Sermons & services

Trinity X

Published Monday 17th Aug. 2020, at 2:50 p.m.

It may have passed you by, but Covid-19 has sparked some pretty furious rows about the nature of the church, and the future of the church!

At the beginning of lockdown, the row was about whether we really needed to meet to worship. There were those who said the church isn’t about buildings, it’s about people and people can meet as easily on Google Meet or Zoom as in a church. Online church is the future.

Covid has given us a chance to rethink – reimagine – what it means to be Church (note the lack of a definite or indefinite article). It’s given new vigour and impetus to the idea of fresh expressions, so beloved by so many in our church over recent years.

So the thinking goes in many parts these days.

Now, as I’ve said before, and as we are demonstrating with our purchase of new technology, the ability of people to share in our worship online will be a vital part of the mix that is life at St James for many years ahead.

And that is a good thing, though it has its limits.

And now the debate has moved on again.

Now there are those who say we should rid ourselves of expensive church choirs and use the money that’s been saved to preserve the buildings. The buildings are the important thing.

Choirs come and go, but music will always remain, and we need to preserve the heritage of our bricks and mortar.

So goes that thinking.

That last one stung a lot of people.

It appeared in last Monday’s edition of The Times¸ and was entitled, Good riddance to insanely expensive cathedral choirs.

It followed the news that York Minister has closed its choir school. The choir at Sheffield cathedral has been disbanded. All worship has stopped – we hope temporarily – at St Margaret’s Westminster.

For some people, including the writer of the article, this is a good thing: it’s an opportunity for radical change.

Now, as you can imagine, the article brought forth a torrent of angry rebuttals from those who love our church’s choral tradition and who made a suitably robust defence of it.

So this a good opportunity to remind ourselves of a few things.

The first is from today’s Gospel, when Jesus reminds us that God’s house is a house of prayer.

As we know here at St James, maintaining the fabric of our building is a constant challenge. I am being polite.

But we don’t do it to preserve St James for its own sake: frozen in time as a monument, a kind of historic relic in which exist only the ghosts of our Christian past.

We do it to keep it alive as a house of prayer.

When people come into the church and comment how it feels very prayerful, few things make me happier.

If this is not a house of prayer, then it is nothing at all.

If the churches of our land are not primarily houses of prayer, then they are nothing at all.

To have preserved them in all their unparalled beauty is all well and good, but if they are not being used as places of prayer – places of encounter with God - then, frankly, what is the point? This began with the encounter between Jacob and God: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. That has been the story ever since. In Exodus, God commands the Jewish people to build a tabernacle for His presence among them, and is this what His people have done ever since. Now of course, God is present everywhere and can be worshipped anywhere and everywhere. But the church – like the tabernacle – is the room we make for God within time and space. A place to go, hallowed by time and the prayers of the saints, in which to encounter the Living God. It’s why – most of the week for most of the year – the Prayer of the Church is offered here at St James: at morning and evening prayer and in the daily Eucharist. It is prayer offered by the priest and, ideally, the whole People of God, to God for the needs of the parish, the wider church, and for the world. It is why at the heart of that prayer is the book of Psalms; all 150 prayed, according to the Prayer Book custom, over the course of the month. Psalms which capture every facet of human emotion. Psalms which unite us to Christ, because the psalms are about Christ. Psalms which give voice to the deepest yearnings, anguish, joy and sorrow of the human heart. But as well as being a house of prayer, the church is also a house of worship and praise. I am sure that for each and every one of us, one of the things we miss most about our common life at St James is our choirs and our music. Choirs are a reminder of the eternal chorus of praise and song in heaven. As John Donne put it so memorably, heaven will be a place where there shall be no noise nor silence, but one equal music. Choirs are a means by which the beauty of music can lift our hearts and minds to the source of all Beauty, which is God. Choirs give voice, not only to human emotion, but to all creation in its ceaseless voice of praise to the Creator of all things. And both these things – prayer and praise – presuppose the most vital thing of all: that the church is not bricks and mortar. It is about us. You and me. Remember the words of Jesus, that when two or three are gathered in His name, He is there with them. The Church is present when His followers gather in the name of Jesus. Gathering physically is a fundamental belief of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I was listening to a rabbi speak at the height of lockdown about how it was more important for Jewish people to gather for worship than for Christians. I could not, respectfully, disagree more. God frees the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to gather them into a People for Himself. He gathers them at Mount Sinai to enter into a Covenant with them. He gathers them as a people under a single king, David. And when they are scattered by invasion and division, He promises to send a saviour who will gather them together once again. God comes to gather His people together once more from lives divided by sin. Jesus came first to gather in the People of Israel, and then extended that invitation to all people: all people can now come into a life affirming and life-giving relationship with God through Jesus. He came to reconcile all people to God, making peace by the blood of His cross. And for 2,000 years those people – across time and continents – have gathered physically - particularly on the Lord’s Day – and in a particular place. Gathered to offer a constant sacrifice of prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving to the Living God. Gathered to break bread because Jesus promised to be with us in the breaking of the bread. Gathered to offer ourselves – our souls and bodies united to Christ – as a living sacrifice to the Father. Who knows what the future will hold? Perhaps recent months will bring about a spiritual re-awakening among the people of this land as they reflect on their lives and the things that really matter. Perhaps they will begin to re-engage with the historic faith of this land. Perhaps they will hear the call of Jesus to come and follow Him, to be part of God’s gathered people offering its sacrifice of prayer and praise. And there will be times in the future when we cannot gather together in our sacred spaces – as there have always been. And there will come a time when we are no longer capable of being a part of the physically gathered: that will happen to all of us, too, at some point in our lives. In the meantime, we have new mantras: the church is not the building but the people and the church is the people not the building.
Like most clichés, they contain large amounts of untruth. But at the same time both are true. It’s not either/or: it’s both/and. You see, saving buildings is all well and good. Saving choirs is all well and good. But ultimately, saving souls is why Jesus died.