Sermon preached by Revd Hazel White, 23 July 2017

St Anne’s Patronal Festival, St Anne’s, 11:00 a.m.

Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Matthew 13:16-17

Gracious God, open our ears to hear your word, open our minds to receive your word, and open our eyes to see where we might be instruments of your saving love in the world. Amen.

It is very interesting to notice how traditions develop. As an enthusiastic Curate in my first year of ordained ministry, I asked one of our village churches whether we could somehow make Easter Day much more of a celebration. One of the things we did was to serve bucks fizz instead of the normal tea and biscuits, and give away chocolate eggs after the morning service. I was absolutely amazed the following year, when sitting in a PCC discussion about Lent and Easter, to hear someone say ‘well we’ve got to make Easter Day a real celebration and have bucks fizz and lots of chocolate because we always do that’! Really—we always do that? Even after only one year, something had become a tradition!

Traditions can be very important: they contribute to a sense of belonging; they reinforce values; they create lasting memories; they can offer an opportunity for celebration, or to give thanks for a contribution that someone has made. But the danger with tradition is that it can be taken for granted, and become disconnected with the original purpose that led to the formulation of the tradition in the first place. So it seems to be a tradition to celebrate the Patronal Festivals of St Mary’s & St Anne’s churches, and to hold a joint Benefice Service when we do so. I’ve no idea how long that has been happening, because it was already established as a pattern before I came here, but I do happen to believe that the celebration of our Patronal Festivals is a good thing to do.

But do we know why we do it, I wonder? Patron saints can be chosen for a variety of reasons. For example, a church that was founded on a saint’s day might have that saint as patron, or if a church has a strong association with a particular form of ministry, such as a ministry of healing, that church might be named after the patron saint associated with that form of ministry, which would be St Luke, the patron saint of physicians. It’s quite interesting that St Anne’s was a daughter church of St Mary’s, but the Patron Saint chosen for this church, St Anne, was the mother of Mary, not her daughter.

The patronal festival is usually the feast of the Saint in the organization’s title, when a special celebratory service is held, although where the feast day set aside in the church calendar for that particular Saint falls in the middle of the week, the church can transfer the celebration to the nearest Sunday, which is what has happened today. So the church calendar actually sets aside July 26th to remember and give thanks for Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary mother of Jesus. A celebration focussing on Jesus’s grandparents reminds us of the important place of all generations in our church community life together, and although it can be a challenge sometimes to make worship inclusive of the four generations that we are blessed with in our Sunday morning congregations, that’s a great challenge to have. There are many churches out there who would dearly love to have the intergenerational mix that we have here.

In terms of giving thanks for the life of Saint Anne, after whom this church is named, it’s actually quite difficult, because the Bible as we have it does not specifically mention Anne. What has been passed down through the generations in terms of tradition about St Anne comes from Catholic legend, from iconography and art, and also from the apocryphal Gospel of James, a Gospel dating from around the second century AD that was never included in the authorised collection of books that is the Bible we read today.

The story of Anne in the Gospel of James tells us that Mary was promised to Joachim and Anne by an angel, and the tradition honours Anne and Joachim as good parental role models who were devoted to God. Anne is also revered as a highly spiritual woman in Islam. And that’s it. Although as I said in my sermon at last year’s Patronal Festival here, that’s not really it, because we need to read between the lines in terms of what is not said in the text, and come to appreciate that without Anne and Joachim and their faithfulness and their devotion to God, God’s purposes through Mary, and then Jesus, may not have been fulfilled.

Even when we begin to appreciate something of the tradition around St Anne, after whom this church is named, it’s still important for us to understand why we do what we do, so why set aside a special Sunday as a Patronal Festival focussed on St Anne, and in September another Patronal Festival at St Mary’s focussed on the Virgin Mary? It seems to me that it’s worth reminding ourselves again of the importance of traditions in contributing to a sense of belonging, reinforcing values, creating lasting memories, and offering an opportunity for celebration, giving thanks for the contribution someone has made.

Joint Benefice services for the Patronal Festivals of St Mary’s and St Anne’s can, if we will allow them, contribute to a sense of belonging. Both churches represented here this morning belong together as a Benefice, called together to serve this community of Moseley. We also still have art around the church from yesterday’s exhibition, with art and flowers contributed from people outside of our own worshipping community as well as from within, and yesterday we opened the doors and welcomed in folk from the community to view the art, a reminder that we belong to this community of Moseley in which we are placed, together with other churches and organisations, all making a contribution to that community. We also belong within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, a church that teaches us about the communion of Saints: that great body of Christians, living and departed, of which we are a part.

St Anne’s and St Mary’s churches also belong together as open and inclusive worshipping communities, where all generations are welcome, as well as those from different backgrounds and holding different beliefs, so those values of openness and inclusivity need to be reinforced every time we come together for shared events and services in this way. Perhaps we also need to think about what lasting memories we are creating from our celebrations together, particularly for our children and young people, as we give thanks for St Anne, and also for the life and witness of this church.

But before we all pat ourselves on the back and say ‘aren’t we doing well’, I do want to pose a question or two for our ongoing reflections. Important though they are, traditions need to be continually examined, so that the way they are marked and handed on doesn’t become stale, and disconnected from their original intent. One of the distinctive marks of the Anglican Church is the conviction that its beliefs and practices must derive from an integration of Scripture, or the Bible, reason, and tradition, and some have added experience as a fourth element to be woven into those other three. Anglicans believe that we are in danger of teaching and living heresy if we highlight one of these categories such that it excludes the others. So that means that we need to continually examine our traditions, including how we celebrate festivals, in the light of how we read God’s Word, Scripture, as well as in the light of contemporary experience and reason.

Apparently we normally have yellow and white flowers for St Anne, though we have diversified this year because of the exhibition. I’d be delighted if someone could explain the reason behind that tradition to me afterwards! Today we have something new, a Patronal Picnic after the service. Who knows, perhaps that will become part of our tradition of celebrating Patronal Festivals here in the Benefice. But there are deeper questions that we need to ask ourselves about our traditions besides questions to do with food and flowers, and I think these are the questions we need to ask. Firstly, which traditions might God be calling us to change or adapt to take into account the changing needs of our community, both now and in the future? Just because we’ve always done something, or done it in a particular way, for however long that has been, doesn’t mean to say that’s how we should always continue to do it. And then secondly, which new traditions might God be calling us to create, to connect with contemporary culture here in this community of Moseley?

A great deal of prayer and discernment and attentiveness are needed, so that together we may come to a shared understanding of the traditions that God would have us hand on to those who come after us, and to generations yet to come.