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St Mary’s Obit service 2017: Sermon by Rev. Christopher Harrison

Thursday 20th July, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

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St Mary’s Obit service 2017:  Sermon by Rev. Christopher Harrison


Today we give thanks for and commemorate all those who, over the centuries, have made St Mary’s what it is today.  There have been many remarkable acts of generosity, both financial and other, and it is wonderful that this journey of renewal, development and enhancement is still continuing as vigorously as ever.  A tremendous church building like St Mary’s should be viewed not through the lens of the present day, but as the result of the many layers of history which make up its composite and complex structure.  Each generation has made its contribution and left its mark:  from the Saxons whose original church on this site has been completely lost, to the Normans, a few traces of whose building remain; and then those visionaries from the medieval period who were largely responsible for the building which we see today, drawing on the huge and far sighted munificence of those who gave massive sums of money for the wellbeing of church and city.  Much work was also done to the church in the Victorian period in particular; there was also the building of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the early 1900s, the substantial programme of cleaning and repairs which took place some years ago, and more recently the installation of the new floor and the renewal of the roof. These are only the major items in a long series of works to the building, and indeed the pace of such works shows no sign of slowing down.  It is not just the large works which matter; we have all benefited from the installation of the kitchen and lavatories, as well as, more recently, the new digital organ; the wonderful new display boards will enhance St Mary’s for years to come; and the essential works to the chapter house, the war memorial and steps, and various areas of masonry and stonework, largely hidden to most of us, have all been important. 


Sometimes we know the names of those who left their imprint on St Mary’s; but there are probably just as many, if not more, whose names are not held in any records.   We give thanks by name, later in the service, for some of the more significant benefactors, through whose generosity St Mary’s is what it is today; but we must also remember the multitude of donors now forgotten or unknown, whose contribution is no less significant, even if more modest in scale.  Legacies such as those in recent years from Miss Philips and Mrs Feaver; a range of local and national trusts and charities; and of course the substantial contribution of the Heritage Lottery Fund to the recent roof and heritage education project.  The Friends of St Mary’s, of course, continue to play a very active and important role in enhancing the church, and we look forward to the completion to the project to gild the nave roof angels.  The roles of our church architect, Peter Rogan, and our Fabric Committee, chaired by Paul Sibly, have been crucial in all of these recent projects, and we are greatly indebted to them for all their work over quite a few years now.


So what should this ancient commemoration mean to us today?  It is a reminder, first, of the continuity of the history of this city and of the role of the Church within it. We are connected in a visible and tangible way with those who have gone before us here.  This is not mere sentimentalism or nostalgia for its own sake, a backward looking escapism from modern life.  This service recalls those, known and unknown, on whose shoulders we stand, both here in the Church and in the city as a whole.  These were people who played their part in constructing a system of social, economic, ecclesiastical and political institutions which took centuries to build, establishing precious freedoms and rights which are still the envy of many other countries.  We neglect their memory at our peril.


And then just ponder, as you look around you, upon the scale of their generosity.  The costs of constructing this building in today’s money would be colossal. This was money which our benefactors chose not to spend on some huge country house and estate, but on a building which would enable God to be worshipped at the heart of Nottingham for years to come.  Our largest benefactors were, of course, people of substantial means.  But we, their spiritual descendants,  should still be roused and inspired by their huge generosity – not forgetting, also, all those who gave much less, but from more humble means, and in a spirit of personal sacrifice. 


This, of course, is not just any ordinary building. Those who designed and built St Mary’s, through the goodwill of its benefactors, were building to the glory of God as well as demonstrating the fruits of Nottingham’s prosperity.  They worked at the limits of architecture and of construction techniques, as well as new exploring new dimensions of beauty as expressed through the qualities of this church.  In our own generation, as I have reminded us, we are playing our own part in conserving and enhancing the beauty of St Mary’s church, as well as carrying out essential repairs and maintenance to the highest standards possible.  In doing so, we are leaving our own mark on the Church in such a way as to show that we also value beauty, art and architecture in a church context, especially when these are an expression of what is divine and not merely human.


We should remember also, on this day, that one of the strengths of St Mary’s is that it also represents a coming together of church and city, of God and industry, the worlds of finance and of spirit.  For much of this nation’s history this was a natural partnership.  Today, however, we have to work harder to enable such a partnership to bear fruit, both in terms of the Church’s impact on society, and in order to gain the respect of the increasing numbers of people for whom God means little or nothing. St Mary’s has a long tradition of being at the heart of civic life in Nottingham.  This means being active in public debate on matters of local and wider importance.  It means that St Mary’s should be a building where people can come together as representatives of church and other faith groups, local governments, public and private sector organisations, and all those other institutions which make up our city.  I hope and pray that this key role of St Mary’s church will continue and indeed grow, in spite of all the pressures on us in this increasingly secular age.


The inheritance left to us in the form of this great building is not an easy one to manage.  Our benefactors have left us, as we all know, with the responsibility of covering substantial ongoing costs, towards which there is no automatic help from public bodies.  I have referred already to some of those who play a key role in this.  I must also mention our vergers Michael Scott and Duncan Purves;  all those who give of their time to care for the building and keep it open to the public, and indeed all those donate towards its upkeep and enhancement. 

If we can’t give much money towards the upkeep of this church – although every pound counts – then let it be the time, the skills, the talents that we can give; for what really matters is the fact that we give of ourselves for the benefit of others and for the glory of God, rather than just keeping everything for ourselves.  We therefore thank you, Lord God, for all those who have given so fully and so generously to you here in this Church; may we be good stewards of the inheritance left to us, and equip us with the financial and spiritual resources necessary to hand it on to those who will follow in the years to come.  Amen. 

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