As July is the month that contains the Feast of St. James (July 25) Holy Day, it is only fitting that Vancouver’s oldest parish would celebrate some significant liturgies, not just their patronal festival (which was transferred to Sunday, July 23, 2023) during that month.
The two liturgies covered by diocesan communications in July of 2023, were the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 2, which also honoured the 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood of the Reverend Fr. Neil Gray, who presided at the liturgy, and the parish’s patronal festival (naming day) celebrated as previously mentioned on July 23.
Fr. Neil Gray served congregations in the diocese of New Westminster for 30+ years, most notably St. Paul's in Vancouver's West End (where he was also Anglican Chaplain at St. Paul’s Hospital) and Church of the Holy Trinity, White Rock. In retirement, which began in April of 2018, Fr. Neil served for three years as Co-Chaplain to the Retired Clergy and Spouses of the diocese and currently serves as an honorary assistant at the Parish of St. James. His contribution to the diocese through his vocation is substantial, however there is more to the story, as was shared by guest preacher, the Very Reverend Peter Elliott, retired Dean of the diocese of New Westminster and rector of Christ Church Cathedral. As skilled preachers do, TVR Elliott engaged the Gospel for the day, Matthew 10: 40-42 in the opening paragraph of his homily:
“If we were searching for a text today as we celebrate Father Neil’s anniversary of 40 years in ordained ministry, we need look no further than our reading from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” The only thing that might be more appropriate is if it were a wee bit of gin rather than a cup of cold water, but let’s go with cold water for today.”
With the bon mots out of the way (it did receive a hearty laugh by the way), TVR Elliott went on to say:
“Father Neil’s ministry of 40 years has had many highlights, but at heart he is a pastor. He connects with people with good humour, kindness, and compassion. And in his first years in Vancouver this became a powerful witness to the love of God we know in Jesus Christ. Neil arrived in Vancouver from England and was appointed to serve as assistant priest at St. Paul’s parish in the west end, and as the Anglican chaplain at St. Paul’s hospital. The year was 1989 and he soon discovered that the palliative care ward was filled with gay men with AIDS. The pastoral care imperative was clear: even a cup of cool water was welcome respite against stubborn fevers that so often accompanied HIV infection in those days. Untreatable at the time and pandemic in nature Neil’s parish and hospital work intersected as he was called upon to conduct memorial services for many of those who did not survive this gay men’s health crisis.
But Neil’s ministry at the hospital plunged him deeper into the ugly homophobia that was so very widespread in those days. Too many families either disowned their gay sons or denied their sons’ partners from visiting in the hospital, often denying them a place at funerals or memorial services. Into those awkward and uncomfortable situations came Fr. Neil with his characteristic cheeriness, accepting, without any hesitation the men who were suffering with AIDS and quite often being a bridge between them and their families in very difficult circumstances. His unconditional support was like a glass of cold water in the midst of a feverish conflictual situation.”
The music in worship led by assistant organist, PJ Janson and a skilled SATB quartet was prayerful and beautiful and got off to a fine start with Janson’s rendition of Prelude on RHOSYMEDRE, one of three Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 1920 preludes based on Welsh hymn tunes. In PJ Janson’s accompanying notes in the pew bulletin, he wrote:
"The tune RHOSYMEDRE was composed by the Welsh Anglican parish priest John David Edwards (1805-1885), who named it after the town where he lived and included this hymn in a collection published in 1836. The word Rhosymedre means ‘beautiful,’ and the tune appears in a number of hymnals and is sung to a variety of hymn texts, including “My Song is Love Unknown.”
The Welsh typically associate the hymn tune with celebration. As such this lyrical, lovely, and aetherial organ prelude seems especially fitting for today’s 40th anniversary of Fr. Gray’s ordination.”
Congratulations to you, Fr. Neil, on this milestone anniversary and many thanks for your years of service in our diocese, your positive energy, your welcoming smile and your ready wit.
Sunday, July 23 was a positively glorious day in the Lower Mainland, the high temperatures of the previous weeks had subsided somewhat, and the region was expecting some cooler and much needed rain which would arrive the next day. The nave at St. James was far from full but there was a good-sized summer congregation gathered in the church at 303 East Cordova Street on Vancouver’s downtown eastside for the patronal celebration Eucharist on the Feast of St. James the Apostle.
In the opening paragraph of his clergy notes published in the pew bulletin, rector of the parish, the Venerable Fr. Kevin Hunt supplied some context for the Feast Day:
“This weekend we give thanks for our patron, St. James the Apostle, brother of John, and with him and with Peter, one of the trio of Apostles seemingly in the Gospels closest to Jesus. His relics are reputed to lie in Compostela in NW Spain, where they became the goal of one of the most significant pilgrimages in medieval Eurpope. The Camino, the Way, as it is called, has in recent years experienced a major revival: many thousands each year still walk one of several traditional routes, often some hundreds of kilometres, to Compostela, to pray at the shrine of St. James, Santiago.”
Worship began with accapella voices offering a Prelude and Introit as an Opening Rite. That was followed by a Solemn Procession around the nave to the singing of “For All the Saints,” and when the sanctuary party arrived at the chancel entrance, the rector, the Venerable Fr. Kevin Hunt led the Station Collect Before the Icon of St. James. Fr. Hunt said, “Pray for us, St. James” to which the people responded, “That we may walk faithfully in the way of Christ.” He then prayed the Collect:
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
whose servant James the Apostle was obedient to the calling of your Son,
and also drank his cup of suffering:
keep us faithful to you until our lives’ end,
and grant us grace as those who have been baptized into Christ’s death,
to walk with him the path of service of sacrifice:
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and forever.”
The guest preacher was the Reverend Stephen Rowe, Regional Dean of Peace Arch and Rector of the Anglican Parish of the Church of the Epiphany, Surrey. Near the beginning of his homily, the Rev. Rowe explained his connection to the parish:
“My association with your parish goes back almost 40 years, and through my wife’s family, 80 years, as her parents were married here in 1943. My sister-in-law, Mary Hamilton, a long-time parishioner of St James, heard I was to preach today and accordingly took a vacation in Eastern Canada.”
In his sermon, the Rev. Rowe examined the two readings from Scripture heard that day that refer to James (the Greater): Acts 11: 27-12.2 and Matthew 20: 20-28. He then said:
“So two readings related to James that hardly seem to point to the title James the Greater, who died in Jerusalem only ten or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion; as the first of the apostles to be put to death.
Perhaps more note-worthy was that James was chosen by Jesus to accompany him (with Peter and John) at his transfiguration and at the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before his passion. These accounts give James a certain precedence amongst the twelve.”
Fr. Stephen concluded his homily with a message of appreciation and hope to the parish:
"The last few years have been challenging for the church, not least because of COVID. It seems to me that St. James is doing well as it emerges from the last three years and is building a stronger, more active congregation fit for the times we live in today. Like our parish (‘Epiphany, Surrey), you are seeing Zoom as a long-term gain for parish life rather than something to use because we cannot meet in person. It is marvelous to keep people connected and involved in our mission and ministry when they cannot be present at church. So it gives me joy to join with the congregation today first online and then in-person to enable you to celebrate the years of faithful service this parish has offered to the community, the diocese, and beyond, since the earliest days of the city of Vancouver’s existence.
St James is, and remains, a faithful beacon for those who live, work in this area or who drive or walk past this church daily. It is a vision of something that brings us together and provides us with validation and inspiration as we live our lives. But it also offers support and encourage those who never enter the building. For as people struggle we need hope, we need role models and St. James is that for so many people in this area and beyond.
The collect for today (from the BAS) speaks of James as the first apostle to give his life for Christ. As those who come after James, and especially as those who are part of this congregation, we too seek to offer our lives in service and sacrifice as James (and others did) before his martyrdom. May we all receive from God that spirit of self-denying service which marks out those you seek to be true leaders in the community of faith.”
After Holy Communion and during the rector’s announcements, Warden Peggy Smyth went into the south transept of the nave to present a beautiful orchid to long-time parishioner Elizabeth Davies on the occasion of her birthday, July 23rd. Following the liturgy, the parish gathered in the crypt for a catered lunch and some time together in community.
First photo in the top scroll: Station Collect before the Icon of St. James on July 23rd
Photos: Randy Murray