Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Epiphany 2016
Start Date 24th Jan 2016 11:15am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner

Back in the 1960s when I was a boy at Exeter Cathedral Choir School the then Lord Bishop of Exeter allowed school cricket practice to take place in his not insubstantial garden. On one summer's day, I think in 1969, he came out to watch and set down a challenge: 'sixpence for any boy who could smash one of the palace windows with a straight shot from the front lawn!' We all tried hard, but as he probably knew, we just weren't strong enough at that age to complete the dastardly act. I think he rather enjoyed the sport, because he often came out to watch and after a while even got to know our names.

I had at that time a good friend called Mackonochie and we both rather relished our cricket practice in the Palace grounds. Then one day, quite out of the blue, an unusually effervescent bishop called the two of us into his study wishing to explain the historical significance of our names. Standing in an enormous room (or so it seemed), we looked rather quizzically at each other, not having a clue as to what was going on. He proceeded to tell us all about the history of a church here in London: St Alban the Martyr in Holborn. How Fr Mackonochie and Fr Stanton had for many years devoted their lives to serving the people of that rather run-down neighbourhood. He gave us a copy of Russell's history of St Alban's and we had great fun in counting how many times our names were mentioned!

I say all this because Fr Stanton of Holborn, a curate for of fifty years (and actually a relative of mine) devoted his whole life to the poor of the parish. He refused preferment and lived all his adult life in the Clergy House. I have a book containing many of his sermons. One of his favourite texts was the Gospel reading that we heard read this morning, all about bring good news to the poor and giving freedom to the oppressed.

This powerful Gospel account from St Luke has Jesus mixing with everybody, right across the social world of his day, women as well as men, but he seems to go out of his way to reach out to those who were left aside, who for one reason or another found themselves on the margins of society, and even in many cases were excluded from the presence of God in the Temple. This is the case in all the Gospels, but it's especially clear in the Gospel we heard read this morning. It's good news for everyone, but there's no doubt it holds a bias towards the poor.

In affluent circles it can sometimes be easy to forget that the poor are God's people and are at the centre of God's concern; it can sometimes be easy to forget that Jesus was a leader of a revolutionary movement of the poor who, rather than mitigating the unfortunate, called for a movement to transform heaven and earth.

During the great nineteenth century church revival, Fr Stanton led such a counter-cultural ministry at St Alban's, Holborn. He was a greatly loved eccentric Anglo-Catholic heroic slum priest who combined the catholic faith with evangelical fervour. The Eucharist was at the heart of his spirituality. He rejoiced in the prayers of the saints. But he loved the scriptures. He loved the poor and they loved him. And, above all else, he loved Christ and everybody knew it. Three things: loving the scriptures, loving the poor, and loving Christ characterised his life and they're just as essential to our ministry in the twenty-first century as they were to his over a hundred years ago.

Let me read you a contemporary account of one of his missions: On Saturday evening, November 20, 1869, I cut across the nearest byways of the Haggerston streets, and as I saw the light from the eastern window glimmering through the fog, I also heard sounds of singing, and knew that the service had already begun. I went breathlessly in at the north door, into the dimly lighted church, and there, through the darkness and gloom which lay behind the pillars, a procession wound out into the lighted nave, those who formed it singing at the top of their voices a most enthusiastic mission hymn to a very catching tune.

First came Father Stanton in cassock, surplice and tippet, singing lustily, and behind him followed a crowd, and oh! such a crowd of working men. Shoe-makers in leather aprons, as if they had just left their benches; one man, a carpenter or joiner, with his linen apron tucked round his waist, and a basket full of tools on his shoulder; then a lame man, hopping along on crutches; then costers out of Hoxton, roughs out of the Kingsland Road; a sprinkling of respectables, and sundry women of every description. On they came, and the lofty church echoed with their voices, as they passed up the nave and crowded into the seats.

And then he stood up and addressed them in burning words: It is a cold night, a very cold night. The bitter north wind is blowing and the stars are shining outside. Hark! Don't you hear someone outside in the cold, knocking at your hearts, saying, 'Let me in! Let me in!' Will you not take him in and warm him with the fire of your love? Salvation is waiting for you, will you not open and take it in. "Go where we will, we cannot run away from Jesus. We try to shut him out, we close our eyes to him, but he haunts us like a ghost. We are walking unheedingly along a street and we turn a corner and, lo, there he is. We meet him, we run against him, and he has wounds in his hands and his side, and they are dripping with blood for our sakes." Let him in! Let him in! Will you not take him in and warm him with the fire of your love?"

He loved the scriptures, loved the poor and loved Christ. Although steeped in the sacramental life, he was above all an evangelist, fired by the Gospel: 'He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour'. Of course, that's our calling too, to do the work of an evangelist, to bring good news, to preach and to teach, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

As a young boy, this heroic example of sacred ministry had a profound effect upon me. I've since lost touch with Mackonochie, but I still hold dear the example of this rather unusual nineteenth century priest who devoted his life to caring for others. When he died, thousands lined the streets of London. These were not the rich and famous, but rather the poor and marginalised; those who had been directly touched by his long and fruitful ministry.

The Gospel commands us, too, to go and care for those less fortunate than ourselves. To go and do likewise.

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