The essence of a sermon preached at a recent Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary service in Aylesbury.
It is good that we meet today – and for a number of reasons. The first is that we celebrate the life of Alban, the first English martyr. The second is that we celebrate the initiation of a new member on thirdly because we meet on a day when the appointed gospel passage for the day is Matthew 7: 15-20, the bit that talks about the tree and its fruit.
For those of you who don’t know the story of St. Alban, he was a pagan who protected a fugitive priest. Not only did he conceal the imperilled cleric but when the authorities came knocking, he assumed the vesture of the priest, was assumed to be that priest and was eventually beheaded. Sadly, there is the story of the second English martyr all bound up in this story, and that is the case of the initial executioner who, when confronted with this converted pagan, declared his own new faith and refused to detach the head of Alban. He was killed after Alban, and so it was that the second English martyr met his end after about eight minutes as a Christian!
I doubt that Alban knew the priest personally, so it must be said that he was not protecting a person but an Order. Alban gave up his life to protect the Priesthood. He served the Priesthood as you do, and I do as one of its members. What this account also tells us is the significance of this quirky uniform we wear, our robes and vesture. In the world today, if we went outside of the church wearing what we are wearing today, we would be laughed at. For Alban the price was far higher. We also learn of the potency of ministry in the church – that the priest was being chased was being chased because of his Christian ministry. We also learn of the sacrifice that Christians are called to make for their faith – with this perhaps being the most extreme!
The lectionary gives us a short passage from Matthew’s gospel today. We read the account of the tree and its fruit, of the good fruit and the bad fruit. We hear phrases like “beware false prophets” and of sheep in wolves clothing. We are told that we will know the tree by its fruit, and on a day where we welcome a new member and listen to a new cantor, we know that this is true. I also stand before as a fruit of the Guild, for I too am a [lapsed] member. In the Guild I learned my trade. I was granted by liturgical sense, my sense of liturgical space and the ceremonial workings of a church in our tradition. I was taught the value and importance of our uniform, and to be proud of a medal of membership which I proudly wear spiritually if not physically. Nowadays, my medal is replaced by this stole, but the similarities between them in my mind are significant. Two Easters ago, about nine feet from this spot, I intoned the Exsultet for the first time, with all the fear and trepidation that our new fledged cantor will have experienced tonight. All of these things are fruits of the Guild of the Servants of the Sanctuary.
It is important to make sense of our Gospel readings in light of our current lives, and so I pondered the place of Altar Servers in the ‘tree’ of the church and her life. I think that it would be fair to say that altar servers are not the leaves or the beautiful blossoms – we are not called to that. I believe that you are the roots. If the church and her life were a tree, and you its roots, you would offer many distinct things. You would be solid. I am sure that many of you have been servers for many years, and so you will be experienced and knowledgeable in what you are called to do. It is rare that a server-team fails – it does what it does well, expediently and in its due course. Altar servers, like tree roots, are dependable. In my own church life, I know that whatever I do and whatever is required of me before services, that the servers will do their job and do it well, and that I will not have to worry about those things. In our tradition, the priests are dependent on their servers to execute an act or worship with least fuss and correctly. Our congregations demand it too. Roots and altar servers are vital to the liturgical life of a church in our tradition. We need the beauty and effects of our worship and priests cannot do all of it, or even some of it. Servers are vital in ways sometimes that even priests are not! Servers, like roots, are a source of stability. Roots hold up the tree, and very often, the servers are the primary support in the life of the parish where they serve. They are often, by default, the most established and faithful members of those communities – the heritage and oracle of much knowledge. Lastly, as roots, servers are one of the sources of life for the whole plant. Our parishioners demand a style and flavour of liturgy and that it be delivered carefully and diligently and with least fuss. Servers, unlike more public roles, are trained and vested to be invisible – inconspicuous. We work hard to be the unseen doorkeepers. Doorkeepers will not tell you that they are about to open the door, they just do it without us noticing it.
Service in all its shades and colours comes at a price. Were it free, it would have no value. No, being an altar-server doesn’t necessarily mean a sacrifice like Alban, but it does demand a dedicated commitment of time in already busy lives. You are people who put the needs of the Lord and His Church ahead of your own needs, and often ahead of your own family at times. How often you will have been in churches for hours while the priests devise more and more ornate liturgies for you to orchestrate for them! Being a server often means an interrupted encounter with God as we get on and do the bits that need doing.
However, I believe that service at the Altar and the Priesthood exist on the same continuum that reaches from the Church to God. I don’t rate one more highly than the other – just that they are distinct callings. I urge you to have courage to continue what you do in a world that probably doesn’t really understand. I can assure you now that I can account for 24 priests who can and will claim a Guild heritage. They are 24 incumbents in 24 parishes, and that doesn’t not include me and the parish that I will lead in the autumn. Even if those 24 parishes only had a hundred people apiece, you can let the maths tell you the fruitfulness of the Guild over the years. This Chapter has grown tonight, and that is a cause of much rejoicing because it speaks of the need and relevancy of what you do in a modern church that would reduce liturgical presence in favour of different and freer expressions.
And so I bless you in your service. As stand as one of you, proud of what I have learned and proud of what you give to God’s holy Church. May he continue to grant you fruitfulness in the years to come.
To be published in the autumn