Christopher Chessun commemorates the Mayflower in Rotherhithe
It is a very great pleasure to be with you at St Mary’s for this Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, on New Year’s Day. I express my gratitude to Fr Mark for his kind invitation and I am particularly glad to be here today with the Bishop of Fulham, my episcopal colleague. The friendship and mutual support and encouragement which Bishop Jonathan and I enjoy is essential to making a living truth of our shared belief that we are one in Christ. I express my thanks to him for the collegial way in which he and I are able to work together, for the good of God’s Church in this place.
We are not the first to face challenges in living out our faith with integrity as God gives us light to see. We are not the first to come up against those who do not share our views on every point of theological conviction.
Fr John Lingard was born in 1771 into a modest but ancient Roman Catholic family that had adhered to the old faith all the way through the Reformation two centuries before. At the time of his birth the law prohibited anybody not a communicant of the Church of England from holding public office or belonging to a university, so an Englishman who persevered as a Roman Catholic did so at considerable personal cost. But during his life time these barriers came down. Fr Lingard made his contribution to this historic change through his work as an historian, which helped to convince people of the influence and respectability of Roman Catholics notwithstanding honest doctrinal differences.
Fr Lingard was also the author of the wonderful hymn, ‘Hail, Queen of Heav’n, the Ocean Star’ which we have just sung. He drew on an ancient text, the Vespers plainchant Ave Maris Stella, ‘hail star of the sea’ which goes back at least to the eighth century. The title ‘Star of the Sea’ goes further back even than that. Eusebius, the great Church historian of the early fourth century, reading the original name of Mary, Maryam, speculated that it was derived from Hebrew mar, ‘drop’ and yam, ‘sea.’ He put this into Latin as Stilla Maris, ‘drop of the sea.’ Then at some point in the dark ages a careless monk copied it out wrong, and Stilla Maris became Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. So Our Lady acquired this title, Star of the Ocean, in a seemingly haphazard, albeit very fitting and appropriate, way. We know that God uses all things for good and we also know that seafarers are in need of protection: and can we imagine that Our Lady would not wish to protect them?
Yet another two hundred years earlier than Fr Lingard’s day, a hardy band of men and women and their families set sail, in a vessel that we probably would not think a very safe way to cross the Atlantic. It began its journey not much more than a stone’s throw from where we are now. Her name was the Mayflower, and she set out from Rotherhithe on her journey to North America, calling at other major ports en route, in the high summer of 1620.
James Stuart had been on the throne of England for seventeen years and on that of Scotland for rather longer. Although the start of his reign had seen oppression of Roman Catholics as a reaction to the Gunpowder Plot he was at heart not unsympathetic at least to the spirit of Catholicism. He firmly rejected a Puritan petition to excise from the Church of England confirmation, wedding rings, vestments, and indeed the notion of priesthood. This was thus a time in which the more extreme Protestants, who felt that the Reformation had not been completed and therefore argued for the rejection of remaining Catholic practices, were less and less able to practise their religion as they would wish.
In the 1640s the pendulum swung the other way and Puritans were for a time in power, culminating in the abolition not only of bishops but, under the Long Parliament, even of Christmas in 1647. Our historical hermeneutic needs close attention if we are tempted to think that current controversies and political divisions are exceptional. They are not in any way of the same order as those experienced by our forebears in the seventeenth century. Winding the clock back from the Civil War to 1620, four hundred years ago, the Puritans were a group of believers persecuted for their faith, many of their beliefs and practices outlawed by the State so that they often had to practice their faith in secret. They have been called, memorably, ‘God’s Outlaws and the Inventors of Freedom.’ A small group of these hardy folk decided to set off for the New World and attempt to found a society more suited to their distinctive expression of faith.
The vessel they chose was not herself very Puritanical. For several years the Mayflower had been used to carry wine from Spain and Madeira to England, and the year before she had had 161 tons of intoxicating liquor on board! However, the following year, in July 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Rotherhithe to Southampton and onward in August, via Dartmouth. Finally she set sail from Plymouth with the Pilgrim Fathers and their families, 102 people in total, crammed into already cramped quarters, on 6 September, bound for the New World of America. She was an armed ship, for these were dangerous days, and the voyage into the almost completely unknown took 66 days, until Cape Cod was sighted on 9 November.
They were fortunate and safe on the journey across the Atlantic. Tradition says that they came ashore at what is now the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were joined by other settlers. All faced harsh and dangerous conditions and many died in the first winter. They were the beginning of a wave of faith-based migration which became the foundation of a new social order.
Clint Eastwood, Dick van Dyke, and Marilyn Monroe are all descendants of one or other of those original settlers though none could be described as Puritans! That movement’s beliefs have shaped modern American law and constitutional history, as well as culture and attitudes. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts grew from this small founding group of settlers and influenced many now familiar American ideas, some enshrined in law: the rejection of monarchy and an established church, separation of powers, local justice and independence of congregations. Practices which may perhaps be ripe for rediscovery were also adopted, both in the USA and here: a high value was placed on personal accountability and theft was looked on not as a felony but as a crime to be remedied by restitution.
For good or for ill, they began a new and bold venture, which is with us to this day. And perhaps in the migration of the Puritans we can also hear an echo of the faith-based migration of our own times, in which more and more people, very often Christians, are forced to choose between home and faith in the pursuit of religious freedom.
All this will be celebrated in many ways, not least here in Rotherhithe, in the course of this year – a year which will also see commemorations of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, so there will be something for everyone!
Cole Porter begins his most famous song, ‘Anything Goes,’ with the words
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.
And it is true that much has changed since those days. I wonder what the Puritans would have made of the parish church of St Mary, Rotherhithe, if they had wound the clock on and were to return among us four hundred years later? They would find that the minister of the place is undeniably a priest! They would find two bishops, one a Guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, the other, entirely sympathetic to Walsingham and all that it stands for. I am not sure, if they had read the church notices and seen that a Solemn Mass was to be celebrated, they would have realised that the Reformation had not touched or even reached Rotherhithe and would almost certainly have walked yet more briskly to the landing stage. Perhaps Fr Mark would have helped them with their bags and seen them slip down the Thames, on the ebb tide, with some relief and joy!
And indeed times have changed and changed back. The Commonwealth came and went, a Stuart was restored, another Stuart was deposed, and the Crown then devolved by law on a Protestant monarch thereafter. Today, in this country, we are free to worship as we hear God calling us, as indeed we hear his voice in the books, chapters and verses of the Bible and as the Gospel is proclaimed in our midst, and as indeed we experience the mysteries of Word and Sacrament through the rich and beautiful tradition of Holy Mother Church. But we must never take it for granted. Times may change again. We are thankful for many blessings and for our religious and civil liberties and freedoms; but we are also vigilant, mindful of the suffering and persecution of so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.
In the grandest perspective, Cole Porter is mistaken. No matter how often we wind and rewind the clock that which is of first importance is unchanged. God came among us in the form of a refugee baby, born in a stable to an unmarried mother who laid him in a manger because there was no room in the Inn at Bethlehem. Mary’s yes to God was a turning point in our salvation history… ‘And the Word became Flesh and came to dwell among us, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14). Her Son, who gave his life for us, gives himself to us now in bread and wine. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and his kingdom will have no end.
And one other thing does not change. Mary, the young maiden in Nazareth, perplexed and fearful when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, played her part in the fulfilment of God’s loving purposes for us and is indeed full of grace, interceding for us – for all of us. By happenstance, or by Providence, she is Our Lady, Star of the Ocean, and much as they would have rejected the very idea as Romish superstition, the Pilgrim Fathers for 66 days in the unsanitary heaving bowels of the Mayflower were under her protection, and not one of them was lost.
As we survey the rich and complex history that has brought us to this time and this place, let us look always to that which we have in common, to that which does not change, knowing it to be so much greater than all those matters, deeply felt and honestly believed as they are, on which we may disagree. Let us take the example of Mary, who time and again in Scripture we see calmly taking everything in, not rushing to judgment, but in humility accepting that God’s purposes are wider than human understanding. ‘Let it be unto me according to thy word,’ says the Star of the Ocean.
And in our Gospel, after Mary has given birth in fulfilment of the prophecy, after the angelic host has sung of the birth of her son, after the shepherds have come and told all that they have seen, she is calm and accepting. ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2.19) We are not going too far if we think of Our Lady, Star of the Ocean, looking with love on all our controversies, all the words thrown by Puritans at Catholics, by Catholics at Puritans, and their successors, through all the paradoxical changes of history, and treasuring them all up in her heart, sure in the hope that God will work all together for the good of his children whom he loves. Amen.
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun is the Bishop of Southwark. This Sermon was preached at St Mary’s, Rotherhithe on Wednesday 1st January 2020.