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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

25th May 2006

Fr David Shepherd

Ascension Day 2006

Today is a birthday celebration. 100 years ago on Ascension Day 1906 the English Hymnal was published. Tonight weíre using it in the revised form of the New English Hymnal, reflecting the ongoing influence of that original book.

You donít have to go far from here to find our more, only as far as St. Maryís Primrose Hill in North London. A hundred years ago its incumbent was Percy Dearmer. He was a significant figure in the renewal of Anglican worship. He produced the Parsonís Handbook, full of practical advice as to the ordering of worship according to the Book of Common Prayer. He outlined the ceremonial that could be used, avoiding the excesses of Rome and the bareness of Protestantism. He drew on Medieval English tradition but adapted it for his time. Influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement he was concerned with beauty, colour and form.

He was the prime mover behind the production of the English Hymnal and he chose the young musician Ralph Vaughan Williamís as its editor. The aim was to avoid Victorian sentimentality by recovering more ancient traditions and customs. Shaw, a fellow young organist, assisted in the revival of plainchant and many Latin hymns translated by John Mason Neale were included.

Steeped in Anglicanism and its musical tradition, Vaughan Williamís was agnostic in matters of personal faith. And yet the mature composer was open to the transcendent and the mysterious later seen through the prism of the horrors of the First World War. How can we characterise this approach to worship? It reflected the very highest standards. It was catholic, drawing on the traditions of the Church. It was English with a certain reticence and reserve. It was tolerant of a certain scepticism, not rigidly dogmatic, conversational as Bishop Christopher recently described it. Nor was it antiquarian or inward looking. Dearmer was a Christian socialist in the tradition of F.D. Maurice (Rather than Karl Marx). He was concerned witth he poor and especially the young, something that was reflected in his ministry in Primrose Hill. His concern with worship was intimately connected with his sense of mission and his pastoral work.

What you may think has this to do with Ascension Day? Ascension Day celebrates Jesus being taken up into heaven as Christ and Lord. Our celebrations are full of wonderful images and pictures seeking to express the inexpressible. In this Eucharist we are taken up, given a glimpse, a foretaste of the things of heaven. Worship in the tradition of Percy Dearmer and the English hymnal has the capability to do this, by Godís grace.

But the Ascension is not just about heaven, a basking in reflected glory. It also has an imperative for action. Ascension Day celebrates that great sending out of the disciples in mission, witness and service, culminating in the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, worship and action, both inspiring and informing the other.

Most of us here tonight probably value the approach to worship and the Christian life given expression in the Parsonís Handbook and the English Hymnal and we are no doubt saddened and puzzled by its apparent decline. It no longer seems to be fashionable.

I think the challenge for us is to think deeply about how we can re-present this rich tradition of faith, of catholic Anglicanism at its best. A useful thought here contrasts tradition with traditionalism. Traditionalism has been defined as the dead faith of the living in contrast to the tradition that is the still living faith of the dead. Before we can commend and hand on this faith to others we have to be steeped in it ourselves. There are great depths, rich seems to be mined and then offered to a generation that is far removed from Christianity and yet open to spirituality, beauty, colour with a desire to serve others and to improve their lot.

Tonight we thank God for the Ascension of our Lord. We pray that in this Eucharist we may be granted a glimpse of heaven and receive the grace to be effective disciples of Jesus Christ. We give thanks for music and for the ongoing influence of the English Hymnal. In giving thanks for Dearmer and Vaughan Williams we pray that may discern how best to receive, adapt and hand on that living tradition in our own age, so that living in us it may live in others.


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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at Last updated 26/05/06 09:30 Author: David Shepherd