All Saints Sunday 31 October 2004
St Clement Danes Church
It really is good to be able to join with you as the Church marks the feast of All Saints. I am going to do something unusual now, take a deep breath and here we go: I want to you to find someone in the church, whom you do not know, and whom you did not arrive at church with this morning, couples need to split up, though children can stay with their parents. I want you to have a conversation with your new found friend. I want you to spend a minute or so each speaking about your name, your Christian name. For example if Chris and I were to speak I would go first and explain to him that my name is William, not Bill or Billy, though I have been Will and Willy. I am named after two of my four great-grandfathers and so on. You can say if you like your name or if you are known by a name which is not yours at all. Then the other person goes. I shall call you to order a couple of minutes.
Names are very important and they define who we are as individuals.
At All Saints, the church gathers up all the saints some from the liturgical year and others who are not formally recognised by the church and honours them for the part they have played in the Christian story.
The reason I have asked you to talk about your own names to one another, apart from providing the opportunity for some pre-lunch chat, was to warm you up to thinking about the names of our respective churches and the saints whom we share but whom I am not sure we know a great deal about.
This church is dedicated to St Clement of Rome, (of course not St Clement Danes, St Clement’s church was at the heart of the Viking ghetto that this part of ancient London once was after marauding and pillaging went out of fashion!), and St Mary le Strand has three dedications, The Nativity of Our Lady and the Holy Innocents, as well as an ancient association with its former Rector, the remarkable and contradictory St Thomas Beckett.
On this All Saints Day I just want to say a word about these varied Holy people and ask what this means for us.
The formal name of this parish is St Mary le Strand with St Clement Danes. At St Mary le Strand we give our Lady her due recognition on or near to her Nativity, but dear St Clement risks being overlooked if there is not a convenient weekday on which to celebrate him.
St Clement was a disciple of St Peter, he was ordained by the Apostle and ancient sources would suggest that he could have been the second Bishop of Rome, though later tradition inserts St Linus. At the School in the parish he is remembered by his his anchor, very late tradition had him working in the mines of the Crimea in the reign of the Emperor Trajan, as a result of his success in converting so many people he was cast in to the sea tied to an anchor. The legend adds that his tomb, which was built by angels, was shown once a year to the inhabitants by the miracle ebbing of the tide. His real contribution to the early church, which is not the stuff of legend is his first epistle, which outlines the primitive view of ordination and church ordering, and is a call to the recalcitrant church in Corinth to be conformed to the discipline of the wider church. We could with him today to bring some wisdom and guidance to our troubled church!
Our Lady and the Holy Innocents is a bit of a mouthful, by way of dedication to this united parish, but I think there is profound humanity and sensitivity in this choice.
If we start with the Holy Innocents. There is some thing profoundly shocking about this aspect of the Christmas narrative. The story of Herod’s caprice in the slaughter of the Innocents, gets no mention in Carol services and we find the horror and meaninglessness of the event too much to bear. The recent massacre in Beslan in southern Russia reminds us that children are all too often the victim of the powerful and wicked. In the case of the birth of Our Lord, absolute goodness was a terrible threat to autocracy and tyranny, there is blood on this story as there is innocent suffering at the heart of Christian story of salvation. The Holy Innocents are a vital icon of what the depths of human wickedness can bring about, but those who dedicated St Mary le Strand did not wish to see them exposed or alone. These little holy ones are accompanied by the one who held her dead son in her arms at the foot of the cross. There is a wonderful poem called simply Pieta which couples Mary’s suffering with the words of her Magnificat which has a particular resonance with the the slaughtered children of Rachel:
‘Woman, behold your son’
so I do now,
and entrust my sorrowing care
upon those who fear him
in every generation.
St Thomas Becket was also the victim of the blind tyranny of authority, though perhaps he was a more ambivalent character, certainly a less innocent one than the children of 1st c Bethlehem. T.S. Eliot’s masterful Murder in the Cathedral and to some extent Anoiulh’s Becket, explore his character and motivation. The sinner turned saint will always intrigue and baffle. In the last analysis Eliot is sure that his Becket was a saint even if he goaded the King and was the very embodiment of unreasonable behaviour.
There we have them, St Clement, the Holy Innocents and Our Lady with St Thomas Becket. Our saints, the people we share between us. Our own names mark our identity, these saints mark our churches’ and thereby us as well. There is not much of a theme to connect them, except the Christian one of suffering, persecution and in the case of 3 out of 4 martyrdom. Their very difference is part of the clue as well as their own stories of holiness.
At All Saints we think of the life that we are all called to, which for Luke is so obviously at odds with the rest of the world: blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry: woe to the rich, woe to the full. We see the in the saints as St Paul says the “pledge of our inheritance”. We, feeble and weak and undeserving can be Holy because others have gone before us and proved it possible. Their lives pointed to Christ’s and so can ours.
The Revd. William Gulliford