Sunday, 22 July 2012
St Mary Mgdalen (Leper) Chapel, Ripon
An Address for the Patronal Festival Civic Service
with the Mayors of Ripon, Knaresborough, Pateley Bridge, Richmond
and representatives of North Yorkshire County Council and Ripon City Council
What a contrast between this peaceful, holy little chapel and our cathedral! Many of us are used to going to the cathedral for the big events - civic and military services, services which mark the great events of our life as a community and nation or the great feasts of the Christian calendar. It speaks to us of the majesty and authority of God. But this little chapel, founded almost 900 years ago by Archbishop Thurstan of York, speaks to us of God's love for the poor and the forgotten, for those on the margins of our society and for us when we are at those places of abandonment we all reach at some point in our lives.
Like this chapel, many parish churches have, somewhere near the altar, a peep hole. Through this, the priest could be observed at Mass by the many lepers who were, of course, banned from entering the churches for fear of their spreading infection. Even here, at this hospital, lepers could not be admitted to public worship in the chapel. They were absolute outcasts.
Victoria Hyslop wrote movingly about the pain of exclusion for those suffering from leprosy in twentieth century Greece in her novel, The Island. Once a person was known to be infected with leprosy, they were banished for life to Spina Longa, an island off the coast of Crete. Hyslop tells the story of the wife of the boatman who takes supplies to the island. This woman contacts leprosy herself. Knowing that she will be taken to Spina Longa and never allowed to return, she has to pack hastily. She can only take a very few belongings with her. She chooses to take her place setting from the family's dinner service. Though she will never share a meal with her family again, she hopes that, at meal times, they will in each other's thoughts.
Leprosy cruelly cut people off from their families and loved ones and made them outcasts, feared and shunned by everyone. In some societies, it still does so today. Imagine how much this little hospital must have meant to those lepers who came here on pilgrimage or who lived around the city's boundaries - a place of welcome and rest, of fellowship and hospitality in a very bleak world.
It's appropriate that St Mary Magdalen was chosen as patron saint for this place. St Luke tells us that Jesus healed Mary, casting out seven demons. With today's medical insight, we might say that she suffered from a severe mental illness. Even today, people with such illnesses speak of stigmatization and a sense that they are not accepted or understood. Mary would have known how the lepers who came to this place felt. She responded to Jesus' healing and love as many of the lepers coming to this place would have responded to the welcome they found here - this was a place where they could belong.
This little chapel, at the heart of a community of hospitality has spoken of the power of God's love for the outcast and forlorn for nearly 900 years. It has been a beacon of hospitality for people most of us forget or would like to forget as we go about our busy lives. At times, it has fallen into disrepair or disuse, even being used to house pigs at one point in its history, I believe. So it's very good to see that, today, there is again a committed, regular worshipping congregation and a strong group of Friends who are not only caring about the building, but developing it so that it can continue to be a place of hospitality as well as of worship and witness.
St Mary Magdalen's chapel reminds Ripon and the surrounding areas of the power of God's love for all people. Today, there are many people living in this area of Yorkshire who feel marginalized - not fully part of society's opportunities and successes. There are families and single people who are glad of foodbanks to put food on their tables; debt counselling projects that report that anxiety about debt and actual debilitating debt is a growing problem; older, housebound people who long for company and a chat and people caring for sick relatives who would love to get out and have a few hours recreation. There are families who struggle to allow their children the opportunities for education and travel that many enjoy. The organizations that support people with dementia and mental illness are becoming cinderella services with need outstripping provision.
Yes, today, there are some who feel and indeed are excluded from mainstream society. Jesus spent the lion's share of His time with people like this, people like Mary Magdalen and the lepers and blind Bartimaeus. He was to be found, with them, on the margins, in the forgotten places with the forgotten people, in the homes and streets where a little love, a little attention, a little practical help would go a long way.
This quiet, holy place is one we treasure, in Ripon. As we draw aside and enter its doors, we are reminded that God is a God who sees and knows and loves those who feel themselves abandoned and forgotten, who struggle each day for even their basic needs. Perhaps, this morning, we might like to dedicate ourselves afresh to Mary's way of responding to God's love. She was so grateful for what Jesus had done for her that she decided to get involved in His ministry herself. She and a small group of women travelled around with Jesus and His disciples 'providing for them out of their resources'. Perhaps some were wealthy and gave money, perhaps others were there to work and to supply the day to day needs of the whole group. Can you imagine how that felt for Mary? She whom everyone had feared and shunned was now at the centre of this little group. She had friends, she had people with whom to share and, more than that, she was using her resources to help other people to a better place. She was caught up in the healing ministry of Jesus.
However little, however much we have to offer God in response to His loving kindness to us, we too can be followers of Mary's example, disciples of Jesus, public servants whose way of living includes especially those who need just a little help or extra attention or love to live their lives more fully.
A prayer for all who come into this chapel:
Father, we pray Thee to fill this house with Thy Spirit. Here may the poor find succour and the friendless friendship. Here may the tempted find power, the sorrowing comfort and the bereaved the truth that death hath now dominion over their beloved. Here let the fearing find a new courage and the doubting have their faith and hope confirmed. Here may the careless be awakened and all that are oppressed be freed. Hither may many be drawn by Thy love and go hence, their doubts resolved and faith renewed, their sins forgiven and their hearts aflame with Thy love.
From the Chapel Porch, Pleshey Retreat Centre; Oxford Book of Prayer no.487
For information about the Leprosy Mission go to
For details of the whole weekend's activities at St Mary Mag's go to
Greetings to the Revds John Langdon and Jackie Fox and to all the members of the congregation and the Friends of St Mary Magdalen, Ripon. Our prayers for your fellowship and work and also for the dedicated work of all who serve in local government in this region.