“We are back!” exclaims the Facebook page of Saint Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest extant church, founded in 1123 as an Augustinian Priory and which, they say, “has been in continuous use as a place of worship since at least 1143”. Continuous, that was, until the coronavirus pestilence, when worship was interrupted by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as it was throughout all the churches of England.
“After three weeks of exile, a traditional Anglican choral Eucharist is once again being celebrated”, the Rev’d Marcus Walker explains. “There shall be a Choral Eucharist for the First Sunday after Easter”, he proclaimed, throwing down his stole in defiance of the archiepiscopal edict.
The “exile”, of course, went further than the Government had ordered: the Archbishops not only closed England’s churches to their worshipping communities over Easter, the most sacred period of the liturgical year; they closed them also to their own priests. No Eucharist could be celebrated at any altar; no liturgy enacted in any nave, and no prayers uttered in any cloister. Priests were barred from entering their own churches even if there were a connecting door from the rectory, and even to broadcast a service via the Internet. If the people may not gather for worship, then priests and vicars were obliged to refrain from entering their church buildings in exemplary sympathy, the Archbishops decreed.
But the Rev’d Marcus Walker had higher priorities. In his sermon (@ c10mins), he explains:
May I speak in the name of the Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
And so we’re back.
Back here in this ancient church after an exile of three weeks.
It’s worth saying a few words, now, on why we’re back.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the other Bishops of the Church of England issued a letter, almost a month ago, declaring that churches must shut for congregations – quite rightly, and in accordance with Government guidelines – and for clergy, even for broadcasting from their churches – an activity explicitly permitted within the Government’s guidelines.
After a considerable amount of uproar, on Easter Day the Archbishop of Canterbury clarified that these were guidelines and not instructions, nonetheless using the power and strength of his position to argue in favour of his guidelines.
As the Incumbent of this church, who, with the Parochial Church Council of this church, has the only legal authority to end worship here, I have taken the Archbishops’ guidelines very seriously. I have thought and prayed on them, and listened too to the voices of my flock, of my parishioners, among whom I have been sent to serve and the care – the cure – of whose souls I have been entrusted by the Bishop, with the Bishop.
Their voices have been loud, insistent, and – so far – unanimous. I have received scores of letters and emails, calling on services to be restored here in their church: the church they have upheld and kept up, where they were married, where they buried a partner, saw a child christened, found God, were confirmed.
This is their church and I am their pastor; I owe them my solidarity.
As one said in her letter: “We don’t need you in solidarity at home, we need you in solidarity at the altar of our church.”
And so here I am…
And he continues with his sermon (contending against technology), talking about doubt and discipleship, faith and faithfulness, touch and tenacity.
His irruption hasn’t been without criticism, mainly via Twitter and Facebook:
And the criticism the Rev’d Marcus received over Easter, in response to his criticism in the Times of the Archbishops’ edict (which seemed then to be a little stronger than guidance) was altogether more “robust”.
Dramatis Personae: Canon Simon Butler is vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea, and current Chair of the House of Clergy in the Province of Canterbury (that isn’t insignificant); the Rev’d Jody Stowell is vicar of St Michael & All Angels, Harrow, and current Chair House of Clergy for London (that, too, isn’t insignificant).
If this is what fellow clergy are prepared to put into the public domain, one can only imagine the abrupt words being uttered to the Rev’d Marcus Walker in private. Significantly, both Canon Simon Butler and the Rev’d Jody Stowell are charged, by their respective chairmanships, to represent the concerns of the Rev’d Marcus Walker (and other clergy) at Diocesan and Synod levels. Canon Butler is the Rev’d Marcus’ advocate to the Bishops; the Rev’d Jody is his advocate to their Bishop (London). And yet both have determined to represent the Bishops to him – and, indeed, do so rather aggressively. There is no credible hint that either would be sympathetic to the Rev’d Marcus’ ministerial concerns, or remotely compassionate toward his conscience.
But perhaps the most jaw-dropping line in this terse dialogue is: “We are absolutely not a church which silences debate, but we are a church which says ‘For God’s sake, will you stop going on about theology and law while we’re trying to do our jobs.’.”
If now is not the time for conscience or theology, but for clergy to do their jobs, upon what foundation, exactly, are their jobs based? What does Canon Butler understand the ‘job’ of parish ministry to be? Does he derive his sense of mission for the cure of souls from a source other than ‘doing theology’?
Perhaps that question can be left hanging: Canon Butler is free to respond, if he would like to make contact.
Meanwhile, St Bartholomew’s in Smithfield, being a very ancient church, costs an awful lot to run and maintain. If you would like to encourage the Rev’d Marcus Walker in his ministry and witness to the nation at this time, please make a donation to St Bartholomew’s Collection Plate, which will be received with thanks and blessings.