Sunday, 20 May 2018

A Levelled Churchyard

If you can, imagine the scene as you pull into St Pancras Station, on the East Midlands tracks which run past - on the right - St Pancras Churchyard. The Churchyard that Hardy was partly responsible for flattening, and tidying up the gravestones of, as part of the work to create the station. Just a few gravestone are scattered around. Although these are the posh people's. Mary Wollestonecraft, for instance, has a monument here. Although in fact Mary herself isn't here. She's in Bournemouth. Her grandson moved her remains 60 years later.  But mostly, it's a flattened, mown-grass, tidy little patch.

The tidiness of Old St Pancras Churchyard

And now you've got that in your mind I'd like to introduce you, if I have not done so before, to the poem "The Levelled Churchyard" by Thomas Hardy.

"O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones! 
"We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!' 
"The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should! 
"Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain! 
"There's not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet! 
"From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!" 
The levelled churchyard is tidy. It's well-kept. It's low maintenance. It's a place where the dead have been erased for convenience and easy management. It'safe. It's sanitised. It's dead.
Lots of gravestones arranged "tidily" in a circle round an ash tree
"The Hardy Tree"

The River Fleet used to flow through Old St Pancras churchyard. But it got smelly. And it used to flood when there were storms on Hampstead Heath. So they stuck it in a pipe. Nice and tidy.

The levelled churchyard for me is an analogy of where a church ends up, if its aim is the convenience and safety of its members. Nothing new, nothing unexpected, no unsafe gravestones toppling over, no trip hazards. But no unexpected wild flowers in a corner. No long grass where wildlife can hide. No change, no movement, no spirit, no adventure.

The young Church could have settled for a quiet, happy life. Jesus is alive. Isn't that great. Jesus goes back to heaven. Well, let's stay in the Upper Room, quietly praying. We're a disciple short. Let's get the committee structure right - and they elect Matthias. No need to do anything. Did Jesus say something about preaching the Gospel to the nations? Yeah. But that's a bit ambitious. Let's have another pray.

Then on the Day of Pentecost. 50 days after Passover. 50 days after Easter Sunday. They're quietly having their morning meeting. And fire falls from heaven and a rushing wind fills the room and they're blown out into the streets to praise God. And they're finding new languages to praise God - and as the commotion grows the people of the streets rush round and find that they're hearing God praised in their own languages.

And Peter stands up and tells them that this is because Jesus - who was dead - is alive. And these are the end times. Pentecost is the beginning of the end. And nothing is going to be the same again.

And the Church now will have all sorts of problems to deal with. Samaritans believing in Jesus. Gentiles being filled with the Holy Spirit. Persecution. Opposition. Martyrdom.

It ain't tidy. But it's where God is.

We can light our tea lights. Make a quiet space. Let people feel comfortable.

But the disciples had to come out of the Upper Room. Had to give up the safety of those closed doors. Had to share their experience of a Living Christ, fired into them by the Holy Spirit.

You know, all the images we use for the Holy Spirit involve movement. Water - flowing water, or springing up out of the ground. Rushing wind. Fire. You can listen to the still small voice of the Spirit - like Elijah did - but you'll still end up being pushed out to confront the world, to make plans, to go where the Spirit leads you.

Three English people - three different ways the Spirit worked.....

On this most royal of weekends, I was thinking about St Thomas Beckett. The King's side-kick, Chancellor of England, a great administrator. Henry II made him Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that he'd have his own man keeping the Church in line. Instead Thomas seems to have had some kind of a conversion - saw the seriousness of his spiritual role - stood up for the Church and wouldn't let the King dip into the Church's money to fund his wars. Sure, Beckett had no diplomacy. He probably caused the crisis that led to his martyrdom. But when he took his faith seriously, he found a depth and meaning that went past the safety of being the King's man.

John Wesley - a good, safe Anglican. MA of Oxford University. But he couldn't rest in his family's clerical comfort. He looked for more. Found his heart "strangely warmed" by the story of salvation and turned the religious life of England upside down.

Christina Rossetti - quiet, posh, restrained, apparently a bit scared of the idea of marriage. And yet God gave her the ability to write for me the greatest, most theological of all Christmas carols, "In the Bleak Midwinter." Within a quiet, constrained life, then through terrible financial difficulties, yet through the Anglo Catholic tradition the Spirit gave her mind the restless power to produce so much beauty. The Spirit blows into all our ways.

As long as the Church is open to the Spirit we'll need new languages to tell out God's glory. New ways to know God's love. New excitement that Jesus is alive. It can be scary, messy, challenging. But it's the only reason why the Church exists - to be filled with the Spirit, and faithful to Christ.

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  1. Hm. My take on ItBM:

    V1: once upon a time it was cold (completely extrabiblical)

    V2: God is bigger/greater than heaven and earth and eventually we will see that; but he chose to come down to live among us

    V3: all heaven rejoices but he chose to come down and live among us (and some more extrabiblical parts)

    V4: all of heaven rejoiced but a human loved him

    V5: My response is one of love - a sentiment most definitely not unique to this carol but expressed particularly badly, not only implying that I’m poorer than a shepherd but using one of the worst “help I need a rhyme” bodges in the entire canon

    What uniquely theological bit were you thinking of?

  2. Oh the weather report is irrelevant.

    The sheer incarnationalness of it is what it appeals.

    And she doesn' give any clues as to whether your are greater or less than a shepherd. Merely assumes you don't have a lamb to hand.

  3. The flattening of Churchyards, and Hardy's "Erasing the Dead" seem to be quite appropriate for the Church which want's to be trendy and up to date, or even "Down with the Kids" forgetting that the three legged stool still has it's place in Anglican thought (even with the addition of the fourth leg of Experience).

    We want things tidy (hence the health and safety purges of Church Yards, particularly the laying flat gravestones which lean interestingly in different directions). We tend to also want things tidy in our liturgy and anything new or different unsettles us.

    So the preaching by Bishop Curry on the Royal Wedding, unsettled people who have criticised it as it challenges their nice tidy perception of how faith should be.

    But clearly, faith isn't about being Tidy, it's about personal commitment to form of faith that can blow us wildly into turbulent seas via the Holy Spirit. Faith can be challenging, messy and uncomfortable, which is something that Bishop Curry picked up and dwelt on.

    But love, hope and faith together can make a Christian life, lived in Christ and with Christ is something of beauty and wonderful to see, particularly when you meet people, exactly like that.

    We need them to help us to navigate the messiness of life, the challenges and also the opportunities that life brings, to proclaim the Gospel anew in every age. And Bishop Curry has given us some tools to use.


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