SMC – 10th March 2019
During previous Lenten seasons, I’ve enjoyed preaching through sermon series on Sundays around a particular theme and I hope many of you have found it helpful as well. Last year, people submitted questions, you may remember, and the clergy then tried to answer them. This year I wanted to look at our identity as Traditionalist Catholics within the Church of England. This isn’t a political party within the Church; it’s not another type of Momentum or ERG a movement within a movement; nor is there any sense whereby you have to believe a certain set of things before you come through the doors. That said we are part of a group called The Society under the patronage of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, which sets out a set of relationships seeking to maintain the Catholic identity of the Church. As a happy coincidence the bishops of that Society, including our own Bishop Jonathan, have written a letter to us all today wishing us a happy Lent and copies of that are on the piano by the Sacred Heart.
I hope by this Sunday sermon series during Lent we will be challenged into a fuller sense of what the Church is and how we can be genuinely happy to be children of our Mother, the Church. Today, I want to try and introduce what Traditionalist Catholicism is and then over the next few weeks we’ll look at some of the points in more detail, and the topics are all laid out on the purple Lent cards at the back of Church.
Here’s the Traditionalist Catholic history. Are you sitting comfortably? The twelve apostles were none too impressive as individual characters: the Gospels often present them as not really understanding what Jesus was talking about (eg Luke 18:34). Yet, because St Peter is so united to God that he accurately professes that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, our Lord blesses him and decides to build his church on this rock, Peter, being Cephas in Greek, meaning “rock.” Judas falls away but the eleven, quickly joined by St Matthias, are given authority to absolve sins (John 20:23) and are commissioned to go and baptise (Matthew 28:19). This they do, as relayed in the Acts of the Apostles.
We don’t really know how Christianity ended up in England but obviously it did somehow. Pope Eleutherius, who died in the year 189, is often credited with a mission to a British King. Certainly we know that around a hundred years later, there was a guy called Alban, who lived up the road in Hertfordshire, a town called Verulanium, who was converted when a Christian, being persecuted by Roman soldiers, sought help from him. Alban was himself then executed because he wanted to protect his brother Christian and that town up the road was named after him, St Alban’s. A few more hundred years later, in 597, and Pope St Gregory the Great sent someone called Augustine to reinvigorate the English church and to found a seat for a bishop at Canterbury. He was the first Archbishop here.
That is all part of our faith today. God is “God not of the dead but of the living,” as Jesus says (Mark 12:27), and because we believe in eternal life given to all those who die in Christ, those who shaped the faith in this country continue to be co-heirs with us, heirs of an inheritance stored in Heaven for us (I Peter 1:3-5). The Reformation in England did not seek to break away from that or it would have created a different religion. We need to be mindful that we have got too accustomed to there being all these different churches up and down the High Road and throughout the world but we mustn’t lose our shock and dismay and disappointment when we think of this fragmented body of Christ. Our Lord’s own body was wrapped before His death in a robe that was seamless (John 19:23-24), a sign of the unity of Christ’s members that Jesus had but a few hours before prayed for in the garden (John 17:21).
When your church, St Mary’s, was being built, paid for by Marlborough College, a school where fees are paid in the west of England, it was consciously trying to express the historic and catholic faith as received in England. When this church was built 130 years ago, this wooden Rood Screen wasn’t here but there was another crucifix for everyone to gaze upon, look further up, if you can, and you will see there, resplendent, if not very well-lit, the original Rood, or Crucifix, with the inscription, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Twenty years before it was painted, there was an Act passed in the British Parliament banning in Church of England churches various things. Candle sticks on altars were among those things condemned. These two candle sticks on the Nave Altar are the candlesticks that were placed on our High Altar 130 years ago in defiance of that Act. So, this church was built to be part of a wider desire for change, saying there was nothing wrong with these practices that were part of the Western Church’s devotional practise but which had been made illegal only twenty years earlier. There was much that was part of the ethos of this church that was a slap in the face to the English authorities, not for the sake of it, but so that people could be drawn to the one true light of all nations, Jesus Christ our Lord. Our readings today draw us closer to Him.
According to the Christian tradition, the devil, the evil one, had formerly been cast out of the presence of God. We hear our Lord say that He saw Satan fall from Heaven (Luke 10:18). We see one of the daily victories over God over the evil one in today’s Gospel. The devil’s pride and jealousy means he doesn’t understand Jesus, doesn’t know who He is. The devil wants miracles, turning stones into bread, and Jesus says these earthly displays of power are not what He is about but that life is really about being grounded in the the Spirit and oriented towards worship of almighty God. We shall not live on bread alone! We shall not put the Lord to the test! We will worship Him alone!
And on our second reading, we heard one of St Paul’s many summaries of the faith: “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, then you will be saved.” Traditionalist Catholicism has always been about giving physical and visible and audible expression to this faith, through music and singing, through rosary beads and thuribles, through processions and pilgrimages, through tangible signs and lively communities. This is to be our proclamation. Anglo-Catholicism is never just about what is worn or whether incense is used, it is about the proclamation of a faith. In this passage from Romans 10, Paul is trying to work out how the crucial identity of being in Christ is worked out. Of old, he points out, the sign of God’s ownership was through being an Israelite: “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law” etc etc (Romans 9:4). But the profession of a faith in Jesus Christ, which can come from God alone, shows a new choosing fathomable only to God (Romans 11).
This is why there is one Church because it is the reality of the community of those who want to polish up within them the gift given by a gracious and generous God. At this and every Mass we offer to God that which He sacrificially provides, the Body and Blood of His Son, who died for us. And because He is Holy, He is worthy, we give due honour to God with all the colour and finery of the Mass, to remind us that we’re united with Christians throughout the world and throughout time who have done this in memory of Christ. May this season of a Lent be one where we give hearty thanks for our membership, not just of a particular church, St Mary’s, but of the Church, the Body of Christ. Amen.