The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Zephaniah 3.14-20; Mark 15.40 - 16.7
Just down the road, along Redcross Way, is a patch of ground that has become known as the Crossbones Graveyard.
A group of us returned from a service there a short while ago. We’d gone, as we always do at this time of the year, around the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, to express our regret at the way some of those buried there were treated, to show our respect and to endeavour to make better the ills of the past. Amongst all the positive stuff about the Crossbones Graveyard that’s been on social media over the last few days there’ve also been comments more critical – that some of the ceremonies held there on a regular basis are pagan in nature and nothing to do with a Christian understanding of death and resurrection – and that may well be true.
But what the people who’ve cared for and continue to care for this patch of ground at the heart of this local community have very successfully done, from a variety of motivations and from a variety of faith and non-faith backgrounds, is to highlight the need for justice for women – then and now.
The simple and rather shocking story is that when this was part of the Diocese of Winchester the bishops had the temporal as well as the spiritual control of this area. It was called the ‘Liberty’ and within their jurisdiction all manner of pleasures were licensed – the bear baiting pits and the taverns, the playhouses and the brothels and the women themselves, the local sex workers, the prostitutes who acquired the name ‘Winchester Geese’ on account of the uniform that they were required to wear.
But many of those women died young as a result of the abuse they suffered in their work and many died in childbirth which was a consequence of their work and many of their children died as well and they weren’t buried in consecrated ground because, whilst licensing them, the church disapproved of them. It is scandalous and the kind of double-think that the church is still, sadly, capable of.
They were buried in that patch of ground given by St Thomas Becket to the bishops and that scandalous ground is the patch that people continue to love along with the people buried there.
Poor Mary Magdalene has become the dumping ground for all the stuff in the gospels around reformed prostitutes and scandalous ladies washing and wiping Jesus’ feet, women who had numerous demons cast out of them. Mary carries the burden of all that for us but in doing so becomes the archetype of the way in which women have been treated – apart from that is by Jesus.
The screen behind me contains statues of a variety of people associated with the life of Southwark – local historical figures like the reformation martyr John Rogers and saints like Peter and Paul, the patrons of Winchester, our mother diocese. They all stare at us – but one statue doesn’t. She’s turned her back on us and looks at someone else. The gold figure at the centre and at the top of the screen is Jesus and the woman with the loose hair looking away from us, is looking, hands clasped in adoration, at him. It is Mary Magdalene – her hair gives the game away – she is one loose lady. She ignores us who’ve treated women so badly and can continue in many places to treat women so badly and she looks to him who treated her so well and with respect and proper love and made her the Apostle of the Apostles, the Apostle of the Resurrection, the witness to true life beyond the graveyard so that as the poet and one time Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, wrote in one of his poems about Mary
That she once knew, more than the Church did know,
The prophet Zephaniah said in our First Lesson
I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
This is what Jesus did for Mary. Wherever and whoever the outcast is, whoever we shame today, we are called to do the same. We can’t undo the sins of the past but we don’t have to repeat them today.