Sunday 17th March 2013 was a significant day for a number of reasons. Firstly it was Passion Sunday – the fifth Sunday of Lent, marking the beginning of Passiontide, the most important two weeks of the Christian year. It also featured the same set of Biblical readings and was the equivalent Sunday of three years previously in 2010, when I had to preach in the presence of Their Royal Highnesses, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. This is something my new Archbishop only did for the first time this past week 🙂
But Sunday 17th March was also very significant for Matthew, a Scottish member of the St. Clement’s congregation, as it was the occasion when he preached his first ever sermon. Matthew is currently exploring a possible vocation to train for ordained ministry within the Church of England. He has already successfully jumped through several initial hoops, including a long interview with the Vocations Advisor for the Eastern Archdeaconry of the Diocese in Europe, and attending an intensive Vocations Weekend in London at the end of January. But in advance of a critical long interview with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) in London in early April, he is required to have preached a sermon, the text of which needs to be submitted to the DDO in advance of the interview.
Sunday 17th March both suited Matthew and me as being the occasion for preaching his first sermon. But what I did not initially realise was that the date is also St. Patrick’s Day. Therefore, I was suitably ribbed by my Irish Reader Jack Noonan, for inviting a Scotsman to preach on St. Patrick’s Day 🙂 However, in a show of Celtic solidarity, Matthew chose to wear his kilt in order to ‘to show love and to honour those in our congregation who hail from Ireland or those who have Irish ancestry’, as he so generously put it in the opening lines of his sermon.
The sermon was both well prepared and very well delivered. Matthew concentrated on the Gospel reading set for the day from John 12. 1-8, which tells of how Mary, the sister of Martha & Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with half a litre of expensive perfume whilst he was visiting their home in Bethany. You can listen to and/or read the text of the sermon by following this link to our Church website.
Matthew teaches English to a variety of Czech adults in their workplaces. Having told his students what he was doing, quite a number asked if they could attend. Their reasons for doing so varied I’m sure, ranging from wanting to hear their English teacher preach in a Church service, to experiencing English-language Anglican worship, and to seeing Matthew in his kilt. And the feedback from the students when Matthew next met with them the following day, was fascinating to say the least.
The Czech students fell into two groups. There were the atheists who, in reality, are often more agnostic rather than atheist. They sat together as a small group in the pews near the back of the Church. They told Matthew that they found the service, ‘very nice indeed’. Their greatest surprise was the lack of fancy gold decoration within the Church building, in contrast to the many overly decorated baroque Roman Catholic Churches that you find throughout Prague. One student called it, ‘a Church and service for poor people’ and further expressed his view that, ‘this is what the Church should be about’. Here I hear echoes of the first statements by the newly elected Pope Francis I. Yet it is his Church that owns all these highly decorated buildings which so easily send out the wrong message as to what Christianity is all about. It will be interesting to see how he sets about grasping that nettle.
The other group were practising Roman Catholics who, unlike most Anglicans, sat in the pews right at the front of the Church 🙂 Their response was one I’ve heard many times from Roman Catholics after attending an Anglican Eucharist for the first time – how very similar our liturgy is in its wording and structure, to the Roman Catholic mass. As I have frequently had to explain, when revising and updating their respective liturgies, both Roman Catholics & Anglicans have gone back to the writings of Justin Martyr & Hippolytus, who describe the pattern of the Eucharist as it was celebrated in the Christian Church of the second & third centuries AD.
Their other reaction was one that both pleases but also saddens me. What struck them was how personal (one to one) the service was with my words of welcome to congregation at the beginning, and with the announcements before the final hymn at the end. They said this was really amazing as their own church is very ‘official’ as they described it and none of this would ever happen during their mass. There is almost a sense of their clergy being uncaring and conducting the service, ‘with no room for humility or humour’.
Whilst it is nice to be complimented, it does sadden me that even people who attend Christian worship regularly, still find their own Church uncaring and their clergy lacking warmth and humility. All of this re-echoed what I heard from various Czech young people a year ago, after conducting a Czech-American wedding in March 2012. To most Czech people, the Christian Church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, is cold and unwelcoming and not a good advert for the Christian faith.
Not only did these Czech people, both those with faith & those of a more agnostic train of thought, find our worship warm and welcoming, they also found individual members of the congregation warm and welcoming too. They expressed their appreciation as to how so many people went out of their way to talk with them and invite them across the road to Coffee Hour after the service. I am both pleased and thankful that the St. Clement’s congregation has been such a good example of what a Christian community should be – showing something of the love and compassion of Jesus Christ to those who have come to worship with us for the first time.
At our Eucharist yesterday – Palm Sunday, we had twenty three visitors of a different kind join us for worship. They were the Chapel Choir and Organist of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. They wonderfully enhanced our worship, singing a setting by Josef Rheinberger, of Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, together with an Introit and a Communion Anthem. Whilst I am a great believer in the whole congregation joining in singing the musical parts of the liturgy, there is a case for sometimes just sitting or standing quietly and letting those gifted by God with great voices and instrumental skills, sing and play in praise of God.
The choir also gave a great lead to our congregational hymns, including ‘All glory, laud and honour, to thee Redeemer King’, ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’, and my own favourite for Passiontide and Holy Week, ‘My song is love unknown’. As a member of the congregation remarked to me in an email on Sunday evening, ‘As for the music…..Wow!’ It really was a great beginning to once more marking Holy Week before celebrating the joys of Easter Day.