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St Mary's Obit Service - Sermon

Monday 4th July, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

by Reverend Christopher Harrison | tags: ,

St Mary’s Obit service 2016 - Sermon by Reverend Christopher Harrison

When we look around us at this church in which we worship, what do you notice in particular? What is the building saying to you? You will no doubt be very aware of not just its size, but also its beauty; perhaps some of the details which you have come to know; the people who are commemorated in the monuments placed around the walls; or maybe the splendour of the windows. A building like St Mary’s can be seen in a variety of different ways; as well as being a church it is a monument, a great architectural achievement; an edifice which presents challenges to maintain. But we must also see it not just in the snapshot of the present day, but as the result of the many layers of history which make up this composite and complex structure. Sometimes we forget that each generation has made its contribution, 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. But of course the work to enhance and develop the church continued through the centuries, with much being done in the Victorian period in particular, the building of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the early 1900s, and finally the installation of the new floor just a few years ago. 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 munificence 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.

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. It 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. What will we do, in this generation, to conserve and even enhance the beauty of St Mary’s church? Can we leave our own mark on the Church in such a way to show that we too value beauty, good art and architecture, 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 building relationships with those who make decisions on such issues. In this context I am honoured to have been asked to be chaplain to the new Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Cllr Mohammed Saghir, along with an imam whom he has also chosen. Although the tradition of a Lord Mayor’s service here in church seems to be no longer what the City wants, yesterday I was in fact part of the Lord Mayor’s procession to the Castle where his inauguration took place. I was invited to give a blessing for the city, following which the imam said some prayers; and in today’s somewhat tense climate this partnership was deeply symbolic of mutual goodwill.

Those of us who worship here regularly have chosen to be stakeholders in St Mary’s, because we believe in the importance of this church, in spite of all the responsibilities which that entails. The inheritance left to us in the form of this great building is of course double edged; 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. In this respect I must pay special tribute to the unstinting work done by our churchwardens Paul Sibly and Martyn Jewers, our fabric committee, our architect Peter Rogan, the Executive Committee of the Friends of St Mary’s, our vergers Michael Scott and Duncan Purves, and indeed all those who care for our building and donate towards its upkeep and enhancement. Fund raising to maintain a church of this size and stature is always going to be a challenge, but we have benefited greatly in recent years not only from the generosity of individual benefactors, but also charities, trusts, and government bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, without which we would be in great difficulty.

Few if any of us would remotely be able to give as much to the Church as the ancient founders and benefactors on whose shoulders we stand today, and whose legacy we have inherited. All the same, this day should stir us to think about our faith afresh not just in terms of what we can get from God but in terms of what we can give to God and his Church, so that those who come after us may benefit. And if it’s not money – although even the widow’s mite 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 gave 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.


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