On Friday December 14th, we celebrated the 175th Anniversary of the opening of the Church of St Mary the Virgin with a Solemn Mass, followed by fireworks, mulled wine and mince pies and which begins for us a whole year of celebrations. Here is the homily preached by Fr Dean Atkins during the Mass.
Last year, when Cardiff hosted the Championship League Final, I was chatting to a policeman at the top of Bute Street. He was a cheerful, engaging officer who related to the public really well, and he was stationed at one of the road blocks near St Mary’s. The city was colourful, vibrant, bursting at the seams with football fans who gathered from the city centre to the Bay.
From the top of Bute Street, the police were guiding people to the Bay through Lloyd George Avenue though some seemed to prefer the alternative route along Bute Street. It was to one of these people that the police officer shouted, “Don’t go down there, love. It’s not very nice.” I smiled at him, and laughed a little. “Thanks for that,” I said, “that’s where I live.”
Those of us who live or work here, or are from here, tell a slightly different story!
In a biography of a former Vicar of St Mary’s, affectionately known as Fr Jones of Cardiff (and written in 1907) one of his curates who arrived in the parish in 1873, wrote this:
“There have been many changes since those days. It is to be hoped that Bute Street is improved. There were then parts of it along which it must have been a trial for a decent woman to pass.”
Yes, perhaps – in the industrialised late nineteenth century, there were some “no go” areas, and certainly parts of Tiger Bay it could have been be described as “not very nice.”
Today, we gather to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the opening of the new St Mary’s Church built in response to a rapidly growing population, as people were sucked up from the sea.
The former Priory Church of St Mary’s, whose spot is marked by a stone outline in the side of a pub of all places – in front of central station – was damaged by the swell of the river Taff in 1607 and bashed by the battles of the English Civil War. In fact, it had been prone to flooding for some time, made worse when chantry funds to maintain the walls and weirs were confiscated by the state. Diverting funds from one service area at the expense of another is nothing new!
It’s from one of the poems written to raise funds for the new building, one written by William Wordsworth – “When Severn’s sweeping flood had overthrown St Mary’s Church”, that we take our Anniversary theme:
Let the new Church be worthy of its aim,
That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice!
In light of the flood filled history, maybe it’s ironic that the Scripture readings this evening are full of images of a river washing through the Temple, flowing from the sanctuary – not destroying or harming, but bringing peace and fruitfulness and healing. A tsunami of love.
There are always breaking points – we are fragile beings who don’t always get it right. Sometimes, there are scars upon the landscape of our lives which never go away and remind us of that we are only a scratch away from pain. There is today, as in every day, a need for much healing in the lives of many people, ourselves included, and in so many communities, and in our country too.
This community has faced many challenges and changes throughout the few hundred years that it first began to be created, built on the back of South Wales miners, fuelled by coal and steel, and by those who travelled from far off lands to make this place their home. Living with difference, accepting one another, and rejoicing in the colour of each other’s lives isn’t something strange to this community, and we must never lose it. In fact, we must boast of it, and share it with others, and never allow walls to be built that will keep us apart, or keep us secluded from others. And any walls that have begun to be built must be gently dismantled. It’s one reason why we are involved in the Community Sponsorship of Syrian Refugees, working with our friends at Tabernacl and at the South Wales Islamic Centre. We are no strangers to strangers.
Far from Butetown being ‘not very nice’ – it has much to offer, and so much to bring to the world at large.
One lunch time at St Mary’s School, as the hall began slowly to fill with children, I was greeted by one young boy, probably about five years of age, who looked at me, and greeted me with a pointed finger, “You’re a Christian,” he said. “Yes, I am,” I replied. “That must mean that you are Muslim.” “Yes, I am,” he exclaimed, and then he went on. “Christians and Muslims love God!”
And for a moment I wanted to pick him up and place him on the world stage for all the world to see. He had a strong identity of who he was. He knew who or what I was. He knew that we were different. But he was also able to express what we had in common. I am grateful to the school, and the parish and for the wider community, for providing an environment in which this can happen. In a world, in a country, that is often so divided, we must listen to the voice of the little ones. We must listen to that boy.
For the last 175 years, St Mary’s Church has been a home to the Christian community in this place. In 1872, when Fr Jones came to this parish, he taught and lived the catholic faith. He brought many changes, some of which were resisted – but he persisted – not with an iron rod, but with a loving pastoral heart. His first sermon, when he climbed into what was then a large three decker pulpit at the centre of the chancel, took the biblical text ‘God is Love.’ And love flowed.
When he died, just a few years after his retirement, he was mourned by the whole of Cardiff. The streets from here to Cathays Cemetery were lined with people. He had laboured well, he had loved well.
I was conscious, when I came here, that I was the same age as Fr Jones when he arrived at St Mary’s. Life is very different for us today, although much the same. We are beginning to discover afresh what it means to be catholic within what is now the Church in Wales, and that comes with struggles, as I did for our forebears.
In recent years, Butetown has felt the impact – perhaps more than any other community in Cardiff – of the sad and dirty business of drug dealing and drug use, and the chaos and fear that can so easily divide and disturb a community, and the devastating affect it can have on the lives of individuals. We have witnessed a surge in homelessness, a rise in rough sleepers, and been touched by the complex and often chaotic lives of such people – and so our Christmas charities this year are supporting the Huggard Centre – and Tiger Bay Boxing Club which aims to offer young people a different way.
In the time of Fr Jones, catholic hearted priests across the country were ministering in so called ‘slum areas’ where many people lived in squalid conditions. In London, one such priest campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’.
Another ‘slum priest’ (Father Dolling) transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar. “Who can separate the secular from the religious?” asked the priest. “Certainly the Master did not try to do so.”
Why did priests like these – and Fr Jones of Cardiff – begin to connect Jesus with drains and dancing?
The answer lay in the Incarnation – the belief that God in Christ has got involved and continues to be involved in the grittiness of human living, something which we celebrate soon at Christmas.
Jesus has shown us that every area of life is the place where we find the divine, that God is present even in the places considered not very nice, especially in the places that are not very nice, places which can and do shine with the beauty and glory of the God who loves us.
And so we will and do, we must, have a concern for what’s happening in the streets, in the lives of those who could be treated better, who could be given a better share, a fairer share. For those who trapped in poverty or trapped by crime, those who feel the pinch, and the sting of injustice and inequality, those for whom their life span is expected to be shorter just because they were born in Butetown.
For the priests of the past it may have been drains. For us it may be drugs. Tomorrow, something else.
But there is always dancing!
A building such as this, of course, takes much time and money and work to keep it in good stead, and cracks sometimes appear which let the water in. Strong, sturdy walls, may very well be built to keep out the rain and flood waters but the walls must never be so firm as to keep back the water which flows from within, from the sanctuary, the waters, the river, which flows from God and brings healing. A Tsunami of love.
And so we continue to worship here, and minister from here, and look to the future with confidence and hope. We give thanks to God for all the blessings which he has lavished upon us. We accept the responsibility to help strengthen community life, to work together with others, to bring the beauty of God’s love to a broken world, and to recognise the beauty of God in our own wounds.
And above all to do this, and all this, in a spirit of joy. To be a joyful community, and for our joy to be infectious, like a great wave washing through the lives of others, and taking the city of Cardiff – and the world – by storm.