Lent I ~ SMC, 1st Mar 2020
They’re the questions we’re all asking. Questions that keep us up at night. Questions that they’re asking in pubs and at bus stops the length High Road. You know what I’m going to say. “Who exactly is Angela Robinson? Who is Richard Smith?” Interesting as it no doubt would be to delve into the biographies of these two familiar St Mary’s faces, it’s one particular role that they both hold which is of interest to us this morning. Angela and Richard are, of course, our long-standing, hard-working, effortlessly glamorous Churchwardens. In the Church of England the Churchwarden is, in a legal sense, as crucial a component of the parish as the priest, bound up indeed with the history of the parish system. Now we as clergy are pretty unmistakeable - something I’m still getting used to is constantly wearing black and going around in a collar - but the Churchwarden remains cleverly camouflaged. They are even known to be, unlike many clergymen, normal human beings. But it’s important that despite that relative anonymity we understand and appreciate something of what they do.
In some churches you will find the old fashioned ceremonial staves of office - one often topped with a crown, the other with a bishop’s mitre — which certainly helped the Churchwardens in my home parish feel very important. But those funny sticks do point to an important aspect of the wardens’ role. I don’t know if it’s true that they used to bash members of the congregation on the head with them should they have fallen asleep during Father’s sermon - something which due to the consistently scintillating preaching that goes on here isn’t of course necessary at St Mary’s - but they do suggest a disciplinary role. The Canons of Church of England (Section E part 4 sub-clause 6 for anyone interested - I know that Richard has them all committed to memory) state that the Churchwarden is to keep ‘order and decency in the church and churchyard’. They shall - I quote - ‘use their best endeavours by example and precept to encourage the parishioners in the practice of true religion and to promote unity and peace among them’. Now of course, being the well-behaved and prayerful lot we are here Angela and Richard don’t need to work too hard on that side of things. But I hear at St Bene’t Fink up the road the wardens really do have their work cut out.
Moreover, take note, our Churchwardens have the right to fine up to £200 anyone they deem to be engaging in ‘riotous, violent or indecent behaviour’ and may perform a citizen’s arrest on an offender and present him or her before the magistrates’ court. I will just add a disclaimer there - caution is advised in the exercise of this power. And I find great comfort, weakling that I am, in the knowledge that Angela and Richard are charged, by statute, with protecting from anyone, quote, ‘molesting, disturbing, vexing or troubling or by any other unlawful means disquieting or misusing any clergyman in holy orders’. I have to say that since discovering that our Churchwardens had this quasi-bodyguard role I’ve certainly slept more soundly at night.
It’s the Churchwardens who, alongside the archdeacon and bishop, discuss the appointment of a new incumbent, who are charged with ensuring that Mass happens during an interregnum, and who formally induct a new priest into the parish. They are legally responsible for the church’s property and possessions, they are authorised in the absence of a clergyman to lead morning and evening prayer - indeed the only areas in which they do not have authority are in liturgy and music. Matthew Clements in his unputdownable book Rotas, Rules and Rectors: How to thrive being a churchwarden (Matador Press 2019 for all of you who’ll be adding it to your Amazon wishlists this afternoon) sums it up really when he writes that the wardens are ‘ultimately responsible for almost everything in a church which does not have to be done by a priest. If the churchwarden does not do it himself, then he is responsible for making sure that it is done by someone’. Thus, sides-people, vergers, sextons and sacristans, flower ladies (and flower men) are delegated jobs by the wardens.
This all sounds very practical and you might deem it a strange topic for a sermon. What does this have to do with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness or that epic moment in the garden of Eden we heard recounted moments ago? Well I’m not going to shoehorn in this morning’s readings but it is important that we understand these roles - and yes for practical reasons - but more properly because of how these roles fit into our Christian lives, into our spiritual lives - and what the roles that Richard and Angela hold tell us about those lives. Churchwardens might be very much an Anglican phenomenon, but they speak of something more universally Christian, and have a lot to show us all about the Christian life. The role certainly reminds us how bound up our English church is with the history of this land - a mixed legacy of course, but one that doesn’t allow us to forget how this our Faith of the Incarnate Lord cannot but deal with - and seek to transform - the world around us.
Bishop Edward King, founder of St Stephen’s House in Oxford, where all your clergy trained, once called for more ‘homely English saints’. There’s an argument to make that the Churchwarden is an answer to that call - an embodiment of deep, practical spirituality and an encouragement and example to all of us. Doing all manner of things and doing them well - and doing them, moreover for God. George Herbert’s poem ‘The Elixir’ - which we sometimes sing here as a hymn, includes the following verses:
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—"for Thy sake"—
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.
However practical the various tasks of the Churchwarden may seem, they are done, unpaid, for God and for God’s people, and that makes them very precious indeed. We can all learn from that in our everyday lives. And we can learn too about how to carry ourselves in church - and to put church at the centre of our lives. The wardens are ultimately responsible for welcoming people, for safeguarding our children - for making the church a place of hospitality, of generosity of warmth - and of ensuring that it is a place of prayer. Angela ensures that there are people to read the Word of God every week - Richard beautifully cleans and cares for the church plate - that precious inheritance from generations past that reminds us both that we are here but for a season, but also that we are part of a vast communion of the living and the dead - vessels moreover in and upon which our Blessed Lord becomes present to us.
So Churchwardens are central to what Church is - not mere caretakers. But these duties are not just theirs. A school hymn that sticks in my mind ends with something like, ‘and every day, we’re on our way, for we’re a magical mystery race called the people of God’. It risks making us sound like we’ve been dabbling in hallucinogenic drugs but I like it because it says in a few Beatle-esque words something about our difference, something about our journey, and something about our joy. In the Churchwarden we see formalised duties and attitudes to which we should all aspire - values and attitudes that help make us and keep us part of that magical mystery race. Attention to one another. Being radically welcoming to new people. Seriousness about prayer - about our own prayers and about making sure that we’re contributing to an environment in which others can pray. Care for the Lord’s house. Discipline, too. We may laugh about the ‘riotous, violent or indecent behaviour’ that I mentioned earlier, but the Churchwardens’ ceremonial staves are reminders to us all that our relationship with God requires attention and discipline and hard work. ‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ in Philip Larkin’s numinous words from his poem Churchgoing - our joy must be built on a seriousness about what we’re doing here this morning - and in appreciating what our Churchwardens do and why they do it, we build on that cause. The importance of the Churchwardens and all they do is also a reminder that the church ultimately belongs to you. Not to the clergy, not to the Queen - but to you. So next time you see Angela or Richard tell them thank you - and ask yourself how their role might point your Christian life in a new direction and might make you more alert to what God is asking of you here at St Mary’s - His House, and yours.