How many of us, I wonder, have taken part in a 210th anniversary of anything? To be honest, when I first heard of it, I thought it crazy. I still think it crazy. But I remembered that it’s love that makes us do crazy things. Something has shone out through all the preparations and the many meetings, all the refurbishments – the floor, the organ and the rest, through all the generosity of time and money and effort; something shone out on Sunday’s celebration and is shining through tonight. That something is a great shining love for this church, and this parish. And love will find any excuse to celebrate.
This church of St Peter is much loved, much cherished. And rightly so. It’s very dear to the Roman Catholic community of this great city. And we have a real sense that this church doesn’t just belong to us – the RCs – but to the whole Christian community of Aberdeen, indeed to the whole city. It features in the autobiography of the Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown, and in at least one of Stuart McBride’s novels. And just as the Lord Provost at the time of Priest Gordon’s death in 1855 accompanied the funeral cortege, so we are privileged to have the Lord Provost with us tonight and to be eating afterwards in the Town House.
210 years ago this much-loved church was dedicated. St Peter’s is the first permanent Catholic church to be built in Aberdeen after the Reformation. It was on the 19th August 1804, and Great Britain had just entered the long war with Napoleon. The foundation stone was laid on 15 April 1803 by Fr Charles Gordon, the parish priest, the famous Priest Gordon. The first Mass was celebrated in the chapel on Sunday 13 November 1803. The work was completed in mid-August 1804. And in Priest Gordon’s own account, ‘On the 19th day of the said month the chapel was solemnly blessed and dedicated to God under the patronage of the Holy Apostle St Peter, by the Right Reverend Bishop Cameron assisted by seven of his priests. High Mass (the first in Scotland since what is called the Reformation) was solemnised, and the Holy Sacrament of Confirmation administered to about sixty individuals, partly young people, partly grown-up converts.’ The estimated cost had been £1049. The final cost – I don’t have a figure – must have been, as is the way of these things, somewhat more. ‘Notwithstanding all my efforts, wrote Priest Gordon, I find that my debt is very considerable. I cannot help it. The chapel is, I think, a pretty good one…My people in general seem very well pleased with what has been done…The chapel debt will be got payed.’
The liturgy of the dedication of a church is one of the most beautiful and theologically suggestive of all the Church’s liturgies. The rite of dedication is a kind of baptism of a building, and an anointing of it, a kind of confirmation therefore. It’s a kind of ordination of it for divine worship. It’s its marriage, the Lord taking possession of his bride. It’s the transformation of a building into a house of God and a place of prayer. It’s its birthday as a place of worship for the Christian people. And like a birthday or an ordination or a marriage, it’s remembered annually. But the dedication of this church in that year of 1804 had a particular intensity. It marked a moment in the history of the Catholic Church in Scotland. In 1791a Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed by the Parliament of Great Britain. It relieved Catholics of some of the political, educational, and economic disabilities under which they had laboured for many many years. I think our Episcopalian friends here will recognise parallels with their own history. It became possible for Catholics to practise the law, for example. There was now freedom of worship, and the possibility of having chapels and schools, though all of these had to be registered. Assemblies with locked doors, as well as steeples and bells to chapels, were forbidden; priests were not to wear priestly garb in public and the monastic orders remained prohibited. It was, though, a first step. It represented the end of a long frigid winter, the beginning of what Bl. John Henry Newman would later famously call the “second spring”. And the building and dedication of this chapel, the presence of a bishop, the many confirmations, and not least the fact that the Mass was “high” were signs of this coming in from the cold. ‘High’ meant done with full ceremony. It meant especially “sung”. Not long before the Catholic bishops of Scotland had even forbidden singing at Mass. It was out of deference to the surrounding Presbyterian culture. But Priest Gordon and this church were ready, that August day, to burst into song again. What a symbol of resurrection and new life! It was noted how in the Soviet Union, in the 1950s, after the death of Stalin slowly people began to sing again. Centuries before, the first notice of Christianity by an official of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder, commented on how these strange people came together on a Sunday morning and ‘sung a hymn to Christ as to God’. ‘Sacred music, wrote Priest Gordon, had hitherto been quite unknown. Scarcely one individual amongst us had ever heard a single note of music in any place of worship.’ But, on 19 August 1804, here it was, with the help of priests and students from Aquhorties – the beginning of a tradition that has lasted. How touching that as the long Catholic winter turned to spring, singing was heard in the land! And so it has been ever since. Priest Gordon would have been astonished had he seen the diversity of the present-day congregation here and delighted – usually! – at the sounds it makes. ‘Beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration’: there, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1157) are the three criteria of liturgical music. ‘You are a chosen race, we heard St Peter say, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’.
Another East Coast man, through several hundred miles to the south, the Venerable Bede, a singing monk, commented on those words of St Peter: ‘Just as those who were freed by Moses from slavery in Egypt sang to the Lord a triumphant song after the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharoah’s army, so it is fitting also for us to render worthy thanks for heavenly benefits after receiving the forgiveness of sins in baptism’ (St Bede). Christians sing on the basis of their redemption. And how many ‘heavenly benefits’ have come to folk in this place!
And so we’ve moved from the church as building to the church as the people who gather in it. ‘Jesus Christ is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him.’ Here is St Peter speaking to us, speaking to this parish. ‘Set yourselves close to him so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house.’ Here is a vision of the Church of God built on Christ, rising up to heaven through the centuries, each generation as it were a fresh course of stones laid by the master-mason. And St Bede the Venerable has something very fine to say here too. He points out how each row is held up by the one below it. And ‘so all believers in the Church are held up by the righteous who preceded them.’ We are held up by all those who have worshipped in this church over more than 200 years. And so in turn, he says, ‘[we] by our teaching and support hold up those who come after even to the last righteous person.’ May we hold up others! May we take on our responsibility to lead the next generation to worship in spirit and in truth. May we be ‘lively stones’, as the Authorised Version has it, not cold, hard and unfeeling, not stones dead in sin, but ‘with God’s gift and help pressing on untiringly in good works’ – another phrase of St Bede’s. I hope that like Priest Gordon whose charity reached out to everyone, we may all have the welfare of this city and its inhabitants in our hearts and take a respected and useful place in its life, along with our fellow-Christians.
A 210th anniversary – a wee bit crazy. Dear parish, no 215th please! But keep remembering, keep refurbishing, keep praying, keep singing. ‘Set yourselves close to Christ’! Support one another, help build up this city! Be living, lively stones! Be a Christian presence beyond the walls! Be lights in the darkness! And may Christ bring us all together to life everlasting. Amen.