Making Cheltenham's Minster

On Sunday 3rd February 2013 St Mary's was designated Cheltenham Minster by the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham. This is the address he gave the congregation.

The Hallowing of Cheltenham Minster

I love this feast day the Church celebrates this weekend. Even without the added joy and delight of making this minster church, it is a beautiful festival - with its many names, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the churches of the east The day of Meeting, in the churches of the west Candlemas. It is a key pivotal moment in the Christian year, the end of the season of the incarnation, with a last look back to Christmas at the end of the forty days, and a turn around to begin to move towards Easter, with that other forty days of Lent on the horizon and the words of old Simeon to Mary linking the joy and the pain at the heart of what this feast stands for. A beautiful day, theologically rich, celebrating light and glory.

Even without a minster to make. But we have got a minster to make, to hallow and to bless! And that, sisters and brothers, is, is it not, a source of real joy for today and anticipation of what might be tomorrow and thereafter. We take this ancient holy place, with its history of nine hundred years or so, a sometimes forgotten architectural gem at the heart of Cheltenham, the mother church of the town, a place of worship down the centuries, and we say, "Here in a new name is a renewed vocation." To the people who regard this as their church, we say, "Discover the vocation of your church afresh." To the people of Cheltenham, we say "Come and see, come and explore with us what this minster could be for you and what you could bring to its life and ministry."

Tudor Griffiths has written in the introduction to your service book this afternoon something about what a minster is, a word derived from "monastery", a place from which monks and evangelists would go out to serve the churches, often the village churches, in the area around. And that's true! But it's also true that "minster" has stretched its meaning and minsters come in different shapes and sizes and have different vocations. There are the old minsters - York, Beverley, Southwell, Wimborne and more. We are not setting out to be another York Minster! But there are the new minsters, created in the last few decades - Sunderland, Doncaster, Croydon, Newport on the Isle of Wight, Reading. And now Cheltenham. And what we mean by these minsters, I believe, is that here is a church at the heart of a significant town or city that, while being technically a parish church, has a vocation for the whole of that town and city and a particular responsibility to engage with the social, civic, political and cultural life of that town or city. And that I believe is what Cheltenham Minster can be for the Borough of Cheltenham. Set as it is at the heart of the town, set as it is in an area ripe for regeneration, close as it is to the places where Cheltenham's festivals bring people in huge numbers to the town, rich as it is in its history and its heritage, there's huge potential here.

A minster is not a cathedral - at least not unless it's York Minster. The cathedral for Cheltenham is in Gloucester. That's the bishop's church, where he calls the diocese together, confirms, ordains, seeks to hold the Christians of Gloucestershire in unity and fellowship. This is not an alternative to that. There's a different vocation here - to serve this town and its people and its institutions and its life and to hold before them, with confidence and yet with humility the claims of the Christian gospel. And I think it is really exciting and I'm thrilled that so many people are catching the vision and I hope and pray that today we begin something really effective and inspiring for the church and for the community.

Let me reflect with you for just a few minutes on Jesus in the temple. There is no doubt that Jesus went in and out of the temple in Jerusalem quite a lot in his three year whirlwind ministry. But there are three great temple stories in his life that Luke tells and two of them belong to his childhood. If you know anything of the Christian story, you will be familiar with all three of them.

The first is the one that the Church celebrates this weekend, forty days on from Christmas. Mary, the same Mary to whom this church is dedicated, and Joseph come into the temple to fulfil the law by presenting the child forty days old and to offer the customary sacrifice. And there they are met by these striking figures of the old dispensation, Simeon and Anna, priest and prophet, who have waited patiently, waited a long life time, for a moment that they had come by prayer and meditation to expect, that they would encounter, enfold in their arms, the glory of God in a little child. And when Mary and Joseph came into the temple, they knew that moment of joy and fulfilment had come. And they praised God and they prophesied, Simeon in the words that have become familiar to us, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."

It's a beautiful picture of the new meeting the old, the young couple with the babe in arms who inaugurates a new order meeting the old couple, rich in years and wisdom and sanctity, coming together in appreciation of one another. I hope perhaps something of that will be reflected in Cheltenham Minster - the contemporary world, with all its complexity, with all its enthusiasm for the new and the about-to-be-discovered in a rapidly changing culture, meeting the old truths, the time-honoured values, the timeless beauty of this ancient holy place. And out of that coming something creative and authentic.

But there is a more simple message for this minster church, a more straight-forward priority, from this story. Cheltenham Minster must be a place of welcome, welcome that turns into hospitality. It needs its Simeons and its Annas (and not all of them need be quite such senior citizens!), those who ensure that everyone who walks through this door receives a welcome, an affirmation, an embrace (at least a metaphorical one and sometimes a literal one) and a blessing. That's what Simeon and Anna gave to Joseph and Mary and their child. For the people who will come, in greater numbers please God as the ministry of the minster becomes more and more effective, whether tourists, pilgrims, festival goers, heritage seekers, spiritual searchers or people in pain or distress, all need to receive that welcome, affirmation, embrace and blessing, that Christians will see as the hospitality of God.

The second story, of course, is twelve years later. Mary and Joseph come up to Jerusalem with their friends and relations for the festival. Jesus is with them. At least Jesus is with them until, on the journey home, they find he is not and their distress you can imagine, especially if you are a parent who even for a few minutes has lost a child. You remember how the story goes on.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at this understanding and his answers.

"Did you not understand," he asked his anxious distressed parents, "that I must be in my father's house?" Here is Jesus, engaged in conversation, clearly talking with authority and conviction, but also listening, asking questions, reflecting on what he heard. That's another part of the vocation of this minster church, to be a place of exploration. It needs to be the kind of place where people find it easy and natural to come to ask their questions about life and its meaning, about their own life and its meaning, about spiritual things, about shocking things, about truth, about faith, about God. And that, as I said before, means that this needs to be a place where faith is held confidently yet humbly by people who know that they too need to ask, not simply to answer, questions, who themselves are still seekers after truth. People who know nevertheless what Christ has done in their lives and believe in what Christ has done for the world and are ready to share it. Cheltenham, with its festival culture, is an intellectually lively questioning place. Exploring truth is in its DNA. Cheltenham Minister needs to be engaged in that.

That brings me to the third story. Much later on, the adult Jesus, his teaching and healing ministry complete, comes back to Jerusalem to - yes, to suffer and to die. He makes a triumphal entry into the city, with crowds waving palms and shouting Hosanna. He's on the way to the cross where he is destined for the falling and rising of many and, just as Simeon said, a sword will pierce Mary's soul too, and he enters the temple. And he sees this holy place abused by inappropriate commerce and greed and he challenges it. Somewhat dramatically he challenges it, turning over the tables of the money changers and driving out the people with their market stalls. "It is written, my house shall be a house of prayer."

There are a couple of messages for the minster here too. First, yes, house of prayer. Day by day the atmosphere of this place needs to be one where people may come and sit or kneel, find peace, say a prayer, perhaps light a candle, have space. And sometimes find there is corporate worship in which to join, corporate worship that goes on adding to the centuries of praise and prayer that have made this place holy.

But there is another message. And it about challenge. Jesus challenges the assumptions of those who have made the temple their own. Jesus questions their motives and their integrity. That too is part of the vocation of the minster in relation to the town. Sometimes there has to be a prophetic voice. Francis Close, of course, knew how to tell Cheltenham when he thought the town was following false gods! Today probably requires a different tone, but still there are moments when the role of the Church, and therefore of this minster, is to question and to challenge, though always with a willingness to recognise that the Church too can sometimes be challenged for the wrongness of its ways and its failure to speak the truth.

Cheltenham Minster a place of welcome, of exploration, of prayer, of challenge. And, of course, a place where Christ is presented.

Today's feast may be called the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but there is a sense in which the task of this minster church is to present Christ from the Temple. Jesus is for Christians the one who shows us God, who opens the path to God. He is the one we meet in scripture, prayer and sacrament and that is what we offer, he is the one whom we offer, to any who engage with us. He is the one for whom this church has stood for nine hundred years. He, this Jesus, the Word made flesh, the Light of the world, who will fill this church with his glory as he hallows it again for the ministry now laid upon it.

May Christ bless this Minster Church of St Mary in Cheltenham today and for all the days to come.

+Michael Gloucestr:

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