Saint Andrew’s Croydon

24th February 2002-

2nd of Lent Year A


"Sins of the Saints" Part One


Just before Lent began we thought about the Bump. The Bump is what we call that unpleasant experience which happens to people at the outset of any new venture, whether it’s starting an new job, getting married or becoming a grown-up Christian by being confirmed. Things go swimmingly to begin with and it feels as if we’re walking on air. But then something or somebody brings us down to earth with a BUMP so painfully that we begin to wonder if that joy we felt to begin with was just our imagination and no more.

This morning we shall look at some of the things which make our Christian lives come down with a bump. Lent is a good time to face unpleasant realities, and we need to know about some of the stumbling-blocks which just because we are Christians we are likely to meet and trip over; and one of the biggest helps to avoiding them is a book called Sins of the Saints which was written many years ago by Fr Rosenthal, a priest from Birmingham.

On the very first page Rosenthal looks at the well-known phrase from the letter to the Hebrews "the sin which doth so easily beset us" and suggests that this is a wrong translation of the Greek word eu-peristatos. It’s a word which the writer seems to have made up specially because it comes nowhere else either in the Bible or classical literature. He suggests that a more accurate translation would be "the sin which is admired by many". 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.

Let me illustrate this by telling you about some of the people who go to an entirely imaginary church called St Grizelda’s by the Gasworks. Let me stress that neither St Grizelda’s, nor the members of its congregation, exists except in my imagination. So those people whom we shall meet are not anyone you might know either at St Andrew’s or at St Stephen’s Lewisham. The only things that St Grizelda’s has in common with your church and mine is the faithful witness all three 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 now let’s go into St Grizelda’s and see how, despite its virtues – or perhaps because of them, as Fr Rosenthal suggests – it still manages to fall short of the glory of God.

Well let me introduce you first to the Vicar, Canon Browning, and his curate, Father Green. Canon Browning is coming up for retirement. He’s been at St Grizelda’s many years, but it is only just recently that he’s become aware that many of the things he hoped to achieve during his ministry simply aren’t going to happen. Thanks to a lot of hard work by him over the years the numbers at Mass each Sunday haven’t shrunk to the same extent that they have in many nearby churches; but the truth is that his first visions of running a church bursting at the seams each Sunday, which he had when he first came to St Grizelda’s, was unrealistic: and that of course means that his prospects of being made a bishop, something which was always at the back of his mind, and rather nearer the forefront of Mrs Browning’s mind, was a forlorn one. So Canon and Mrs Browning are somewhat disappointed people, she rather more than her husband, in fact.

But let’s be fair. Hopes and ambitions and hard work in a priest are all, in themselves, good things. A vicar who has no vision for his parish is a dead loss. The disappointment which comes from their non-fulfilment is entirely natural, and a feeling for which nobody should incur any blame or feel ashamed of. Even Jesus was disappointed in his apostles – and with much better reason! So far so good; but it’s the unfortunate way that this disappointment spoils Canon Browning’s relationship with Father Green, his young and inexperienced curate which is the problem. So now let me introduce you to Father Green.

Father Green is young bachelor, St Grizelda’s is his first curacy, and he’s even more excited and ebullient than Canon Browning was when he was first ordained. The young people love him. The older ladies just wish they were his mother, and some of the Young Wives Group can’t do too much for him. Being young and extrovert, Father Green finds it hard to understand why Canon Browning doesn’t always warm to the ideas which he, Father Green, suggests. He also thinks (privately of course) that his Vicar is far too much under the thumb of Mrs Browning, of whom, incidentally, he himself is more than a little afraid.. The result is that, from time to time, Father Green fails to ask Canon Browning about some bright idea he’s thought up, but simply goes ahead with it; and he’s really quite taken aback when, however successful it proves, Canon Browning seems far less appreciative than Father Green thinks he should be.

Now I’ve not a word to say against Father Green’s many virtues. God knows, the Church of England could do with some more excited, ebullient, attractive clergy who get on well with people of all ages, particularly those of the fair sex who make up the majority of most congregations. Even a bit of impatience, when mixed with charity, can work wonders where all else has failed. However, being extrovert, Father Green simply doesn’t realise how easily his virtues, energy, imagination, and charm, when they come into contact with Canon Browning’s greater age and experience, and his unresolved disappointment constitute a mixture which is highly unstable and likely to be set off by some relatively trivial incident. Whilst as for his unfavourable view of Mrs Browning, what Father Green doesn’t and couldn’t know is that she and her husband have been struggling for years and years with her recurrent bouts of depression which at times have threatened their very marriage. So what is potentially Father Green’s strongest suit may yet end up by dividing the parish into the pro-Green and pro-Browning camps without either of them having intended or wished it to do so. His virtue has become "the sin which is admired by many".

Now let’s turn to some of the laypeople in the parish. Let me introduce you to the Churchwardens, Mr Blunt and Mr Sharp.

Both of these men have given long and faithful service to St Grizelda’s – there’s no question about that. As the Bishop said only the other day, it would be hard to think of St Grizelda’s without them. No doubt he meant it kindly, but there were those in the congregation who just wondered whether he might be dropping a hint that the time had come for some new blood to be given a chance. And that is just the problem. Long and faithful service is an admirable thing, but without care it can turn into a sort of possessiveness. Vicars come and vicars go, but the laity go on for ever. How entirely understandable that these two admirable men should find themselves dedicated to keeping things at St Grizelda’s "exactly as they have always been". Certainly there are many members of the congregation who look to them for precisely this. Well, conservatism is admirable – up to a point; but Mr Sharp was overheard to say the other day "We’ll soon knock some of that new-fangled nonsense out of Father Green, him and his high-flown ideas. He doesn’t seem to realise that we at St Grizelda’s have never done anything like he’s suggesting before and we don’t intend to start now!"

Messrs Sharp and Blunt are admirable Churchwardens, but as in any other institution, be it a church, a hospital, a school or a monastery, there are times when certain things have just got to be changed for everyone’s good. Whilst it’s the wardens’ duty to safeguard the interests of St Grizelda’s, those interests are not necessarily well served by their saying "No" automatically, as they often do, to everything idea that Father Green puts before the PCC. After all, wasn’t it Father Green who first suggested that the Men’s Group should organise a car-rota to bring those invalids who don’t live near a bus-stop to Mass on Sunday? And look what a difference that made to the numbers who come to church! In some cases their children and grandchildren now come with them – people who had never darkened the doors in their lives.

On Sunday week we shall meet some other characters from St Grizelda’s by the Gasworks. Let’s just remind ourselves of what they have in common, the "sin 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.

There is an old Latin proverb which says that we perish by permitted things. All too often in the company of apprentice-saints like you and me, the sins which spoil our progress are not anything which is actually forbidden in any book of moral principles. On the contrary it is things which are inherently virtuous but which somehow are allowed to get out of control that are our undoing.

Here’s a simple exercise. Just ask yourself what you think is the most admirable thing about you. When you have identified it, whether it’s your conscientiousness, your generosity, your punctuality, your attention to detail, your concern for others, then look at it a little more closely and ask yourself whether it may also be leading you up the garden path like those good souls from St Grizelda’s.

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