About two weeks ago I was walking through Kentish Town with my husband Jeremy, whom one or two of you may remember.
Kentish Town is something of a misnomer being neither Kentish nor a town. It is rather a grey suburb of London, one of many such that sprawl for sad miles in every direction from the heart of the city.
We were walking down the high street looking for a restaurant, but Kentish Town is one of those transitional places where greasy spoon diners with hand written signs in uncertain English rub up against cool cafes proffering vegan lasagne and sixteen varieties of coffee. The evening was growing dark and cold, the traffic pounded along the high street, and a wind whipped the litter up and bowled it along. We were hungry and tired and fed up.
In among the confused collection of high street shops – little old hardware stores jostled by smart stores selling funky kettles, boarded up shopfronts elbowed out by estate agents selling properties with stratospheric prices - in among this townscape, was a Victorian stone church, grey and marooned in the wash of traffic and shops.
It was open, amazingly, so we went in and we stepped into heaven.
The Greeks had taken over this church and adorned it with angels and saints, who swam up the walls in the dim light, up and over the Anglican arches into the roofspace and off to eternity. We couldn’t see very well, because the church was lit only by candles, but the painted company were still discernible as the brothers and sisters of the saints who inhabit every corner of the Greek world .
In a golden corner of the church Vespers was in progress, the cantor singing away as cantors do the world over. She was wearing a green cardigan. Every now and then she paused for a whispered discussion about what to sing next. On the floor crouched a woman in black, bowing even lower as the priest passed, as was no doubt the custom in the village she came from decades before.
The priest moved from icon to icon around the church censing them with a thurible jangling with silver bells. With him went a man in a suit carrying a single taper, lighting his way around all the icons in the church, clink clink, move on, past us, standing by the door smelling of the outside world, The priest and server took absolutely no notice of us desperately bowing a millisecond after everyone else and very busy trying to cross ourselves the Orthodox way.
When we went out into the night, back onto Kentish Town Road, we were elated – literally - lifted up into heaven not just by the beauty of the place but by the sense of certainty and continuity – the sense the church of God is older and stronger that the world of estate agents and funky kettles and dirty streets full of cars.
It gave us comfort – that is both warmth and strength. It was a bit like popping home for some TLC and a good meal, only on an eternal scale.
It is that same sense of comfort, of taking refuge in a safe and lovely place in the middle of a hostile world, that I experience whenever I come back home to St Michael’s. Here is a place where things are done properly, where the balance between formality and informality is kept, where beauty and utility walk hand in hand. This is the place where the aesthetic and the intellectual are honoured, but not allowed to browbeat the homely, where tradition is loved and respected but not allowed to throttle lively worship, where eccentricity is able to flourish, but does not drive out the ordinary.
St Michael’s now has developed that sense of continuity with its past which allows it to feel secure in the hand of God – not needing to scream out its gospel neurotically to every passer by, as many of our fashionable evangelical brethren do, afraid of question, afraid of silence, afraid of the future, afraid of the past.
The Greek church in Kentish Town proclaims the unchanging nature of God, simply by its presence. I think that may very well be what God requires of that community in that place. But what does God require of this church in this place?
Is it enough for St Michael’s to be a safe and lovely place proclaiming the glory of God in a dark world by its mere presence?
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines. He built a watch tower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to yield grapes.
What more could I do for you, o my vineyard?
That’s us, folks. This is the blessed vineyard and God is the landlord and today’s gospel of the Wicked Tenants tells us that the landlord is a very interested party.
The parable in today’s gospel is not about the Jew rejecting the prophets and the Pharisees rejecting Jesus, this parable is about us here today living up to our responsibility for what has been given. This parable is about us – you and me – not taking God’s extraordinary generosity for granted. This story demands that we don’t accept that everything in the vineyard is lovely and we shall now have a siesta.
This story tells us that the owner requires a return on investment. He’s a tough landlord, that’s why it’s often more convenient for the church to dispense with, or side-line his emissaries.
The church in New Zealand has not for the most part ignored God’s emissaries – quite the contrary. The church in New Zealand has listened to the messengers of God more clearly perhaps than the tenants of any other vineyard – in so many ways – the structure and government of the church, the admission of children to communion, the remarriage of divorced people in church, the reform of the liturgy, the ordination of women, the recognition of injustices done to the tangata whenua - the Anglican church of Aoteoroa New Zealand has set an example not only to the country, but the world.
The church in New Zealand, and in particular this parish, has faced the challenges that God presented over the century, with extraordinary courage. It wasn’t easy to bring in this harvest, I remember vividly some of the terrible struggles we had, but we got there. Phew, here you are Lord! A place where, at last, everything is done right.
But caution! for this is a particularly lovely and fruitful vineyard and the landlord is putting up the rent.
This parable teaches us that we are never allowed to rest, that God will always be sending our his messengers to keep us up to the mark, and we ignore them at the risk of our own spiritual death.
I will break down the wall and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns
So what is it that God is calling upon us to do next? What is our particular challenge –what is St Michael’s particular challenge? It will not be the same challenge facing the Greek church in Kentish Town. It is our challenge, our rent, based on what we have started with, and the improvements we’ve managed to make along the century.
Of course I do not know the answer, being a novelist not a prophet, but may I suggest an idea?
I believe that the church in New Zealand, and specifically the Anglican Catholic church in New Zealand is called upon to be a missionary.
Two hundred years ago a few hardy souls made the journey in the other direction. Now it is time to return the favour. The church in the old world needs to know what we have discovered here – how it is possible to be in the modern world, unfazed by new ideas and new mores, yet still passionate about the best things of the past; the church all over the world needs to share the pioneering experience of the New Zealand church, its enlightened approach to moral and social challenges, its daring and its attention to practical detail. The Christian world needs to know about our particular blend of new and old, of mystical and pragmatic, because of one thing you can be sure, the other lot are way ahead of us.
It’s never been easier to reach the world if you have the will to do it. No six month journeys to rugged hostile shores nowadays. You just get a presence on the Internet and you make it the haven for the storm-tossed. Publication is easy, communication is easy, all that is required is the will. This country, this church, this safe and beautiful place where so much is done so well, is best possible base from which to spread the message.
Out on the Internet are many false prophets, many narrow-minded destructive Christians, and many many lost souls. This is the new field of harvest, and it’s ready waiting to be picked.
Is God calling you to this new field of endeavour? Keep a sharp eye out for his messengers, they may not be whom you expect.