Sunday Worship - St Alfege - 21/04/12
Radio 4 Opening Announcement:
BBC Radio 4. Time now for this morning’s Sunday Worship which comes live from St Alfege Church in Greenwich near the start line of this year’s London Marathon. It’s introduced by the Reverend Chris Moody.
Welcome to St Alfege Church in the heart of Greenwich. As I speak thousands of competitors are making their way past the church to go into Greenwich Park for the start of the 32nd London Marathon. The church stands at the end of the long vista the runners see as they race down Romney Rd, past the Old Royal Naval College. The present church was built by Nicholas Hawksmoor while he was Clerk of Works for the College. Begun 300 years ago in 1712, it is the first of the famous churches he built in London.
Greenwich Park is the start of the race for the vast majority of the 35,000 competitors. They run for a myriad of charities and good causes. They are of all ages, races, backgrounds, some racing against a previous personal best and some praying that they simply get round the course. But their mixture of excitement, apprehension and focus, their sense of being part of a huge event, creates a unique energy which lingers over the town centre long after the race is finished. We have one competitor racing for us and we look forward to cheering her on later as the race swirls back around the church towards Deptford.
Just as we have one competitor in the race who is special to us, so we have one saint among the thousands which make up the communion of saints who is special to us too. The reason this building and its predecessors stand here at all is because of one man, St Alfege. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he was brought here by the Danish invaders after the sack of that city and martyred here, during the troubled times of King Ethelred the Unready. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, he was killed by being pelted with bones after a feast.
Alfege was martyred here on the Saturday after Easter on 19th April 1012. Last Thursday, a thousand years to the day, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams presided and preached here, with the Bishop of Bergen and other church leaders from Scandinavia, and pilgrims from all over this diocese and beyond. Scandinavian countries still have strong links with the former Surrey docks area on this side of the river- the same area through which pilgrims walked on Thursday and through which the Marathon course makes its way from here to Tower Bridge. Part of what we are celebrating in this festival is this thousand years of trade and migration, begun in conflict but ending in mutual enrichment. Alfege’s death and the involvement of England’s new Danish and then Norman rulers in establishing his saintly reputation is part of this story.
We begin our worship with a hymn which brings the themes of spiritual struggle and competition together ‘Fight the good fight with all thy might’.
HYMN – Fight the good fight
Merciful God, who raised up your servant Alfege to be a pastor of your people
and gave him grace to suffer for justice and true religion;
grant that we who celebrate his martyrdom
may know the power of the risen Christ in our hearts
and share his peace in lives offered to your service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
ever one God, world without end. Amen
The opening words of the first hymn were inspired by this scripture taken from Paul’s first letter of Timothy chapter 6. It connects also with the witness St Alfege made to both Danes and Saxons before his death.
READER 1 Timothy 6.11-16
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.
Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time- he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
This is the word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
MUSIC – Give us the wings of faith – Bullock
CHRIS A reluctant saint?
In 2010 the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was won by the French film ‘Of Gods and Men’. It is the moving true story of the French Cistercians who refused to leave their monastery in a time of conflict. This is during the struggle in Algeria in 1996 between the government and Islamist opposition. Eventually they are taken hostage and killed, whether by execution or in a fire fight no-one knows. The film makes clear that the brothers each had their inner demons to contend with in this last year of their lives, and that they remained as much out of loyalty to each other and to the Muslim villagers they served, than any heroic impulse or fanatical desire for martyrdom.
There are clear similarities with the story of St Alfege over a thousand years ago. He lived in troubled times as they did, and as we do today, when the choice of loyalties was not clear cut. He served an English king who had instigated atrocities himself. There were some Danes and English on both sides of the conflict, and Christians as well as pagans within the invading force. He did not die for his outspoken defence of the Christian faith and he was never asked by his captors to deny it. He died as a result of their angry disappointment at his lack of value as a prize. It seems to have been an unpremeditated act of mob violence.
Like the Cistercians monks of Tibherine, Alfege must have searched his conscience many times to ask himself whether the stand he was making was worth it. Hadn’t he suffered enough? Was it really worth pushing himself to the absolute limit? What sort of example was he making? Osbern, his biographer preserves the story that he made an attempt at escape shortly before his murder. Alfege is led by the devil in the guise of an angel into the marshes and then abandoned. Osbern dramatizes an inner dialogue going on in the saint’s mind in which reason and scripture are used on both sides, much like the account of Jesus’s own temptations in Matthew and Luke. Only when he has been put in touch again with his own weakness and humility does a good angel lead Alfege back to prison, his inner turmoil in some measure healed and resolved.
Back in prison he is given a vision of his old friend St Dunstan, a fellow monk and Archbishop of Canterbury. In the vision, Dunstan, now glorified and surrounded by other saints in heaven, cheers Alfege on to the finishing line with these words:
‘Unconquered soldier of our Eternal King, we have come to honour you with our respect. We have been sent by him who has laid up victory fro you from hatred, and has prepared an everlasting crown for you in heaven. Ah, whose company shall you enjoy after the death of the flesh? The citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem and the servants of God- if you endure patiently in your flesh your sufferings, which fall far short of Christ’s. For we have seen the manifold troubles of the city: the burning of the temple, the slaughter of her sons, the dishonour done to you in your shackles, the tortures heaped upon you- twice as many as the kindnesses you have done. Accept whatever comes gladly, fortified by God’s power. Know that the suffering of this time is no match for the glory to come, which will be revealed in you. For there will be this one day only of punishment, but an eternal everlasting day for the prize’
Meanwhile the knots of Alfege’s chains were loosened and the gaping of gashes drawn together. Every wound to his body was made whole and Alfege went his way dancing with the dancers and singing with the singers.
MUSIC – O for a closer walk – Stanford
Saints are made not born. They become saints by their obedience to the specific circumstances in which they find themselves rather than any false heroism or bravado. Read the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison, and you discover the same agony of conscience and spiritual struggle. Perhaps the reason both men faced their execution with such bravery and calmness of spirit is that it put a final end to this inner conflict.
In the film I started with about the monks in Algeria, there is a justly famous scene where the monk who is a doctor brings out a couple of bottles of wine. As this little community eat and drink, listening to Swan Lake, their faces are transfigured as they look at each other. Whatever these men were before, they are changed now by their common discipline, plus all that they have been through together and the deeper knowledge this has brought of each others’ individual story and inner struggle. Obedience to their calling and common life has made them different people. They cannot go back even if they wanted to. Satisfied with that knowledge they have the strength to go on. The last scene sees them disappearing with their captors into a white mist- or should I have said ‘a white bliss- of snow.
When I reflect on Alfege’s story the one thing that stands out above all others is obedience to the rule of life that he accepted as a young man- perseverance, stamina, discipline. But discipline not as an outwardly imposed regime but as a balance of mind and heart distilled out of obedience to the demands of prayer and compassion. It is this which makes him surrender himself as a hostage for the sake of his brethren holed up in the cathedral at Canterbury. It is this which makes him refuse to let the tenants and inhabitants of his own lands be tipped into further starvation and misery by a ransom extorted to save his life. His charity, we are told, extended even to his enemies. The fruit of his obedience to a fate he did his best not to seek, nor to escape, was a reputation for reconciliation and justice. It still has the power to provoke us to greater understanding and compassion today. Costly perseverance in the service of a cause or reality beyond narrow self-interest is something which also gives this race its special value and appeal.
MUSIC – Lead kindly light
Many people at some point in their lives come to a moment of exhaustion and despair. It also comes to many marathon runners as they push themselves towards the end of the race. …….INTO CHRISTINE
I’ve run the London Marathon three times so being here this morning in Greenwich is evoking so many memories of the event.
What is it about the marathon that captures the imagination? It has an undeniable epic and heroic quality rooted in the story of that first marathon run by the Greek messenger Pheidippides who ran without stopping from the Battle of Marathon to Athens, bursting in to the assembly to announce ‘we have won’ and who then collapsed and died. Whilst thankfully this rarely happens in marathon races now there is a proper sense that to run a marathon is a serious undertaking that will require commitment, preparation and courage.
What is it that makes a person decide to take up the challenge? Every story is unique but among the factors are the desire to test oneself – to take the risk of committing to something which will be difficult, will require persistence and endurance and may end in failure. Many people run their marathon as a tribute to something or someone important in their life – perhaps someone they love has died and only such a demanding endeavour as a marathon does the memory of that person justice. Others will run for a cause or a charity which has great significance for them – something worth suffering for. A columnist in a national newspaper suggested perhaps slightly unkindly but with a grain of truth that many older runners do it to deny the reality of ageing and even death itself.
Running a marathon is a great leveller of people. Whether you are an elite athlete, a famous celebrity or plain Joe or Mary Bloggs you will find that you have to dig deep and that the things that normally help, like money, reputation or fame, don’t make the slightest scrap of difference when your legs buckle beneath you at twenty miles.
The one thing that does make a difference is what you did or did not do in the three months before the race. If you want to avoid ‘doing a Pheidippides’ then you will need to have trained and prepared and at the heart of the preparation is ‘the long run’. Week by week the long training run gets longer and your mind and body rather marvellously adapt to the demands you make upon them.
Many of the great spiritual writers have seen this idea of running the race as a powerful metaphor for our spiritual and life journey. St Paul uses the image nine times and I do wonder whether he was a runner himself. In his first letter to the Corinthians he urges us to run in such a way that we obtain the prize. He challenges us not to run aimlessly but with focus and discipline. If athletes train and run with such commitment and sacrifice for a laurel wreath that dies and fades – how much more should we take seriously the race we run for Christ and our salvation. This race too is a great leveller - and when we come to the end - we in our turn won’t be helped by money, reputation or fame. As the way Alfege faced his death shows us – what will make a difference is the kind of life we have lived and the courage, commitment and determination with which we have lived it.
MUSIC – Be thou my vision
Link into prayers led by our curate, Yousouf Gooljary and Archdeacon Christine
Let us pray for the Church and for the world, and let us thank God for his goodness.’
Lord God we pray for your Church carrying the gospel of forgiveness and freedom in the world. As we remember the life of St Alfege, give us the courage to be a witness in ways that are generous and respectful, Pour out your abundant mercy on your Church and fill us with hope that the world may believe. Lord in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.
We pray for a world which struggles to live justly and in peace. We pray for those who search daily for food, and walk long distances for water. We remember with sadness all whose lives are cut short by disease. Help us to rebuild communities and bring help to where it is needed.. Lord in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.
We pray today for countries where there is war, or conflict. Give grace to those who work for peace. We pray for other places where gang violence or gang culture destroys young lives. May hearts which have been darkened by violence discover a different light and a better way. Lord in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.
Reconciling God, mindful of our own need for forgiveness and grace, we pray for those who have suffered from racism or prejudice in our society, heal the wounds of division, empower those who suffer to know your love and care. Break the bonds of fear and isolation that we may stand on common ground through the strength and liberation of your redeeming love. Lord in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.
We pray for the sick and infirm, and for those troubled in mind, body or spirit. As you have given hope to humanity, pour out your compassion heavenly Father on all those in urgent need in particular for those who are in loneliness or despair. Let them know the comfort of your love and give them hope of better things. Lord in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.
We thank you for those people who have given us the examples by which to live. We pray for those running in the Marathon today.
Lord in your mercy…..Hear our prayer
We thank you for those who have lived and died in quiet holiness and whose prayers have helped sustain the world. In particular we remember our patron saint Alfege. Help us to live in the light by which they lived, and to worship its source in and through Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Merciful Father accept these prayers for the sake of thy Son our saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
Let us pray with confidence as our saviour has taught us:
Our Father ….
Before the blessing, the Choir ends with a prayer to Christ in the language which no doubt our patron saint, St Alfege, would have spoken – ‘O nata lux de lumine’ – O light born of light, Jesus redeemer of the world. With loving kindness deign to receive suppliant praise and prayer.
MUSIC – O Nata Lux
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings of closely and let us run the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
And the blessing of God Almighty the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you and remain with you always. Amen
Radio 4 Closing Announcement:
[The ‘Final’ from Symphony number six by Louis Vierne*] Sunday Worship came from St Alfege Church in Greenwich. It was led by the Reverend Chris Moody and the Archdeacon of Greenwich, the Venerable Christine Hardman.
The choir was directed by Steven Daggs and the organist was Richard Brasier. Next week, Sunday comes Ripon College, Cuddeston**.