Justin Welby was appointed last November to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury when Rowan Williams retires. When the announcement was made, many people didn’t know who he was. He’d been a Bishop for less than a year and was a little-known cleric to many. So the next day on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2, they asked the question: ‘Who is Justin Welby?’ People were asked to phone in with any information or stories. They were looking for anything about him. One man phoned in to say he’d met Revd Welby a few times whilst walking his dog – but all he could say was that he’d asked about his dog’s name and seemed a very nice man! I suspect the public were none the wiser!
The new Archbishop has a tough job ahead of him and all this made me think that sometimes it can be helpful for people not to know too much about you. It allows you to make your mark and be yourself. That might well be useful for the new Archbishop. We’ll see.
However whilst there may be times when it’s helpful for people not to know too much about who we are, it’s crucial that we know. It’s really important we’re secure about our own identity. Because who we are shapes what we do.
That’s why in the stories of Jesus’ life – the Gospels – God reassures Jesus about his identity before he does any ministry, saying: ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17). These are words of affirmation to Jesus about his identity – reassuring him of who he is, and that he is loved by God. Similarly disciples of Jesus today need to hear God speak to them about who they are, so they are secure in their identity.
I spoke to the Staff Team at The Belfrey yesterday about this, asking them about our corporate identity. If it’s important to know who you are, then what about us? We – the people of The Belfrey – who are we?
To help us, we could go to the bible and look at important bible passages on the identity of the church. So, for instance, we could go to 1 Peter 2:9 where we’re told we are ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession‘ – and that would be good. It’s important that all followers of Jesus know these common things about who we are. But I asked whether there was something more specific for us? Is there something specific about our identity that God wanted to say to us? I believe there is.
For many of us our identity is, to some extent at least, linked to our name. So if I were to ask who you are you might refer to your family name – your surname – saying: ‘I’m a Smith. Or a Johnson. Or a Porter. Or a Simpson’ etc.. That’s because being part of a family is very important to many of us. Our families nurture us and shape us. Families highly influence us.
So what about a church? Can the name of the church say something about its corporate identity? I think the answer is often ‘yes’. Because people normally choose names carefully. They mean something. God often guides people in the choosing of names, especially if they do so prayerfully. And I think God led our forefathers to chosen the name St Michael le Belfrey on purpose. It wasn’t a mistake. It was chosen because it says something about the identity of the people.
So, what about our name? Over recent years there have been various attempts to decipher our name and what it means. Whilst St Michael clearly relates to the Archangel Michael – mentioned on a number of occasions in the bible – the meaning of The Belfrey bit is far from clear! These days the word ‘belfrey’ means bell-tower and so some have suggested the church building must have had a good bell-tower, perhaps even the original bell-tower for the Minster, and that became part of our name. If that’s right, maybe we once had the name: ‘St Michael with the Belltower’. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 maybe in French it originally read: ‘St Michel avec le Belfrey’. That could be right.
But I’d like to propose another suggestion, based on a simple reading of our name. You see we’re named after an angel. After St Michael. The bible tells us he was an ‘archangel’. The top angel. The chief angel. The strong angel. I’ve been re-reading Billy Graham’s great little book on ‘Angels’ recently. It goes through lots of biblical references to angels as well as telling stories of people meeting angels today. Fascinating. In that book we’re reminded that the Archangel Michael appears in Book of Daniel, as the protector of God’s people. In the Book of Revelation he defeats the devil. And an unnamed Archangel is mentioned in 1 Thessalonians as heralding the Second Coming of Christ, with most commentators thinking that’s also a reference to the Archangel Michael. So here we have Michael the top angel. The strong angel. St Michael the Strong One.
But what about The Belfrey? What does that mean? Whilst ‘belfrey’ (or ‘belfry’) today refers to a bell-tower, that’s not always been the case. Given there’s been a place of worship on our site since around the seventh century it might be helpful to look back at the origins of the word. If you do that you discover that it comes from an Old French word ‘belfroi’ derived from an old Germanic word meaning ‘to protect’. A belfrey used to be a strong tower – often a siege-tower or a watch-tower – providing protection against attacks from the enemy. And sometimes it was a tower to attack from too. Flags might be used for communication. And later bells were hung in them to raise an alarm, although originally belfreys had nothing to do with bells. They were simply strong towers.
So, apply all that to our name, and you get ‘St Michael the Strong Tower’. St Michael the Defender. St Michael the one who warns, prepares, protects.That makes a lot of sense to me. Michael and Belfrey go together – because the Archangel is the one who defends. He protects God’s people.
Perhaps that explains something of this strong prophetic sense I’ve had since arriving in York when I hear Proverbs 18:10 read: ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower (literally ‘a belfrey’), the righteous run into it and are safe.’ God is a strong tower. the Archangel Michael is a strong tower. We are a strong tower.That’s the identity of our church! We’re supposed to take on the identity of our name-sake: ‘St Michael the Strong Tower’ who himself mirrors his Master, Almighty God, who is the ultimate Strong One.
If this is right, that means that being strong is part of our very identity. We’re especially called to be a strong people. Like our patron angel. We’re called to stand the test of time. We are resilient. We’re called to be a belfrey. A strong tower. For people to come into and find safety. To find rest. Care. Love. Welcome. Protection. Against the onslaught of the enemy.
This greatly encourages me. In 2013 we’re going to have a major emphasis at The Belfrey on discipleship. On following Jesus together and growing in our love for him. If we’re going to be a better and more effective disciple-making church, we need to be a belfrey for people. A strong tower. Offering a secure sanctuary. A hardy home. A community of robust relationships in which people can belong and find shelter, sharing biblical values and a Christ-centred love.
So if like me you’re part of this imperfect but great church of St Michael le Belfrey may we in 2013 stand tall and be who we are. The Belfrey.