Monday, 30 April 2012

The Centenary Celebrations of the Consecration of All Saints Church, Elland

The Sermon Preached by Canon John Gore, former Rector and Team Rector of Elland, at the Centenary Celebrations of the Consecration of All Saints Church, Elland, 29th April 2012

Readings: Genesis 28. 11-181 Peter 2.1-10, John 10.22-29

When Bishop George Eden came to All Saints to consecrate the church in April 1912, the service, in the words of Father Cedric Frank in his book ‘Fitly Framed Together‘, was ‘a quiet and unobtrusive’ occasion. This low-key approach Fr Frank attributes to the fact that it was only nine years before, in 1903, that the church had been dedicated. That dedication had been amid much celebration and rejoicing, and in the presence of the great and the good. This consecration of the church in 1912, therefore, was just the topping up of the dedication process, now that all the bills had been paid off, and the church well on the way to completion.

It might just be, of course, that the public mood was not for celebration and rejoicing in April 1912. After all, it was only a few weeks before that, that the Titanic had sunk with great loss of life, and with a blow to the country’s pride. A deep gloom had descended upon the country, the effect of which is still with us today, as we all know. Perhaps that explains, also, why, again in the words of Fr Frank, the Bishop, at the consecration, spoke to the congregation of ‘the need for fellowship‘. Well, I suppose that is what leaders, bishops, always do in times of national despondency.

But the mood seems to have been rather different a few days later. The bishop had gone home, and All Saints could now be itself, let its hair down. This was indeed a day of celebration. There was a High Mass of Thanksgiving, celebrated, of course, in the splendid, old fashioned way. The principal celebrant, quite rightly, was the Priest in Charge, Fr Paul Stacey. The deacon of the Mass was none less than Fr Walter Frere, the newly elected Father Superior of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, a formidable figure in the Church in those halcyon, Anglo-Catholic days. It must have been quite an occasion.

That was 1912. But for my purpose today I want to move on sixty years, to 1972. In 1972, it seems, the church was in urgent need of repair. Nothing new there, of course. So making a virtue out of necessity, the then Priest in Charge, Fr John Crawford, a priest much loved, but, sadly, soon to die, hit upon the idea of a series of fund-raising events around the sixtieth anniversary of the consecration of the church. The highlight of all this turned out to be a weekend in June 1972 with a Flower Festival, still fondly remembered, and a High Mass on the Sunday. This mass was presided over by Bishop Morris Maddocks who had just been consecrated Bishop of Selby. Brought up in Elland Rectory, he would have often worshipped in All Saints, and would have known it well.

And no doubt Bishop Maddocks would, therefore, have echoed words written by Fr Crawford in the booklet prepared for the Flower Festival, words that have struck me as particularly perceptive, and which I would like to home in on today. Fr Crawford wrote: ’As the pilgrim enters the church, there is an immediate confrontation, with a challenge to faith and a call to holiness‘. A challenge to faith and a call to holiness. It is true, isn’t it? That is the effect that entering All Saints still has on people, and we need to keep that effect, that confrontation, fresh and true.

It was a confrontation - a challenge and a call - that young Jacob, back in the mists of time, experienced, as we have heard in our first reading today. Sent on a journey by his father Isaac to go and find a wife in his ancestral homeland, Jacob found himself benighted. So taking a stone for a pillow he settled down for the night. Well, that night he was presented, confronted, with a challenge to faith, and a call to holiness.

For sleeping on his stone pillow he dreamed a dream, and in his dream he saw a ladder set up between earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. It was a vision of heaven opened, of heaven joined to earth.

This vision was a challenge to his faith in God. For the Lord God appeared in heaven speaking with him: ’The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring’. It was a challenge to the young Jacob, to found a nation by which all nations would be blessed. It was a challenge that he must have found, in his straightened circumstances, daunting. It was a challenge to his faith.

The immensity of what God was demanding of him, and the vision of those angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven, overwhelmed him, and he cried out, ’How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven‘. He had heard God‘s challenge, he had seen heaven opened.

So what did he do? He marked that place, set it apart as a holy place, a place where God had given him a vision of his presence, and a vision of his calling. He consecrated that place, setting up that stone pillow - anointing it, consecrating it with oil, just as places, churches, people, Kings and Queens, have been anointed, consecrated, ever since.

Consecrated - made holy, set apart for the worship of God, set apart for the service of God. Just like All Saints. Just like us.

When Canon Ernest Winter conceived, received, his vision of a church in this part of Elland, this part of the town was growing fast. Houses were going up, new streets were being created. People were setting up home here. Children were being born here. I have an old photograph of All Saints in my room in Skipton. It shows All Saints soon after it was opened, but before it was quite completed. There are houses in the background, but the Church itself stands clear of any other buildings, and rises proud like a great rock standing straight up out of the sea.

It stands as a statement of God‘s rock-like presence among his people; his sovereignty and authority. It stands as a constant reminder to us of his claims upon us; we who have thrown in our lot with God, revealed in Jesus; we who have accepted in our baptism and confirmation that we will serve God,put him first, and him alone. All Saints stands as a challenge to our faith, a challenge to keep faith-ful in a faith-less world.

But remember that in his dream Jacob was called not only to be the father a nation, but to be the father of a nation by which all the families of the world would be blessed. Should that not be what drives us at All Saints: to commend and reveal the reality of the God’s love; to share the blessings that our faith has brought us; to be a blessing to all who live around ? How good it is, then, that All Saints is now able to open itself up even more to the local community through the new Canon Winter Centre. The challenge goes on because the vision goes - a vision and a challenge to faith, that is All Saints.

And the call to holiness. Yes, the holiness. That was part of Canon Winter’s vision too. His vision was of a church building that would lift the heart to God, raise our eyes in awe and in wonder to the holy God. To be a place where heaven and earth are joined; a place where God’s grace descends in the sacraments, and where our prayers rise with the incense. To be a holy place, an awesome place; what people in the Celtic tradition call a ’thin place’. How well the vision of Canon Winter and the skill of George Fellowes-Prynne, the architect, came together to produce a church that confronts us with the call to holiness?

I have also in my room in Skipton another picture of All Saints. It shows the sanctuary of All Saints as Canon Winter planned it, and as the architect finished it after Canon Winter’s death. The high altar, the reredos and east window behind, confront us every time we come into All Saints with a vision of the holiness of God, leading us beyond ourselves, lifting our eyes to the glory of heaven. There we see our Lord seated on his throne in heaven, surrounded by angels, worshipped by the saints in glory. It is a vision of holiness that brings us to our knees in awe and adoration; the same holiness that drew from Jacob the cry, ’How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God’.

But for the young Jacob, dreaming on that stone pillow, the holy house of God is also the gateway between earth and heaven, the place where heaven and earth meet. The God who is awesome is also accessible, reaching down to us, to lift us to a life of holiness.

For like the saints whose images are all around us we, too, are called to holiness, to grow in holiness, to open up ourselves to all the means of grace that God offers us through his Church. Canon Winter’s vision was not only to create a church building that speaks of God’s holiness, but one that calls us to holiness; a robust holiness, nurtured on diligent prayer and sacramental grace, centred on love for God and for his people.

Sleeping on his stone pillow, Jacob dreamed a dream. It is a dream that continues to inspire and to challenge. Perhaps this was Canon Winter’s inspiration, too, when he undertook the daunting task of building this church, this house of God, this gate of heaven.

And I am sure he would be gratified to know that for the past hundred years the church he built has been both a challenge to our faith, and a call to holiness. May it continue to be so for us. And may it be so for the generations to come.