Horseman's Sunday, the 50th Anniversary

The Reverend Peter Murphy

Firstly I must say a big thank you for inviting me to preach this morning on the 50th Anniversary of The Horseman’s Sunday Service. It’s a great privilege and I think I am about as nervous as I was 50 years ago when I preached my first sermon here.

I was here as a deacon being trained for full time pastoral ministry by The Revd Cuthbert LeMesurer Scott. Does anyone here today also remember him? He was a retired Naval Captain, who had only been ordained himself for a few years but without him we would not be here today. The Church Commissioners had plans to demolish this Church as it was in a bad state of repair, dirty and virtually unused.

Cuthbert was rather eccentric in that he never saw things in quite the same way as other people did. He was also something of a visionary but almost blind to Church bureaucracy. But he also had three campaigning elderly ladies who wanted the Church to remain. The Church Commissioners did not know what had hit them when Lady Gregg (whose husband had been equerry to George VI), Miss Rabagliati (it was rumoured that her great grandfather was Garibaldi) and Mrs Armstrong of the engineering firm of that name arrived on their doorstep.

Together with Cuthbert they battered the Church Commissioners until they reversed its decision to close the Church. These three elderly ladies went on to support Cuthbert in his work to establish a viable worshiping community here. It took money, and Cuthbert was quite good at conjuring up unusual schemes, like selling shares in this Church. These he offered to neighbours in the houses being built around the Church.

He was a great visitor, knocking on several doors every day. He encouraged me to do the same. I found it a hard thing to do and asked Cuthbert how he went about it. He said, “Before I knock a door or ring the bell I say 'Christ let them be out!'”

He had the ability of making light work of the heaviest of tasks about the Parish and Church. A lot of laughter flew around inside the Church, then it went out of the west door and infected the Parish. Cuthbert’s crackly chuckle was seldom absent from PCC meetings and he seemed to make an art out of one of his favorite sayings....

“If a thing’s worth doing it is worth doing badly!”

I visited him fairly frequently in his clergy nursing home towards the end of his life and I was sitting with him on the evening that he died. He was peaceful and quiet all the time I was there. Suddenly his hand moved beckoning me to come closer. I put my ear near his face and he whispered:

“We did have some fun didn’t we!”

and they must have been about his last words.

An element of “Fun” was always built into whatever he arranged for the Church, whether it was organ concerts by legends like Gillian Weir or Pierre Cochereau from Notre Dame in Paris, firework displays, Medieval Mystery Plays, establishing the Crescent Club, persuading Mike d’Abo of Manfred Mann to sing on Easter Day with a children’s choir, establishing a monthly Parish Magazine (liberally spread with pictures and designed by top advertising agents the Scott Jaffe partnership and a retired editor of TimeLife magazine, Walter Grabner, to edit it). He persuaded contemporary artists to show their works on the church’s walls, established a children’s play area in Star Street, got George Martin of Beatles fame to supervise the installation of a heating system that sounded like a Boeing 747 taxiing around Hyde Park Crescent, gave the crypt rent free to a young student named Richard Branson who wanted space to edit his magazine The Student,  organized a Holland Park School production based on the subject of angels and a Holiday Club for children during the summer.

And of course, with Ross Nye, to “Horseman’s Sunday”, half a century ago, he persuaded Costermongers perched on their carts, Young’s Brewery Dray horses, a gaggle of assorted ages from Ross’ stable, sometimes a few guards from the barracks across the Park, police on their large jet-black horses, and tiny tots on naughty Shetlands.

But a golden thread that ran through all these projects was fun. Other more ecclesiastical and theological local clergy and Bishops would give it spiritual overtones and call it joy (it sounds more heavenly than ‘fun’) but duller.

One of the great Christian themes that was in the air was that of ‘Love’, not just that we should love God and love our neighbours but the important stage before that, that we are loved by God, each one of us, and given status and energy from it.

St John’s came together with the congregation of St Michael and all Angels from Star Street, whose Church was bombed during the war and which St John’s gathered up and gave it a place here alongside itself.

Care, and the welcoming of strangers was another feature of this Church 50 years ago, as I am sure it is now. Homeless men and women were allowed a night’s shelter in the Church and a plate of dinner which was taken over to them from the Vicarage.

Rather than having a blue print for mission and squeezing us in to fit the mould, the opposite approach was taken. If you had a talent, there was a place here for you to use it in the service of the Lord. It was here that the “Theology of Blunder” was explored.

Out of all this incarnational theology came Horseman’s Sunday. Ross Nye could tell you better than I how this came about. I was only a deacon at the time (a sort of midshipman in the Captain’s eyes!).

Fun and Joy should always bring a smile to your face which spreads to the heart and encourages action. Certainly a warm sense of fun or joy spread over my face when I saw for the first time that photograph of the Vicar and staff of this Church sitting on their steeds ready for the service dressed in cope and beretta; they looked like two horseman of the apocalypse who had lost their way!

Fun can be informative as well, like the Christmas card I once sent to my friends with one of the shepherds peering into the crib and exclaiming “Spitting image of his Dad!” As far as I was concerned, never a truer word was uttered but it was the fun that got me into trouble with the local press who prolonged the debate until Easter.

The saints are not wholly about fun, some of them suffered the most painful of deaths for their faith. Others had a keen sense of humour. St Theresa of Avila once added a vercicle to the Litany: “From miserable Saints...Good Lord deliver us” and when the 1970’s comedian St Dave Allen was confronted by an indignant lady asking him why he made fun of people’s religious beliefs he said, “Humour is too precious to waste on things that are unimportant". Time does not allow this morning to more than mention The Life of Brian, that parallel version of the gospels, or so many of the sketches from the Monty Python team.

Horseman’s Sunday stands there up among the greats of creative liturgies. It has its biblical element, its thanksgivings, its acknowledgement of God’s creation and that it is The Kingdom in which we live.

Indeed you could say it is a fundamental element of the very best sort of worship.


The Blessing of the Horses

There are very few places in the Bible where horses are given a good press or even mentioned at all. The Jews did not like them because they only seem to come with the countries that invaded them...from Babylon, Egypt and Syria and the rest, all of whom had war horses and at one time or another enslaved the Jewish nation.

Nevertheless, the Jews had a healthy respect for the animal and this is reflected in that reading from the Book of Job you heard a few moments ago.

They are describing a fine stallion no doubt but, have a care. If you went rushing around Hyde Park acting out that piece from Job you would soon be brought to a standstill by the police. Hacking around Rotten Roe on a warm sunny day is delightful andmakes you feel good but don’t forget your steed has generations of breeding in him or her of working hard for its owner.

In the New Forest we round up all the ponies between August and October to check and mark them. It is both thrilling and dangerous work but if you are not trusting your horse or pony completely as you gallop through unknown undergrowth you are likely to come to a sticky end.

But whatever you do with your horse, (even if you are not going off to war) every time you climb onto his or her back, adjust the girth, settle into the saddle and say “Walk on!” you are putting your life into its hands (or should that be into its hooves). If you cannot trust your horse in that way it is time that you stopped riding, or got another horse.

Trust is at the very heart of our relationship with our horse and underpins all we do together. Indeed, ‘trust’ is one of the things our horses teach us rather than we teach them!

So all this is worth celebrating today and saying “Thank you” for the experiences and for everything our horses and ponies mean to us.

May your riding be good and may your relationship to your horse be fulfilling and beautiful every time you mount into the saddle.

Good luck and every blessing to both you and your horse.