19th May 1997

St Nicholas Plumstead

 

FESTIVAL OF SAINT DUNSTAN

 

If you were to ask someone what they associated in their minds with the words "Danish" or "Denmark" or "dane" they would most likely say something like "bacon" or "butter" or perhaps "Legoland" or "blue cheese".

And Denmark is indeed rightly famous for all these good and wholesome things (and one or two others beside which need not concern us this evening!)

But that was not always the case. A thousand years ago for people living in Plumstead or Greenwich in the Kingdom of Kent the very word "Dane" was enough to strike a cold fear in their hearts.

For the Danes in those days were merciless destroyers and invaders who made the life of people who lived in the Kingdom of Kent a sheer misery. I was like living in Zaire today or the Yugoslavia 5 years ago. Life was one long fight for survival in the face of hordes of merciless invaders who looted anything they could carry away and vandalised anything they couldn't.

The churches were particularly hard hit. No doubt your church of St Nicholas has suffered during recent years from the mindless vandalism of gangs of youngsters with too much time on their hands and not enough sense in their heads. If so, join the club! There can't be may church buildings locally which have escaped their attention.

But in the days of St Dunstan and St Alfege it was something altogether more serious and systematic. Individual people were, on the whole, poor and didn't have much worth niicking. The real objects of value could be found in churches and abbeys, so these became the natural targets for the plunderers. Over and over again if you read the guidebooks of churches in Kent and Essex they will tell you that this church was destroyed by the Danes in nine-hundred-and-something.

It was at such a moment and into such a world that St Dunstan was summoned from being Abbot of Glastonbury to exercise his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury.

At times like that the greatest danger to churchpeople is not simply losing their church building or its ornaments, but losing hope and giving way to despair. Faced with a disaster like the Danish invaders many ordinary people will say "what's the use?" and give up the practice of their faith and going to church altogether.

It's the vocation and the genius of people like St Dunstan not only to rebuild what has been physically destroyed, but in the face of that sort of challenge to church-plant enthusiastically all over the place. St Nicholas Plumstead grew out of the Chapel of St Francis which was one particularly successful church-plant by St Dunstan on the Greenwich marshes; whilst if you want to see a prime example of his repair and rebuilding work there is none better than the church of St Mary, Lyminge a few miles east of Ashford in Kent.

But the genius of St Dunstan wasn't just confined to repairing damaged buildings or planting new ones. In one sense making good the destruction of church buildings by the Danish invaders was the easy part of his job.

Dunstan realised, with his training as a monk of Glastonbury, exactly why the Danish invaders had had such a devastating effect upon ordinary people's morale. This was because the whole spiritual life of the Church in England at that time was in a terrible mess. As one historian lamented "In the past we had few golden chalices but many golden priests; nowadays we have many golden chalices but few golden priests".

No wonder the Danes had such a field-day in 10th century Kent and Essex. With plenty of chalices to loot and few people with the heart and mind to stop them it must have seemed in more senses than one a golden opportunity.

Dunstan's solution was to re-introduce into people's lives the Rule of St Benedict, which once had been familiar to all Christians but by his time had been all but forgotten.

Very briefly the Rule of St Benedict is a Rule of Life, devised by St Benedict in 5th Century Italy for a Church and a world which had also lost their way. The rule enabled people to live a disciplined life of Christian discipleship at a time when national morale and national morals were at a particularly low ebb.

The Rule, which could be adapted equally well for laypeople and parish clergy, as well as for monks and nuns was not so much a set of pettifogging restrictions imposed on people's freedom to do what they wanted; instead it was a way of looking at life from a Christian viewpoint which enables those who follow the rule to "make sense" of being a Christian at a time when nothing much else in everyday life "makes sense" if only because most people have lost sight of the chief end of man which is, you remember, "to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever".

St Dunstan's dual formula of attending both to morale and morals actually worked. It managed to bring together and resolve a rare combination of forces in a single direction: a completely down-to-earth human-based concern for buildings and property and finance and pastoral care on the one hand, balanced on the other hand by a completely super-natural overview of life on this earth as something which is to be lived as the gift of God in the light of the eternal life which God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.

We are living in a situation today which has "lost its way" every bit as much as the world of St Dunstan or St Benedict.

But the threat today is not the Danes. They're every bit in as much of a mess as we are in England by all accounts.

No. The real threat to us as Christians today is something much closer to home. For the truth is that all our leaders in church and state have managed to "lose their way".

It doesn't matter whether you look to the Royal Family, Parliament, the Bench of Bishops, the General Synod or the Diocese of Southwark - or almost anywhere else for that matter. The story is the same: the leaders of our day, whether elected, hereditary, or self-appointed have all lost sight of where they are going.

We are witnessing an ever-growing secularisation of the Church. This makes any damage that the Danes might have done a thousand years or more ago look like a Vicarage tea party in comparison. Less bad by far is to have the Danes sweep in and burn everything down than to have our pretended friends turn out to be our destroyers. With friends like that, who needs Danes?

So what do we do about it. Well part of the answer is that we must take a leaf out of St Dunstan's book.

Dunstan, you remember, attached particular importance to strengthening the Church locally. He did this literally in the shape of stones and mortar and wood; he did it figuratively by helping to raise people's morale. Where a church had been vandalised by the Danes he got the local people working to rebuild or repair it. But he did more than that: he encouraged them to church-plant in areas where the Gospel was not being properly preached.

It's a curious thing, maybe, but as people see a building rise up from the ground, either from scratch or because it has been devastated, their spirits, their morale, tends to rise up with it.

So don't let's ever despise the ordinary, material parts of our heritage whether they have come down to us in the form of buildings, ornaments, liturgy or tradition; and above all never let us despise the value of a good reputation as being the sort of people you can trust. One of the problems today is that nobody trusts anyone else - often with good reason. Our trust in Royalty, Bishops, Parliament and Synods and others in positions of power has been betrayed so often during the recent past that Trust itself is now an Endangered Species.

Just think of that next time you go campaigning to save some particular form of wildlife be it bats or badgers: there are other things besides animals which can become extinct, and truth and trust are but two of them. Yes, we've been entrusted with the buildings and vestments and chalices and liturgies of the Catholic faith; but most importantly we have been entrusted with the truth about God and his purposes for mankind. If you and I join the ranks of the betrayers in this way the outlook really will be grim.

But raising people's morals is simply not enough by itself. Without morals to go with the morale the latter is stillborn when it comes to us being the People of God in this place. If we fall down the moral precipice then everyone's morale will go for a Burton too.

Morals, as St Benedict's rule shows, is not a matter of teaching people a whole lot of do-s and don'ts.

It's a matter of helping ordinary people to look at everyday life from an eternal standpoint. Another way of saying this is that people need to be given vision; for as the Bible teaches us "Without vision the people perish".

It isn't easy to hold these two different creatures, morals and morale, together in a single harness. But it can be done. If you don't believe me, just jump on the train at Plumstead and go to Sandling and walk a mile or so down the road to Lyminge church; or if that's too far, go the opposite way, to Greenwich, where you will see the church which stands as the monument to Dunstan's great friend and successor, Alfege who died in 1012 in defence of the same twin principles of morale and morals.

Or if you would rather, just sit in your pew here at St Nicholas and look around you. And as you look, reflect that if it had not been for such Saints as Dunstan and Alfege there would in all probability, be no pew here for you today, and certainly no "you" sitting in it!

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