Saint Andrew’s Croydon

10th March, 2002

3rd of Lent Year A


"Sins of the Saints" Part Two


A fortnight ago we looked at some of the things which make our Christian lives come down with a bump. My title for this pair of sermons is Sins of the Saints, which is the title of an invaluable book which was written many years ago by Fr Rosenthal, a priest from Birmingham.

Sins of the Saints, in other words, doesn’t mean those things which every Christian knows to be wrong – like murder, adultery, stealing or bearing false witness. It refers to those actions and attitudes which begin from the best of intentions but grow into thoroughly bad habits, without our realising what is happening: Sins of the Saints begin as things which our fellow-Christians rightly approve of and admire in us, but despite their good root gradually corrupt and turn into something altogether different and less worthy.

So let’s go back to that imaginary church called St Grizelda’s by the Gasworks which we visited and meet some of the other members of the congregation. Let me stress that the people we shall be meeting are not anyone you might know at St Andrew’s. The only things that St Grizelda’s and St Andrew’s have in common is the faithful witness both have borne to the Catholic faith, their steadfastness and loyalty to our Lord and Saviour shown by their respective congregations through many difficult times, and the love and devotion which laity and priests have bestowed upon them during the last hundred-plus years.

So let’s visit them again and see how, despite its virtues – or perhaps because of them, its people still manages to sin and fall short of the glory of God.

As today is Mothering Sunday it’s appropriate that we should meet some of the women in the congregation. Last time it was predominantly men that we were thinking about:, Fr Browning the Vicar, Fr Green his Curate, and Mr Sharp and Mr Blunt the Churchwardens.

Let’s begin with Martha Driver. She’s one of those indispensable people in parish life who actually succeeds in getting things done. Before she retired she was one of the Sisters at the local Hospital, and earlier still she was Matron in a Boy’s Preparatory School. Now, although she is retired, she finds herself busier than ever because, with more time on her hands and her single-minded commitment to St Grizelda’s there’s hardly a minute of the day when she isn’t hard at work on its behalf. Her experience on the hospital wards taught her that unless someone is seen to be in charge, standards will inevitably go to the wall; and as prep-school Matron she fairly soon came to the conclusion that most men remain schoolboys throughout their life, and their self-discipline needs constantly "affirming" (as she calls it) which means keeping a watchful eye on whatever they may be getting up to. As for the other women at St Grizelda’s, she often finds herself thinking back to her ward days and remembering that unless she made sure that her trainees learnt to do things properly, standards would soon slip and the less conscientious of her nurses find ways of getting anyone but themselves to do the hard and more unpleasant jobs. Secretly, Martha thinks Mrs Browning, the vicar’s wife, is a bit of a wimp, because she takes such little part in the running of the parish ("so very different from dear Mrs Clackett, her predecessor who did everything she was asked to without a murmur").

So what are we to say about Mrs Driver. Well, of course, we will readily agree that she sets an admirable example of commitment in the things that she does and gets other people to do. But would it be unfair to say that her undoubted managerial skills are only part of what is needed for the wellbeing of the Church? A good many of the congregation find her breezy manner rather hard to take, with the result that Mrs Driver has ended up by running practically everything, Mother’s Union, Young Wives, Stewardship Committee, PCC, Flower Rota and a whole host of other things besides. And have you noticed how unfavourably she responds to any criticism about the way she goes about things? "If that’s how you feel about it then you’d better find someone else to run it" is something she says quite frequently nowadays. Of course everyone realises that without Mrs Driver that organisation would fall to pieces, so they hastily agree to whatever she proposes. The result is that the people who might have made a fair show of running it have long ago ceased attending, leaving just a handful of people who rather like being bossed about by Mrs Driver.

Now, by contrast, let’s meet Miss Mary Neale. In one respect she resembles Mrs Driver, namely her undying commitment to the well-being of St Grizelda’s. But whereas Mrs Driver is always looking for "practical solutions" as she calls them, Miss Neale’s response to the problems of the parish is to say "Well, I think we should all pray about it."

And what, you may ask, is wrong with that? Well, nothing is actually wrong with it, of course, but there are certain practical matters which no amount of praying will substitute for good honest elbow-grease which Mrs Driver provides in such lavish quantities. Take for example the matter of cleaning the Lady Chapel. When first asked Miss Neale responded quite enthusiastically to Mrs Driver’s request that she should make herself responsible for keeping that area of St Grizelda’s clean. But little by little Mary spends more and more time on her knees in the chapel praying for St Grizelda’s and its people (including of course Martha Driver) than she actually does in cleaning it. I’m told that last week an entire colony of mice were found to have taken up residence under the altar. But to be fair, Mary Neale is endlessly supportive of Mrs Browning during her periods of depression which Martha Driver is entirely unaware of. So it simply would not be true to say that either of those estimable ladies has got it entirely wrong. They just haven’t got it quite right.

Now let’s meet Miss Crochet the organist. Like many other good ladies of St Grizelda’s she has tirelessly endeavoured to make the services both dignified and reverent. To help her she has an equally dedicated band of half a dozen singers, and though they aren’t in their first youth they remain as determined as ever that the way things are done at St Grizelda’s should remain "just like it’s always been". Unfortunately they share with Miss Crochet the unshakeable belief that in the matter of church music "holy means slowly" with the result that she and her choir have effectively turned into a Resistance Group to all the bright ideas of Father Green. And this, perhaps, wouldn’t matter so much if Miss Crochet and her Companions were correct in thinking that things at St Grizelda’s have always been like they are now, when the truth is that it’s barely twenty years since Father Broom, the last incumbent but two, swept away a whole lot of rather pointless archaic practices and established the services pretty much as they are today.

Lastly let’s go into the Sacristy and meet Mr Horder the Verger. He will be only to glad to show you the wonderful vestments and plate which the Church has acquired through the generosity of its parishioners past and present, and you feel, as he speaks about them as if they meant the world to him. Nobody could be more diligent about their safekeeping, and he, and he alone is allowed to get them out, put them away and keep them polished for use. What an estimable man! So what’s the problem?

Well it’s the problem of what happens when they start to wear out, or someone gives the church another chalice or chasuble. For so deep is Mr Horder’s affection for what he feels, subconsciously no doubt, are "his" possessions, that the mere thought of pensioning them off feels like an impending bereavement. The result is that St Grizelda’s is a church with frayed embroideries, patens which have lost their gilding and albs from which the lace hangs off the bottom in shreds like flax off a distaff.

Let’s just remind ourselves of what they have in common, the "sins which is admired by many". Different sins to be sure, and sins of which, in all probability, they are quite unaware, even perhaps proud of that wholesome aspect of their nature which has provided the soil in which that particular sin has grown and flowered.

Remember that proverb last week: we perish by permitted things. The shortcomings of the people of St Grizelda’s aren’t anything which is actually forbidden in any book of moral principles. On the contrary it is things which are inherently virtuous but which somehow have been allowed to get out of control.

So there we are. We’ve taken a whistle stop tour and noted some of the sins of the good folk of St Grizelda’s. The next step must surely be to practise some self-examination with a view to discovering whether anything of the kind might just possibly be true of ourselves.

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