Sermon preached by Fr. Tony Noble
On the 150th Anniversary of St Mark’s
1st July, 2003
2 Chronicles 6.2: “Because of the cloud, the priests could no long perform their duties.”
Well, Archbishop, I can reassure you that would never be the case here!
Thirty years ago at 2.30 pm on Sunday 5th August 1972 in this church of St. Mark’s, there was a meeting of the Archbishop’s Historic Buildings Advisory Committee – a committee of which you have probably never heard! In the chair was Bishop James Grant, assisting him was Archdeacon Moss, and members included a very newly ordained Fr. Andrew St. John and 4 lay people. The meeting began with a debate on the purpose of the meeting – it’s a good Anglican start! And the purpose of the meeting was to consider the future of various church sites in the inner city. Bishop Grant explained that St. Mark’s was not a viable congregation, and the Archdeacon said that St. Mark’s was unlikely to survive as a traditional parish centre.
I am sure the Archdeacon didn’t consider himself a 20th century Caiaphas, but like the high priest who prophesised Jesus’ death as necessary for salvation, he was prophesying a future here which would be a marvellous twist on his words – for his words have come true: St. Mark’s is nothing like a traditional parish centre! In fact our boast is that this is no ordinary church. Here at St. Mark’s the ministry to this community is extraordinary, unusual. Not only that, the sense of community within the congregation is remarkable: indeed we are so friendly we are positively unanglican! Certainly the worship is not what you would find in your average suburban parish church – and our parties are legend.
I am reminded of the comments of a priest who attended here with his 2 young daughters. They told him that St. Mark’s was the best parish they had ever attended. When he asked why, they said the Eucharist was the best, the people were the friendliest, and the food was wonderful!
No ordinary church. Thus St. Mark’s has ever been – and that is what we celebrate tonight.
Yet on this wonderful night when we come to celebrate the founding of this church 150 years ago, I have to admit to being hard pressed to think of the most appropriate text for my sermon. The first reading from 2nd Chronicles is an inspiring description of the worship in Solomon’s temple, with the Ark of the Covenant central: is not this an obvious image of this temple with the altar central for the purpose of this church – which is the celebration of the Eucharist. Here also on the high altar we have the tabernacle, the very presence of Jesus amongst us: itself a reminder of the tabernacle in the Sinai wilderness which lead the people of Israel for 40 years and contained the presence of the Lord – accompanied by yet another cloud.
The second reading is very obvious. It talks about the foundation stone – which we do not have! But St. Peter has it right: we are the living stones of the spiritual house, and Jesus is the foundation stone. So we have moved from a physical temple made of stone to the temple of the people of God.
Then these marvellous words of Peter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God, who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light”.
I’m not sure if the faithful parishioners who gathered on this site 150 years ago today regarded themselves as a consecrated nation, still less a royal priesthood. But I am sure that down through the years the people of Fitzroy thought of themselves in less glowing terms – after all this is the suburb that called its football team the gorillas! But those people were, and still are, that royal priesthood which offers the spiritual sacrifices of Jesus, as St. Peter says, every time we come to offer the Mass at this altar.
So, to the gospel and the Samaritan woman, the outcast. Surely here is a parable of St. Mark’s, with its consistent care and outreach for the hoi polloi of Fitzroy. But the Samaritan woman is also very up-to-date. Like many in Fitzroy, she questions the value of worship. In response Jesus, like St. Mark’s, draws alongside her – not to condemn or judge, but just to be with her and to talk.
Yes, 3 readings encompassing 3 themes which speak to us so surely of our beloved St. Mark’s. However, I would like to give you a different text altogether: one not set down in the church’s lectionary for dedication festivals. It is from Matthew chapter 1.24: “Then Joseph awoke from his dream and did exactly what the angel said”.
Dreams. This church has been and is the stuff of dreams – and its people for 150 years have dared to dream. 150 years ago they dreamed of a church set in Melbourne’s first suburb, Newtown. They came from St. Peter’s at Eastern Hill, and firstly built a mission church out there on the lawn. It was, I guess, the first high church mission in Australia. Soon the suburb was named Collingwood, and the collection plates were carved St. Mark’s Church, Collingwood. This is, of course, a source of great joy for some members of the congregation! It is no doubt why the best attended Anglican service ever in this parish, and indeed in Melbourne, was organised by the Vicar of St. Mark’s when he blessed 10,000 black and white scarves at the Collingwood Football Club last year.
It soon became St. Mark’s, Fitzroy, however.
In those early days the first vicar laboured hard and long. But it was the next one, J F Stretch, who, at the end of the 19th century, established a strong Tractarian tradition with daily Services, Sung Eucharist on festivals during the week, and a very high church ministry. In his time, the first missionaries, Mr and Mrs Tomlinson, were sent to New Guinea. The first parish welfare centre, the Mission of the Holy Redeemer, was established. They were heady days. In those days the twin tradition of worship and community service was established. Stretch was the first of several charismatic vicars – and because of that he eventually became Bishop of Newcastle.
Then there was the famous Brother Bill Nicholls in the 1920s and 30s. He came to St. Mark’s because he asked Archbishop Lees for the most difficult parish in the diocese – and that was Fitzroy in the depression. You would hardly call Brother Bill an Anglo-Catholic, but his first priority was to repair the church; and they did that. Having fixed the building for worship, he established and built the amazing St. Mark’s Social Settlement (now our Community Centre) with its wonderful programmes during the depression. After 20 years as vicar he was spent and exhausted – and so was Fitzroy – for after World War II great changes happened in the suburb. The Anglo-Saxons moved out, and the parish declined in numbers and activity. So we reach that meeting in 1972.
In those days there was a thought that people moving into the inner city would not care for old Anglican churches. So some were sold, like St. Luke’s North Fitzroy – others demolished, like St Philip’s, Collingwood. But not St. Mark’s! The diocese did not reckon on the faithful people of St. Mark’s – and it was told quite plainly, “Over our dead bodies” – or words to that effect! They were told it by that most formidable of Anglican groups, St. Mark’s Ladies’ Guild! How wonderful that 2 of them, Emily and Elsie, are here tonight. They are our living link with what has gone before and now is.
That meeting, 30 years ago, was followed by the appointment of another significant priest, Fr. Ernest King. As he is present in the sanctuary, I do not wish to embarrass him. Let me say that these priests all had their critics – but they were men of dreams. St. Joseph has set a marvellous example for all who belong to St. Mark’s, for its history is one of people dreaming dreams and seeing them fulfilled.
The example of St. Joseph goes even deeper. My text from St. Matthew chapter 1 is, of course, the aftermath of Mary being told that she is to conceive and bear the Christ child. When Joseph, her fiancé, hears this, he is somewhat anxious, to say the least. But his dream fixes that. As the text said: “He did what the angel said and took Mary as his wife”.
This, of course, is the beginning of the Incarnation when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Incarnation is really what motivated those first parishioners 150 years ago to build this church, so that St. Mark’s, like all churches, would stand as a witness to that mighty act of God when he took flesh of the Virgin Mary. The physical presence of the church in this suburb, with its huge spire, is a witness to none other than the Word was made flesh and still dwells among us. They built this church not only as a witness, but so that the Incarnation might happen yet again, every time the Eucharist is celebrated at the altar. They wanted to make the Incarnation alive and real in Fitzroy, not merely in symbolic terms as a great church, but really present in the forms of bread and wine, as priests and people have offered this holy sacrifice day in and day out for 150 years.
As the people of St. Mark’s have worshipped and found Jesus in the Eucharist, so they have found him in each other, and so they have found him in this community, which they have served. What we really celebrate tonight is the Incarnation of God alive and well in Fitzroy through the sacraments of Jesus. That is why Mary is honoured in this place: for the mother of the Incarnate Word is the mother of the church, and the mother of all Christians. So long as St. Mark’s continues to live as a community of faith centred on the Eucharist, so the Incarnation will be present.
St. Joseph’s story tells us that dreaming dreams is not much good unless we act upon them. It would be dangerous for me to compare the vicars of St. Mark’s with the angel of Joseph’s dream, but the dreams of the people of St. Mark’s lead them not only to build this church; but to send out the first missionaries to New Guinea in 1891; to build the first parish welfare centre – not once but 3 times; to establish in the 1970s a religious community based in this parish; and to be the first Australian church in the 1980s to reach out to the community affected by HIV and AIDS; and finally at the close of the 20th century to restore this church when it seemed impossible to do so.
Yes, St. Mark’s has dreamed dreams and acted upon them like St. Joseph. To paraphrase an Old Testament text, “We have not been disobedient to the heavenly vision”.
So on this great night of celebration of all that St. Mark’s has been, is, and will be, this is the final word: Let us dream on and never be disobedient to the heavenly vision.
And may the priests never be prevented from performing their duties by the smoke in the temple!