Nicholas Johnson introduces Lord Hope’s celebratory sermon
Upon my appointment as Vicar of Tuebrook, I was immediately aware that a very significant anniversary was coming up—the sesquicentennial of the consecration of our church, a jewel of Victorian architecture. Yet, frustratingly, the slow processes of the appointment procedure and the lingering pandemic restrictions made it clear we would miss this milestone date by little over a month before my induction. Once in, the restrictions soon ended, and plans were put in place to celebrate the 150th anniversary a year late. Who better, we thought, than to ask the Lord Hope, who had begun his ministry right here in Tuebrook, to come and celebrate this great milestone with us? We were delighted that he agreed and many months of planning began, when the great and the good of the city of Liverpool, together with scores of parishioners and friends past and present, were invited to come back to St John’s and mark this special day. After both a long Interregnum and the pandemic, with many devoted parishioners sadly dying, it would be a chance to celebrate what has been—a wonderful, long and storied history—and reinvigorate us to look forward to the future. On the 21st May, nearly 170 people gathered to give thanks to Almighty God and rejoice in all he had done in this parish which has seen such a complete transformation over the past 151 years. Archbishop Hope preached the following powerful sermon, sharing treasured memories whilst also directing our gaze to the future. I hope that it will fill you with the encouragement it gave us that day. St John’s recently formally affiliated to The Society and is embarking on a programme of restoration, so that this ‘gypsy caravan’ may minister to all of our parishioners and remain a beacon of traditional Anglo-Catholic worship in the North West for another 151 years.
Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house. (1 Peter 2.5)
Quite suddenly and totally unexpectedly there appeared the following headline in the Liverpool Mercury dated 24 June 1870. It stated quite straightforwardly: ‘St John’s West Derby – The consecration fixed for this day (Friday) has been unavoidably postponed’. The reason for this postponement was elaborated the next day in an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in which it emerged that the then Bishop of Chester, in whose diocese the parish was, had objected to certain features in the church’s decorations; two stained glass windows, but more particularly the reredos – considered by some to be too ‘popish’. The said reredos was removed to St Michael’s, Brighton – another Bodley building – and where maybe the more exotic features of the Tractarian movement were received more generously. The consecration of St John’s proceeded almost a year later on Saturday 20 May 1871 – exactly 101 years ago this very day – and our celebration today very much in keeping with the year’s postponement of the consecration. And, like a good deal of church building at the time, St John’s was built in response to the burgeoning population in these parts around the then ‘village’ of Tuebrook. Amazingly it was financed by the first vicar’s wife, Mrs Reade, at a cost of some £25,000 – well over £ 2.5 million at today’s values.
Ironically the postponement of the consecration may have been something of a portent of what lay ahead. For episcopal disapproval figured quite prominently in the subsequent history of St John’s as with some other churches in what became the Diocese of Liverpool. And whilst avoiding being formally put ‘under the ban’ as the saying goes, St John’s certainly incurred the displeasure and disapproval of at least two bishops, notably Bishop Chavasse, who proceeded to withdraw their episcopal ministrations. Nothing daunted. The parish actually flourished in those periods: priestly vocations and vocations to religious orders emerged; and for those young people ‘ready and desirous‘ for confirmation, a colonial bishop of Catholic sympathies who was on furlough in the UK was drafted in to perform the Sacrament of Confirmation. (Flying bishops already a feature of church life – another portent of what was to come.)
It would be so easy either to continue with the fascinating history of St John’s or to take a trip down memory lane – and what memories I have, not least of Fr Sampson and Fr Diamond – the ‘legendary’ Fr Sampson of whom one of his many devoted ladies once remarked – ‘Oh I do like Fr Sampson he’s so serene’! And if I may be permitted just one more personal anecdote… When the extensive redecoration of the church under Dykes Bower had been completed, the colours seemed to be so vibrant in contrast to what had been that I ventured to remark from the pulpit that the church was now looking more like the interior of a gypsy caravan. Sammy, not quite so serene, never spoke to me for a whole week! And then, the dynamic Fr Diamond who led so many young people like the pied piper of Hamlyn – teenagers girls and boys who in the normal course of events would never have come into contact with any church or Christian faith – and whose constant refrain was ‘It’s the Mass that matters’ – to such an extent that for when some particularly popular group from the Cavern was performing at St John’s club in Marlborough Road free tickets would be available – but only for those attending the Mass beforehand. And even then the tickets only being issued on the way out, thus ensuring an often overcrowded church! Having come to St John’s to serve my curacy I do want to pay tribute to those clergy and all the people of the church and parish who taught me so much and for whom I give thanks today.
But what are we really about today ? Well, in the first place I would suggest we give thanks for the building itself – this wonderful building designed by Bodley. Yes, built of all our earthly stone and mortar, yet reminding us, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, of that building which has foundations whose builder and maker is God. Here is a place consecrated to the glory of God – this piece of God’s earth circumscribed by these four walls, ‘holy to the Lord’. But then here is no ‘enclosure’ hemming God in, so to say, placing limits on God’s activity only to within. By no means, because this piece of God’s earth is consecrated; holy to the Lord, it is a reminder to us that the whole earth is ‘holy to the Lord’ and that as such we are to have an equal care and responsibility to both within the building and out, and into the land and world beyond. The environmental implications must surely be clearly obvious. Not only that – we are a people holy to the Lord; as St Peter reminds us, ‘we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. Not in any way to luxuriate in who and what we are; rather, called and chosen to ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who has called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light’. Hence the unmistakable and inescapable ‘mission’ dimension which must be part of our DNA .Like our Catholic forebears, we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness and we go out and go forth on our task of evangelisation, to ensure that vibrancy of life and living which we have in Jesus Christ for each and every person.
Further here is the place and focus for our worship where the celebration of the Mass week by week is the major transformative event in our lives – this place where the risen and living Lord stands before us this every morning as he stood by Mary Magdalene in the garden of the resurrection. He calls you by name: he feeds you with his body and blood – the Bread of Life and the Cup of the New Covenant. No messy church here, no cafe church, no new ways, where church becomes a rather pathetic attempt to do nothing other than mirror the drab world of entertainment in seeking to make itself more relevant and attract new believers. In no way – that which was and is and will be, that which this day we do in obedience to the Lord’s command to do this in remembrance of him – must continue to be at the very heart and centre of all that we are about. So today we offer this Holy Sacrifice in adoration, praise and thanksgiving.
And whilst ‘specialist’ ministers seem to be proliferating among us – many of them at considerable expense – and in spite of all the strategic planning, there can surely be no more realistic way forward than that which we have inherited and which is exhibited in so many of the parishes entrusted to the episcopal visitors, namely the Charge which I was myself given when I was ordained priest in Liverpool Cathedral some fifty six years this year and which has stood me in good stead all the years of my ordained ministry. The words may be somewhat archaic by today’s standards; their relevance never ceases. ‘To feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.’ Or, if you prefer, in the current Ordinal: ‘serve them with joy, build them up in faith’. Thank God for the many faithful priests and people who together, like yourselves, remain committed to this priestly, pastoral and apostolic endeavour and often in some of the most deprived parts of our land.
So much then for the past and the present. But what you may ask about the future ? Where are we going ? What lies ahead ? And the simple response is we just don’t know. Yet in a world of increasing violence, protest, division and polarisation, where increasing financial pressures are becoming almost impossible for so many to bear, and so much more – confusion, uncertainty and unknowing – our task, the task of the Church as a whole, is itself to remain faithful to that with which we have been charged by the One who has called us to follow him. Not to be served but to serve – to live into being the gospel of peace and reconciliation, of unselfish service, to go out of our way to welcome the refugee, the outcast, the poor and the needy, the lonely and the lost. In short, to walk the talk, as the saying goes; to get stuck in and among the people among whom we are set, ensuring so far as we are able that fullness of life which God wills for each and every person. Such was the evangelising zeal of our forebears in their mission to the poor; such must be ours too today.
Celebrating then with much thanksgiving one hundred years in the life ministry and mission of this parish of St John Tuebrook, we go forward in the sure and certain confidence that the God who has been with us here over all these years continues with us as we journey on. And seeing we are encompassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us ever looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross and has now taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
+David, the Lord Hope of Thornes