Today I was honoured to be invited by St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds to deliver the sermon for the 540th Commemoration Day in honour of Jankyn Smyth and other benefactors of the town of Bury St Edmunds, which is supposed to be the oldest continuous act of civic commemoration in England. Although today’s Commemoration Day was an understated affair, with no civic procession, it was still followed by the traditional distribution of Cakes and Ale at the town’s Guildhall. This is the text of my sermon this morning.
Commemoration Day Sermon, St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, 24 June 2021
May I speak in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hands up if you love Christmas! Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s not Christmas today. In fact, I have to tell you that today is one of the very worst days in the whole year. I wonder if there are any younger members of the congregation who can tell me today’s date? Yes. Today is the 24th June. And how many months are we into the year? Six months, since June is the sixth month. So why is this so terrible? Because today is as far away as it is possible to get from Christmas; six months away from last Christmas Eve, and six months away from the Christmas Eve yet to come. Far enough from last Christmas to forget about all your presents, and too far from next Christmas for it to seem exciting at all. Surely one of the worst days in the calendar, looked at one way. Or we could look at it in another way, and say today is one of the best days in the calendar. Consider that every day from now on, next Christmas will be closer to us than the last Christmas we remember. Christmas may well feel a long way away now, but we are already on the downward slope.
As well as being the furthest we can be from Christmas – in fact, because it is six months away from Christmas – today is a special day in the Christian calendar. We commemorate this day as the birthday of St John the Baptist, Jesus’s slightly older cousin who we know was six months old when Jesus was born. John the Baptist is a strange figure in the Bible, a character who seems out of place in the New Testament, as if he is a prophet from an earlier, wilder world; a character from the Old Testament who somehow ends up in the New. Indeed, the people of his own time were convinced that John, who lived alone in the desert, ate locusts and wore clothes made of camel hair, was the prophet Elijah returned. John is often called the last of the prophets, and in that sense he is a figure representing the past. But when you read what John himself actually had to say, he was completely focussed on the future: and, in particular, on the man of the future, his cousin Jesus. As John declared, ‘[Jesus] must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3:30).
It seems very appropriate indeed that this year’s 540th commemoration of Jankyn Smyth and other benefactors of the parish of St Mary and the town of Bury St Edmunds falls on the birthday of John the Baptist, this witness who straddles past and future. Because a day of commemoration and thanksgiving like today is about the future as much as it is about the past. Like John the Baptist, a benefactor is someone we may think of as a strange intruder from the past. Why, on one day of the year, should we turn our thoughts to these people – with strange names, who spoke strange English, who dressed strangely in fur tippets and doublets, in farthingales, wimples, and trailing skirts? What do they matter to us now? I certainly cannot claim that our benefactors were always good people; they were, on the whole, hardnosed businessmen and businesswomen, whose success was hard won, and sometimes won at the expense of others. But they all had one thing in common, and one thing they shared with John the Baptist. In choosing to become benefactors, they chose to look ahead to the future, and to make at least one part of their life about the future rather than about the past or the present. Because we still, to this day, benefit from their generosity; and future generations will continue to benefit from that generosity, provided we remain faithful to their legacy.
A benefactor is someone who bridges past, present and future; but more than that, a benefactor is a witness to the truth that the life of a community endures beyond the life of any individual. This was something of which Jankyn Smyth, the founder of this commemoration, was very much aware, for he lived at a time when the town of Bury St Edmunds had to fight for its identity. Overshadowed by the immensely powerful abbey, the merchants, traders and shopkeepers of the town had few rights. In fact, one of the few things they could do was form guilds, trade associations with spiritual benefits that paid for the burial and commemoration of their members. After the townsfolk rose in rebellion in 1327, the Guild Merchant that used to govern the town from the Guildhall was suppressed, but by Jankyn Smyth’s time another, the Candlemas Guild, had taken its place. The Candlemas Guild represented the town’s people to the abbot and acted as a rudimentary town council, repairing infrastructure and providing watchmen for the town’s walls and gates. In 1539, less than sixty years after Jankyn’s death, the great abbey was dissolved; but life became no easier for the townsfolk. The abbots were simply replaced by stewards, who made much the same demands, and to make matters worse the government completely abolished all guilds in 1548.
It was at this moment that the parishioners of Bury’s two ancient churches, St Mary’s and St James’s, came up with an ingenious way to keep the town alive and flourishing. The two churches agreed to sell their valuable silver plate for £480 to buy the land of the old guilds and chantries so that the town could continue to maintain almshouses for the poor and destitute, and to found a grammar school. The men who ran this fund were known as the feoffees, and the endowment as the Guildhall Feoffment. For the next sixty years, while the Stewards of the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds continued to deny the townsfolk the right to govern themselves, the feoffees became the de facto local government, until at long last, in 1606, Bury St Edmunds obtained its first royal charter establishing a corporation for the borough, headed by an elected alderman. Without the benefactions of Jankyn Smyth and Bury’s other medieval benefactors, purchased and perpetuated by the Guildhall Feoffees, Bury’s civic life would have withered and declined.
This commemoration has changed in character over the centuries; originally, it took the form of a Mass sung for the repose of Jankyn Smyth’s soul, and it is likely it first took the form of a sermon in the reign of Edward VI in the 1550s. In the nineteenth century, the sermon was preached not in June but on the Thursday after Plough Monday, which was usually the first Thursday in January. And most disturbingly of all, reports of the Cakes and Ale ceremony from the 1980s record that ale had by that time been replaced by sherry. But there have been few years in living memory when a commemoration of the resilience of the past has seemed so relevant to the present. When we are urged to ‘build back better’ after the devastation of a global pandemic, who better to look to than the example of Bury’s medieval benefactors? These were men and women who knew all too well the scourge of epidemic disease, and how difficult it was for the town to recover from the trauma of plague. Last year, for the first time since the great Bury plague of 1637, Bury Market itself was forced to close for public health reasons, and the life of the town seemingly ground to a halt.
But Bury has always bounced back; from war, from catastrophe, from plague, from recession, because this town was built by people who looked to the future. From King Sigebert, who founded this very church in the seventh century, to those who endowed the shrine of St Edmund in this place and those who fought for the town’s freedom to govern itself, Bury’s benefactors witnessed to something greater than themselves. Their example should encourage us to do what we can to build up the honour of our town; but, like the example of John the Baptist, it should also point us to the ultimate benefactor: to God, in whose honour the stones around us were laid, and whose continued blessing we invoke upon the memory of Jankyn Smyth, upon this parish, and upon this town: the shrine of the king, and the cradle of the law.