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Leaving St Giles: Part II

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

True to form, Alan has not left us empty-handed for this first Pelican since his retirement, but has kindly agreed that the sermon he gave at his retirement service on 1 December should be published here.

He writes: ‘My sermon on the evening of Advent Sunday may not at first have seemed like a parting gift to you, the good people of St Giles-in-the-Fields, but such was its intention. It is reproduced here in absentia as an extended word of gratitude to the many who have so kindly wished me well and presented me with fine, thoughtful gifts. As you will presently read, I shall miss you all.’

‘My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord: with my tongue will I ever be shewing thy truth from one generation to another’

Psalm 89, verse 1

In 1756 Dr Samuel Johnson was 48 years of age. The great labour expended on his Dictionary was past, and though he tinkered with it a little more, his career had stalled and he found himself at a loose end. At this moment, as James Boswell, his biographer, remarks in his Life of the man, ‘he was offered a living of considerable value in Lincolnshire,’ which was in the gift of the land-owning father of a good friend of his.

Now, I have often thought that I became a Minister of the Established Church about 5 or 6 generations too late: the Rectories were larger then, the gardens bigger, the kudos greater, the number of servants and horses more plentiful, and the esteem given by society out of all proportion to merit - now that everything has to be earned it’s become so much more time-consuming! - and based solely on position and class, voice, manner, bearing. Dr Johnson lived in that far-off time when the living of a parish could be offered to someone who had never shown the least personal inclination to become a parson themselves; unlike today, as Mariama and Robert among others will testify, when the Church demands blood, sweat and tears from its ordinands and even then is choosy; in that far off time, as Boswell writes, the Doctor was offered a wealthy living - that too I have missed, by the way - and was invited to undertake holy orders.

He did not accept the offer, for which Boswell gives two reasons:

First: ‘from a conscientious motive, being persuaded that his temper and habits rendered him unfit for that assiduous and familiar instruction of the vulgar and ignorant which he held to be an essential duty in a clergyman . . .’

Second: ‘because his love of a London life was so strong, that he would have thought himself an exile in any other place, particularly if residing in the country.’

Johnson’s love of London is well known. I was an ordinand in Lincolnshire and I have felt the sharp, menacing east wind blow across the North Sea from the Urals; and Johnson and his peers were a classically-educated class who ruled the country, ran institutions and instructed a wayward population in religious morality-in short, ‘instructing the vulgar and ignorant.’ Not any more! Well, at least, not in my case. They tried to teach Latin in my Comprehensive School class in 1960’s south London - Latin! - thinking it would improve us. The Latin teacher lasted two months! We soon told him what he could do with his centurions and cohorts!

I have often travelled in the slip stream of decline while furiously paddling against it. That secondary school has become an Academy with a pretentious name; my theological college eventually closed; and before that the religious community I had joined in Oxford, founded at the height of the mid-19th century catholic revival: that too had closed. The zeal of those Fathers was of a different order to anything we know today; their confidence in their own righteousness takes the breath away. They founded orphanges, schools, hospitals, monasteries, built churches and founded missions in four continents. With the Tower of Babel in mind, a newsletter of the time had this to say:‘The English tongue is the solvent of national distinctions . . . in all parts of the world. The gathering of so many nations, whether subjects or allies, into a community of language, marks out the English Church as the power to whom God would entrust the future spiritual destinies of the world . . .’

Brexit is child’s play compared to this; and they really believed it.

But now it is gone, all such inherited confidence gone. Our forbears acted from a kind of ownership of faith which we simply can no longer claim. So, we are called to know ourselves again not through the stretch or arrogance of our missionary reach but in something much closer to home: in the quality of our living. The force of the familiar adage of the 2nd century North African church leader, Tertullian, that onlookers are drawn into the orbit of faith not so much through teaching and instruction, a la Dr Johnson, but because they can see how these believers love and are ready to lay down their life for one another; this has gained force among us once again and in those lands which rice and Christianity once visited.

The Christian man who hectors young Jewish children on the underground about their sinfulness with bible verses and is called to task by a Moslem mother standing by, and in a carriage where everyone else is looking away: this is the theatre of mission in which we are placed today. The old certainties, which were ebbing away even as I began my own ministry, are redundant now; are more than redundant, are become a stumbling block to us.

Some of you, I know, may find the notion of a renewed humility hard to swallow, but I would ask you to return to the scriptures, as I have tried to do again and again. Sundays exercise a great discipline over the mind and heart of the pastor and preacher, and there are, I have learned, far too many of them; yet they force us to pay attention to Isaiah and the psalmist, as we shall do in these coming weeks of Advent, and to soak up the voices of the dispossessed, and the longing of the outcast, and the desires of those who first heard the Beatitudes, as well as the obligations of the covenants, old and new; to return to the scriptures, to the grain of mercy and grace that runs through them; above the desire to be right and prove others wrong, there lies the call to declare the loving kindness of the Lord in this and every generation.

When it comes to the world of the West End, however, where St Giles is set, I must confess that I have never been exactly sure whether to love or hate it, whether I should love or hate it, or whether it is possible to love and hate it at the same time. it’s sometimes feels like Xanadu where Kubla Khan built his fantastic ‘pleasure-dome,’ according to the poet, Coleridge; and sometimes, still, the characters from Hogarth’s ‘Gin Alley’ walk past the front door; and sometimes (though less often) it is calm, quiet even and the birds can be heard to sing. On my first Christmas Day morning as Rector in 2015 I was greeted by a drunk lying across the main doorway. His name was Michael, for those who have been around for a while - no longer seen, for which I am not sorry. Dreams and fantasies are manufactured here and in Soho and Covent Garden close by. On my first Sunday morning at St Giles back in 2010 - and in those days we had services at 8am and 10.15am before we got to the main 11am service - for a moment I thought I had received a vision of a larger-than-life-scantily-clad woman until I roused myself, rubbed my eyes and realised that I had been looking at an advert on a passing bus through the window. Dreams, phantasms, escapism: desperate, addictive escapism: are we meant to love or hate this? I have never been sure what to think or do for the best.

On balance, though, I have come to the conclusion that loving and hating at the same time is the necessary thing to do and, possibly, might just be the most gospel-like thing to do; but it does make any former triumphalism problematic. Was the father who welcomed back his wayward son gloating in being proved right; I think not; sure in the constancy of God’s mercy, but not to be conceited, or self-congratulatory. It is no easy thing to find the way to from darkness to light.

In the days and time to come I won’t miss the drug addicts who gather in the churchyard, though I won’t forget them; I won’t miss the legions of yellow-vested construction workers either, but those I will want to forget; I won’t miss the noise, or the anonymity and the levelling of everyone, and the endless scrutiny required to guard this precious place and the jewel that is the gospel at its heart; this I gladly bequeath to another to watch over and nurture; I won’t miss the casual, thoughtless but oddly innocent intrusion so many have made on our life here, like the delivery driver who will walk right up to me at morning prayer oblivious that he is interrupting something, driven by his schedule of work; I’ll happily lay that aside; I won’t miss the restlessness of the streets, the ebb and flow of people herded together that often seems so pointless; and I won’t miss cyclists riding on the pavement!

But I will miss you. The quality of music here has spoiled me for just about anywhere else; as has the story-telling and as have the characters of the history that swirls around us all the time. Elsewhere - where ever that shall be - will seem flatter, less layered, more easily dismissed. I shall miss you all and it all.

So it is that I am drawn this night to the sentiments of the opening of psalm 89 more than to the more strident assertions of scripture and faith I might have chosen. I don’t think we do stridency very well here. Continue to play to the strengths that God has given you, is my advice. ‘My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord’ was the psalmist’s credo; I like to think it has been my own in these years of my calling. I hope and pray it will long be yours as well. If I am to bequeath you anything, then let it be this.

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