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Today we have gathered here to celebrate the anniversary of this Priory to the glory of Almighty God in 1955. Since then many women have dedicated their lives as Sisters in the Society of S. Margaret and spent their lives here assisting in the work of the Shrine. Although somewhat overshadowed by the presence of the Shrine, this priory has come to be an important part of the work of it. It is also important in the lives of many people who come here to pray, for it presents us with a place of solitude, an oasis in a busy world where the pace of life seems to get even faster every day. This is surely a place in Eliot’s words, ‘where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind’.
Buildings are important, whether a glorious medieval gothic cathedral or a humble village church whose architect is unknown, and during the last 50 years or so we have been made aware of this fact by the growing voices of conservation groups. As some of you present will know, one only has to whisper a suggestion that a particular church might close, and much emotion is aroused. Buildings, no less our places of worship, are part of the community, we identify with them and they give us a sense of belonging. This priory likewise, plays an important role in this village.
It was in this spirit that the Jews looked towards the Temple in Jerusalem. In the first book of the Kings we read of how, urged on by King Solomon, the nobles followed his example in making suitable contributions towards the building of the House of God, and then there is a wonderful prayer of dedication offered by the King. The Temple was to become for the Jews a sacred and much loved place, a place where God was, in a mysterious way, uniquely present to them. It was home, both to the Jews and to their God, and because of this, Jerusalem where the Temple was situated, took on a symbolic significance. It was the focus of the Jewish faith, rather as a cathedral is the focal point of a diocese. It was the place where the traffic between Heaven and earth was so intense and so evident, that to go up to Jerusalem was to go to meet God. So, to speak of Jerusalem was to refer implicitly, not just to an earthly place, but to the divine dwelling place, to heaven itself. Our places of worship serve the same function, for it is here that Heaven and earth meet, particularly in the sacraments. It is the place where Our Lord is present with us in so many ways and especially in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and in this mass.
How was it then that Jesus, born of the Jewish race and who kept the Jewish religious observances, and worshiped in the synagogue like all good Jews, could commit such an outrage such as we heard in today’s gospel passage. Here is this religious leader, exerting an authority by overthrowing the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and labeling it ‘a den of thieves’. Such action should disturb us, not simply of what Jesus did then, for we do not pay allegiance to the Temple in Jerusalem. We should be disturbed because of how he might judge us a church. When Solomon dedicated the completed Temple, it was more than dedicating stones and mortar. For it was there that the people dedicated themselves to the one God. As God had shown constant love and loyalty to his chosen people, so they in turn were expected to respond in loyal and willing obedience. And no less is expected of us. S. Paul, writing to the church at Ephasus, aware of the importance of the Temple in the lives of the Jews, and conscious of the pagan temples known to his hearers, uses the analogy of stones to indicate that the non-Jewish people have as much right to belong to the one Christian church as the Jews themselves. All of us, whatever our race or social background, are members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. S. Peter elsewhere, refers to his readers as ‘living stones’ and calls them to be built, in metaphoric language, into a spiritual temple, a symbol of the oneness of the church. We, like them, are called to be a spiritual temple, a place where the Lord lives. S. Augustine of Hippo, writing some four centuries later, says that ‘this congregation is the dedication of a house of prayer… we ourselves are the house of God’. Continuing the analogy, he goes on to say about stones ‘they do not make a house of God unless they are cemented together by love’. A pile of stones is of very little use unless there is something to bind them together, and we as living stones need to be bound together in mutual love in order to be built up into the spiritual temple where the Lord may dwell. There is no room for envy, malice, hatred, pride and all those other sins which S. Paul lists, for they are like the weeds which take root in the crevices of a building, and which, if not removed, will cause the building to disintegrate.
So how do we see ourselves as a church? As a club for the religiously minded? Or a place of security from the ravages of the world outside? Neither of these, l venture to suggest, is a healthy definition, because they are too inward looking. A church needs to be outward looking and have a sense of mission. S. Peter, with James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, wanted to remain there, but they had to come down and get on with their work as disciples. The church which is all of us, not just the clergy, but laity and Religious also, must with its imperfections and confusions, give a clear lead which our generation is longing for, but will not accept unless it is seen to be relevant. It must be grappling with the question of how to work out ethical principles today, but remain faithful to biblical teaching, and especially that of Our Lord. This is part of the mission of the church and we must be humble enough to accept that we do not know all the answers. The church cannot escape involvement in secular life – if we are allowed to make any distinction between religious and secular – because the whole world is subject to God’s rule and activity.
So as we give thanks for the dedication of the Priory, we give thanks for all those who have given up all worldly expectations and dedicated themselves to God here, and we need to re-dedicate ourselves to God in a spirit of penitence. In a few moments, bread and wine, ordinary objects, will be taken and transformed by the Holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Christ, our spiritual food. As we offer this bread and wine, let us dedicate ourselves anew and ask the Holy Spirit to transform us into a spiritual temple where he can dwell. Then we will be equipped for whatever mission of ministry the Lord has for us.
Allan H Townsend