Northmoor Team Churches Flower Festival Songs of Praise service, Germansweek
(on the theme: 'Favourite Wedding Hymns'),
What would St German, (aka Germanus) make of our flower festival this weekend? Its extravagance, its colour, its musical and marital theme? The tremendous displays and the wonderful food: all being consumed within the grounds of the church he founded here in the early part of the fifth century?
I hesitate to ask, because the old historians and hagiographers of Germanus portray a stern teacher, an austere practitioner of the faith, an ascetic, who set himself against extravagance and worldly pleasures.
Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, came to Britain in the year 429 to address a huge crowd on the subject of Pelagianism, a heresy which was rife among the British clergy at the time, which taught that humans are sinners by choice, that we could put things right ourselves, undermining the doctrine of Original Sin and the teachings of divine grace.
There was Germanus the ascetic, dressed in a hair shirt and a tatty old cloak and tunic, up against the Pelagian bishops, who were described as being 'conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress and surrounded by a fawning multitude'. Germanus had no popular support, but his superior rhetoric won him the debate.
'From the day ... he entered the priesthood until the end of his life Saint German persisted in nourishing his soul by starving his body,' wrote his biographer Constantinus of Lyon. 'At meals, he took a taste of ashes, then bread made of barley which he himself had pounded and ground.' And here we are, full of cream tea and cake, in the church of his foundation, making an exhibition of ourselves, or rather an exhibition for ourselves, of expensive flowers, lavish displays, and lively music.
And our theme too, around the sounds and sights of the marriage ceremony, seems quite anti-ascetic. Putting aside the issue of expense - these days the average wedding costs upwards of £18,000 - there's the whole aspect of two people putting their love on show for all to see, the physicality of the occasion with its flowers and clothes and posed photographs, a physicality marked in the words of the marriage service itself, which talks about the couple being brought together 'in the delight and tenderness of sexual union' and invites each of them to promise to the other, 'with my body I honour you'. Enough to make an ascetic like St German shudder.
Or would it? For if he were here to teach us - in words probably far better than mine - I'm sure that Germanus would quickly point out that the point of asceticism is not to deny the physicality of human relationships or creative, artstic expression, for obsessive or even masochistic reasons, but to do those things to encourage, or 'prepare the ground' for, a mind-body transformation. He'd probably quote Paul, who said in Romans 12, 'I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God'. He'd help us understand that Christianity is a very physical religion - very concerned with living out in flesh and blood, in flowers, music and cake, the good life of God, the gospel of redemption.
Paul went on to say, 'Do not be conformed by this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.' And that's the point of the asceticism of St German and others - it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it: that's what pleases God. If you are faithful in what you do with your flesh and your blood, your flowers, your music and your cake, then you can enjoy these things all the more. Prayerfully, carefully, strengthened by the Spirit in your understanding of scripture and tradition, you can eat, drink and be fully fleshly human in ways which increasingly free you from compulsions and temptations. Putting our spiritual and religious goals first means that you can be saved from the errors of over-indulgence, and so enjoy the physical world which God has made you part of, all the more.
'THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God,' wrote the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. '... nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things'. Hopkins was an ascetic if ever there was one, writing his great creation poems from deep inside a monastery cell; but he knew then what we know today, surrounded by all this colourful floral creativity, he celebrated then what we celebrate now in these wonderful songs of praise - that God is at the heart of his creation, making all things good.
This weekend we have turned the wonderful little church of Saint German into an exhibition space which celebrates nature, life and love - and because we have placed God firmly at the centre of this celebration I think we will have the old saint's approval. For these displays have been lovingly made, and where there is love, there is God. For the theme of our flower festival is rooted and grounded in love, and where there is love, there is God. In the spirit of Germanus we may think about it a little more before we do it next, but, encouraged to live out our faith in the physical, we will continue to eat, drink and sing in celebration of the love of our gracious creator God. May our love be genuine, may we encourage each other in life and faith, rooted and grounded ever more firmly and deeply in our relationship with him.
 I consulted Wikipedia for various details on Germanus of Auxerre, Pelagianism and Asceticism
 Extracts from G.M. Hopkins' God's Grandeur taken from www.bartleby.com