History in Your Hands

Have you ever been in a place that you felt oozed history? Maybe you visited the Tower of London or Auschwicz or the site of the Twin Towers in New York. Maybe you have visited a very old cathedral or church or monastery and you get a sense of all the prayers that have been said over the centuries or the things that have happened in that particular place.

A parishioner recently handed me an order of service when I came to visit. She had come across this order of service as she was clearing out some stuff and it was in a box of her late husband’s possessions. In my line of work, I see lots of orders of service, whether they are for special services like ordinations or institutions or weddings or funerals; they all represent some special event in the life of a family or a parish.

This one, however, was particularly special and the lady thought I should have it. I took a look, marvelling at how well it had stood the test of time. I also agreed to put it in a display case in the clergy vestry.

So, what was it you might be asking? Well it was an order of service at the consecration of St. Finnian’s Church, Belfast held on Saturday 10th September 1932 at 3.30pm by the Right Reverend C.T.P. Grierson, the Lord Bishop of Down and Connor and Dromore.

Procession of Clergy – Consecration of St. Finnian’s – 10th September 1932

There was quite a procession of dignitaries listed, led in by the churchwardens and the curate-in-charge. There was the Lord Bishop of Derry and Raphoe who preached at the service, the Bishop of Down and Connor, there were chaplains, Deans of Belfast, Down, Dromore and Connor, there were Archdeacons of Down, Connor and Dromore. There were Canons from the various cathedrals, vestrymen and lay readers . One would wonder how they got any of the congregation in following a procession that must have taken quite a while!!

As I visualised this very special day in the life of our church, the thing that shines through is just how much it meant to everyone involved. A new church in Cregagh was good news and, rather than doing things quietly as is the more usual Church of Ireland way, this was something much more visual and celebratory. How did they all get here in 1932 from all across the Dioceses, and why did they make the time to get all these people together to mark the consecration of a new church? Money would not have been plentiful following the great depression, a world war had taken its toll on the male population just over a decade earlier and yet, in spite of all these challenges, the people of God wanted to tell the local population we are here to serve you. There weren’t TV cameras or phones to capture the event on video and post it up on social media.

Although those facilities weren’t there, the church invested in printing these lovely orders of service. The sheer size of the gathering must have caught the attention of the local population.

What did it represent to them, we might ask? Was it just a big pile of elderly gentlemen in clerical dress or was it a building that represented hope, safety, security and peace in a troubled world?

I sometimes ask myself similar questions about the ‘church without walls’. As our buildings have reopened and the whole world gains access through the marvels of technology, what do they make of the things we are doing? What do they make of the music and the songs we sing? What goes through their minds if they have never heard the Scriptures read and explained before? Can they tell anything of what we are about through our notices, events and organisations? Does the stuff we say and sing have any bearing on our everyday lives? Do our neighbours see Christ living within us through His Holy Spirit or do they see a community that is divided and distant from each other?

Last Sunday was World Mental Health Day and I watched a little video introduced by the Right Reverend Pat Storey, the Bishop of Meath and Kildare. In this video, she spoke about the effects of the pandemic on our mental health and the Church’s desire to offer seed funding to parishes that were trying to get projects off the ground to help people struggling in this area. I wonder what that procession back in September 1932 would have made of Ireland’s first female Bishop?!!

My sense is that, while times have changed and we have a number of female Deans and Canons and clergy 90 years on, the mission remains the same. We want to introduce others in our local community to the person and the love of Jesus Christ. We want the actions and the impact of the local church to be such that the world around us will take notice.

We want the initiatives sparked by World Mental Health Day to bring healing and wholeness to a world that is thirsty for good news. We want people to find sacred spaces, whether in church buildings or halls, in people’s homes or community centres or cafes, where people can find hope and purpose and meaning in community together. We want to create safe places to come alongside each other and pray for one another, to share our stories, our hopes and disappointments under God.

As I was given this significant order of service in the life of our parish, I felt a piece of history was being placed into my hand. As we reemerge from Covid, there is a sense that history is being placed into our hands afresh as the ‘church without walls’. We may have to look at new ways, new models, and identify priorities and needs. We may have to regain and rebuild trust after our failures in the past but, as history is placed into our hands, what are we going to do with it?

Sunday 24th October marks our services of Harvest Thanksgiving. We look forward to receiving gifts of tinned fish, custard and rice pudding for the Larder Foodbank in St. Christophers,  Mersey Street. We look forward to acknowledging God’s strength and faithfulness in bringing us through to this point and seek ways to be and bring blessing to others around us.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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