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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

21st May 2006

Fr David Shepherd

Beating the Bounds

One of the things I find confusing about this part of the country, SW Herts, is that the many motorways make it very difficult to get a sense of the history and the geography of the landscape. You have to search a bit harder if you want to understand how things are in a way that you don’t have to in, say, Dorking where are I come from. Modern life destroys ancient boundaries, creates new one and does not respect boundaries between people very much.

Today (weather permitting!) we will be beating the bounds following on from this Eucharist. Thus we are given an opportunity to reflect on boundaries and their spiritual significance for us as Christians.

There is something of a biblical ambivalence about boundaries. In the OT there is a tension between the desire to be settled represented by king and temple and the Exodus/Exile experience, which has to do with movement & journey, represented by a tent and the Ark of the Covenant. Jewish religion was keen on clear boundaries of morality and ritual, clean and unclean. One regulation specifically cursed those who removed their neighbours boundary markers. And yet the boundaries of those who didn’t conform or belong were often violated in violence and slaughter.

In the NT Jesus cuts across the divide between different religions & peoples, between rich and poor, men and women and ultimately between humanity and God. And yet he has a strong sense of the need for balance and the need for boundaries in everyday life. He has his friends, he ministers to crowds and he withdraws to be alone with God when it all gets too much. In the early Church debates about Jew and Gentile, about doctrine and ethics, continued this tension about where boundaries should lie if at all.

The setting of boundaries is a significant feature of human and other animal behaviour. Boundaries are necessary for the maintenance of civilised society, based on law and property. And yet they also reflect human sinfulness. Scratch the surface and there is often something evil and ugly to be found. Sectarian and ethnic divide, greed, possessiveness all can be given physical expression, from “nimbyism” to the Berlin Wall.

What of boundaries and the Church? Beating the bounds dates from the days when parishes were distinct and largely self-sufficient communities centred on a church. There was need to define and maintain the bounds, the marker posts separating one community from another. On Rogation Sunday parishes processed round the bounds asking God’s protection and blessing on the newly seeded crops and young animals necessary for survival.

The Church of England is rooted in that mediaeval past in the sense that it is still territorial. Every blade of English grass or lump of concrete belongs in a parish. The Church of England has a concern for all parishioners, of all faiths and none. That is strength, but also a weakness. The system is breaking down as most people don’t think parish in urban areas and most people aren’t Christian.

For us beating the bounds invites us to look outwards. Our boundaries are not our brick walls but much further away. It is a foil to the danger of a defensive inward looking. We should not exaggerate our importance. We are a somewhat monochrome minority in a relatively diverse area. Nor should we underestimate our significance. We still have links with a significant number of different people even if in sociological terms we are more akin to an associational church (one to which people choose to belong) than a true parish church. Paradoxically those who often want to treat us as their ‘rites of passage’ parish church often live outside our boundaries. (Funerals from Carpenders Park, because that is where he was married, or baptism requests from Watford Fields, because we are visible.)

I’d like to end by mentioning two earlier Christian ideas of boundary. One is pre-parochial. It survives in the use of the word ‘Minster’. Large bodies of clergy and often monks with the monastic sense of the enclosure staffed minster-Churches. And yet such Churches had little sense of defined geographical boundary. They had a very strong centre expressed in the on going worship of God. They also had a great sense of mission sending out evangelists to preach in isolated communities and market places.

An even earlier one found expression in the voyages the early British saints took to edge places, on the coast or on islands. Think of Cuthbert and Lindisfarne. God was to be found on the boundaries, on the edge. My favourite boundaries are coastal places. The boundary is there, there is land and there is sea, but no rigid definition. Also I always want go into the sea. Like God it has a certain draw.

We can hold these two pictures before us in creative tension. We are called to be a Christ centred, worshipping community sending out in mission to the edge places and to edge people. At a time when many Christians want rigid definition and control, in bed and at the cinema to name but two places, I find those ancient images more helpful. Whether walking or not we can hold them in our prayers and thoughts.


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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at Last updated 22/05/06 09:30 Author: David Shepherd