Simon Evans finds inspiration on the High Street

 

The people of St Martin’s Ruislip have been very long-suffering, putting up with me as their vicar for 25 years. By today’s standards, 25 years is lengthy for an incumbency, but in reality, it is a very short chapter in the long story of this parish, stretching back to Benedictine roots in the 11th century and its connection with the Abbey of Bec, in whose possession it was for about 400 years. As the years have gone by while I’ve been here, taking my place in choir day by day, at morning and evening prayer, it is that Benedictine strand of ‘stabilitas’ that has, in my mind, increasingly given meaning to my remaining here as long as I have. It is a happy coincidence that we gather today on the eve of St Benedict’s Day. It is also a happy coincidence that I have been a regular visitor to the Abbey of Bec ever since I first went there shortly after my ordination as a priest, 40 years ago.

We are fortunate living here in Ruislip in lots of ways, with so many facilities on our doorstep, not least an abundance of places to do the weekly shopping, among them: Waitrose (part of the John Lewis group) – Never knowingly under-sold; Tesco – Every Little helps and Sainsbury’s – Taste the difference.

 

I invite you now to walk with me up the High Street.

Let’s begin at Waitrose   

Never knowingly under-sold!

A claim that encourages us to believe we’re getting good value, especially if you go for their Essential range. In the Christian faith we do have a gift of incalculable value, a gift that some of us realise is indeed Essential: essential to being fully and authentically human. As we heard in the first reading from the Book of Proverbs, the Wisdom of God, crying out to all who would listen, that is imparted by faith, is something we should value like “hidden treasure”. An echo of this is found in the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict when he describes the Lord crying out in the marketplace to those who long for life…real life, life with meaning and purpose. 

A living faith in God is something we should value above all else.  Those who have faith in God, who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, have a source of deep, interior strength, an essential anchor that will hold us in the storms of life. I wonder how much of the mental illness and emotional fragility that has been experienced by so many people during the pandemic once the external material props of our secular culture were swept away, could have been avoided if they had the anchor of faith to hold onto. “Prefer nothing to the love of God,” says St Benedict. By doing so, we focus our lives on what is ultimately essential. 

As you, the people of St Martin’s enter a time of interregnum, put God first, so that this church will continue to be a real community of living faith. That faith is nurtured and kept strong by our regular commitment to participating in worship together. It is from the deep life of prayer here, especially in gathering to celebrate Mass on Sundays as well as in the daily offering of Mass and the rhythm of the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, that we draw from the spring of living water, which is the life of Jesus Christ.

 

Now, let’s travel up the High Street to Tesco! 

Every little helps!

A well-known image of the Church, that St Paul describes in his First Letter to the Corinthians is that of a human body whose different limbs and organs work together to enable it to function. All have a part to play. So it is with us, who together make up the Church: the Body of Christ. We all have a part to play. One of the things we’ve worked at here at St Martin’s, is encouraging as many people as possible to play an active part in the life and mission of this church. 

Let no-one feel they don’t have a part to play or that their commitment to the mission of this church is not vitally important. St Benedict makes it clear in his Rule that the contribution of everybody, from the youngest to the oldest is of equal value.

Every little helps: the part played by every single member of this church will be vital, especially during an interregnum as you prepare to welcome a new priest with whom to continue developing a vision for the future.  As we heard in the second reading, taken from Chapter 3 of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: we are all continuing to build on the work of those who have been here before us. Ultimately, we are building on the foundation which is Jesus Christ. We all matter to God and we all matter to each other, usually more than many of us realise. 

 

And now, to Sainsbury’s. 

Taste the difference! 

My training incumbent at St Jude’s, Peterborough, not always an easy character, was fond of challenging people with the question: “If Christianity was illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Well, Christianity is not illegal, but if we are Christians in any real sense, there will be, or should be, a difference about us, especially as the culture in which we live becomes increasingly secularised. And it is those versions of Christianity that are distinctive: where you can “taste the difference” that have something to offer people today. In today’s culture, the rather restrained, respectable “Church of England” version of the Christian faith no longer has much cutting edge. In this country, we are now in a missionary situation in which authentic Christian evangelisation will be challenging and demanding, as well as rewarding. 

St Martin’s is in a stronger position than many churches for there is something rich, something deep, something demanding about the way that Christian faith is taught and lived-out here. I realised right from the start of my time as vicar that there would be no need to be apologetic about the spiritual riches and demands of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that is here. It is a powerful and precious gift. 

So many branches of the Christian church, especially some of the reformed churches of northern Europe and north America, have thought it necessary to embrace the ideologies of secular liberalism in order to appear “relevant”, only to discover that they have lost their prophetic voice. Unsurprisingly, these are the churches that are shrinking fastest. I pray that this church will never simply blend into what one of our parishioners recently referred-to as “the bland mediocrity of the Church of England.” Let this continue to be a community where it is possible to taste the difference of a living faith in Jesus Christ. 

The Benedictine movement was born from a desire to stand out in contrast to the society and culture of Benedict’s day. He believed that the society of the late-Roman era was decadent and had grown godless. In some ways it might have been similar to the secularised and materialistic, acquisitive society in which we live today. He saw the need to witness to something different; something of spiritual depth; something of real and eternal value; something that is essential to being fully human; living in community where every little helps – where everyone’s contribution to the common life is significant; which is distinctive and different in flavour from the blandness, or the shallowness, or the staleness all around us in a culture that in so many ways bankrupt – a community where you can taste the difference. 

A good model for us today and as we look to the future. 

 

Fr Simon Evans was Vicar of St Martin’s, Ruislip, in the Diocese of London from 1996 until July 2021. This is an edited version of the sermon he preached at his farewell mass on 10 July.