May 2019 - Rector's Ramblings

As I write these words on the Tuesday of Holy Week, the world is learning painfully of a catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral. There was a horrible irony for me yesterday around 7.30pm, in that, just as I placed comforting candles in the pews within St John’s Church to light our evening devotions, one of those arriving told me for the first time of the pitiable scenes unfolding on our televisions: where flames brought anything but ‘comfort’. The 850-year old Cathedral in Paris has a historic part in the life of the French nation, and beyond. The devastating damage caused people to weep openly in the streets, and for   some to turn to prayer and singing.
And it is all happening in the most sacred week of the Church’s year.

In making my comments so soon, I will surely prove myself in some ways naive and mistaken as to the facts, but I am struck by the instant response of those on hand. President Emmanuel Macron was already pledging later that evening that France would rebuild its iconic Gothic structure, ‘because that is what the French people want’. ‘That’s what our history deserves’. What a judgement call in the immediacy of the blaze; what an example of leadership!

And the people responded in the hours that followed: one leading industrial family promising 100 million Euros of support; and the total (less than 24 hours after the fire was uncovered) now running in excess of 600 million Euros. We take a breath.

Why is it that we value our buildings so highly? Why do we care for them to such extent? Perhaps it is because of their seeming permanence, in a world in which we know only too keenly of our im-permanence, our finitude, our mortality. We value that which may, and should, remain in existence far beyond our own three score years and ten. We understand its lasting importance; its truth; its totemic symbolism of who we are together, corporately, and down the streets of time.  No human lives can offer this; but built-history has this innate capacity to speak for us all. 

It may make us reflect, sagely, upon the built-inheritance in our own midst. St John the Baptist's Church, in which I lit those candles, somewhat self-consciously, is the oldest building in our parish. It has seen christenings, weddings, funerals, down the ages. It has stood at the heart of the family of humankind in this place. It has recorded the significant stories of a community. And it still stands tall, its spire at least, the most visible feature of a largely flat hinterland.

As a custodian of that building, I must cherish it. But not me, alone, but all are invited to value its presence, its history, its ongoing life. Do so, I pray. Though the interior of the Church may change, as it has, over the decades and centuries, it stands as an unremitting symbol of continuity. Valued, as speaking to who we are; and valued, importantly too, in this Holy Week, as speaking to whom we might yet be, in Christ.

The smouldering stones of history hold  
a people’s present pain.
Here, in this home 
of kings and measures, 
time has not grown old.

Grey walls unshifted move those still,
who draw a smoky breath.
And youths, whose hours 
pour forth as water, 
taste eternity.

What is this rock to friend or foe 
whose faith has not held firm?
What pantry store 
of bread and wine might 
feed us evermore?

Yet hope of time lies in such height 
and age and worth and prayer.
For this we learn  
our feet are planted 
here and everywhere.

  With lasting wishes in the May-time season of the resurrection.
  Through Christ, who makes of us living-stones.

   Andrew Doye


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