The feast of Saint John falls on the 27th December, just two days after Christmas. On the Sunday after Christmas, given that our church is dedicated to Saint John, we have our patronal festival. So, this week, I reflected on how times have changed since our church was built, and how we need to continue to change as a church as we look to the future. Here’s what I said.
This week we have celebrated two very important birthdays. 138 years ago this month the foundation stone of our church was laid. And a year later, on 27th December 1882, the new parish church of Saint John the Evangelist was consecrated – 137 years old last Friday. We are keeping the birthday today.
And how times have changed over the years for the Church – both for St John’s and for the Church of England as a whole. When St John’s was built a priest was a priest – because the whole idea of a priest being a woman just hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. It was men that led the Church because that was how God had ordained it – so people thought.
But people’s expectations of what men and women could – and should – do, have changed so much since St. John’s was built. Let’s go back to the early days of Saint John’s, over a hundred and twenty years ago. A woman’s place was most definitely in the home, and not in the house of bishops. In 1895 the Isle of Man Times gave the following advice:
Don’t argue with your husband; do whatever he tells you and obey all his orders.
The writer went on:
Don’t worry him for money and don’t expect a new dress oftener than he offers to buy you one. Don’t sit up till he comes home from the club; better be in bed and pretend to be asleep. If you must be awake, seem to be glad he came home early. He’ll probably think you an idiot; but that’s inevitable anyway.
Move on to halfway through the life of St John’s, to the Second World War and 1940, and not much has changed. The Bath Chronicle published advice to both wives and husbands.
Wives: The man earns the living, so render to him all the understanding you give him because he is shielding you, more or less, from the world. Give honest appreciation, and remember women, all men are little boys at heart.
Husbands: Do you still court your wife, bring her an occasional gift of flowers and remember her birthday and the wedding anniversary? Remember those – and this is the bit I like – and she will darn your socks until she is blue in the face.
Those who have sat in these pews and worshipped here since 1882 would, until relatively recently, had no concept of the equality of men and women in life – not in the workplace, nor at home, and certainly not in the Church. And no concept of much else that we now take for granted and have enshrined in law.
What a good thing that things have changed and on the whole for the better. We now believe that people are equal, and that they should have equal opportunity; be equally welcomed and embraced regardless of age, gender, sexuality, ethnic origin, disability and so on. That’s what we mean when we say we are an inclusive church.
And although we still have a problem in society with the division between rich and poor, most people now understand why the old verse from the hymn All things bright and beautiful is no longer sung in church. You know the one:
The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.
Still a way to go, and issues of inequality that still desperately need to be addressed, but at least we have moved on from thinking that the rich have their riches by divine right and that those who live in poverty do so because that’s how God wants them to live.
So attitudes, people’s understandings of each other, have changed unrecognisably for the better since St. John’s was consecrated. And the technological changes we have seen – they would have been flabbergasted back then by computer tablets and smart-phones. And as for labour saving devices – I wonder what those who worked downstairs, as in Downton Abbey, would have thought of such things as automatic washing machines, dishwashers, and Dyson vacuum cleaners. What changes we have seen.
The second birthday we have celebrated is of course far more important – the reason for the season as the saying goes. Jesus – whose birthday we celebrate on 25th December. But – unlike the consecration of our church – we actually don’t know the right year. Since the Bible tells us that Herod the Great was still ruling, it must have been before 4 BCE, but it’s hard to be exact. And it almost certainly wasn’t on December 25th – we don’t really know the actual day of the year.
We’ve just been thinking about how the world has changed over the last hundred or so years. Just think how it’s changed over two thousand years.
And yet, here we are, because a baby was born to Mary and Joseph. Here we are, two thousand years later, gathered in worship of this tiny baby who came into the world from God. Gathered in worship on the first day of the week just as Christians have gathered for nearly two thousand years since Jesus was raised from the tomb.
Yes – the world has changed over the years – and what a good thing. Yet isn’t it a good thing that what hasn’t changed is Jesus, and the reason for his coming. For Jesus came into the world to show us the way to God – from heaven to earth to show us the way from earth to heaven.
He came to teach us how to live, and to remind us that living a full life is living a life spent in the worship of our Father in heaven and in the service of one another. And too often people have forgotten or ignored what Jesus taught us about how to live together.
He came to explain to us and to show us by example the importance of living out God’s attributes of love and peace; of equality for all and justice for all; of care for the sick and the disadvantaged and of service to the poor. Of living more simply so that others can simply live. Of caring for our world so that it’s a world fit for all to live in. The world may change around us but Jesus is a person who hasn’t changed one bit, and neither has his message. As the unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us – Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 138), and the reason for his coming is just as important now as it was when he came all those years ago.
This Church has stood for a hundred and thirty-seven years as a testimony to our local community of the faith and commitment of those who built it and those who have worshipped in these pews over the years. And the message of the Good News that Jesus offers is just the same now as it ever was, it is just as necessary for people to hear. And it is just as necessary for us in the Church to speak out when society as a whole needs to hear what Jesus has to say.
And because Jesus and his message never changes, as we listen to the baby who came from God and who died and rose again for us, we must seek to live out that message – and allow it to change us so that we may change the world. For if we will not allow it to change us, how can we expect it to change others. Our society has changed so much for the better over the years that this church has stood here. But there is still much in our society that still needs to change, and we must play our part in ensuring that it continues to change for the better into the future.