Bishop of Southwark, The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
23 September 2018
It is a great pleasure to join you on this day of celebration. Though I am formally on Sabbatical, until December 12th, I have permitted myself to undertake one or two engagements in the early weeks of this period – those I consider to be truly life enhancing. Indeed there could scarcely be anything more life enhancing than to be among the Body of Christ in Greenwich, Priests and People together, to celebrate not just the tercentenary of this magnificent building, but also the flourishing life of this community of faith which goes back, in one way or another, more than a thousand years – and which stretches out, God willing, into an eternal future.
Now, to begin with, we do indeed give thanks for the solid reality of the building: a beautiful building is more than a convenience to keep the weather off – though that is not nothing as the days shorten. A building such as this can speak powerfully to us of God’s good purposes of order in creation, of eternity, of soaring hope. And a building where Christians have prayed and worshipped morning and night, Summer and Winter, for three hundred years, in a place where they have met for centuries more, can come to have a quality not far from the Sacramental.
Outside is all the frenetic activity of an important urban centre – cars, shops, cafes and bars, tourists thronging the streets, everywhere people coming and going. And all around, on the banks of Deptford Creek, on the Peninsula and beyond, new blocks of flats are springing out of the ground, cranes are swaying, construction traffic rumbles past. Everything is changing.
And this not to complain. Often change is good: there is something new to know, someone new to meet. We do not fear it. This has, after all, been the pattern of life here for centuries. This building was one of fifty new churches provided for by Act of Parliament in the reign of Queen Anne, responding to the growth of population. Many of the new worshippers here were Huguenot refugees, Protestants who fled France after the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.
The arrival of these energetic and skilful people, keen to make a new home where they could worship in their own tradition free from persecution, was for the good of all here. And this is a story which echoes in our own day, in which community and economy are enriched by newcomers, each generation adding something to the tapestry of the life in this place.
So we are not to fear change, even though sometimes, for some of us, the pace of life can feel overwhelming. The key, though, is to know the truth that whatever may come or go, under and above and around all that is changeable, there is One who changes not. There is a still point at the centre of the turning world. God’s good purposes for all his people are eternal. He keeps faith with us unbreakably. It is of these eternal good purposes that Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading from St John:
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” (In 10.2-29)
This is true yesterday, today and forever. It is a truth that applies not just to those of us who gather here Sunday by Sunday, but to all who walk by during the week. And a building such as this one, that has stood for three hundred years with a single purpose, a single home, speaks quietly but powerfully of God’s eternal love for us whom he has made.
This is what is so wonderful about the new project now getting underway. Once again to open the doors of this place, to proclaim afresh for this new generation, the wondrous story that this building and the others that came before it have always told. There will be much hard work and many challenging and unexpected problems to unravel before this work comes to fruition; but it is a good work to undertake, and we pray now for God’s blessing on it. Everybody is rightly proud of the changes that have already happened here, giving thanks for the £1.8m Heritage Lottery Fund Grant and now preparing for what is going to be major upheaval as the building and conservation work starts next year, opening the church to new visitors and target groups as well as new worshippers, many new to the country and community. The works which began over ten years ago with the repair of the tower has involved a huge number of people from the local community as well as the regular congregation as well as deepening partnerships with other institutions in the Greenwich World heritage Site, particularly the University.
If it is to prosper, though, we must heed the wise words of St Peter. For what, really, is the Church? Beautiful though these mighty stones are, the Church is not the building. We know from St Stephen and from Isaiah that the most high God does not live in houses made by human hands. (Acts 7.48 and cf Is. 66.1) The Church is the Body of Christ: us, here, our brothers and sisters across the globe, all those who have gone before us and who will come after us: all who worship the Father in spirit and truth.
A building is a gift from God, and we give thanks for it. But we do not forget our brothers and sisters, for example, in Zimbabwe, with which we in Southwark have such strong links of love and Christian fellowship. They will readily and joyfully worship in the shade of a thorn tree, if nothing more substantial is available and when in recent memory many congregations were turned out of their churches in the Dioceses of Manicaland and Harare gladly did so.
What is more, we Christians are an outdoor kind of people! This is written through the Old Testament, where we read of the wandering of the people of Israel, and to this day for one week every year Jewish families remind themselves of this by eating outdoors in flimsy shelters, as they keep Succoth, the Festival of Booths. We are passing through. In the context of settled parish churches like St Alfege which have stood in witness to God’s love through the generations our spiritual roots remind us that we are also nomads, people who live in tents and this is an important part of the bigger picture as we see a world around us where people are on the move.
When God almighty was incarnate in Jesus Christ, he too had “nowhere to lay his head”, though “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests.” (Mt 8.20). In that wonderful verse of John’s Gospel, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1.14) – the Greek for “to dwell” literally means to pitch a tent. God came into the world, and joined us on our journey through this world as a refugee fleeing persecution to Egypt, with no fixed roof, no home but heaven.
It is perhaps particularly easy to remember that here. This magnificent structure is unusual among English Churches in being built on the site of its Patron’s martyrdom. It is a distinction shared with St Alban’s Cathedral. But it was over a thousand years ago that Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury, having urged his people not to pay his ransom, was bludgeoned to death by his Danish kidnappers. I well remember the Eastertide commemoration of this on the thousandth anniversary of his death in 2012 when with Dr Rowan Williams, in his last year as Archbishop of Canterbury, we walked through the streets with children from the St Alfege with St Peter’s Primary School in replica Viking longboats.
Between then and 1718, we do not know for sure how many buildings and in what patterns have stood on this spot to commemorate him. What we do know is that week in week out the faithful have gathered here to share the bread and the wine, older standing with younger, who in turn became older standing with younger until it came down to us. And we may be sure that, from time to time, they stood out in the wind and the rain.
This we do not forget even if, for a season or for a life time we do have the joy of a sound and beautiful building in which to worship, for which we give thanks. For we know, as St Peter says, that the Church is built not of Portland Stone, but of us:
“like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… a cornerstone chosen and precious” (1Peter 2.5-6)
This is both what we offer, and how we offer it. We invite others to come in, to be built into the beautiful edifice that is the Church, with Christ at our centre, holding us together. And it is we who invite them – all of us, the Body of Christ in this place.
This is why we are focusing in Southwark on Lay Leadership. As you may be aware a very good piece of work was done last year to think about how all of God’s people could work more and more closely together in God’s mission, through developing lay leadership and lay ministry in the sort joyful gospel partnerships which have been such a distinctive characteristic of Chris Moody’s many years service as your Vicar. I am committed to seeing through to fruition the Report which has now been overwhelmingly endorsed by Diocesan Synod. The fundamental aim is nothing new. It is to be what we are, at our best: a flourishing partnership between Priest and People, each playing the part to which God calls them. So on this tercentenary let us show our appreciation as we acknowledge the strength of fellowship and common purpose in the Gospel which has been so fostered by Chris Moody and before him Giles Harcourt working with their clergy and lay colleagues united in faith, hope and love.
I also rejoice that the Bishop’s Mission Order I granted in 2015 for the Luganda community served faithfully by Fr Stephen Nshimye continues to develop so encouragingly and I have been happy to licence Caroline Risdon beyond the completion of her title curacy which will I hope provide continuity and support during a time of transition and vacancy next year.
My friends, with Christ the Cornerstone at its head, may all these partnerships be blessed and continue to grow as we journey into the next three hundred years, here at the still point of the turning world of Greenwich. May we faithfully open the doors and welcome new generations of our brothers and sisters to be built into this living temple. And as we take God’s love out into this community, may we meet face to face with Him who is the true Messiah.