Start of 150th Anniversary of Holy Innocents / Platinum Jubilee
So, they said, let's get a big name, a distinguished guest preacher, to launch our sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations – marking the day 150 years ago when Holy Innocents was opened for public worship. But we left it a bit late, and anyway we're in competition with another anniversary this weekend. So for the launch we have stayed local (with the promise of great ones in the months to come), and you're landed with me on the basis that I know a bit about the history of this church and parish, and indeed of other Manchester churches, particularly those which are closed and under-memorialised. That of course is not true of the unclosed Holy I, or indeed of the closed St James Birch, with which we are united, both of which have rich histories and a wealth of material online and elsewhere. (I hope we'll include something of the story of St James in our celebrations – not least the transfer of the bells – see below!)
So I accepted the challenge: to link these two anniversaries – parish and royal – and indeed to connect them to the greater and mightier theme of Pentecost: the gift and promise of the Holy Spirit.
My first though was the link could be Queen Victoria, memorialised in the 1901 north aisle window and tablet, and described in a booklet of the time
The Queen's loving discharge of her duty to all her subjects. In the north light the Queen is on her throne with the poor, the sick, and the children at her feet. In the south light are representations of our Colonies, the [negro - sic] from South Africa, the native from Canada with the Bible, the native from the East Indies, and the English colonist from Australia. Above are Angels with instruments of music and a crown, and at the foot the text illustration of the window “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life”. In the trefoil are the arms of England, Scotland, and Ireland [ + Wales?], and the rose, the thistle, and the shamrock. The window and the memorial tablet below were the gift of the congregation and was inserted in July 1901.
They were quick off the mark: she had been dead for less than six months, having been on the throne for 35 years before this church was opened. There was a cult of Victoria as the ideal wife /widow and mother – hence windows near fonts. But nationally this legacy, as monarch-mother and as Empress of India, is now questioned in some respects, and like other churches we are asking how best to handle this particular royal memorial. There will in due course be similar questions about our present monarch in relation to the Commonwealth.
But what tipped it for me is that Elizabeth, with her platinum jubilee, has gloriously out-monarched (if there is such a term) even her great-great-grandmother, so Victoria can't be my link. Then I looked up – as one should always do to seek inspiration, even though Ascension and Pentecost tell us that the Spirit is within us, not just beyond.
The architects of the church were Irish, both Dublin-born: Henry Robert Price, and Mortimer Henry Linklater (who for a time was struck off the Irish register of architects – and was later ordained). We applaud them today. 150 years ago they gave us a lofty church whose great roofs, to naves and aisles, which are still going strong (unlike other churches in damp Manchester). But in 1954 a fire started in the boiler room – the flames, alas, were not Pentecostal – and it destroyed the north aisle roof as well as much of the organ. These roofs were rebuilt, using the inferior materials which were all that was available in post-war Britain, and these in turn have now failed. Replacing them, at huge expense but with the added benefit of insulation, is a priority (you can read the faculty application pinned to the door).
Now the 1954 fire misses the coronation by a year (I remember my grandparents bought a tv for the event, and I was wheeled up the hill to view it on the tiny screen), but the fire and its ultimate replacement sets us in the contemporary context.
[I've never preached on roofs before – though did once have to devise a blessing for a toilet – long before the excellent toilet twinning scheme which we support….]
What all this suggests to me is a contrast between things intended to be permanent, unchanged; and things with a limited lifespan, intended or not.
So much has changed: not least the loss of former parochial buildings next door, and the 1980s reordering (which most would say was a big success – unlike some other other schemes of the time, in Manchester and elsewhere, which have been reversed).
When Holy Innocents opened in 1872, was there a railway station round the corner? (No - the Fallowfield Loop only came into being in 1891, and its station is now Sainsbury's)..
Were there horse-drawn buses or trams along Wilbraham Road? (No: the photographs show that this was a gated road, to keep out riff-raff from further west. It was not until 1912 when the City of Manchester adopted this road for the new Wilbraham estate, and tram tracks were laid – initially, route 406 to Chorlton. What was the later route number, until trams were withdrawn? [various answers from the congregation, but my information is 37]).
Now, of course, we have Europe's busiest bus corridor down Wilmslow Road.
I've explored some of the families that made up the congregation in earlier years: many of them German, or eastern European, quite a few of Jewish heritage, and there are many fascinating stories to tell. Their experience of adaptation and integration link in with that of those who have joined us in recent years – many of Muslim rather than Jewish heritage, plus those who have changed Christian denomination, which Janet is carefully transcribing for our website.
The question underlying all this is, do we want things to be permanent, or is it good that things don't last for ever (which is what some churches say when they replace pews with chairs – oh, anyway we'll want to replace than in 25 years)? Which is the more authentically Christian attitude?
In this platinum jubilee year there has inevitably been a lot of looking back (some of it not very accurate, despite the best efforts of the BBC). But in her various utterances the Queen has been clear that we should be looking forward – by which she means a future without her (of which yesterday's service at St Paul's was a kind of foretaste).
[It was good to hear our excellent bells – 'inherited' from St James – ringing a quarter peal before that service began, even though – mercifully – we don't have a 16½ ton bell like Great Paul. It's also good to know that our ringers are ringing today at Northenden, to enable that parish to mark the jubilee. Such is the local – and indeed national – campanological network.]
You won't surprised when I say that the authentically Christian (Anglican) attitude is to hold past, present and future in balance: celebrating what is good about the past and repenting of what is bad, looking with expectation to the future, but living firmly in the present moment, with all its joys and sorrows. And we are fortunate to have a heritage which is both old and new.
So I leave you with three texts:
(1) Jesus said, Every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13.52)
(2) Sydney Carter's song One more step doesn't actually name God, but is clearly about the Triune One, Father, Son and Spirit.
You are older than the world can be, you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new, keep me travelling along with you:
(3) from gospel readings for the Day of Pentecost
Jesus said: The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14.25f)
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Richard Young (Rector)