Celebrating Saint Egwin

One of the strangest encounters between Jesus and his disciples occurs in Matthew’s Gospel. We did not hear it today, so if you want to look it up in your Bible when you get home you will find it in the Seventeenth Chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  The collectors of the Temple Tax have been challenging Jesus’ disciples about whether Jesus pays the tax or not.  Peter questions Jesus about it, and Jesus sends him off to the sea with the command that he go fishing.  Peter goes off and casts his line into the sea, and catches a fish.  As Jesus has already foretold, when he opens up the mouth of the fish he finds a coin inside and he goes to the Temple with the coin and uses it to pay Jesus’ Temple tax.

It is rather a strange story, and one that is not preached on often, but it is right there in the Gospel.  That is an important story for us today as we celebrate the Feast of Saint Egwin, the Patron of one of our former churches at Tenambit, because there is a story in Saint Egwin’s own life which parallels this fishing for coins encounter very closely.

But first let me say, Happy Fathers Day! If ever the world needed good, attentive, caring Christian fathers and grandfathers it needs it in this generation. We celebrate with all fathers at this Eucharist.  Today we also celebrate a particular father in the faith, Saint Egwin.  It is worth saying that Saint Egwin is probably spoken about more in East Maitland and the neighbouring suburbs and towns than anywhere else in Australia.  Even in his home country of England he is not on the top ten, or even top one hundred list of well known saints, and certainly here in Australia we must surely be unique in having had a church community under his patronage.  When I searched the internet to try and find another Saint Egwin’s Church in Australia, all that I could find was references to our church in Tenambit.  So what we do here when we remember Saint Egwin and keep his story alive is important, because few others are doing it.  What we do when we remember the faithful ministry at Saint Egwin’s Church in Tenambit is important as well because if we do not keep the story of that Church alive then no one else will.

As you know, this year we are deliberately celebrating the Patronal Festivals of four of the church communities that ministered in this Parish and which have now been amalgated into our congregations at Saint Peter’s – Saint Mark’s Church at Eastville, Saint Barnabas’ Church in Victoria Street, Saint Egwin’s Church at Tenambit, and Saint Luke’s Church at Buchanan.  I know from conversations, that observing these feast days is special for some of you, because you were nurtured in your Christian discipleship in one of these communities.

So what do we know about Saint Egwin, (the Saint that is, not the Church)?

Egwin was born into the royal family of the Kingdom of Mercia in England in the Seventh Century. His parents were pious Christians and raised him in the Christian faith at a time when most of the people around them were Pagans.  Egwin devoted himself to the service of God from his childhood and at an appropriate time was ordained to the priesthood.  In the last years of the Seventh Century he was elected the Third Bishop of Worcester. He did not want to be a bishop and took up this new ministry against his will. There have been over one hundred bishops of Worcester since him.  He worked closely with the King of Mercia, King Ethelred to convert the people to Christianity.

The accounts of his life and ministry speak of a man who was meek, prudent, fair and honest and greatly loved by his people.  When accusations were made against Bishop Egwin by some who opposed him, and who sought to depose him, he made the decision to travel to Rome on a penitential pilgrimage to prove his innocence.  Before leaving England he shackled himself in chains and threw the key into the River Avon, and then boarded a ship with his companions to travel to Italy.

When he arrived in Rome he and his companions stopped at a bridge to catch some fish from the River Tiber for their meal.  His friends caught a large fish and as they were cooking it they discovered a key inside the stomach of one of the fish.  The key was the same key that Egwin had thrown into the River Avon, and he used it to unlock the shackles that he had bound himself in.  This miracle was understood to be a vindication of the Bishop, who returned to England to take up his ministry once again, where the story – so similar to the experience of Jesus and Peter with the fish and the coin in the Gospels – spread far and wide.

Hundreds of years later, in 1895 a small weatherboard Church was opened for worship under his Patronage in our Parish, in Tenambit, on land that had been donated ten years earlier by Mr Robert Close, and faithful worship and ministry continued in that Church for the next 110 years – and for this, most of all, we give thanks today.  Of all the Saints that could have been chosen to be Patron of our Church, I have no idea why Saint Egwin was chosen, but something about his life must have inspired those who made the decision.

Saint Egwin’s Church holds a special place in the hearts of those of us who have had some connection with it.  That did not come to an end when the Church building was de-consecrated in 2014.  But there is a concern that the story of this Church and its ministry may not be known to future generations who will have had no personal connection with it, once the building has gone and the site has been developed.  We might ask whether this really matters. And I think that it does. The Church that does not know its past is not well-equipped for its future.

Just as the cycle of the Church’s year seeks to immerse us continually in the life of Jesus and his Saints, not as a historical curiosity but as a life-giving source of inspiration for us who continue in succession to their work today, so the pioneering work of those who came before us – not in some distant land but here in our own Parish in Tenambit – can also inspire us in our own work of ministry today.  In particular when we take time to remember and give thanks for Christians who have gone before us – both the saints who are recognised around the world, and our local heroes, at places like Saint Egwin’s, we are reminded that we are not the first people who have tried to follow Jesus, we are not the first people who have started something new, and risked giving a new idea a go.

We are also reminded – and this is really important – that whilst there may only be a few of us here at this Eucharist, we are joined by a heavenly Church that is so vast that none of us could count it, from every age, who worship alongside us today.  Have you ever stopped to think about that?  The Church teaches that we are joined here in worship today by all of the Saints including the pioneers who built Saint Egwin’s Church and who faithfully ministered in it down through the years. That is the hope of the Gospel, that though we are few in number here, our worship is joined with the heavenly worship of every Christian – down through the years – who has been raised to new life with our Lord.

So how are we responding to this challenge of ensuring that Saint Egwin’s Church is remembered in the future?  There are some practical steps that we have taken already or are planning to take:

Firstly, the bell that called people to worship at Saint Egwin’s now has pride of place at the entrance to Tenambit Public School.  It remains there in the local community in use, remembering that the first school in Tenambit began its life in our Church.

Secondly, in due course the Middleton Memorial Window which stood in the sanctuary at Saint Egwin’s Church will be boxed, and back lit and installed here in Saint Peter’s as a lasting sign of the thanksgiving that we have for the faithful worship that took place at Saint Egwin’s for so many years.

Thirdly, the Saint Egwin’s font, which was crafted from stone from the original Saint Peter’s Church, and at which some of us and our children were baptised, has been re-located here and stands at the great West Doors as a reminder as we enter the Church of the work of discipling Christians at Saint Egwin’s, particularly through the Sunday School there for over one hundred years.

Fourthly, next year (if we can secure a donor, and there is more detail about this in the August issue of the Cross and Keys) we plan to install a group of windows high up in the clerestory of this Church to honour Saint Egwin and the Church that bore his name as a lasting memorial for that Christian community. There are not many windows depicting Saint Egwin around the world, and I am almost certain that ours will be the only one in Australia.  I hope that one of the windows might be able to portray the man himself and communicate something of the great legend of the fish and the key, and that the other will portray the building, so that it can be remembered long after you and I are no longer here.

Fifthly, we have renamed the clergy cottage (the staff house that Jesse lives in) ‘Saint Egwin’s House’ so that the name ‘Saint Egwin’ continues to be heard around the place.

Sixthly, the Saint Egwin’s Fellowship continues its active work of providing a space for Christian care at its social gatherings, and we are grateful for it.

Seventhly, funds from the sale of the Tenambit site and from the Trust that was associated with Saint Egwin’s Church have been added to our Endowment Trust Fund, so that dividends from the fund can assist the ministry needs of this Parish each and every year in the future, and form part of a lasting and ongoing legacy.

Finally, the Saint Egwin’s Church site, whilst no longer in our control, will be developed by the Samaritans Foundation, the social justice agency of our Anglican Diocese.  And in years to come we look forward with hope to new opportunities for fruitful ministry in partnership with the Samaritans Foundation in Collinson Street.

The first parishioners who worshipped at Saint Egwin’s Church in 1895 could not possibly have imagined how the world was going to change in the years that followed them.  I hope that they would have been pleased with what we are trying to achieve.  Today we celebrate the life of Saint Egwin, and we give thanks for all that God has achieved in and for us, and in and for others, through the ministry of Saint Egwin’s Church.  God be praised in his Church and in the witness of his saints.