Sermon for All Saints Patronal Festival at Coddington
The idea of having a patron saint goes back to the 4th century. It was not so much to give the church a name as to have a benefactor in heaven who could look after your interests. Being a saint and in heaven, she or he would be well placed to intercede with God on your behalf. Many of the early churches would have had a relic of their saint implanted in the altar, and it was this that gave the name to the church. In our own country these relics were removed at the time of the Reformation: the reformers thought that relics smacked of idolatry. But of course the names were retained as they were by then well established.
If your patron saint is an apostle, like at Colwall, you know quite a bit about him from the NT. And in addition there’s always those legends associated with him – most probably historically inaccurate, but interesting nonetheless. You feel you can relate to him. If your patron is one of the many Celtic saints, like St Sampson at the last church where I was vicar, there can be lots of information about him. Sampson was from the 6th century, but we knew who his parents were, where he was educated, his travels, the churches he founded, his various posts and achievements and where he lies buried. We felt we knew him.
Some churches have a group of patrons – St Philip and St James is a fairly common pairing. But here at Coddington we haven’t got just one or two, but thousands upon thousands. How can we possibly relate to them? It’s more like having a festival than a person as patron. All Saints of course is a very important festival: in some countries, like France, it’s still a national holiday. It started in the 4th century with the intention of making sure that in commemorating and giving thanks to God for the saints none should be excluded.
Some years ago we had a French calendar in our kitchen which noted saints’ days, and there was at least one saint for every single day of the year except Christmas Day. So I felt we could treat every day as a feast day - worthy perhaps of a bottle. But sadly Jill didn’t agree.
There are many, many officially designated saints with a capital S and their own feast day. But then there’s also the countless other saints whose names are known to God alone. Today we give thanks for them all. It is their faithfulness and witness which have been the continuity and the mainstay of the church though all its centuries, and through all its crises.
In the NT the word saints means holy people, but not just those who are especially holy, those who deserve a capital S, but really simply believers. And because of this it’s come to be thought by many and maybe even by most of us that All Saints includes all the Christians there have ever been. But if that’s the case, what’s the point of having All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed as it’s officially called? Aren’t all souls already included in all saints?
This muddle arises because when All Saints’ Day was instituted people were thinking of all those saints who’d already gone to be with God in heaven, those who’d been counted worthy. Whereas the overwhelming majority of believers who’d died were not considered to have merited such a reward and therefore could not be counted among the saints. They needed to be purged of their sins, to be cleansed and made worthy. And this correction took place in purgatory, with the length of time spent there depending upon how much purging you needed before you could be transferred to heaven. Of course this was a hell of a lot better than being in hell from which there was no escape.
Originally then the purpose for All Souls’ Day, which was instituted in the 10th century, was to pray for those who’d died but were still undergoing a spiritual detox, those who’d not yet got to heaven. And this remains the official Catholic doctrine, which some Anglicans would also go along with. Typically and thankfully though, the Church of England allows us to be muddled.
I guess that most of us have come to see it this way. All Saints’ Day is the day for giving thanks and praising God for all the believers through all the Christian centuries, and All Souls’ Day is when we remember and give thanks for those we ourselves have known and loved and who now, we believe, are risen with Christ, alive with Jesus in the loving presence of God. And that of course is just what we shall be doing this evening in St James’ Church.
Well, as some of you will know, this church hasn’t always been dedicated to All Saints. The building basically goes back to the 13th century, but there was an earlier building in the 12th century, and that was dedicated to St Peter, who remained patron until the Reformation.
On the table by the door, which incidentally was originally the altar before it was replaced by the present altar, there’s a really interesting booklet about Coddington and its church (price a mere £1.50). And that tells us that on 4th August 1231 three altars here were dedicated by Hugh Foliat, Bishop of Hereford - the high altar to St Peter; one down here to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one over there to St Milburga.
The booklet goes on to say that presumably it was because of this that the church became known as All Saints. I’m not so sure about that. Before the Reformation many churches had that arrangement of subsidiary altars either side of the chancel arch, and larger churches often had several altars each with its own dedication. They didn’t all become All Saints, and of course three saints hardly adds up to all saints. Anyway, somehow St Peter’s became All Saints’.
Personally, I wish it had become St Milburga’s – much more distinctive and interesting and she was pretty local too. Milburga was the daughter of Merewalh, King of Mercia, and it was for her that he founded Wenlock Abbey in about 680. So Milburga became its Abbess until she died on 23rd February, now her feast day, in around 715. There were several legendary and rather improbable miracles associated with her both before and after her death, and on account of that she was consecrated a saint. In 1101 her bones, which had been lost, were rediscovered and enshrined in the new Wenlock Priory, which became St Milburga’s Priory - its lovely ruins at Much Wenlock well worth a visit.
And what a lovely church we have here – worthy of its Grade 2* classification. So often I’ve heard people say how much they really do like it. But more important than the building or its name are all the saints, with a small s, the ordinary – though there may have been a few extraordinary ones, the ordinary people of Coddington who’ve come here throughout the last eight hundred years. Come here faithfully Sunday by Sunday to worship God; come here to be married; come here to have their children christened, and eventually come here to be buried. The women and men who’ve cared for this church, and added to it and when necessary repaired it, and paid for it; all its benefactors. Those for whom it’s been a house of prayer – quiet meditation or fervent petition or joyful thanksgiving. Think of all that this parish church has meant to these successive generations of Coddington people. And let us give great thanks to God for that and for them and for what they have bequeathed to us.
Once I was called a saint. Shortly after I became Vicar of St John’s Church in Swindon, as I walked past a group of boys, I heard one of them say, with a certain amount of awe in his voice, “That’s St John.” It wasn’t deserved. But perhaps it should have been.
How can we be saints today? By purging ourselves of anything that needs purging and, positively, by taking to heart and acting upon the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: Blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed indeed are the saints. Surely we want to be among their number when they come marching in.