O dearest Lord, thy sacred head

Jul 19th, 2008 | By | Category: Sermons

Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2008, 20th July 2008

In the days when people used to send picture postcards from seaside resorts in England, there used to be cartoon cards of varying degrees of tastefulness. Amongst the tamer selection of cartoons, there used to be various cards of rotund men with ruddy faces and tonsured haircuts dressed in brown monks’ habits. One of the more common was a picture of a monk standing in a large cauldron with the natives of some exotic country dancing around as the monk declares, “You can’t boil me, I’m a friar”.

The writer of our hymn this morning, Father Andrew, was indeed a friar, though of the religious rather than the culinary variety. A friar is a member of a religious order whose ministry is out in the community; a monk is a member of a religious order whose ministry is within a monastery. Being “Father Andrew” rather than “Brother Andrew” meant that he had been ordained as a priest as well as having taken the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as part of becoming a religious order.

Father Andrew was a Church of England priest who began life as Henry Ernest Hardy and who took Andrew as his religious name. Born in 1869, his father was an officer in the Indian Army that had been involved the very violent suppression of the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

In 1893 he met the Honorable James Adderley, a Church of England priest who had who had devoted his life to the poor of the East End of London, and together they resolved to found a Franciscan Order within the Church of England. Known as the Society of the Divine Compassion, it was the first Franciscan order in the Anglican Church and was founded in January 1894. Father Andrew said the intention was to be a, “a community of priests, deacons, and communicant laymen, banded together in a common life of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the glory of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and the benefit of His Holy Catholic Church, to worship Him and to work for Him and all mankind, especially the poor and suffering, in imitation of the Divine Master, seeking the help of one another in thus obeying Him”.

On June 9, 1895 he was ordained in Peterborough, the first Anglican ordained a priest in a Franciscan habit since the Sixteenth Century Reformation. The order was based at Saint Philip’s Church in the East End. Father Andrew became well known as a writer and poet as well as for his pastoral ministry amongst the poor. He died in 1946, having spent more than fifty years living and working amongst the poor.

Father Andrew had a powerful impact upon the people he met. His biographer, Kathleen Burne tells of an agnostic schoolboy who attended church with his mother one Sunday morning, because he could not understand why his mother would travel so far to attend church. He told her, “Mother, that was the most terrifying service I ever was at. It made me sweat all over . . . It was the first service I ever went to at which I felt something really happened.” I wonder how many churches or preachers would ever have that impact upon people now.

The Life and Letters of Father Andrew, edited by Kathleen Burne, came out in 1948, two years after he died. It contains within it the tales of the holy foolishness that marked Father Andrew out as a person apart. Here is his comment upon one parish visit, “I went to my poor consumptive man this afternoon, and did what I often do with a sick man, lay down on the bed beside him and read him the chapters of Saint Luke which bear upon the passion of our divine Lord. After I had read a few verses he fell asleep, so I stopped reading, and a little while after I fell asleep, too.” In the days when tuberculosis was a scourge without cure, to go near someone was to invite infection. TB sufferers were put into isolation, put away from contact with other human beings, but here is Father Andrew breaking through that wall of isolation.

The writer and columnist A.N Wilson describes Father Andrew as a “priest who made sense of religion” and holds The Life and Letters of Father Andrew in high regard, “I sometimes think that if a fire broke out in my house, and I could take only one book, it would be this. When one has felt most inclined to chuck religion, for all the usual reasons, this is the book that has made a total break impossible. It is a record of “the real thing”.

Wilson’s comment is from a column he wrote in the Daily Telegraph in August of last year. This priest who had died  before A N Wilson was born, had had a profound impact.

“The other day I was seized with an impulse to visit Father Andrew’s grave, which I had never done before. The East London cemetery, necropolis for the 20th-century London poor, is a truly dazzling sight. Shrieking colour in the Garden of Remembrance, from blooms that would not have been approved by Vita Sackville-West, are the first thing you see, planted to commemorate a thousand cremated Mums and Nans. New graves groan with elaborately wrought floral DADs.

I searched for more than an hour, eventually finding, beneath a great Calvary, Father Wainwright, the saint who devoted more than half a century, from 1872 onwards, to being a curate at St Peter’s London Docks. And nearby, in the midst of thorns, a more rugged stone cross where, among the few brothers of the Divine Compassion, is Father Andrew.

There he lies, among the poor of Plaistow to whom, from the 1890s until the Blitz, he gave his life. In other lands, there would be a huge shrine here, but this, somehow, in a bright spell between showers, was better”.

A N Wilson probably captures perfectly the spirit of Father Andrew. He would have been glad to have disappeared amongst the thorns for it was never himself that he proclaimed but the one who bore the crown of thorns for each of us.

“O dearest Lord” tells in simple terms of Jesus’ suffering for us and asks that it may inspire us to serve others in our own ways in our own lives. Father Andrew’s life is a reminder that Jesus died for all the people, not just those in the church. At a time when the church has retreated from communities like those in which Father Andrew worked, it is a reminder that the church is still called to carry the story of God’s divine compassion to all people. Such ministry, as A N Wilson says , is “the real thing”.

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