SERMON AT ST MARY’S LEIGH, 22 November 2015
800 YEARS OF VICARS
2 Timothy 3 v 14 – 4 v 5 – Paul urges Timothy to be faithful in his ministry
Luke 10 vv 1 – 9 and 17 – 21 – The sending out of the 70 disciples
Earlier this month the frustration of a terrorist plot in this country was marked in some way in almost every village and town in England.
What was the name of the leading terrorist? Guy Fawkes.
What most of you probably do not know is that after the unmasking of that plot, a Service of Thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from the gunpowder plot was published and then incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer to be used every year on 5 November. I do not know when that service was discontinued of whether it merely fell into disuse. When I was Vicar, there was a 19th century desk copy of the BCP which included the service. In many and varied ways our worship led by the vicars of this parish with the support of others has changed over the years. Is there any constant thread that provides unity and continuity? How do we cope with change? Do we need change?
Most of the four gospels is taken up with the life and ministry of Jesus and the 12 disciples. One hardly notices the second tier of disciples, the 70 whom Jesus sent out to preach and heal, as recorded in our gospel reading this morning. I expect many of them where among the 120 disciples recorded by Luke in Acts Chapter 1 as being in prayer in Jerusalem prior the day of Pentecost at the birthday of the Church. Over the 800 years here in Leigh there have been 57 Vicars (and I include clerical Rectors) here in Leigh, roughly corresponding to that second tier of ministers in the life of the early Church. In our epistle reading Paul urges the young man Timothy to be faithful in following his calling as a minister of Christ in the Church. Looking back at what is known of the ministry of Vicars here it seems that there has been a succession Vicars who have faithfully followed their vocation in ministering in this parish.
In this celebration today I will look at some of the changes through which the Church has gone in the past 800 years, the motivation behind this change and what are some of the constants that should enable us to manage this change. Then finally say a brief word about vocation not only in relation to clergy but in relation to us all.
Going back earlier than 1215, to 596 A.D. when St Augustine arrived on our shore having been sent by Pope Gregory to Christianize Britain, he was surprised to find quite an established Saxon Church, for the Celts had been forced to the extremities, to Cornwall, Wales, Northern England and Scotland. Should he enforce the use of The Roman liturgy or let them continue with the Gallic liturgy, used with considerable variety in each Diocese? The Pope told him to use what he found to be best in what was already in use rather than force a rigid conformity of the Roman liturgy. Such a situation continued right up to the Reformation. The Sarum Rite, in Latin, originating from the Bishop of Salisbury was used very widely in the S of England and probably was what was in use here from 1215 until the time of the Reformation, beginning under the reign of Henry VIII, with the break with Rome in 1534.
Incidentally Henry VIII was briefly Rector of Leigh from his dissolution of the monasteries; Tonbridge Priory having previously held the Rectory. King Henry though passed the Rectory to Cardinal Wolsey until he fell out of favour and in 1563 Henry Sidney of Penshurst was granted the Lay Rectory. It has remained in the Sidney family ever since.
Returning though to the liturgy, most educated people in mediaeval times, especially the clergy, were familiar with Latin. There is merit in having a universal language. I find this so in the international technical work I do. Our working language is English; this has become the universal language of the 21st Century. For example in both China and Japan the announcements and indicators on the trains are in English as well as their own language and script. But the Christian faith is not just for educated people it is for all people and this was a strong factor in the Reformation. If the Bible is to take deep root in people’s lives, if our worship is to be from the heart rather than merely reciting words out of a sense of duty then we need the Bible and the Services we use to be in English, in good understandable English. And so in the 16th Century not only in England but in continental Europe there was a great work of translating the Bible and church services into the local European language. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury supported the translators of the Bible into English and was directly involved in the production of the first English Book of Common Prayer which came into use on Pentecost Sunday 1549, here at Leigh, and in all the Churches of our land. There were revisions in 1552 and 1559 related to who was on the throne of England. There was a break in the period of the Commonwealth following the Civil War and that must have been a very difficult period here as elsewhere. In 1662 following the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, the present Book of Common Prayer came into use.
There is not time to look at all the changes of the last 200 years. Just briefly to pick out a few aspects.
- In 1862 the Church building had a major restoration including the addition of a bell tower.
- In April 1879 the present organ was brought into use at a service at which the Archdeacon of Maidstone preached, in the presence of 15 other clergy and a great congregation.
- In the late 19th century an annual harvest festival service was introduced on Friday evenings at 7.30 p. m.
- In the second half of the 20th century we went through a variety of changes of service with authorisation of Series 1, 2 and 3, leading up to the publication of the Alternative Service Book in 1980, the year I came here. I remember how we struggled with the exchange of the peace in the Communion service.
- At the turn of the century the services of Common Worship were introduced.
There needs to be stability and continuity as well as change. To some extent this has been produced by the continuing use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. But we have to recognise that society is changing, that in many areas, but not all, congregations are slowly declining. We must have a real concern for those who are not regular members of our Church, not just to fill up the pews in Church but that they may come to a lively faith in Christ, a faith that will guide them through this life and prepare them for the life to come. The 70 disciples were sent out, not just randomly, but to the villages to which Jesus planned to go. A Church must be outward looking. I made a point of visiting, as far as I could, every household in the Parish, even getting in to see Lord Bernstein, who as most of you will know, was a Jew and after whose wife Charlotte Cottages are named, and every business in the parish. I must also pay tribute to the wonderful team of lay ministers that I had, Winifred Genner, Audrey Price and Harold Farrington as Readers. May God bless the ministry of Lionel and those who follow him if not for the next 800 years, until the His return which may well happen long before that. Thank you for inviting me to preach today. God bless you all.
Rev. Christopher Miles
Vicar of Leigh 1980-1990