CHRISTMAS MIRACLE IN BETHNAL GREEN
Every year an intrepid bunch of local Bethnal Green singers faces a daunting challenge. With only non-professional experience between them, they put themselves under the exacting baton of Dr Christopher Maxim for six weeks of intensive training in the detailed art of cathedral-style choral performance. Their aim? A high-quality Christmas service of lessons and carols at St Matthew’s church in Bethnal Green.
'We call it our annual miracle.' said Rector of St Matthew’s, Fr Kevin Scully. 'We are more than lucky to have Christopher as our regular Director of Music at St Matthew’s and the work he and our singers put in to making this big service a success is simply wonderful.'
Dr Maxim is a local professional musician, choir trainer and composer with numerous published works to his name. He directs a City chamber choir, the Giltspur Singers, and is also Head Teacher of a highly regarded secondary boys’ school.
'Christopher has extremely high standards and never lets us get away with any sort of sloppy singing.” said choir singer Fiona Green, who has joined the choir every year for five years.
'The best fun is when he brings a handful of professionals in on the day to boost us. Last year we had two international opera stars as well as members of the wonderful Giltspurs who always come to help.'
This year the choir is to be joined by an astonishing array of ‘extras’. No fewer than three theatre Music Directors, from the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the West End, are lining up with the basses. The altos will be joined by a Call The Midwife singing nun and a vocalist from Dr Who soundtracks. And the tenors include a member of the emerging Australian new-wave psychedelic band Yon Yonson.
'I simply love the chance to gather everyone together like this to create such beautiful, well-loved music. And I love letting rip in the famous descants to the carols!'
St Matthew’s service of Carols By Candlelight was held on Sunday December 18, 2017.
- Adey Grummet
SPLASHING WATER ON THE CAB INDUSTRY
Could we pray for a blessing for you?’ This fairly simple question was part of the kit that Kevin and I carried with us along Three Colts Lane on the 1st of September, the feast day for St Fiacre, patron saint of cabs and the cab industry. This question, along with a generous supply of holy water, propelled us from the old cab garages to the new, lined up underneath the railway arches, some buzzing with activity, others yet to receive their early customers, some parked up with cabs whose cabbies were still on holiday. At each place, we mentioned St Fiacre’s celebration, and asked if we could bless the cabs, cabbies, garages and mechanics.
We spoke with people about their experience of ever-changing Bethnal Green: the railway arches that had been gutted to make way for new businesses, the coffee shops, the difference that private cab companies made for business. At some garages, the mechanics were content for us to pray quietly for their business and for each vehicle. At others, some cabbies warily laughed and elbowed each other: ‘I’ll tell you who really needs a blessing, Father…’ At still others, cabbies and mechanics came up and asked us to bless themselves personally and their work.
By the end of an hour and a half of blessing — and stopping in a caff for a strong cuppa — the two of us had lost count of the number of blessings we’d given. We were blessing cabs standing still and dark, blessing them parked up waiting for customers, blessing them as they drove by.
There is a mental phenomenon called ‘semantic satiation’ which happens when a person repeats a word over and over and it goes all funny in their head, losing or changing meaning, becoming temporarily new and strange. As Kevin and I walked around on St Fiacre’s day, we repeated these actions again and again: the sign of the cross, a gentle hand on the forehead, touching a palm to a doorframe or a wing mirror, the splash, splash, splash of holy water from the aspergillium, the invocation of God the Trinity. As we continued these repeated actions, I felt this ‘semantic satiation’ happening: what we were doing, the words and the actions, became new and strange. We were doing the blessing, but what did that mean? What did this word and this action of ’blessing’ convey? I had to trust in God’s spirit to bless when I invoked the words, trust in God’s spirit to already be present in the water and trust in those who were being blessed to receive that spirit of blessing. Although we were blessing, it became necessary for us to get out of the way and let God work.
Which, when I think about it, is a good summary of life as a Christian: be willing to get up and go, but on the way and at various stops and destinations, trust God to bless, comfort and sustain you and those you meet.
- The Revd Erin Clark
RULE OF THREE
a sermon prached by the Revd Sr Judith Blackburn SSM
on the Feast of the Glorious and Undivided Trinity 2016.
The rule of three is a very general rule in speaking, in writing, and in music, that states that concepts or ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable. One could almost say that all good things come in threes: the Three Wise Men; the three little pigs; the Three Musketeers; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Yes today is the day when we celebrate not just any ‘Three’, but the Holy Trinity . . . the triune God; God who is three but also one.
When one thinks of characters from literature who come in threes, such as the three piggies or the Musketeers, one of the elements of the story is that each person of their particular trinity has their own individual strength that contributes to the whole: so with the piggies only one of them had the nous to build their house with something that could stand up to the huff and the puff of the big bad wolf whereas the other two were certainly creative when it came to their choice of building materials. Yet in the Holy Trinity we are not presented with a God who waters himself down to take on its three personas because each one is wholly God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit is of the same character, essence and divinity as each other.
In the gospel reading Jesus tries to explain how the three persons of the Trinity are not just linked but are of the same body and substance, and actually it makes a little more sense if we read what Jesus says back to front, so to speak. Jesus says, “All that the Father has is mine” . . . God and Jesus hold all things in unity and equality, so God the Father does not have greater power or substance than Jesus. Then, when speaking of the Holy Spirit Jesus says, “He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you;” so Jesus is saying to his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes it will be bringing with it all that Jesus is, and all that the Father is . . . they hold all in unity. The three persons of the Trinity is a testament to how God is working to make himself / herself/ Godself known to us . . . closer to us, and that challenges us to actually make the effort to get closer to God; to deepen our relationship and not just succumb to the images of God that we were taught as children.
The London Diocesan campaign ‘Capital Vision 2020’ has a strapline that is also a trinity – ‘Confident, Compassionate, Creative’. These are three watchwords that are seen as guides towards evangelism . . . telling people about God. Unless we have a deeper relationship, have a more intimate knowledge of God, then we will lack the confidence to proclaim the Good News; but first we need confidence to believe that we are entitled to that intimacy with God. The heart of the Holy Trinity is God’s desire for closeness with his children by sharing all that we are and by offering to us all that God is and all that is asked of us is that we have faith . . . faith in God, and faith in ourselves, that God can and does love us and we are worth loving.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says that faith is the only justification that we need to be at peace with God, and that it is through Jesus – God sharing what it is to be human – that we have had this door to the heart of God opened up for us. So God desires closeness and in taking human form is able to transmit that desire; but it does not end there. God’s love for us never grows cold. Over the centuries since Jesus shared our life the flame of God’s love has been kept alive . . . and more than alive, active, creative and transforming . . . through the Holy Spirit: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” ‘Given to us’, not earned by us, not begged by us but given to us freely, constantly and unconditionally.
The Holy Trinity therefore, is wholly God in each of its three persons, God who constantly reaches out to us in love and demands nothing yet desires that we respond with an equally urgent love, and not just offering that love back to God but offering it to one another. It is that response that will bring about the kingdom of God when we love ourselves and one another as God loves us.
The whole concept of the Holy Trinity can seem a little difficult to understand . . . how can something be three but one and the same? There have been sermon illustrations such as the three leaf clover (which really doesn’t work for me . . .it’s always just one leaf); and one that I quite like is the illustration of water which can be so cold that it becomes ice, or so hot that it becomes steam, but is always H20. However, all these illustrations still do not convey the real gift of the Holy Trinity and that is its invitation to relationship; the sense that if we open ourselves up to its power we can be partners in its power to transform the world. That is where we return to the other trinity I mentioned – Confident, Compassionate and Creative.
Are we confident in speaking with others about what God is doing in our lives and the life of the world? Are we confident to acknowledge that God believes that we are worth the time and effort that God invests in us – that we are loveable? God loves you! This is not some old cliché along with Jesus desire for us to be a sunbeam, but God thinks you are wonderful; so what are we going to do with that knowledge, how are we going to respond? Compassionate . . . a gift that God has shown us in spades through Jesus life; through the gifts of life and the gifts to sustain life that our Creator / Father God has given us; through the ongoing encouragement and strength that the Holy Spirit brings down upon us; are we as compassionate? Can we see beyond our own fears and prejudices to reach out a hand to others in need? And Creative . . . God has made us co-creators in this world to work to make it a better place not just for us but for those brothers and sisters in Christ that are yet to come; what are we leaving them? Are we being good stewards of God’s creation and are we being creative in our responses to life trials and challenges?
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity is a blessing, a gift and a challenge. A blessing because of the unconditional love that God has for each one of us; a gift because that love has saved us and offers us life eternal with the source of all love; and a challenge, because what are we going to do about it? Keep it in a little box in our homes and bring it out on Sundays when we come to church? Or proclaim it from the rooftops; work constantly to let others know that God’s love is for them too; and work to grow closer to God in prayer, in study and in action so that we can understand God’s desire for us more and more. The Holy Trinity is not a two dimensional character found on the pages of a good story, but is a living force whose chief desire is to be part of our lives – all that is asked of us is that we let God in. Amen.
TAKE UP THE CROSS
When a crucifix was stolen from and returned to St Matthew’s by the same man within 24 hours in the first week of Lent, I gave an account of it which tried to reflect the multi-layered nature of life and culture in this part of London.
It was not perhaps as attractive as some of the other journalistic takes on the incident which highlighted both personalities and aspects of the story which, in my account, could be considered questionable. But no-one version amounts to the truth, despite what fundamentalists tell you.
In my blog I threw out a challenge to my brother to calculate the mathematics of tweets, retweets and megatweets. Paul is also a poet and, to my surprise and delight, he did not come back with arithmetic but a verse.
It is published below with his permission.
- Kevin Scully
The Faithful Road
Brick Lane a jawline in a face daubed with noon-sweat
and clamour though barrowless this time of the week
a young man with a hillock-shaped head humping
a crucifix along the street a woman in a shop doorway
kneads her hands with a towel a cloth-capped onlooker
darkened by a stranger’s reluctance nevertheless offers
help if the destination is close at hand another observer
clicks his phone camera
The crosswise thief
is swamped by a twitterwave and its wake of Lenten
remorse and guilt hails a cab and directs the driver
to Saint Matthew’s the parish church where in its garden
of crushed leaves unheard despair had prompted his act
A guardian of the chapel’s morning wrapped in prayer
opens her shawl to welcome the return of the sacred object
On the pages of a less well read book a trinity of crimes and
a skull-shaped hill outside the town walls: two thieves of goods
the third of goodness and order so his Sanhedrin accusers said
A face turned in faith or a wager in default of other options a
of paradise Sometimes a story relived is a story believed
- © Paul Scully
The Anglican church of Epping in Sydney is one of a dying breed: traditional but progressive, something we like to think St Matthew's models. The Rector preached there while he was on study leave in Sydney in 2013. Since then he has received the parish magazine. In its edition of October 2013, the following appeared. it is used with the author's permission. It is not, as far as we know, about St Matthew's.
THE CHURCH THAT DIDN'T CARE
A friend recently told me about a church she used to attend in the east end of London. This was a small church with a small congregation. Usually, they averaged about 20 people Sunday by Sunday. They were not viable on their own so they were supported by another church not too far away who provided them with a priest Sunday by Sunday.
Though this church had its problems it was very friendly and welcoming. She enjoyed going to this church week by week as the people were so warm and it was good to get to know them better as the months passed.
But because the church was small my friend slowly became aware of what was going on. She got to know the woman who ran their small Sunday School and she soon realised this woman was a lesbian. And as she thought about that she also realised that nobody in the church cared. My friend had grown up in a very conservative church in Sydney. Sunday School teachers had been very carefully vetted and monitored. This sort of thing didn’t happen in her old church.
Time passed and my friend got to know another woman in the congregation a little better. This woman revealed that she had been married four times but what really bothered her was the fact that her son was in gaol. Others in the congregation were aware of her situation and nobody cared.
My friend used to look forward to the sermons preached by the rector each Sunday. He was funny and he had plenty of good stories. But he also talked about his short-comings. He wasn’t sure he had the gifts to be a good minister and he would share his doubts and his fears in his preaching. And nobody in the church seemed to care.
Over time my friend found a level of acceptance in that church she had never experienced before. When she prayed with others she could be more honest. When people asked how her week had been she could tell them what was really happening. When she was under so much stress at work she could come to church and blurt it all out and cry as much as she wanted. And the best thing was, nobody cared.
Then my friend was posted back to Sydney. Because she had enjoyed the Church of England so much she sought out an Anglican Church here. What she found was a church that did care. It cared about regular church attendance. It cared about your level of giving. It cared about her marriage and what was happening there. It cared about the importance of regular attendance at Bible Study. It wasn’t long before she began to miss the people back in London and that church that didn’t care.
- Fr Ross Weaver
THE EASTER ARK
Fr Kevin Scully preached this sermon on Sunday April 30, 2107. It is, in part, a commentary on the Paschal candle painted by Roseanna Allwood for the church.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
This morning’s gospel is, as most Easter gospels are, about disciples at first failing, then going on, to recognise Jesus. As Judith pointed out last week, we can confuse a request for proof with doubt. It would be, those of a scientific bent would say, only reasonable to ask for some kind evidence to back up claims. That is a sobering thought in these days of alternative facts, post-truth and alt-right.
Part of the riches of the Bible are the repeated variations, sometimes in different books and stories, that point a similar theme. This is something the Biblical critics refer to as typology. For instance, under this lens you would look at several of the stories in Genesis – the two creation narratives, the tower of Babel, Noah’s ark – as different ways of speaking of the same thing. Of the fall of humanity because some kind of failing, a fault in our nature, and how God responds to it in love or otherwise.
It is the last one, the story of the Ark, that I want to spend some time on today. But, as the alert among you will have noticed, this biblical tale was not part of our readings this morning. Well, that is true. But it stands in a new form in our midst, on this Paschal Candle, a symbol of Christ’s light shining through darkness.
This year’s candle was painted by Roseanna Allwood, young woman born in the East End but who now lives in Cambridge. Roseanna, as some of you will know, because she has been here many times over the years, and has taken part in our services in various ways - reading, leading the prayers and joining our Christmas choir rehearsals. This has not happened randomly – she is Adey’s and my goddaughter.
The choice of Noah’s ark as a symbol for Easter is Roseanna’s. And it is appropriate we should ask why. That she should choose this to decorate the Paschal Candle, a sign that we use to show Christ’s victory over death, with this scene is perhaps a beguiling choice. But it is Roseanna. And it fits. Just how I will come to a bit later. What I would like to do first is go through some of the images that make up this scene and the commentary that Roseanna herself has provided. I did ask her to come down and do this in person today, but she is focussed on revision for her A levels. So…
Travelling: there is movement in this scene, an idea of moving towards a goal, chosen by God and under God’s instruction.
Uncertainty and yet trust: the looming clouds and movement towards the ark signal an oncoming storm. Uncertainty, political and social, seems to be rather upon us this year, similar to those looming storm clouds, but we look for shelter and future light.
Community: the animals move together (and in a very English single file, I now realise) with a common goal. I did not consider it of great importance that there should exactly two of every species I painted, as it is more their overall banding together in a time of crisis I was considering.
Refugee movements: as the trail of animals gets further away they become indistinguishable and could be people fleeing together for safety and shelter. Differences were put aside on the ark and, with no abatement of conflict in our contemporary lives, the welcoming of those different from ourselves seems to be something to strive towards.
When I did a worship assembly last week at St Matthias School and featured an image of this candle, I got a number of volunteers to come forward and offer answers to my questions. I was rather surprised by the first response, which was to a request that they tell what they could see on the candle. Now, if you have come forward and looked at this candle, you will recognise what I am about to say. If you have not yet seen it, please do come and have a look after the mass.
As I say, I asked a child from the school to tell me what she saw. And she did not mention the ark at all. She did not mention the animals, not even the giraffes which loom large at the front, here. (POINT THIS OUT) No, she chose to concentrate on this bit in the middle which, in the picture I showed the school, was not obscured. It was taken before we put in the five incense grains through which we recall the five wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross – one in each hand and foot, and the gash in his side from the lance.
Under these incense grains is a CHI-RHO. These are the first two letters of Christ in Greek and can be seen on the east side of the altar. If you have never done so, I invite to come up and look at the large CHI-RHO, on the reverse side of the ram in the thicket which you can see from your seats in the nave. Either side of the CHI-RHO on the candle are two more Greek letters, ALPHA and OMEGA, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. (By the way, the very word alphabet comes from the first two letters, ALPHA and BETA.) This captures the ideas of Jesus as the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. That is from the letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 13, verse 8.
It also has echoes of that section in the 21st chapter of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’ (Rev 21:6) A little before that comes the reassuring words that point to the new creation in our ark, Jesus the Christ:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ (Rev. 21:3-4)
This is the message of the resurrection. Of light shining in darkness. Of joy overcoming fear and grief. Of celebrating life over death. This hoped-for salvation is prefigured in the story of the Ark. Out of destruction – and don’t ever think of Noah’s ark as a fluffy, cuddly tale; it involves the wiping out of everything and everybody, absolutely everything not inside the vessel as the rains pour down for forty days and forty nights.
But a new creation comes when the ark is opened and the animals – Lord knows how many of them there were by then – dispersed back their many habitats.
Then God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.’ So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families. (Genesis 8.15-19)
So there you have it. The Easter proclamation captured in a picture on a candle in a church in Bethnal Green. That’s typology for you.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
A REAL REV
In July 2013 I was approached by an independent television company about a possible 'fly on the wall' documentary on me and my minstry. It was, so I was told, to be about 'the real Rev.', the figure of fun and sympathy from the BBC television series, which is in part filmed in Shoreditch and its environs.
Before I turned down this request, I was the subject of an online interview about the life and work of a parish priest in Bethnal Green. This was a pleasant, but revealing, experience. As I said to the researcher, 'Rev. is a documentary.'
At the end of about half an hour of questioning I was asked if there was anything they had not mentioned. 'Yes,' I said, pointing out that in none of the research was I asked what I believed and why I did what I did. That may account for my opinion that no such documentary has shown the Church in a half decent light. Unless you have some control of editing, you won't.
Oh, and Rev and Call the Midwife are two rare examples which show people of faith as useful and engaged in their communities, even if they are far from perfect.
- Kevin Scully
St Matthew's Row,
Bethnal Green London E2 6DT
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