This beautiful feast of All the Saints reminds us of the triumph our Lord Jesus Christ won over death.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 1st November 2019 at 9.32 AM
This beautiful feast of All the Saints reminds us of the triumph our Lord Jesus Christ won over death. His victory, his dying and rising, assures us that our dying, our death, which will come to us all, will not be the end for us. Jesus assured his disciples, ‘In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.’ So, beyond death, we are taught and believe, is new life, new life with God, new life with those who have triumphed by God’s grace and share the eternal glory of the heavenly kingdom. The saints are in heaven with God the Holy Trinity, with the angels and archangels, the cherubim and seraphim, the great company of those who worship almighty God day and night, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’
So, who are the saints?
Of course, we know the names of many of the saints and cherish them: the glorious company of the apostles, the noble army of martyrs, the bishops and confessors, the men and women held up to us as examples of sanctity and raised to our altars. Here in particular we cherish the name of our patron saint St Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. We also delight in the company of St Edward, King and Confessor, whose body lies in the great shrine behind the high altar and which has recently been dignified with a wonderful icon by the Russian archimandrite, Fr Zenon.
We need to know and recognise that the saints of God are sometimes portrayed in plaster or stone and we can look at the perfection of their image and ponder their piety and imagine for some moment that they were throughout their lives utterly good and entirely holy. This cannot be. Only one human being, we believe, was truly holy throughout his life, and that was, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ. Saints have flaws. They were and are human, not divine.
Think of the recent canonisation in Rome of John Henry Newman, who took his journey from Anglican Evangelicalism to a primitive version of Anglo-Catholicism to Roman Catholicism. Always he was faithful, but always enquiring, searching, sometimes despondent, even despairing. In his most famous hymn, the saint confesses,
I do not ask to see
The distant scene--one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years.
Thus he acknowledged his early failures to love and obey almighty God. He wanted to go his own way, not to be led by God, but to choose. How like us he was. How great was the gift of the Holy Spirit that turned him to pray to God,
So long thy pow'r hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone.
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Saint John Henry can be, should be, an example, an encouragement and an inspiration for us.
But today, we think not of those well-known named saints, each with their special day of celebration. We think instead of the great company of the saints whose names are not known to us or not remembered by us. And we include in that great list of God’s holy ordinary people, the plebs sancta Dei, those we have known and admired and loved and have gone before us, whom the Church has not named as saints but whom we know to have been an example and an inspiration to us on our own journey of faith.
The names crowd in of people who have ministered to me from my childhood onwards.
On the wall of my office here I have a photograph of the clergy and servers of the parish of Eltham where I grew up, where I became a boat boy, carrying the incense boat at the age of five. The date of the photograph would have been 1953 or 1954. Our vicar was Fr Dudley Hodges and with him were Fr Cyril Price, the curate, and twenty one altar servers, many of whom I remember from later years. The picture came to me after his death through my dear friend Kenneth Stevenson, whose father-in-law had been at college with Dudley Hodges. Fr Hodges moved parish in 1955 but six years later nurtured my vocation to the priesthood. I thank God for him, as for Fr Bill Rhodes, a later vicar, and Fr Anthony Toller, our school chaplain, and then Fr Gordon O’Loughlin, the parish priest when I was teaching in Hull. Each was in his own way of course human and therefore flawed, as are we all, but each with many others an encouragement and inspiration to me.
Then I think of those to whom in theory I ministered but who also ministered to me, especially in my seventeen years as a parish priest.
In Kennington, when I was curate of St John the Divine Parish Church, Gertie Smith had been a headmistress and was full of wisdom and years, chuckling often, loving the Church and loving God, and being kind to a young curate. And Mary Digby, the Sacristan, who made and repaired beautiful vestments, and who died suddenly of undiagnosed diabetes. Then when I became a parish priest in Wimbledon, Annie Rippington was 93 and was still playing the organ; she had filled in for someone who had gone to war in 1939 and was still playing 39 years later. She seemed happy to step down. I could go on, to Streatham and beyond: men and women loving God, faithful, and so many more, family and friends, who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again. I thanks God for them all.
This place too is holy. Our predecessors, abbots and monks, deans and canons, organists, lay vicars and choristers, faithful worshippers: not all have been good, not all have been holy. But all have been part of the plebs sancta Dei, the holy ordinary people of God. ‘These stones that have echoed their praises are holy and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod.’
In the south cloister, are the effigies of several early abbots, worn smooth through the ages, from the days of their burial in the cloister garth. The Holy Spirit of God can wear smooth our rough edges and reform us with his grace so that we too may be a worthy part of that great company of heaven. Our purpose and our destiny is to be saints of God.