Lancaster Priory - Midnight Mass Sermon 2013
It is good to welcome you all to this service tonight.
To welcome you to Lancaster Priory – to a church which is dying…
a church which has only a few years left before it is closed down and converted into a trendy nightclub… or student flats…
a church which has no young people, no life, and no future…
a church which is doomed, because it sticks to the old ways, rather than casting off its outdated vestments in favour of more practical clothing, like jeans and T-shirts, to be more relevant to the modern world.
A church that no-one comes to, even at Christmas…
That’s only, of course, if you believe all that you read in the press.
As you can see by just looking around you, the reports of the death of the Church have been, shall we say - greatly exaggerated by the media; and even from some – I’m sure, well-meaning - voices from within the Church.
No, we are not dying, we’re not closing down, we’re not being turned into anything other than a place of worship, and home to a Christian community which is committed to serving the people of Lancaster.
We are not dying! We have seen in the past weeks, greater numbers than in recent years coming to this Priory church for the Christmas services and events for local schools and different groups, as well as our own special services and events. Many thousands have gathered here in the last weeks to celebrate Christ’s birth by singing carols, hearing readings, aware that this birth is so special, that it touches the hearts and minds of so many people, calling them to “come and worship Christ the new-born King”.
We are privileged to play a part in the life of a Church School which is outstanding in every way (and that is Ofsted speaking, not just me!) Ripley St Thomas Church of England Academy, which has faith at the heart of its life and ethos, and which is always very heavily oversubscribed as that is the education which families want for their children.
But our existence is fragile, and we know that. Without dedicated people to maintain our life and witness, we would be closing down. Without faithful worshippers week by week, there would be no need to maintain this ancient building. Without people willing to give their time to teach and work with our youngest people, we would have no future. Without people willing to donate regularly to maintain our ministry in all its forms, we would have to shut up shop. Without men and women being called to positions of responsibility in the church, we would not have the leadership that is needed to inspire and maintain our work, and, indeed, our growth.
But the wonderful thing is that God continues to provide all that we need to ensure our presence in this – and in every generation! God gives us people to maintain our presence and engagement with the local community, God give us people who are present – in large numbers – week by week, to worship together and to receive the strength to do all that he calls us to in his world today. He gives us people who are brilliant at working with our young people, and instilling in them a love of God who cares for them and walks with them every step of their lives. God gives us generous supporters whose donations maintain our ministry (but we are always more than happy to welcome more!) - and God continues to call people to offer themselves for ministry, so that the preaching, teaching, and sacramental ministry of the Church can continue in each and every place.
And people are part of our community here because we know what we are about, here in the Priory. We face challenges, certainly, but we are ready to meet those challenges head on, for we know why we’re here, what we’re about, and who we are.
Why are we here? We’re here because God has brought us together. We’re here because God wants us to be here, and to work together with all of God’s people in this place, to build a community of faithful people. Some of us were born here and have lived here all our lives. Others of us have only recently arrived here, and come with different insight and ideas, and God has given us many amazing gifts: each other! With our many gifts and talents, our worries and our fears, God has placed us alongside each other to be a community of faithful, loving, caring people committed to service.
What are we about? We are about God. We need to be here to “do God” and remind the world, and all its people of what God is about! And because our God is a holy God – we are called to worship God in the beauty of holiness, with the splendour of our liturgy, the music which is the best we can offer to echo the song of the angels in heaven, and we have the privilege to do so in a building of outstanding beauty, set apart for the worship of almighty God, and on a site where Christian worship has taken place for well over a thousand years.
Who are we? We are God’s disciples, right here, and right now. God has called us to follow him, in the footsteps of countless generations who have been God’s people in their own time, and whose actions reflected their time and context. And that is what we have to be today, God’s people in the 21st Century and in the context of a rapidly changing world, with technology making giant leaps into a future unimaginable to those who came before us. And in that context, we are called to be a people who, as with past generations, serve the needs of our world to the best of our ability, including the most vulnerable and marginalised in our world, and to speak on behalf of those who have no voice in our society today. If there is injustice, we need to be able to speak out against it prophetically, and without fear or favour, and hold our government accountable, if need be, and be a moral compass for the nation.
We are also a part of a world-wide family of Christians across the whole world. We were privileged earlier in the year when we were pleased to welcome Bishop Mouneer Anis, Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East. He preached the Word of God from this pulpit, he presided at the High Altar, and confirmed a number of our church family. But much more than that, he was a visible sign that we share our identity with Christians in the Middle East – in Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord, in Cairo, to where the Holy Family was forced to flee to escape the murderous clutches of King Herod. And we join in prayer with them at this season, aware of the vulnerable position of Christians in the Holy Land at this time, as well as Christians in Iraq and Syria, the ancient home of many of the first Christians, now suffering unimaginable persecution.
We are one with them in our living out the Gospel where we are. Though we are united in one Church, one Faith, one Lord, their context and ours could not be more different. There is indeed a real risk that Christianity in the Middle East could face extinction because of the brutality of the attacks on it as a part of the complex political situation there. Ancient churches I have visited in Syria have now been destroyed as part of a war marked by appalling acts of brutality, attacks on culture as much as attacks on people; a war in which none of the participants seems to have any concern for those who have been dispossessed of their homes, their livelihood, even their identity and self-worth. Those who step into these conflicts, to bring what relief they can, such as the British surgeon Dr Abbas Khan, do so at great personal risk: his murder in a Syrian prison is testimony to that fact.
We are so fortunate here that we have freedom to come to Church for this Midnight Mass, and can pray for peace and goodwill in our lives, and as we wish each other a Merry Christmas, I know you will be really meaning those heartfelt wishes in this joyous season. But please do spare a thought for those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ today who are living in real danger. As Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary put it earlier: “There will be many for whom going to church today will not be an act of faithful witness, but an act of life-risking bravery”.
In our worship here tonight, with our choir and orchestra singing the most glorious music in the most wonderful setting, let us dedicate our worship, and hold in our prayers those who cannot worship in a church this Christmas, because they have been forced to flee to a refugee camp, or because their church has been burnt to the ground by people with violence and hatred in their hearts, where there should be peace and goodwill.
And God in his heaven, his eyes full of tears at the destruction and murder wrought by his children, will receive the worship of all his children with a Father’s love. The prayers of those who worship in homes because they have no church, or who gather in churches at huge personal risk – will bring a nobility and depth to the worship of the world’s Christians on this most holy night; and may our worship tonight, with our music, and candles and carols offer some beauty and love as we reach out to them, to hold them in a prayerful embrace as we unite our prayers with those who pray from the depths of need and distress.
This, then, is Christmas today. We will rightly celebrate the Good News the angels brought. We will remember the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ-child as we offer our own gifts to our loved ones. We will sit at tables with our nearest and dearest and enjoy the good things the Lord has provided for us. We will be reminded in the Queen’s Christmas message of the wider family to which we belong both in our own country and the wider Commonwealth of nations, and as we celebrate, and I hope we will all both pray for, and do all we can to work for a world in which there will be no poverty and great need, a world with no violence and oppression, but only the love, joy and peace of God’s kingdom. We pray that that kingdom, the just and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, may become a reality in our world.