Below is the sermon I preached for our patronal festival last Sunday. A Mass during which we thanked God for his many blessings on our parish in recent months and years.
Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem not Jerusalem? Why David not Goliath? Why did Jesus choose 12 such feeble men on which to found the church? Why was St. John Vianney sent to the backwater of Ars to become patron saint of all priests?
Because, I think, God delights in little things and in little places. And he loves stacking the odds against himself, in human terms, to then show us the indisputable power of the Spirit when miracles then flow. Goliath should have smashed David but, because God was with him, David won. 12 scared men huddled in an upper room should not have changed the world, but because God was with them, they did! Time and again in the miracles witnessed in little people and in little places then, we see the proof of God’s blessing.
And this has been the story of Saint Anselm’s, I believe, since the arrival of the Ordinariate four years ago. In human terms a project which should have failed but which hasn’t, because God has been with us and has blessed us. Just consider the extraordinary journey we have been on.
For years this little place pottered along happily. A Mass centre run from nearby Paddock Wood. A popular deacon co-ordinated its life and nobody could have possibly imagined that it would soon find itself at the epicentre of a global papal initiative. It was one of those places where change happens slowly if at all. It didn’t need to. Mass was offered, the sacraments celebrated.
But then something happened that would change St. Anselm’s forever. Pope Benedict declared the Catholic church was inviting Anglicans to be reconciled, in groups, and with a specific mission- to uphold an Anglican Patrimony. What is this Anglican Patrimony? That needs explaining to the many who have not yet grasped the purpose and point of the Ordinariate. It is best understood as being an authentic English spirituality that speaks to this nation in it’s dialect.
You see England once flourished as a Catholic nation, developing its own rich culture and customs in the process. The English Catholic Way was born and would become the vision behind the construction of our fine Cathedrals, country parishes, Oxbridge and all that. But at the reformation this “English way” was lost. Catholics retained their faith, at tremendous cost, but could not hope to sustain the English Way hidden away in priest holes and under threat of death and poverty. So the English way was partially absorbed instead into the emerging Church of England and can still be seen today, where Anglicanism retains its own historic nature, in harvest festivals, the retention of elements of the Sarum rite, the great choirs, etc…
It took until the 19th Century for Catholicism to recover; largely due, thank God, to a rise in Irish immigration. So by the 20th Century Catholicism is again flourishing in England… but not -and this is important- in the old English way. Consider the nickname of Liverpool Cathedral-it’s Paddy’s wigwam. Or how certain Anglicans delight in naming the “Roman” Catholic church the Italian mission to the Irish. Its just not English is the point being made…
Of course its deeply unfair. There are, in fact, plenty of English Catholics. But for many out there it nevertheless rings true. Catholicism seems foreign; isn’t English in the way that Marmite, Beefeaters or the C of E is. Pope Benedict understood this- that’s why he forms the Ordinariate; to bring home the English via their own spirituality- the Anglican patrimony with its roots in the ancient English way. Not to replace the wonderful cosmopolitan makeup of Catholicism in England today but to compliment it. That we might speak both universally and locally in terms of our evangelisation and mission here in this land.
So quite a vision then for the Ordinariate. Where would it manifest? Surely in places of importance and prestige? No; because God, remember, delights in little things and little places. So it was here in Pembury that one of the largest groups sprung up. Recall also here that God delights in stacking the odds against himself to prove the presence of his Spirit when blessings later abound.
Well the odds were certainly against us four years ago. There was no money- it was left, quite rightly, with Paddock Wood. There were precious little resources. Father Nicholas and I puzzled at how we could possibly witness to the English way, with its great emphasis on culture, reverence and beauty, using just a simple altar on wheels, an electronic piano and 100 plastic chairs. And the pastoral considerations were even more daunting….
On the one hand we had inherited a congregation, unused to change, whose style was minimalist. They needed time to absorb what was happening. But time was not on offer because, on the other hand, we had the Ordinariate group, who had surrendered a sumptuous furnished church for unity and who delighted in tradition. They needed to see progress and purpose in their not insignificant sacrifice! Now factor in that the locals inevitably felt a little invaded, they only had 11 days notice let us remember!- and all the ingredients were in place for disunity and strife. And sadly we lost some people in those early months. But despite this we held to the vision, did our best to reason with people and prayed and trusted that God knew what he was about.
Extraordinary things began to happen. Gifts arrived from the most unexpected quarters, parish giving almost doubled. Newcomers started arriving. We were attracting young families and so the average age of worshipper plummeted. And those entering forged friendships with those who had been here for years. Suddenly we were working together; pulling down trees , sorting clutter. Through loans and gifts a hall was funded. Permanent space for worship was created.
From almost nothing then we built this rubbish church. I say rubbish because every single thing we have put in it -pews, altar, pulpit, et al- is somebody else’s rubbish. Things discarded or no longer needed which have helped us so much. And amongst the finds have been deeply significant, even miraculous, gifts. The relics of Blessed Dominic Barberi now reside in our Altar. He who came to England and received Blessed John Henry Newman, patron of the Ordinariate, into the church. And we have a set of oil stocks, as of last week, that belonged to Newman himself. These are in our possession. How can that be? Because God is having a laugh, I think, and here in little Pembury auspicious items find their way to us and the English way is taking shape.
Finally God’s presence has been clear to me due to an enormous sense of spiritual struggle in all that has been accomplished. It really has felt as if the devil is enraged by what is happening here. At every step we have encountered hostility, bitter resistance and quite illogical anger from those who do not have the best intentions of the Ordinariate at heart. Often these people had no real interest in our church so why were they so animated about our development?
Truly the winds blew, the rains came and they battered us. But, because we are built on the rock of our Catholic faith not the shifting sands of relativist opinions, the house stood firm. Yes despite the hostility and against all the odds- we have prevailed! Because God has been with us and he has been active. It is not us who are building here but him. And he has cared for us.
For, as well as attracting detractors we have also found much love and support and friendship. One friend is here today. Bishop John; who fielded the hysterical letters in the early days and who backed us to the hilt when the bombs were flying. Today he opens our hall, already blessed by Monsignor Newton. And because he is the only bishop we know who was raised locally we have decided to name the hall after him. From this moment it is to be ‘The Hine Room’. I thank him today for his help and support publicly and ask you all to continue to pray for our development. May it be to the glory of God as we work together with all Catholics in this land to call people to unity and truth.