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 will be on Sunday 18th December at 6pm.
- 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.
- Ross Weaver
CREATIVE IN LONDON
Adrian Newman, The Bishop of Stepney, spoke at A Feast Of The Senses, an event at Intermission on May 22, 2014 celebrating the contribution of the Arts in the Church in London. Here is an edited version of what he had to say...
The Diocese of London’s strategic vision for the next 5 years, CV2020, acknowledges for the first time that Christian ministry is not just locational. In a global city like London, there are spheres of human activity that simply do not fit with a parochial model of ministry. We already know this of course – the C of E has a long tradition of engagement with the world of health, education and the workplace. But, strangely, we’ve not got much of a track record when it comes to art and culture, or sport – despite the enormous role these aspects of human behaviour play in forming individual human identity and creating flourishing societies.
So the Diocese is dipping its toe in the water of art and culture. Tonight’s event is a very small and organic attempt to celebrate and affirm those of you who live out and express your faith in the world of London’s art and culture.
In some ways there isn’t a point to tonight; it’s just a recognition of the fact that a huge amount of creative activity exists at the touchstone of church and culture. This is to say thank you for being in that place, and to celebrate, honour and affirm the fact that you are.
Tonight has been organised by a small group, under the leadership of Julia Porter-Pryce. I’m very grateful to them; our hope is that out of tonight we may discover people who would be interested in helping the Diocese of London to engage with art and culture in ways that we have yet to imagine.
Most of us recognise that the dividing line between art and faith is wafer thin. Look at Scripture, and it’s impossible to avoid art – it jumps out at you from all over the place.
What are the parables but an example of the art of storytelling that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed down the years? What are the psalms but a quite exquisite collection of poetry?
In the OT you find music expressed through the songs of Miriam, Moses, and Solomon, and musicians at the heart of Temple worship. The Psalms were often set to music.
You see craftsmanship extolled and recorded in the building of the Temple – and the beauty of fashioned stone, metal and fabric used to adorn worship. And it’s easy to forget the fact that our Lord himself was a craftsman, an artist.
But above all, the creation story itself is just that – the story of the activity of a creative God. God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. Not just functional, not simply utilitarian, not only fit for purpose, but GOOD, VERY GOOD.
Despite all of this brazen and unashamed reference to art in the Bible, Christianity has had a chequered relationship with art down the years.
This is something to do with the tendency, which surfaces periodically in Christian history, for believers to allow the representational aspect of art to slip towards idolatry, for art to become the focus rather than the conduit of worship. The 2nd commandment has undoubtedly been a factor here, and you don’t have to look very far to see the devastating effect of this, particularly in the desecration of so much religious art at the Reformation.
The zeal of the Reformers to rid the church (and the nation) of anything that might stand in the way of pure godly worship is one of the tragedies of English history.
Throughout the Middle Ages, art had been one of the primary means by which the church attempted to educate believers. It was a very sensual faith. At the Reformation much of this changed. With the advent of the printing press, the written word became primary. Bible reading and preaching were the prominent features of faith. Hearing and speech replaced sight, touch, taste and smell as the primary ways in which Christianity was caught and taught from the 16th century onwards.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as the Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, the rise of science meant that an increasing emphasis was placed on technical as opposed to intuitive reason. The work of Newton encouraged the notion of light as a cultural emblem, and this was the time when churches were whitewashed and plain glass was felt to admit the honest light of God’s day.
Of course there were always challenges to the prevailing wind, and movements such as Romanticism (and Tractarianism) tried to redress the balance, but as the West became increasingly industrialised in the 19th century, sacred beauty became further marginalised within the life of the churches.
By the 20th century, art has become almost totally detached from the church, and plays very little part (if any) in the development of Christianity in the Western world.
But of course, at the start of the 21st century all sorts of tide are on the turn. We are slowly releasing the absolute grip of science on the life of society. There is a growing acknowledgement of, and hunger for, spiritual experience. That quest may no longer be located in the institutional church, but it is there nonetheless.
People’s perceptions of reality are now multi-dimensional. Suddenly, symbolism, mystery and sacrament are back on the public agenda. Witness Harry Potter, The Matrix, His Dark Materials, The Da Vinci Code, and so on.
All of this is good news for faith, and for Christianity, but it’s even better news for the long-lost link with the world of art.
If I might offer one observation on Protestant Christianity, it is that we may finally be coming round to the realisation that words are not enough. Propositional language can only take you so far. We need to find ways of expressing the mystery of God that lie beyond the constraints of word and speech. Faith and art will always have a very close relationship, because religion is trying to express the inexpressible, to reveal mysteries.
Have you noticed how often it happens, that it is in an encounter with art that we experience that strange sensation of time standing still? Maybe it’s getting lost in a piece of music, or within a book, or staring at a painting. Suddenly, unexpectedly, and often fleetingly, everything stops and – if for a brief moment – the world makes sense.
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, had a lovely phrase – he liked to describe poetry as ‘a momentary stay against confusion’, that is, a point at which all of the confusions and complexities of life momentarily slip away, to reveal truth and meaning in profound, if temporary, lucidity. All art has the ability to do this, to take us to the heart of things, to that place that TS Eliot famously (and brilliantly) described as ‘the still point of the turning world’.
Little wonder that Christianity is beginning, slowly, to rediscover the importance of art. If the Church of England is to engage with the growing search for spiritual meaning and social identity; if we are to learn how to find a voice to celebrate good and challenge evil; then we will increasingly place art at the centre of the church’s life.
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
Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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