A Service to Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Churches Conservation Trust: Address

16 September 2009 at 12:00 pm

The Very Reverend Victor Stock, Dean of Guildford

‘And in the Spirit he showed me the holy city, coming down out of heaven like God.  It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.  The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass; the foundations are adorned with jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, and amethyst, and the twelve gates are twelve pearls’.  George Eliot says in Middlemarch, ‘How beautiful these gems are; it is strange how deeply colours seem to penetrate one, like scent.  I suppose this is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St John.’  Well, a few tons of emeralds, chrysolites and amethysts, and Loyd Grossman and Crispin Truman wouldn’t be so hard pressed to find the money the Churches Conservation Trust needs. 

Speaking of God, and the places where God is found, speaking of churches and their conservation and usefulness, needs people, and it’s people and what people do, happily, sacrificially and voluntarily, that we celebrate in this marvellous holy place today.  There are so many volunteers and statutory bodies to thank today, but we’d especially like to include the Historic Chapels Trust, the Friends of Friendless Church and the National Churches Trust.  At the great Anglo-Catholic congresses of the early 19th century, after a moving speech by some Cowley father or Oxford theologian, stewards went round the Albert Hall with buckets, into which duchesses threw their diamond necklaces.  The Abbey stewards would be grateful for any diamond necklaces that come their way today, but the Churches Conservation Trust isn’t counting on them.  The Churches Conservation Trust is counting on human beings, who know that churches keep alive the rumour of God.

I’ve been ordained for more than 40 years and the mysterious, beautiful, theological and sacramental has retreated in that time behind the bureaucratic, the organisational and the financial.  So, how moved I was to see that one of the churches in the care of the Trust is Fordwich because I remember when I was a schoolboy Fr Chown, the Rector, celebrating Mass for one or two in that little church, later that church passing out of use, and how marvellous that you rescued it, a holy place in England’s smallest town.

The other day I was asked to be a referee to somebody wanting to be a bishop.  You can apply to be a bishop now, and twenty five pages of forms came, four of them helpfully telling me what a bishop was from the Bible.  One of the things they wanted was my comments on the candidate as a ‘worship president’.  I said something testy (I’ve only got a few more years before retirement) like ‘the concept of worship president does not appear in the New Testament or in the Canons of the Church of England.  If you are asking is this priest a recollected, prayerful, careful celebrant of the Sacraments of the Church, the answer is yes’. 

The Churches Conservation Trust stands for something vital, for keeping alive and finding uses for holy places.  In 2006 Her Majesty the Queen came to distribute the Royal Maundy at Guildford Cathedral - specially minted coinage that marks the year of the Sovereign’s reign and is given to those who represent some of the good we see here today done for the wider community.  The Lord High Almoner gave a lecture to the recipients the weekend before the great day.  ‘The Maundy’, he said, ‘is a faint echo of the Last Supper’.  A faint echo is a start but a trumpet blast is more inspiring, and it’s fanfares for the Trust today!

Thus, although it seems that we have retreated nervously from some of the mystical truths of religion, the worthwhile-ness of one old priest offering the Eucharist in a tiny church like Fordwich in the smallest town in England, we sound a fanfare today for the keeping alive of the rumour of God.  For the Churches Conservation Trust is much more than a faint echo; it is a trumpet call.  Churches are places that remember something that happened once a long time ago and by what the New Testament calls anamnesis, churches bring that into the present moment, most perfectly in the Holy Eucharist itself, the entering into in the present moment of the everlasting sacrifice, Christ’s self-offering to the Father.  But even people who don’t believe in God know that churches are important, for in an inarticulate way, literally sometimes without words, people know holy ground.  Memory moves from nostalgia towards a sense of the sacred, and sometimes a long-abandoned village church can loosen the bonds of the stoutest scepticism.  A church revived as a place where the local community can meet for concerts, plays and parties, can lead to unexpected deepenings.

The other day two atheist friends of mine, one brought up as a Communist in former East Germany and now a doctor in Berlin, was with his English doctor partner in Madrid, both atheists.  Bert was photographing people venerating a wonder-working statue of Our Lady up behind the high altar of Madrid Cathedral.  Andrew, teasing him, said, ‘You’re supposed to go and kiss it, that’s what people do.  You’re supposed to kiss that silver mirror in which Mary and Christ are reflected’, and to his horror Bert jumped up and said, ‘I can’t kiss it, but ..’, ran back up the stairs, put his hands on the mirror and stood silent for a moment.  Watch out Mr Dawkins!

Perhaps the Royal Maundy is not such a faint echo of the foot-washing, as the Lord High Almoner thought.  Perhaps that strange ceremony speaks.  For people find their way to faith when doors are opened and keys are found, and a community finds a use for a building.  How splendid that Sir Roy Strong, High Bailiff and Searcher of the Sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, his little book on the English Church has been so well received, touches a nerve in community and inner city, in the fastnesses of Manchester, the depths of Surrey and little Fordwich, the smallest town in England, where people long to keep holy places going.  They’re able to do it because of you, men and women who volunteer to hold the key, make sure the gutters are cleaned, the notice boards up to date, the times of availability and opening are clear.  ‘For how shall they hear without a preacher?’ says the Bible, and don’t be shy of it, those who support the Churches Conservation Trust are preaching loud and clear that these sacred stones shine yet with the radiance of a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 

So today we give thanks for Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, our visionary founder, for all the Trustees who followed him and the communities and campaigners who have fought against the odds to save the church they love from decay, vandalism and threats of demolition.  We thank God for thousands of volunteers who keep alive the rumour of God, for often the holy city is made up of such very ordinary and everyday guardians as the man who keeps the key in his cottage, or the man who keeps the key to the church in his flat in Birkenhead.  Or the farmer, who when asked where an exceedingly rare 13th century chalice was kept (Had he any idea? For it wasn’t in the church safe in his remote country church, and it wasn’t in the diocesan treasury and it wasn’t in a local museum, and the bureaucracy were worried); the farmer said, ‘Oh, it’s in our knife drawer in the farmhouse.  I take it out on Sunday morning, my wife’s polishes it the night before.  We keep the linen purificators at home too so they don’t get damp and are nicely starched, and we keep the wafer dry in the kitchen for the priest on the paten.  I take the chalice up before the eight o’clock Holy Communion every Sunday, and afterwards we bring it home, wash it and put it away in the knife drawer again’.

What you do in the Churches Conservation Trust is keep the rumour of faith alive and the doors open.  And let’s stick our necks out – what you are doing sounds a fanfare for God.

‘To this temple where we call the “Come O Lord of hosts” today,
with thy wonted loving kindness hear thy servants as they pray,
and thy fullest benediction shed within its walls alway’.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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