On Sunday Fr Martin Smith celebrated 50 years since he was ordained Priest in a special service at St Mary's. The Church was full to celebrate with him. Here are a few photos and a copy of a sermon which was printed in the order of service.
A SERMON FOR A 50th ANNIVERSARY OF ORDINATION AS A PRIEST
As stood under the great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral after our Choir had just sung a magnificent Choral Evensong, I remarked to the Canon in Residence that I had been ordained on this very spot 49 years ago. He paused for a moment, singularly unimpressed, and said “I wasn’t even born then”. I was a little deflated, but I was still proud that I had survived so long in the topsy-turvy world of the Church of England. I was amazed by my survival and I thought that if I got to my Golden Anniversary as a Priest, I would mark the occasion appropriately. So here we are. Thank you to all of you for coming.
My pilgrimage towards Ordination began about 1953 when I filled in a form at school about my employment expectations. I already had a basic concept of Ordination and wanted to declare my intentions. But my spelling being shaky I couldn’t remember whether “i” came before “e” so I avoided the word “Priest” in favour of “Missionary”, a word I could spell, because the previous Saturday our Curate had taken me to a Missionary film called “The Last Candle”. It was about the Church in Borneo!
Of course the Church of England was not the same Beast then that it is now. While the eternal faith of the Gospel has remained intact - “Jesus Christ being the same yesterday, today and for ever” (Heb,13.8), the external, less important matters of church life have changed enormously. Back then most Bishops, Cathedral Deans, Archdeacons and indeed, very many clergy of the church were Public School and Oxbridge Men with a distinct class view of the world. There was no Synodical Government, and PCCs had no say in the choice of their new Vicar. Churchwardens might have the temerity to demur at the appointment of a particular new Vicar but in the end the Bishop and Patron had their way. It was a far more deferential world then than we know now.
Fifty years ago our Worship was almost entirely from The Book of Common Prayer. Of course, it was adapted to the tastes of individual parishes. It was amazing how far the rubrics (instructions) in the Prayer Book could be stretched in both a High Church Catholic way or equally in a very Low Church Protestant way. It was the splendour of the Church of England that it could contain both views. I had been mostly grown in faith through a fairly “High Church” parish and thought Vestments, Incense, the Reserved Sacrament and calling the Vicar “Father” were pretty normal stuff. I had lots to learn.
So, after successfully negotiating the selection procedures of the Church and a year working in a Steel Mill in Sheffield in lieu of National Service I arrived at King’s College, London, then the foremost Theological Faculty in the country. There, after three years, I was almost beguiled with an offer of a future in Academic Theology. But I had always seen my vocation in terms of the pastoral ministry. This was my true calling and could not be denied.
But first, the necessary Curacy had to be got through. This I found at St. Hilda’s, Ashford, Middlesex, the western end of the diocese of London. It was, happily, quite near to where my fiancée was to be teaching and where a good friend had settled at nearby Teddington. I am grateful for my years as a Curate. I learned much, not all of it positive but I could see how not to do things and determine that when I had my own parish I would do differently. But some things I learned as absolutes. The fundamental importance of the Daily Office (Morning & Evening Prayer every day in church) and the non-negotiable primacy of Parish Visiting – calling on all your people in their homes, year in year out. Every Monday morning at the Staff meeting I had to list all the people I visited the previous week. My vicar insisted that I buy a bicycle immediately and always travel around the Parish speaking to everyone. He also required his Curates to wear a cassock every day in and around the Parish. I was certainly a marked man in the locality, as he was, and the presence of the Church in homes, schools, hospital, shops and banks could not be hidden. The combination of Cassock and bike was sometimes a challenge, especially when I had a puppy in the saddlebag to hide it from my landlady. A year into my Curacy I was married to Margaret. Fifty years as Priest will be followed in July by our Golden Wedding Anniversary. Our first child, Nicholas, was born in Ashford just in time for a great change of location and ministry. At the end of my three years Curacy I had to fulfil the promise of that school questionnaire and seek a Missionary posting.
Through the agency of SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), we were interviewed by Bishop Koh of the Diocese of Sabah, formerly British North Borneo, for a post in his mainly Chinese diocese. We sailed from London Docks and, because of the Suez War, we sailed via the Cape visiting Dakar in Senegal, Cape Town, Durban, Bombay, Colombo, Penang and Singapore before eventually arriving in North Borneo. I was sent as the Missionary Priest to the small island of Labuan in the Bay of Brunei and to the waiting Church of Our Holy Saviour, Labuan. There we met with nothing but kindness from the mainly Chinese Anglican Christian community and some Mar Thoma Indian Christians. I was also to act as the Chaplain at the RAF base on Labuan just as it began the pull-out East of Suez. On Labuan our daughter Victoria was born. We are still friendly with the midwife! But after two years there was serious political and racial rioting on the Malaysian mainland, which made the Bishop pull us out to work at the Anglican Mission HQ on the mainland and to take care of Christ Church, Likas, a new church, a gift of New Zealand. There, besides the parish, I was involved in the Anglican Mission Schools and Hostels with regular forays to the jungle interior mission churches. Here we served the rest of our time in Borneo returning home in 1971 to a temporary, not really wanted, job as Vicar of St. Mark’s, Lakenham in Norwich. We had wanted to settle in London. Our chance would come one day, we thought! How wrong you can be. We were stuck in Norfolk for ever, thankfully!
St. Mark’s on City Road, Lakenham in Norwich was due for closure in the great 1960s City Churches reorganisation plan. But like many other schemes in the C of E it never quite happened and after a trial year as stop-gap Priest-in-Charge to see if the church could be revived I was given the Freehold as Incumbent. We had thirteen glorious years there and St. Mark’s pulled round magnificently with many, many children and young people sharing a vigorous High Church Parish Life. We left with great regret in 1984 for North Walsham.
St. Nicholas, North Walsham was a splendid place: good congregation, fine music, two Curates and a new vicarage. North Walsham in 1984 was still a lively Market Town. Aided by some young churchwardens we took on the bureaucracy of the Church over re-siting part of a tattered Medieval Screen and we lost, expensively, at a dreadful Consistory Court hearing. But that was an insignificant draw-back in a parish full of fun, growth and excitement. Sadly one Curate died in a car crash and another ended up in difficulty. It was a lovely Parish with some great people. So, it was with great sadness that we answered our Bishop’s desperate call to spend my last five years before retirement in charge of what he called the most dispiriting parish in his diocese.
Wymondham Abbey is a wonderful church with some wonderful people but it had fallen prey to some complicated, acrimonious, long seated and frankly unpleasant circumstances. Two years of challenging and abrasive struggle were needed to point things roughly in the right direction. Then we could really enjoy another three years in a magnificent ancient church and an equally ancient vicarage. We had some great times there in the end.
So much has changed in the life of the Church of England in 50 years. The Bible we use has changed from the traditional Authorised Version through the NEB, NRSV, the Good News Bible and the NIV. Who now remembers the “Parish and People Movement”, “The Decade of Evangelism”, or the ”People Next Door” campaign and many other well-meant schemes imposed from above? The Charismatic Movement has come and largely gone while the Alpha Courses have emerged and flourished. The Retreat Movement has gained strength and Walsingham has become a part of mainstream C of E life. On the other hand reunion with Rome is further away than ever and the Anglican/Methodist Unity Scheme has stalled. In worship the Book of Common Prayer, used 50 years ago by almost every church, morphed into “Series 1, 2 and 3” (remember those flimsy booklets?) before becoming the ASB (Alternative Service Book) and then CW (Common Worship). When I was Ordained few members of the Church of England made the sign of the Cross, now many do. Few churches had votive candles, now they are everywhere. Not many churches had statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now lots do. Although alas, not our Church. We should surely have a representation of the Mother of our Lord. After all the proper name of our church is very rare and precious – the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
When I was Ordained, divorcees could not marry in church, Gay relationships were condemned and women could not be Priests or Bishops. Who now remembers what the church acronyms USPG, CA, CMS, CBS, CEMS, AYPA, GSS, FCP, SSC, MMT or even A&M stand for? Only “MU” has stayed the course remaining widely recognised, as it should be. Through all my 50 years the Mothers’ Union has been a constant, practical and prayerful adjunct in every church. Its fortunes fluctuate but it survives.
However, through all the radical changes and the many hare-brained schemes our Church survives and still preaches the same glorious Gospel. At a recent Golden Wedding Celebration of University contemporaries I was challenged by the host if I still believed now what I believed when we first knew each other as students in Swinging Sixties London. I was able, to the amazement of all the listeners around us, to unhesitatingly affirm that I believed then and still do believe and trust in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. If I can show little else I hope I can at least show faithfulness to the central tenets our Christian faith. As a very little child our Vicar, Arthur Suffrin, a holy man, held me up before the altar in our church of St. Christopher and prayed that I might grow up to serve the Lord like Samuel in the Temple. That is what I have tried to do in all the churches I have had the privilege of serving as Parish Priest. But that has only been possible with the loving support of a Christian wife, my family and good friends and countless ordinary good Christian folk in every place. It is true that there are some very odd people in the Church, but there are some very extraordinarily good ones as well, and I have been enriched by all of them. What a wonderful gift it has been to serve fifty years as a Priest in the Church of England and to have touched the lives of so many.
May God bless you all. Martin