A homily preached by Fr Nigel Palmer on 20th September 2020, his final Sunday with us.
Some of you may know the wonderful survey of “The Buildings of England” compiled under the editorship of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner after the Second World War, a landmark of scholarship and learning in the built history of this country.
Sir Nikolaus was a refugee from Nazi Germany. For all his loyalty to his adopted country, his prose style is marked by a particular brisk Teutonism and a liking for the more austere forms of modern architecture; not for him the raptures of his great rival Sir John Betjeman, whose lyrical enthusiasm he seems to have despised.
We do not know whether Betjeman ever visited this church, but we do know from Pevsner’s work that he did, and he seems to have found out some interesting information in the course of his investigations. We learn that the font is from the original church, and that what he calls, somewhat disapprovingly, “the lively continental Baroque painted statue of Virgin and Child”, whom we know more devotedly as Our Lady of Kentish Town, was given to the church by the architect, C.G. Hare, who rebuilt the church after the collapse of its first nave.
He does seem to have missed a number of things in the course of his inspection. The holy water stoup at the back of the nave, given by his parents in memory of Gerald Robinson, killed in action in the First World War. The sanctuary bell, which is the bell of the original belfry, paid for by unknown benefactors, the crucifixion over the chancel arch, designed by the architect, but given in memory of Alice Mary Fincham, the stained glass in the nave given by Henry Tristram Valentine and the mysterious “”B.M.K.” and “J.A.L.H.”, that in memory of Fr Douglas Rutherford, my predecessor as Assistant Curate in this church, and the statue of our very own patron saint of St Benet, given by a husband and wife in grateful thanks.
These people evidently loved this church and sought to adorn it as a measure of their devotion, but their identity is now lost to posterity, like the names on gravestones in country churchyards, whose inscriptions we can barely decipher.
But we should not forget them. They sought to make St Benet’s a church of beauty and prayer, a place where the worship of God would be carried on long after their entry into their eternal rest. And let us remember them, in the words of the great Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot, in his poem “Little Gidding”:
“You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid….
And what the dead had no speech for when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
And so here at St Benet’s we attend “the intersection of the timeless moment” in the celebration of the Mass, where Time meets Eternity. You are here to kneel where the memorials of the past show that prayer has been valid, here in Kentish Town, as much as in Eliot’s Little Gidding. For we are, whether we realise it or not, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”, that “Communion of Saints” in which we declare our belief every time we say the Apostles’ Creed.
But a church is not just a place for the celebration of the Mass, supremely important as that is. We are told every day by modern commentators, that the Covid virus has changed everything. You will know there are some, in churches of all denominations, who have sought to exploit that present mood by declaring that the day of worship in physical buildings is over; the sooner they are closed and made redundant, or turned into museums, the better.
Just as social media has created a new virtual community, so it is suggested Zoom will in turn create new virtual communities of worship for the new era. Even Nikolaus Pevsner seemed to anticipate this elegiac mood in one of his rather crushing comments on St Benet’s: “The calm, lofty, white-plastered interior originally formed a foil for rich furnishings, now mostly gone.”
What all these people miss, is that the building of a church to fulfill its true mission in the world, does not wholly depend on its artistic monuments or its architecture, or even its state of repair. For I know, from my experience of this parish over the last three years, that St Benet’s already has more than its fair share of “rich furnishings”. The most important “rich furnishings” which St Benet’s has, my dear friends, are YOU, every one of you, when you come together in this place to worship and honour God in a place dedicated to you and this locality for that purpose.
If you and the memorials to people in this place are rooted in Time, so St Benet’s is rooted in Eternity, all of us, in this place, seeking together in worship that Heavenly Kingdom, which is our only resting place and salvation.