Dedication Festival 2019

Sermon preached on 6th October 2019                                                                                    (Readings: 1 Chronicles 29: 6-19 & John 2: 13-22)

I haven’t had chance this year to make my customary trawl through the Visitors book to see people have made of this place – but I did have a quick glance at Tripadvisor to see if there were any notable comments online. And I’m just going to read just two of them – that caught my eye mainly because they were totally misplaced!

The first spoke in glowing terms about this “unusually grand parish church”. Which is not unreasonable, except that it had been posted on the site for Old St Mary’s – which may well have been very beautiful, once upon a time, but even then was hardly exceptional!

But then on the site for this church came the only post with a negative rating, which said,
“Pretty much a waste of time. You don’t get anywhere near it and the tours cost a fortune. If the weather is bad you will know a new level of suffering.”

Well I was pretty dumbfounded by that – you can get pretty close to most things here, our church guides (as far as I know!) do not pass the hat round for a tip, and the weather is hardly more of an issue in here than it is anywhere else.
And then {our Parish Secretary} Christine Matthews said – do you think they’d been to Stonehenge? And then all became clear – this post is also in the wrong place, but ruining our ratings!!

By any measure we do have a remarkable Parish Church here – pretty unique even today – even moreso back in 1845. There are many precious artefacts and works of art in this building – which is why last year we were designated as a Major Parish Church, alongside the likes of Bath Abbey, Wimborne Minster and Christchurch Priory. Compared to them, we are really quite small and modern – but significant nevertheless.

As always, at Dedication, I’d like to go back to basics and consider why this is all here: what possessed Sydney Herbert and Countess Ekaterina to spend such huge sums of money on creating this building?

I’d like to think that the answer lies partly in David’s description of the Jerusalem Temple: for David the opulence of God’s house is seen as a reflection of God’s own generosity, and it is built in order to inspire others to give freely in return.
And those sentiments are echoed here,
not only in the external inscription, on the Cloister, which describes this place as “The Lord’s Temple”, but also the less than subtle inscription on the gallery – taken form the reading we heard – “All things come from you O Lord, and of your own do we give you”.

If we stick with our Scripture readings for a moment, we also have to square what is here with Jesus’ own reaction to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He was not amused to find money changers in his Father’s house – clearly they offended his sense of that building’s true purpose.

It’s worth reflecting perhaps, that the problem is not money itself: I really don’t think we need to worry too much about our postcards and tea towels.
What annoys Jesus is that the Temple authorities have made it impossible to enter the House of Prayer without first buying the live offerings necessary for ritual sacrifice.
In 1st Century Jerusalem – you simply had to pay to pray.
That’s what incensed Jesus.

And, Jesus also distinguished between the literal, stone Temple and the living temple of his own body – and, by extension, the metaphorical “body of Christ”, the Church.
And so we’re reminded that, however grand our places of worship may be, they are only ever temporary “visual aids”, pointing us to the greater and eternal glory of God.

It’s worth remembering too that this church has not stood unchanged since 1845: the central mosaics that dominate the Altar now, were only added in the 1920s. Like the Holy od holies in Solomon’s temple, which was covered I gold, the apse is meant to speak to us of the beauty of heaven – possibly something which this community needed in the years following the First World War.

And in less dramatic ways, this building has evolved in ways that were intended to make it more comfortable – heating, lighting sound systems and a toilet.
None of them of great theological significance – but important in making it easier for some of the people of God to come and worship here.

As you know, this time next year we will reach our church’s 175th anniversary of dedication – and we intend to use that occasion to launch an appeal to help us equip the building for our work now, and for future generations.
And that’s providing one of the biggest challenges that our PCC has faced for some time: what is realistic target and scope for our ambitions?
What should our priorities be if we can’t do everything we’d like to? And I would urge you to pray – whether or not you are a member of PCC – that we get those decisions right.

We’re told that there’s not much point spending large amounts of money of conserving our precious artefacts unless and until we’ve replaced our current heating system. And that presents another set of challenges – how much can we realistically expect to spend on a heating system; what would actually keep us warm as well as preserving the building; and can we do anything to reduce our impact on the environment?
And that’s before we even get onto the question of facilities – whether or not we are equipped to cope with increased numbers of visitors, or the varying needs of those who come here for services or other public events.
Behind all those aspirations and decisions lies a dilemma which many churches have faced – whether it’s better to invest in “mission” (to spend money in order to make new things possible and so to connect with more and more people) OR whether to invest time and energy in more focussed “mission activities”, in order to bring in more people who we then hope will bring the money with them.

In truth, I think we probably need a bit of both – to use what we have been given wisely, and con fidently, so that new live may flourish here; and, at the same time, to be smarter and more persistent in inviting people to come and see what is already here – within this stone temple and among this living temple that we form together.

However we decide to do that, I hope that we can focus our efforts NOT simply on maintaining the building, or on restoring it to what it was – the whole project could then become simply a millstone and a barrier to growth. Instead I hope we can be inspired by what is here, by each other, and by God, to find a clear vision of what we need this building to do for us now, and of what it can be with, a little imagination and, perhaps, a hefty dose of determination.
Such a vision, I suggest, will be centred on Christ’s own vision of the Temple as a house of prayer.
I remember clearly the first time I came into this building through the Cloister door – to be met yet another text, painted above the arch – the text which would have greeted our patrons as they entered through that same entrance:
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all the people”.

If that was Christ’s understanding of the Temple, and if that was Sydney and Catherine’s ambition for this place, then we’re in good company if we make it ours too!

Whatever we aim for, and whatever we ultimately manage to achieve, let us hope and pray that we can do our bit to make this truly a place where many different people can come, and marvel at what is here and,
whether they worship among us or not,
to make sense of the Divine presence in their own time
and in their own way.

May this building be always a house of prayer for all people, and may God raise us up as living temples to his glory. Amen.