This Sunday I had a break from preaching, and Bruce Jamieson, our local historian, took the lectern between his hands and delivered the following excellent homily:
The last time I brought my granddaughter Eve to Church she went off to the children’s library and came back with three books- the stories of David and Goliath; Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Jonah and the Whale. After I had read them to her, she looked up at me and said “Grumps! There aren’t many girls in these stories.”
Out of the mouths of babes and children.
I said ‘can you see any girls in the church?’ And she pointed to Ruth – our priest in charge- and secondly at the two ladies in the stained glass windows above the altar.
She likes Ruth – she keeps talking about the smiley lady in the church – like the one on television. I think she means the Vicar of Dibley – and I know Ruth is growing tired of the allusion – she has been compared to the Rev. Geraldine Grainger too often for her liking.
But it is the TV comedy series I like best. My favourite character is local squire David Horton, perhaps because like him – I am a somewhat pompous, grumpy, unemotional character who initially had some reservations about having a woman as my spiritual guardian.
I also like the incomprehensible Jim Trott and the straight-talking land worker, Owen. Can you not just hear them discussing this morning’s gospel reading? “Where would you rather be, Jim- in the bright light with the five wise virgins- or in the dark with five foolish virgins?” The reply would be unrepeatable here.
Incidentally, the church used in the filming of the series (“St Barnabas”) was actually the Church of St Mary The Virgin in Weston Turville, near Stoke Mandeville. The Priest-in-Charge is actually a man: Father David Wales, although his Curate and Director of Music is the Revd Susan Fellows. I wonder what she looks like?
I like the Vicar of Dibley too for it’s bite; the fact that it often makes very revealing and salient points. It may seem at first sight like a cosy, inoffensive sitcom, but Dawn French has revealed that as a result of appearing in the show, she has received a huge volume of hate mail: mostly from male clergymen. And the sitcom was ‘extremely political’ when it first aired, as the week it first appeared, in March 1994, was the exact moment when the ordination of women in the Church of England first began.
These were Christian people, using appalling language and telling Miss French where to shove it, basically. I won’t begin to tell you what her mailbag was like the week after her Christmas specials which featured gay priests and a drunken minister falling out of the pulpit and down the altar steps. Can you imagine that- falling down the altar steps! (note from Ruth – I fell down the altar steps last Christmas eve, hit my head off a pillar and had to get 8 staples to put me back together!)
What about Eve’s other two ladies in the stained glass windows above the altar. She looked at them for some time and said: ”I like her best – she has got a little boy”: and she pointed to Saint Margaret on the left of the triptych. Who is she? she asked.
That was a hard one. I mean, I have written widely on the subject of Saint Margaret – I preached a sermon on her once in St Peter’s. I wrote a play about her: starring our own Judy Barker. But how do you make all that information accessible to a four year old?
She was a Queen, I began.
A wicked queen? ventured Eve- whose knowledge of Queens is based on The Little Mermaid; Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
No, I said- she was a good queen who married Malcolm, the King of Scots He was a very rough, cruel man – and she tried to make him nicer.
Why did she marry him, then? asked Eve, disconcertingly.
I explained as simply as I could that she had been travelling in a boat back from Hungary to England when a huge storm blew up. It drove them off course and she was shipwrecked on the shores of Scotland. King Malcolm had her brought to his castle and he fell in love with her because of her gentleness and desire to help poor people and children.
Did she give that little boy his pretty green shoes? She asked, logically.
I wasn’t sure.
It could be one of her own children, I said – for she had eight: six sons and two daughters. Perhaps it’s David who went on to become one of Scotland’s best kings. She brought him up in simplicity and in accordance with six simple precepts:
If children live with hostility,
they learn to fight.
If children live with encouragement,
they learn confidence.
If children live with praise,
they learn to appreciate.
If children live with fairness,
they learn justice.
If children live with acceptance,
they learn to find love in the world.
If children live with God in their hearts they learn to live for ever.
Or maybe, I ventured, it’s one of the nine orphans she had brought to her every morning in the chapel in Edinburgh castle – the one that’s still there- the one depicted in the stained glass; a place of pilgrimage where the poor would be fed with her own hands – where she washed the feet of lepers; where she read to her illiterate husband – perhaps the very words we heard this morning: words to inspire him to rule like Solomon
‘Resplendent and unfading is Wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.’
In addition to her influence with her husband and her sons, Margaret took a direct role in helping the people of Scotland. She devoted time and money to works of charity, assisting the poor, the aged, orphans, and the sick. A mere woman – a medieval, insignificant female who took money out of the royal treasury for her charities? Who prevented a schism between the Roman Church and the Celtic Church, which had been cut off from Rome. Who introduced European culture to Scotland, and did so much more successfully than the forceful introduction in England under the Normans? Who elevated the people among whom it was her destiny to live and eliminated so much barbarism in the land? Who tried to get rid of so many abuses in the Church, calling together hundreds of native clergy and priests her husband acting as interpreter, and addressing them so well and so earnestly that all were charmed with her gracious demeanor and wise counsel and adopted all her suggestions? Who re-founded the monastery on the Island of Iona and built a church in Dunfermline, dedicating it to the Holy Trinity and personally equipping it with all the ornaments that a church requires? Who set up a workshop in her own rooms where artisans produced choir capes, sacerdotal vestments, stoles, and embroidered altar clothes? Who provided rest homes in South Queensferry and free passage by ship across the Queen’s ferry so that pilgrims could visit the shrine of St Andrew? Who liberated many captives taken by her husband in war?
A mere woman? I think not.
And who is the other female character – the lady on the left: the day to Margaret’s night; the moon to her sun; the yin to Margaret’s yang- the contemplative mystic- as opposed to the realistic woman of action?
She is Mildred, the beautiful daughter of King Merewald of Magonset and his wife, St. Ermenburga. She was sent, at an early age, to be educated at Chelles in France, a kind of saintly finishing school for young ladies- the St George’s of the Paris Region.
The headmistress was the grim Etheria- the Abbess of Chelles. She was approached by a male relative who insisted that he wanted to marry the gorgeous Mildred. The abbess tried to persuade her, but Mildred said her mother had sent her there to be taught to give herself to God, not to be married to a mere man. Etheria’s further entreaties fell on deaf ears and in a last desperate effort, the wicked headmistress forced Mildred into a huge oven (as one does) in which she had made a great fire.
Mildred was left at regulo mark 9 for three hours. Eventually, the doors were opened and everyone expected to find little other than bones, burnt to ashes.
Instead, out of the makeshift crematorium, came the young saint: unhurt and radiant with joy and beauty. Was the Abbess moved to wonder and remorse? Not on your Nelly. The chroniclers relate that Mildred was thrown on to the kitchen floor where she was kicked and scratched by the furious Etheria.
Not surprisingly, Mildred had had enough of this boarding school life, this medieval Camp Granada, and wrote to her mother asking to be brought home, forthwith. Further force was added to her plea by enclosing in the secretly sent letter, a blood-stained clump of her own hair – torn from her head by the violence of the abbess.
Mildred was duly brought home and eventually installed as an Abbess herself – in Minster in Thanet – where we see her in the picture. What is she thinking about, I wonder? Perhaps the night when, while she was praying in the chapel, the devil blew out her candle, but an angel appeared and drove him away and re-lit it for her.
Later in life, Mildred developed an extremely painful and debilitating disease but refused to let it stop her work. She fought it uncomplainingly to the end. After her death, many remembered her suffering and her patience and she became an extremely popular saint: one who obviously moved Bishop Walpole – whose wife bore the same name- and after whom this church was first named.
Saint Mildred and St Margaret also inspired another woman – the designer of the stained glass window: Miss Joan Howson, daughter of the Archdeacon of Warrington and Professor of Mediaeval Art in Oxford University. Her work also features in many other churches including St Mary Magdalene in Newark, St Catherine’s in Pettaugh (pronounced Petty), Suffolk and All Saints in High Wycombe- where her window depicts St Bridget; Saint Winifred; St Hilda; Elizabeth Fry; Margaret Beaufort and Mary Slessor. Are you catching her drift- her interest in women of inspiring courage?
Joan Howson became an expert in restoring medieval glass, especially that destroyed during the Second World War – perhaps most famously several in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.
Another esoteric woman, do I hear you say – a reclusive spinster- earnest and holy- don’t you believe it! For Joan Howson spent the First World War nursing in a hospital on the Western Front; she then set up house with her life-long partner Caroline Townshend- who helped her install this window. During World Wear Two, having been bombed out of her own house in Putney, she moved to a large house in North Wales which she ran as a home for children evacuated from Fulham and Liverpool.
She was by all accounts an interesting and charming lady- an expert on the glass work in Chartres Cathedral where she conducted many tours. She died in 1964, aged 79.
I am inspired by her. I am inspired by Margaret and Mildred – I look up at them often during my time in church – as I look at the figure of the crucifed Christ – and the inspiration of a new Jerusalem depicted in the background. I can often relate what is happening around me in church to their inspiration. Like today’s reading of the wise virgins. And I ask myself: How prepared were Margaret and Mildred to serve their master?”
And how prepared am I – how prepared are you? How much are we willing to endure to serve him? How much oil is in my lamp: now- not yesterday – not tomorrow, but today? Can I rely on others to lend me some oil – can they be prepared on my behalf: can others do the praying for me. I don’t think so – if I have got the parable correct. Preparedness is not transferable.
And if I read the words of the Letter to the Thessalonians correctly, I will meet Margaret and Mildred one day. If I am prepared enough.
I have no doubt that Margaret and Mildred are there ahead of me: that many women sit on the right hand of God. That women have been prepared for many centuries- prepared to serve; prepared to suffer; prepared to succeed. And long may they continue to do so. For who am I to criticise the desire of women today to become even more involved in the administration of the church – in the spreading of his word? Have women not always been involved- have they not always inspired? Have they not always been prepared?
My church is all inclusive. It is not handicapped by cultural, social or gender prejudice. I would like to think that that also is the church left to us by Christ himself. To whom was he talking at the Last Supper when he said “Do this in remembrance of me?”
A chosen few? Jews? Whites? His disciples? Women ? – Lesbian stained glass artists?
When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last supper- and I don’t want to go in to the debate about whether women were present there or not, when he declared his desire to remain present in his community for all time to come, asking that we give thanks through the sacramental signs of bread and wine – did he not mean to include his mother, or the early deacons like Phoebe and Prisca and Aquila and Evodia and Ludmila and Saint Margaret – and Saint Mildred – and Clare of Assissi and Joan of Arc and Teresa of Avila and Elizabeth Fry and Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Slessor and Gladys Aylward and Joan Howson and Ludmila Javorova; and Dawn French and Ruth.
All baptised in Christ – all have put on Christ: all have become Christ: all are open to all sacraments.
The Christian church in which I believe, is one body – made up of separate individuals each bringing his or her own unique talents to provide for the well-being of the whole community.
1 Corinthians 12, verse 25:
May there be no discord in that body, but pray that that all members may have the same care for one another. Amen.