Rector's July 2014 Letter

After Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, we find ourselves in what the church calls ‘Ordinary Time’. But although there are no ‘big celebrations’ over the next few months, the green of ordinary time, like the green of our countryside, is far from plain and boring.

 

The splashes of colour are provided by Saints days and other smaller festivals, and we can imagine how welcome they would have been in former times, when a ‘red letter day’ on the calendar was literally red and meant, not merely a special theme in Church on Sunday, but perhaps a holiday from work, and a variety of traditional celebrations and practices to enjoy as a community.

 

The Church of England, of course, celebrates all the traditional saints – even those whose original existence is shrouded in mysterious doubt – but interestingly, our calendar of celebrations also includes a much wider variety of characters. They range from missionaries and bishops to doctors, housewives and nurses. Unlike the official saints, whose ‘saintliness’ has to be beyond doubt, and proved by attested miracles, these are simply some of the heroes and heroines of our faith, trying to fulfil the vocations that they felt called to.

 

There are also a number of real oddballs here and there! One of my favourites is Margery Kempe; a medieval woman from round about the same period as the much more famous Julian of Norwich, to whom at one point Margery went for spiritual advice. Both women were mystics – hearing from God through dreams and visions – and both, of course, were devout; but there the similarity ended.

 

Margery was quite definitely the sort of person you don’t want to get stuck with on a holiday tour bus – a very relevant comparison, as it happens. After bearing at least fourteen children and then convincing her long-suffering husband to allow her to take a vow of chastity before the bishop of Lincoln, she spent a lot of her very adventurous life on pilgrimage. Extravagant displays of devotion were quite usual around the venerated destinations of the Holy Land and Rome, but Margery was over the top even by the standards of the time, weeping, wailing and falling to the floor entranced with her visions. Those travelling with her must sometimes have wished they had taken a later ship!

 

Why do I like her so much, even though she was clearly a most peculiar and difficult character? She never learned to read or write, and so would never have been able to study theology even if, as a lay woman, she would have been permitted to do so, and yet the bishops who questioned her were never able to find any heresy in what she believed; this in an age where it was frighteningly easy to suffer dreadful penalties for beliefs that could be shown to be unorthodox. She learned Scripture by heart and accepted the hostile reactions of those around her as a penance for her sins. In an age where most women spent their whole lives in the domestic sphere, she somehow took it for granted that the world was her natural stage. She stood up for herself and her understanding of God against the might of the Church and did what she felt called to do and even those who doubted her came to see her sincerity and piety. And we know of her life because amazingly she dictated the first book of autobiography known in English – ‘The Boke of Margery Kempe’ of which one full manuscript copy and various fragments and references still survive.

 

I think I like her because she is such a vivid demonstration of the fact that God has a use for all of us, even the oddest and the most damaged. Nobody is written off in God’s economy. Whatever our particular quirks and problems, God can make use of them if we offer them to him. A world full of people living their lives for God would be the very opposite of boring – far from all achieving a sort of bland similar ‘goodness’, we would all sparkle with the individuality with which God created us. It is evil which brings human beings down to the most boring common denominator. I am definitely looking forward to meeting Margery in heaven – I just hope she doesn’t have the heavenly mansion next door!


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