Rector's Final Letter
St. Andrew's Day 2016
As you all know, this is the last of these Magazine letters that I shall write to you. I today signed my deed of Resignation as Incumbent of this wonderful parish, to take effect from mid-January, and my last service with you will be a Parish Eucharist at 7.30pm on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. I do hope that many of you will be able to be there to say goodbye. We have been exceedingly happy to serve this town for the past eighteen years: our children will always think of Bury as home, and I have found its people supportive and challenging in just the right proportions. I do not think that a day has passed when I haven’t been exhilarated by the task of ministering to you. Writing Magazine letters has probably been one of the monthly jobs that I have enjoyed least, because I have always felt a certain pressure to put into them something weighty and memorable to go into print, and now here I am wondering what to say to you as a final word before I go.
So let me offer you some thoughts about our lovely Church - a sermon in stone with which you are all familiar. We all know that buildings can absorb too much of the Church’s energy, and that the Church of England has far too many of them anyway. But I love ours because of its spaciousness, and the fact that, for all its size, it manages to retain a real warmth and intimacy. If you look in the Visitors’ Book in the side chapel, you will notice that the comment most frequently made is that the Church manages to be imposing but also welcoming. That is partly because of the loving care of Dustbusters and flower arrangers and others who care for it so faithfully, but I think it is also part of what Joseph Crowther had in mind when he designed it.
When you walk in, you can hardly fail to be impressed by the height: seventy-six feet of it - Primary School children will sometimes gasp as they come through the door - but when it was consecrated in 1876 it will have struck the congregation far more forcibly even than it strikes us today. The old Georgian Church which was knocked down to make way for this one was not nearly so tall, and yet it had far more seats, because half way up the pillars there had been galleries that had doubled the seating capacity. Old fashioned parishioners (they had them in those days as well) wondered why Joseph Crowther and Rector Hornby had wasted all that space. We have probably wondered sometimes why they wasted all that heat, rising up expensively to keep the rafters warm. But surely they were right in what they did. You can’t just be tied down to necessities and practicalities when you are approaching God, any more than you can in any loving relationship. You do waste things for the people you love - flowers, jewellery, perfume - just look at the Christmas television advertisements. And so too with God: ‘we praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee; we give thanks to thee for thy great glory’. The first step in worship is the step of adoration, and our building is a piece of adoration in stone. You walk in, and you grasp immediately that you are dealing with Some One who matters, and who is altogether greater than we are.
And yet Crowther’s design, not to mention the extraordinary reredos that appeared after the First World War, also seizes your attention and draws it to the east end, to the altar and those paintings of the Christmas story that surround it. That is the point: this glorious God has come to meet us. There are the Annunciation, the ox and the ass and the manger, the wise men with their gifts, and Simeon and Anna at the Presentation. God has come to meet us. You may know these verses by Sir John Betjeman (I was moved to discover last year that Frank Hewitt had transcribed part of the passage into the front of his Bible):
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all -
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall -
The Maker of the stars and sea,
Become a child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things
(Bath salts, and inexpensive scent,
And hideous tie so kindly meant),
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells,
Can with this single truth compare,
That God was man in Palestine,
And lives today in bread and wine.
That is the sermon that this building preaches to you every time you enter it. And because it is true, great things follow. You will all know that somebody in the 1870s took the decision to decorate the interior with heads of Bury worthies of the day: the MP, the Organist, the Parish Clerk, the Church-wardens, the Earl and Countess of Derby, the Sunday School Superintendent, the Architect, and many others. One of my Curates used to ‘tut-tut’ and say that it shouldn’t have been allowed, but he was wrong. If we had been building in our day, we should have put Jim Foxley up there in his deer-stalker, and Margaret Stevens in her ridiculous heels, and Joe Porter pulling a bell-rope. I will spare the blushes of current members of the congregation. ‘Since we are compassed about by so great a cloud of witnesses’; ‘with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’, no less. It is because God came to meet us in a human life and comes to meet us still in bread and wine that we can dare to hope human beings matter, and matter absolutely. And that is a sermon that the world will still need to hear long after we are gone.