Sermon from 31 January, The Revd Canon Chris Newlands
SERMON AT LANCASTER PRIORY – 31ST JANUARY 2021
I love the stones of this place! As you can imagine I’ve spent a lot of time over the past eleven years here in the Priory. I’ve loved to absorb the atmosphere, breathe in the air (on a Sunday afternoon it has been good to smell the incense from the morning service hanging in the air!) I’ve especially enjoyed looking out for the secret nooks and crannies (I managed to avoid saying crooks and nannies, an all too tempting Spoonerism!) that few people see. It was a thrill when we had the new lighting installed recently to be able to travel right up to the beams of the roof and to see the secrets that lurk there – beautiful carvings that no one from the ground sees – and yet the craftsmen still found time to ensure that even those unseen parts were beautiful in themselves.
When I arrived here in 2010, we were still using what organists affectionately referred to as “the toaster” the electronic organ that had accompanied services for a good number of years, and under my predecessor a lot of preparatory work had been done to install a pipe organ in two parts: the larger part in the West End gallery, and a smaller instrument in the South Quire aisle. And as the old went out and we awaited the new to come in we did for a brief while have the sight of the whole west wall above the gallery, and though I rejoice in the installation of that grand instrument there, a loud organ to forth tell in deep tones the glory of God – there is the slight tinge of sadness as we have lost the sight of the massive stones that make up that west wall.
But there are still plenty of ancient stones to look at, and indeed – to touch! When showing groups of young children around the church I would encourage them to put their hands on the west wall under the gallery. It didn’t mean a lot to them when I said that this wall could well have stood here for one thousand three hundred and fifty years, nor that the stones they are touching could have been touched by Roman soldiers when these stones were part of the walls of the Roman fort on this very site 2,000 years ago, before they were repurposed to build the first church on the site. So I just told them it was (deep breath) very very very very (etc) old!
We heard from the Book of Kings, read by David (who is now measuring the rooms of our new house in cubits, not in metres) about the building of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, and how the stones were carefully prepared for its construction. Sadly nothing at all remains of Solomon’s Temple built around a thousand years before the birth of Christ – only some of the massive stones from Herod’s short lived Temple dating from the time of Jesus (it only lasted less than 100 years) remain as the Western Wall which is the closest that faithful Jews can come to the Temple Mount, now occupied by the Dome of the Rock. In that temple, the stones for the altar of sacrifice were to be natural rocks, untouched by the chisels and hammers which dressed the stones to fit together carefully to make the strong walls.
Here in the Priory we have the same – some carefully dressed stones, some even have their masons’ marks from when they were first built; and some natural rocks making up the exterior walls of the church. Again, some of the walls are covered in white plaster: this has the advantage of helping the church to look brighter, but I still love to gaze on the uncovered solid stones, both those that are smooth and dressed, as here in the nave, or those rougher more massive stones that can be found in the 7th Century wall below the Gallery, or the east wall around the great East Window.
All of the stones have a purpose. Some are on the inside, some are visible only on the outside where they have weathered the centuries. (Some need replacing due to the ravages of time!) Some are beautifully decorated and catch the eye, while others are solid, load-bearing stones, chosen for their resilience and not for their beauty, holding together many parts such as these columns here in the very centre of the Priory, supporting the chancel arch and ensuring balance, strength and, if well maintained, will see the Priory standing here for another thousand years.
Yes, I love this church and ALL its stones.
But there are other stones without which this Priory could not fulfil the sacred task it has been entrusted with. And those are the Living Stones, which are God’s people who have been here throughout the many generations since the Gospel was first proclaimed in these parts well over a thousand years ago, and are still here, insistently proclaiming that this Priory Church stands here now, as it did when it was first built in distant and uncertain times, to proclaim God’s presence in the world, and – more particularly, right here in this City of Lancaster. God’s people have proclaimed the faith of Christ Jesus in this place at all times: In times of adversity and rejoicing, in wartime and in peace, in times of plague and pandemic and in times of health and happiness, a constant for nearly two millennia in this very place. We stand in this place made sacred by the prayers and worship of countless people over many centuries. Eleven years is but the blinking of an eye in the long history of the Priory.
And just as the solid stones of the church are varied in form and purpose, so are the people of the church, those living stones.
Of the stones that built this church, some face the outside, and some face inward; some of the stones are decorated and draw the eye, whilst others are vital to the strength of the building, but are not noticed even by the most keen observer; some keep the roof on; others stop the walls from collapsing.
So it is with the living stones, God’s people in this place. For the past eleven years I may have been the public face of the Priory, and been privileged to have my name on record on the plaque over there as the 52nd in a long line of Priors and Vicars of this Priory and Parish Church going back to the 11th Century, but – and this is also true for my predecessors – none of us would have been able to fulfil the role without a dedicated group of people – in my case, many of whom were here when I arrived, and will be here long after I have left.
Others may have joined the Priory family in the past years during my incumbency, and I hope they will stay and support the next Vicar, (whoever she or he may be) as well as they have supported me.
The church has its pillars, which do so much more than keep the roof on. The living pillars are those from within our church family who have worked tirelessly to maintain its fabric, its work, its mission and its outreach. I have worked with five churchwardens who have all done sterling work throughout their period of office, and the present wardens will have the vacancy to manage which is an additional and heavy burden, and I’m sorry about that – but I know they are more than sufficient for the task, and will maintain the life and order until they in turn hand on to the next team as, quite rightly their period of service is limited, and cannot exceed six years. And besides the wardens there are so many others on whom I have relied, too many to number, but the living stones in the fabric of the church – take one away and goodness knows what the consequences would be!
I’ve been privileged to have been able to work with a solid team of vergers keeping the day to day running of the Priory, we have someone working specifically with our younger members and their families, and someone committed to our outreach in the Marsh. The music department has grown to work with a younger group of children, as well as nurturing a new generation of choral scholars. And we cannot wait for the choir to return to full strength for our services; though I’m delighted they are represented by one solo singer this evening. The admin team we have extended a lot in the past years as we have taken on more and more concerts and events, some small, others extraordinary – who can ever forget the weeks when the Moon took up residence in the Nave? These things do not just happen because the Vicar has had an idea and therefore it is so.
As Thomas Edison famously said, things happen based on 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I may take credit perhaps for some of those 1 percents – whilst the 99% and most of the perspiration has landed on an army of hardworking people to make them happen.
Some of the stones face outwards from the church to the City, County and nation beyond our walls. To me, they speak of our connectedness to our City and beyond, as whoever is the Vicar is automatically (or as the lawyers like to put it “ex officio”) a part of so many aspects of our life, relating to the Mayor and City Council, the County Council and its Chairman (at present a much respected member of our congregation), the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, the Universities, and schools – especially Ripley St Thomas, that outstanding school which we are delighted to welcome here many times through the year. There are many local Trusts and charities that have found support here, some very old such as the Lancaster Charity, providing accommodation for the needy of the parish, to more recent charities such as the City of Sanctuary and the Black History Group, Lancaster Pride, and the Holocaust Memorial Group.
There are links here to the High Sheriff and the legal institutions of the county, as well as our links with the County Council, Lieutenancy and the Duchy of Lancaster. It was my great privilege a few years ago on a very memorable day, to welcome HM The Queen, Duke of Lancaster to our City on behalf of local church leaders, and to present them to Her Majesty. A church set on a hill cannot be hidden – it is our responsibility to use all of these connections we have to ensure that the Church and the Christian faith remain at the heart of the life of our City, County, and Nation.
Some of the stones within the church are beautifully decorated. To me these speak of the beauty of holiness, and the importance of a liturgy that brings us close to God in worship which is reverent, profound – and expresses in signs and symbols a truth which words alone cannot articulate. And the music which is so central to our worship here is an important part of that liturgy. It has been my joy to hear the sound of children and adults joining together and making a joyful noise unto the Lord in our choir, and I am so grateful to Don and Ian and our music department for all they have done, do, and will continue to do once we can regain some of normality and the resumption of our customary choral services which draw so many people into our church to celebrate in that time honoured way.
And if you look carefully around the church, you will find some stonework which is quite new, and as yet, unweathered. These stones speak to me of innovation and constant reinvention for we must never stop growing and indeed changing to speak to our present generation of the unchanging nature of God in ways which make sense to every new generation of God’s people.
We have, over this last year, learned that churches – however ancient, however beautiful – are not the only place where God can be found and worshipped. We have introduced the technology that allows people to remain connected to us and our daily worship as well as our Sunday services whilst doing so from the comfort of their own homes, as many of you are doing regularly by following us on the live stream. This will continue even when we do return to welcoming congregations back to church, as it has been a vital ministry to many, not only in Lancaster, but as I know from emails and telephone calls that people have been joining in our worship from around the world. A truly global ministry we never thought we would develop! The Ministry Team in the Priory will continue to broadcast daily prayer, as well as our Sunday services for as long as they are of benefit to our extended church family. I am sure that this present period is somewhat of a watershed – life afterwards will be very different for all our churches, and we need to ensure that our outward-facing communications continue to reflect the essence of our Priory worship, with its reverence and the beauty of holiness.
But there is one more Stone I need to mention before I conclude this address this evening, and that is The Cornerstone, Jesus Christ who calls us, as expressed in our second reading from 1 Peter, to be built up into a spiritual house, with Jesus Christ at the centre, the heart, of all that we are, and all that we do.
Christ our Cornerstone brings together all of us as living stones to be His Church in our world today. He calls some of us to be outward facing and to engage with the realities of life and its many challenges; he calls some of us to care for the poor and needy within our communities; and some stones are inside the church reminding is that we are called to focus on our interior life in prayer and worship, whilst others are called to renew our spiritual life. The decorated stones remind us to worship God in the beauty of holiness, whilst the strong boulders and masonry are needed to hold everything together.
But all are united in Christ our Cornerstone who holds all his church in One as his Body in the world today.
May this wonderful Priory church and its ancient stones stand firm in this place for many centuries yet to come, proclaiming God’s presence here for ever; and may God continue to call people to be his Living Stones, alive and active in every generation, loving, serving, worshipping together –
With Him and in Him and Through Him, both now and unto the ages of ages.
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