Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Venerable Peter Townley: Remembering Mary

22 July 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
St Mary Magdalene
The Venerable Peter Townley
Song of Songs 3. 1-4; John 20. 1-2 & 11-18

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today. Many thanks for your warm welcome. We look forward to welcoming Simon and Anne and the family to Wakefield and greatly look forward to this new chapter in the life of our Cathedral.

After a predictably boring Deanery Synod meeting in Hadleigh in Suffolk one cold and dark December night I was driving home to the Vicarage in the centre of Ipswich. The traffic was moving slowly through the red light district and there was one particularly attractive young woman (beautiful teeth!) not only standing on the street corner but also smiling and waving at the cars to stop.

It was a fearful time in Ipswich. Between October and December of 2006 five girls would be murdered. Annette, the one I saw, was number four.

The media circus was quite incredible. Fake news is nothing new. Some sharp elbowed clergy were dying to get in the papers with their comments or to be interviewed on the radio or TV. One or two got so interested that the police got interested in them! The police, who were wonderful, needed a lot of pastoral care and support.

A year later after some of the dust had settled and the murderer was behind bars, I led the memorial service for the girls: Tania, Gemma, Anneli , Annette and Paula. It wasn’t like when I led the memorial service for Sir Alf Ramsey with the ’66 squad in the congregation. There was no “live on Sky” TV business. In contrast, the service for the girls was deliberately very low key. It was a privilege to meet the families.

The thread that linked the girls was drugs and their insatiable need to get money to feed that habit. Their boyfriends would drop them off for work on street corners like somebody might drop their girlfriend or wife off at the office. They’d stand on those street corners in all weathers, often soaked to the skin. And from all kinds of backgrounds: the Grandfather of one of the girls was a retired policeman who sang in the Constabulary Police Choir. She’d been in the Guides and owned a horse.

Much to the credit of the people of Ipswich the girls were referred to as “the girls” and not prostitutes. We started a charity: “Somebody’s Daughter”, a moving phrase used to describe those girls and coined by one the locals. I was one of the Trustees.

I’ve often wondered what might have happened if I’d have stopped the car that December night and tried to help that girl Annette? What would I have said, what would I have done? Would it have saved her life? How would I have explained that one to the Bishop? A bit like an ecclesiastical version of that erstwhile Prime Minister William Gladstone. But I didn’t. I passed by.

Jesus didn’t pass by. He embraced Mary Magdalene with His love and channelled her love. Again and again he didn’t pass by on the other side. Again and again, God in Christ is searching for us and finding us. God in search of humanity. We are not human beings but rather we are human becomings.

That’s why we are remembering St Mary Magdalene today. Like us all, she’s a mixed picture, a complex character. Mentally ill, the good time girl from that busy city on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. What would you expect with all those sailors? The tart with the heart! What kind of welcome would she get if she came here? What kind of welcome would she get in many of our churches? Perhaps we should all pause for a moment and picture the scene. Worthy of Last of the Summer Wine.

It’s not what we are. Rather it is what by God’s grace we may become that matters. “Become that which you are”, runs the German phrase.

The encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden must be one of the most moving of the resurrection stories, the words, the scene, the emotion. Heartbroken despair turned to incredible joy at nought to sixty! The Joshua and the Miriam of history become the Jesus and Mary of faith. The Easter garden becomes the new Garden of Eden, an incredible picture of our new creation in Christ. You can dig for ever into that encounter story and never run out of gold. Mary Magdalene, the one we would have frozen out, the one we would never invite round and especially if our husbands were there, is the first witness of the resurrection and with her heart set on fire with joy becomes the Apostle to the Apostles, a model of what it is to be the church in the world today, bearers of the good news: “I have seen the Lord”.
Lord Jesus, give us grace
On earth to love thee more.
In heaven to see thy face,
And with thy saints adore. Amen