St Francis, Terriers - Dedication Festival (08.10.2017)

Tony Dickinson

Last Sunday Nigel Spoor reminded us of the story about St Francis, praying alone in the half-derelict church of San Damiano at the foot of the hill on which Assisi perches and hearing the voice of Jesus from the crucifix above the high altar. “Francis, go and rebuild my church, which as you see is falling into ruin.” It’s a good story with which to begin our 87th birthday party for this building, especially after all the work we have put into the building during the past five years. There is no longer any danger of the tower collapsing. The roof has been fixed. The drainage has been hugely improved. The building is warm (most of the time) and it is dry. There have been downsides – especially to the musical life of the church, as we try to work out what can be done to restore Hugh Brocklehurst’s pride and joy to life. But on the whole the story of the last five years has been good and positive, and we thank God for that.

However it is far from being the whole story: any more than the words of Jesus from the cross were fulfilled by Francis’s begging, borrowing and, in one notorious case, stealing the resources needed to repair San Damiano – and half a dozen other churches in and around Assisi – are the whole story. Twenty years or so ago, when I had not long arrived in Terriers as priest-in-charge of the parish, Bishop Richard summoned the clergy and a significant proportion of the lay people of this diocese to join him for a conference at Butlin’s in Bognor. He also invited our partner diocese (we only had the one in those days) to send representatives. And it did. Which is how I found myself sharing a holiday flat with Canon Livingstone Ngewu of St Cyprian’s Cathedral, Kimberley, who later became Dean of Pretoria and who died about five years ago.

Now, Canon Ngewu was very particular about how his first name was pronounced. He was not too keen on the typical British stress on the first syllable, as in “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” He much preferred to emphasise the final syllable. Livingstone. That was how he saw himself. A living stone, built into the Church of God by the workmanship of the carpenter Jesus of Nazareth. He drew immense strength and encouragement from that.

Our dedication festival invites us to do the same, to see ourselves as “living stones” being shaped and built up into a dwelling-place for God. We are invited to go on the same journey of discovery as St Francis, 800 years ago. As he worked on the various building projects, he discovered that God’s concern wasn’t, after all, with bricks and mortar, but that he was being called to build up the people of God. He was being called to bring other human beings into relationship, with one another, with God, and with the whole of God’s creation.

There’s another story about St Francis which illustrates this. St Bonaventure, who wrote the official, authorised life of the saint, tells how, as the number of friars began to increase, Francis drew up a simple rule of life for them, stitched together from passages and individual verses taken from the Gospels, and he and they went off to Rome to ask the Pope for his approval.

Their first encounter was not a happy one. Pope Innocent III was deep in meditation when Francis and his companions interrupted him and he sent them away with the proverbial flea in their ear. However, a dream that night made him see this scruffy little man with his rag-tag followers in a rather different perspective. Innocent dreamed that his own church, Rome’s cathedral, the basilica of St John Lateran, was tottering and on the point of collapse, when a little poor man, insignificant and despised, came and leaned against the building, propping it up and slowly returning it to the upright. As he looked more closely at the scene that was unfolding, the Pope recognised that the man who had saved his church was none other than the scruffy little man who had been ejected from the Lateran Palace the previous day. He sent out search parties to find Francis and his companions, and to bring them before him. This time he listened carefully to what they had to say and granted approval for the rule of life, as well as giving Francis and his companions permission to preach publicly across Italy and beyond.

What those stories tell us is that what sustains the institutional Church and what maintains its buildings is not an elaborate bureaucracy, nor a style of management, nor a particular focus on liturgy or devotion.

What sustains the Church is groups of people committed, as Francis and his companions were committed, to living a Gospel life. The holy city in John’s vision is founded on twelve stones bearing the names of the apostles of the Lamb. Francis’s first rule was almost entirely taken from the apostolic writings. The first friars avoided anything that kept them away from people. They identified with the poorest people – and especially lepers. They reconnected a Church which had forgotten its origins with the struggles of the poor and with their need for wholeness and acceptance. Like Jesus in the temple, they rejected everything that created barriers, so that people might hear the good news about Jesus and that God’s house might become a house of prayer open to all. And like the writer to the Hebrews they lived as people who were reconnected with God, God who is no longer seen as demanding, distant and down-right dangerous, but as the God who, in Jesus, engages with what it means to be fully human.

In less than twelve months I shall have gone from here. That will give you the freedom to be the people God is calling you to be without the Vicar getting in the way and to establish, initially under the leadership of Mary and Liz, where God is calling you and what kind of community he wants you to be. It’s important that you do that before my successor arrives, so that he or she isn’t faced with the kind of division that I found when I arrived here twenty-three years ago. In the coming months let us reconnect with God and with the simplicity of Francis who came to realise that God is less concerned with bricks and mortar than with building his people as living stones into a holy temple – a temple which is not controlled by those who seek to profit from people’s piety, but is rather the home of a community of healing and hope, a place where children are welcomed and their insights valued, and a church in which all are included and can offer their gifts to rebuild the Church to the glory and praise of God. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,…