That is the sound I have been waiting to hear for a very long time. What a great day. I hope that anyone who thought the electric organ was good enough really has now changed their mind!
We’ve been talking about the organ restoration ever since I arrived as vicar in January 2009. The decision to commit to finding the money for the job had to be taken very early in order to get a slot in Harrison & Harrison’s work schedule. We took that step in faith – fortified to do so thanks to a very generous donation from Brian Dunn’s estate given to us by his widow Caroline, who I am delighted to say is back with us today after a very long convalescence at home. We would not have had the nerve to begin without such a foundation stone. The full-scale restoration means that we have bequeathed to the next generation a fully functioning, first class instrument that should not need major work done for another 40 years.
Today we celebrate the completion of this immense project with Caroline, with Councillor Heather Johnson, the Mayor Camden, who honours us with her presence today, and in the presence of this gathered community, the living stones of St Mary’s, who have contributed so generously to the organ fund in many ways.
We also celebrate another new thing in church today, and that is the wonderful gift by John Ashby of a facsimile Oxford Bible to set on our traditional brass lectern. The Bible that has been there for the past 75 years, given in memory of Percy Dearmer, was beginning to show signs of wear and tear and we have put it away to keep it in good shape for future generations. In 1547 King Edward VI issued a Coronation decree that an English Bible was to be made available to the public in every parish church, and the tradition of the great lectern Bible dates from that time. Many of these Bibles had to be chained to the lectern to prevent theft, so hungry were people for the scriptures.
Lecterns are traditionally in the shape of an eagle, the symbol of St John the Evangelist and the bird that soars highest and sees furthest, representing the reach of the Word of God over all the earth. When John and I were discussing the lectern Bible the other day he told me a lovely story about a little girl who looked up at a big brass eagle lectern and asked, Is it a bird of praise?
Well, I hope that it is. Praise is what we are about. It is what churches are for. On this 140th anniversary of the opening of St Mary’s Church for worship, it is wonderful to be able to celebrate at the same time a new Bible and a restored organ. They represent the two-way traffic of Sunday worship. We hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today through the medium of the scripture, read and studied in community. And we sing our joyful praise to God for all the gifts we have been given, above all the gifts of God’s own Son.
First we receive, then we give back from what we have been given. Our sung praise is based on the words of scripture, so our gift of praise depends first of all on God’s gift of his Word.
This exchange of gifts continues as we enter more deeply into the mystery of worship and approach the altar of God. Here we offer the bread and wine that have been made by human hands from God’s gifts of wheat and grapes. Then God gives us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the risen Jesus himself, meeting us in the sacrament. And having received that supreme gift, we are commissioned to be Christ in the world.
The writer of the epistle puts this in architectural terms, very appropriately for the Sunday when we are giving thanks particularly for the dedication of a church building. Like living stones, he says, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
The Temple in Jerusalem was the place of animal sacrifice, offered to God in penitence and thanksgiving. The Temple that is the Body of Christ is built from living stones, who are all the baptised. In response to Christ’s offer or himself for our sakes, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice, as we say every Sunday in the post communion prayer.
The gospel reading describes Jesus walking in the Temple in winter, the season of the Jewish feast of Dedication, also known as Tabernacles, when the rededication of the Temple was celebrated. John’s gospel is pointing to something new that is happening on this traditional feast. Rather than God being tabernacled in a building, he dwells now in a person. Jesus himself is the Temple, the meeting place of God and humankind. Through our baptism we are brought into the mystery of this union. Built on Christ the cornerstone, we become living stones of this spiritual Temple.
You’ve all heard countless sermons about the church being the people, not the building, and of course that is quite right. But on our own Dedication Festival, it is perfectly appropriate to look around this building and see how it expresses our purpose here.
We are quite a traditional church, of course. Experts in liturgical history can tell at once that we are in the English Catholic tradition, as taught and promoted by Percy Dearmer. Giveaways are things like having two candles on the altar, not six as in a Roman Catholic church, or a more Romeward-leaning Anglo-Catholic church. We have a safe in the wall of the Holy Spirit chapel called an aumbry where a few consecrated wafers from the parish eucharist are reserved, which means they are kept for the communion of the sick, and a lamp is always lit to indicate that Christ is present in the sacrament. That is the sign of a church in the Catholic tradition. The icons and and candlestand and incense and vestments that we use are also signs of our Catholic liturgical tradition. But it is distinctively English, looking back to the customs of the Middle Ages in this country, for instance, using blue in Advent and unbleached linen in Lent rather than the purple of a Roman Catholic church. At St Mary’s we don’t copy Roman Catholic devotions and liturgical prayers that have developed since the Reformation, though many Anglican churches in north London do so.
The great pipe organ and the lectern Bible, as I have already said, are traditional things to find in an Anglican church. Many churches nowadays have organs of a similar age to ours, which was built in 1876, but they languish for lack of the costly maintenance that is required by such fine and complex instruments. Many churches make music instead with a praise band, using guitars and keyboards and drums. Some of us went to a conference for larger churches a few months ago and heard a speaker say that the most reliable sign of a growing church is the possession of a drum kit! Well, we do borrow drums for jazz concerts, and we sing to the guitar and piano at the 9.15 informal service, but the majority view at St Mary’s is that we are quite happy with organ music for our main act of worship. We’d better be now, in any case!
How we worship, how we furnish and decorate our church, are important signs of our identity as a Christian community with a particular shared history and connection to traditions that we value. But of course a beautiful church, dignified liturgy and glorious music would only add up to a concert if the heart of worship is missing. We are not spectators at a performance but living stones who are part of the Temple of Christ’s Body. If worship is an exchange of gifts, it requires participation and not simply observation.
When we offer God our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice, then we may find God takes us at our word. We shouldn’t say these words and then walk out the door for another week being forgetful of God, living as if our faith made no difference to our lives. We dedicate ourselves today to take out from this beloved building, where beautiful worship has been offered for 140 years, an openness to God in every part of our lives, so that the exchange of gifts we celebrate here may transform us, and through us God’s world.