Sunday 6 November 2022 | All Saints Margaret Street All Saints Margaret Street | Sunday 6 November 2022

Sermon for Sunday 6 November 2022

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, preached by Fr. Nigel Palmer

My dear brothers and sisters, it is a very great privilege and pleasure to preach to you this morning as part of your patronal celebrations, and I am very grateful to your Vicar Fr Peter Anthony and your Churchwardens for the opportunity to do so. Some of you may know that Fr Peter and I go back quite a long way; he was my training incumbent at St Benet’s Kentish Town, and before then the sub dean of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, where I did my Theology degree.  He was always able then, as now, to mix with all sorts and conditions of men and women, and I was always especially grateful to him for his ability to chat to me, with his customary suavity, without any kind of nervousness induced by the fact that there was some thirty years’ age difference between us.  How I look forward to that time when I may witness  upon another shore and in a greater light, Fr Peter arriving at the Heavenly Gate, long after me, I hope, and immediately engaging his namesake in a detailed conversation about exactly what he did feel at the Transfiguration.

For it is those who dwell eternally on that shore and in that light, that “great cloud of witnesses” that we are invited in her great wisdom by Holy Church on the feast we celebrate today to contemplate, not one particular saint, to whom we may have a particular devotion, but those millions of believers who have gone before us, each bearing witness to the life of faith we now live and who are the Church Catholic. It may not be customary in this particular building to praise unduly any initiatives of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, liturgical or otherwise, but I think it may be worth giving credit where credit is due. We should thank them that they preserved the principle of the veneration of saints, by keeping the festal devotions to Our Blessed Lady, John the Baptist, the Apostles, and yes ! the long standing tradition of the veneration of All Saints at this still point of the turning world which may be sinking into darkness and winter, but which strains towards the light of Christmas. And so by a great Divine irony, those reformers are themselves now commemorated individually in the Anglican Calendar of Saints, and in the great University Church of St Mary the Virgin, a memorial stone commemorates the common martyrdom in that town of both Protestants and Catholics for their faith.

It was not always the case in the Protestant world that such toleration existed, and in England in the nineteenth century, and in the mission churches of the Empire, with its huge programme of church building, the patronal dedication of Anglican churches, of whatever persuasion, was an occasion of much soul searching and hand wringing.  Dr Pusey was not allowed to seek the dedication of the great church he built in Leeds to the saint after whom he had named a loved relation recently deceased  for fear of encouraging the veneration of the dead; even “Holy Cross” was thought far too popish and he was obliged to settle for the non –Biblical “St Saviour’s” instead.  And in at least two instances, the wish of the clergy and sponsors to name two new high profile churches after Our Lady was resisted, once in the Anglican Church in Rome, and once in Nazareth.  These two are safely dedicated to All Saints, as of course is this one,  a dedication sanctioned by the Book of Common Prayer, and on the surface at any rate suggesting no dangerous aspirations towards the veneration of actual saints and apostles sanctioned by Rome, let alone- Heaven forfend !- their relics.

One might think that this compromise indicates some inconsistency, in that the worship of All Saints might suggest the worship of the dead, stripped from liturgical belief and practice by Protestantism. There is obviously an inherent pressure within the worship of the Church for recognising some individuals in their lives for their heroic virtues, as the evolution of the Anglican Calendar suggests. There may even be a very lazy human tendency to look at the lives of individual saints as we venerate them, and consider that if their less than saintly idiosyncracies, the fierceness of St Teresa of Avila, the touchiness of St John Henry Newman, the sometime keenness of St Thomas Aquinas on the pleasures of the dinner table, nonetheless accord them officially recognised sanctity, we too may get through Heaven’s Gate ? But there are undoubtedly others who down the centuries have been the quiet ones of the faith, who kept the faith quietly, and celebrated the virtues of the Beatitudes as Our Lord announced them in today’s Gospel reading.  All Christians are after all not necessarily called for their devotion to the Sacred Mysteries of Mary, but to those who are outcasts, hungry and those who weep because they are poor. Perhaps too, it is to all the other unnamed saints of Heaven to whom we can look for more encouragement and help, simply because their saintly virtue is anonymous, unknown and uncelebrated, save in the omniscient mind of God.. Not for nothing are the lines “…who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, Makes that and th’action fine…“ the lines of a poet who was both supremely Anglican and Catholic in his spirituality.

And lastly, we can look to all saints in Heaven, because they share a Divine challenge which faces all of us – we are challenged by Christ, all of us, to be saints by picking up His cross and follow Him, and all His saints encourage us in that journey. To be a Christian, there is no alternative but to aspire to join those serried ranks, in everything we do or say, you, me, and Aviendha, whose baptism we are shortly to witness. And that is why the feast of All Saints is supremely important, for it is the feast day which belongs to every Christian, in which his or her unique contribution to the Church is and will be recognised in the halls of Heaven which resound with the alleluias of us and all our fellow faithful, now and for all eternity.

Fr. Nigel Palmer