loving some of the architecture he had an almost immediately violent allergic attack to the sloppy baroque services he encountered. He developed a vision of an outward form of liturgical style which worked within the framework of the English Gothic. It is not surprising that the young Ninian Comper was immediately drawn to the aesthetic Dearmer was calling for. Dearmer’s first great work published in 1899 just before he arrived in Primrose Hill, helped to standardise the so called English Use. The Warham Guild became the workshop from 1912 producing the fabrics and ornaments the Use required. Reading the Parson’s Handbook, he is exacting on the quality, substance and style of vestments. Below, one of our visual aids, we have the St Mary’s requiem dalmatic. We borrow them for services here to go with our own requiem chasuble. There are two things to note. It is well over 100 years and in mint condition – testimony to the quality of the materials used and the manufacture about which he was a stickler. The damask is exquisite. But can you guess its material. It is wool, the outer black and the beautiful lining. It evokes the time when East Anglia became rich beyond imagining in the 14th c because of the quality of English wool and weaving. And it underlines that for certain occasions and seasons, it is wool or linen rather than silk that should be used. This hierarchy of material use was integral to the aesthetic that undergirded his practice.
The last of our visual aids is the English Hymnal. As the liturgy settled down in late 19th c hymnody had become increasingly a part of services. Unknown in the 18th c when metrical psalms were the limit of innovation, the result of the Evangelical revival had been the popularisation of hymn singing. Dearmer saw the great value of hymns as devotional aids and the means of as it were audience participation, and in collaboration with Vaughan Williams, and our own Maurice Bell, the hymnal came to be. Hymns Ancient and Modern had cornered the market since 1860. And there were some most scholarly and wonderful additions to the canon of hymnody as a result of that work. Dearmer, Bell and Vaughan Williams and others wanted to update, deepen, and renew the repertoire. As with Dearmer’s commitment to good liturgy being undergirded by the best materials in vesture, so his attitude to music was that the best congregational singing should be supported by the very best in musical arrangement. Our musical colleagues are better placed to judge than me on this, but the melodies for new hymns derived from folk songs which Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams had been notating, and the stirring arrangements of these and new works added verve, spice, sentiment, beauty to the offering.
The city set on a hill, the candle set on the candlestick, the flavoursome salt which changes everything, all these images call the Church to be more vibrantly all that it is called to be on this Septuagesima and always.
The word liturgy means work, or even public work. It comes from the same Greek word for road-works, what the city does to make the city (on a hill or otherwise), what it should be.
May our light so shine before the world, that it may see our good works and with us glorify our Father, that is in heaven.