A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 8th November 2023
Early November is a time for remembering – in our church and in our country. In church we have celebrated All Saints and All Souls and on Sunday 12th church and nation keep Remembrance Sunday. Today we remember the Saints and Martyrs of England.
Common Worship bids us have a long perspective, and to be thoroughly ecumenical. We remember some of the great saints and holy men and women of the pre-Reformation church – bishops and archbishops, monks and nuns, mystics, writers, preachers. We remember with sadness how our ancestors fought and killed each other during the Reformation, and mark the names of Catholic and Protestant martyrs. Here in Oxford we have special reason to remember three Anglican Reformation marytrs – burnt on Broad St. in 1555 and 1556, after “trials” in the University church. The place of their execution is marked with a cross let into the roadway just opposite the entrance to my own college. Common Worship also invites us to mark and remember many later holy souls of England – bishops and priests, poets, preachers, hymn writers, missionaries and social reformers; men and women; celibate and married people.
This rich array of holy souls from one part of a small island tells us much about who and what saints are. Saints are the work of God. He makes men and women holy. Moreoever, he does this work of saint-making, of sanctification, with very ordinary materials. Most of those we remember were not outstanding in their intellectual capacities, in their social standing or wealth. They were people going about their ordinary business, who were called by God to become holy in their very different contexts. Most of them would probably be very surprised to find us remembering them at the invitation of Common Worship. A case in point is George Herbert, priest and poet who died in 1633. His poetry is part of the great inheritance of Anglicanism; but he was so unaware of this that he entrusted them to his godly friend, Nicholas Ferrar, and asked him to dispose of them if they were no good. Thankfully Ferrar did not.
We sometimes think that remembering is inevitably sad. And of course there is an element of grief at All Souls and on Remembrance Sunday. But remembering is not just about recalling. It is putting together again, re-membering us with those who have gone before us, reminding us that we still belong together. In Christian theological language it reminds us that we are all part of the Communion of Saints. We pay lip service to this every time we say the creed. This season invites us to know this deep within our hearts.
This sort of re-membering is sustaining and joyous. It is rather like in human communities – families, colleges, churches, even sport clubs. We remember those we knew in the past and often say things like, “Do you remember what he used to say?” “How he or she would have laughed at that!” “You sound just like him or her.” They are part of us still in a very natural way. It is just so with the Communion of Saints – particularly with those who wrote what we still can read. They still speak to us through their words. Take some of our great Christian poets – like George Herbert or John Donne of the early 1600s. Or there are our great hymn-writers, like Charles Wesley. He of course wrote, among many others, one of our great English hymns “Love divine, all loves excelling”. For English people, and throughout the English-speaking world, hymns are a profound source of spiritual sustenance. Where our ordinary words fail, lines from great hymns come to our service. Supremely of course there is Thomas Cranmer, to whom we owe so much. Archbishop and prime mover in the creation of what became the Book of Common Prayer, his skill as an author and translator have helped to mould Anglican spirituality for centuries. So many of these holy souls can still be our faithful friends and companions through their words, sustaining us, and inspiring us, and we trust, still praying for us.
There is another dimension to the presence of English saints in our lives – and that is the dimension of place. I am sure we have all experienced places which feel good, feel holy, places which are sometimes called “thin places” – where God seems very present. Similarly, there are places which feel quite the opposite – sad, threatening or even truly evil. It is as if walls soak up the sense of what goes on inside them, hold the echoes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, sometimes for centuries. One of the most powerful ways of making holy space is to pray in it. Where for centuries people have prayed there is a difference. You can see this in the comments left by visitors in some of our great cathedrals and abbeys, and in tiny parish churches. You can see it in the way people are still drawn to pilgrimage. In many of these places the pray-ers have left no name. We know virtually nothing about those who have worshipped here over centuries, for example. They are not remembered as saints by name but they are, in the words of the great Christmas Bidding Prayer, “ those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom we for evermore are one.”
Holy places, where people have prayed, often for centuries, can take us into depths which words, discussions, arguments – and certainly sermons – cannot take us. T.S. Eliot surely meant this when he wrote in The Four Quartets about Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire where Herbert’s friend, Nicholas Ferrar, created a small and domestic religious community:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
We come here today, “where prayer has been valid”.
Thanks be to God on this day for the saints and martyrs of England.