Clypping is an ancient way of celebrating a patronal festival of a church. 'Clyppan', an Old English word, means 'to embrace' or 'clasp'. The congregation surrounds the church, holding hands in a circle: the church is 'embraced' as a symbol of love and affection. The origins of the festival are obscure, but it is said to hvae originated as a pagan custom, later adopted by Christianity. It has been associated with Candlemas, Shrove Tuesday and Easter Monday as well as Patronal Festivals. St Mary's, Wirksworth is one of the few churches to retain this ancient custom.
Some words from our first reading: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it”. Never let it be said that the Bible paints a glossy and rosy view of its heroes. Jacob has lied and tricked his brother out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing, and now he is running away. As he heads out into this unknown country, with nothing more than a stone for a pillow he has the great vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven and hears God promising him that he will go with Jacob wherever he ends up. This is a great revelation to Jacob, God is not just to be found in the comforts of home. God goes with him on the run, fleeing into strange and new territory. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”
One of the joys of working for the Diocese of Derby is to be in a place whose Christian origins go back to the mission of St Aidan to Lindisfarne. The North-East and Northumberland are my home, and so it feels good to be here in a place where Adda, Betti, Cedd and Diurma brought the Christian faith. There were, perhaps fewer lies and tricks involved in their travel to a strange and new place, but they too would have identified with Jacob’s words “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” Here in Derbyshire, here in Wirksworth, they found that God was already present.
And today we gather to clyp, to embrace the church. This has been and is a place where God is found, and rightly today we celebrate that. But it is important that we also go outside to embrace the church. We don’t stand round the pillars, we go outside and form a chain around the church. And when we go outside, we don’t leave God in here. God is also outside. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” This is the greatest truth about God: we cannot contain him; he always goes ahead of us. Jacob knew this. He knew that even as he fled from his brother, in fear for his life, that God went with him. We too can know this. God is always ahead of us. Wherever we go, we will find that God is there.
That is true when we go to different places. It was true for Jacob. It was true for the Northumbrian monks Adda, Betti, Cedd and Diuma who brought the Christian faith to this place. It is true for us as well. Whether we go to another part of the world, or simply down the street, God is there ahead of us. And it is also true of the stuff of our life. We may be going into a time of joy and celebration. God is there also. We may be going into a time of sadness and pain. God is there too. God is not just for the times of joy, he is there in times of difficulty and suffering as well. As we clyp this church, we embrace a place where times of great joy are celebrated. We also embrace a place that marks times of sorrow and sadness. The good news of the God of Jacob is that wherever and however we are, God is with us. Wherever we go, whatever we face in our life, God is there already waiting to guide us, to help us and to bless us. If you are about to leave home, about to move for a new job, facing a difficult decision, worried about what lies ahead, or just plain hurting, then try to say, with Jacob “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” Wherever we go and whatever we go through, we will find God is already there.
As we go outside and clyp the church, we find that God goes ahead of us. We embrace a place that marks times of joy and times of sadness. And we are shaped as we stand – shaped into a cross. This church, like many others, is built in the shape of a cross and we will form that shape as we clyp the church. Appropriately for an embrace, the cross is a sign of love. It is not just that God is with us, in places where we don’t expect to find him; more than that, God calls us to love, to love in the shape of the cross. Love that is cross-shaped is love that is costly; love that is cross-shaped is love that offers itself for the sake of others. Jesus, in the reading from St John’s Gospel that we have just heard, tells his disciples to “abide in my love”. He calls us also to abide in his love. Our lives, as a community and as individuals, are to be shaped by love that gives of itself for others. This is a pattern for our lives together. As we join hands to embrace the church, as we work together, as we help one another, we also shape one another into the shape of love. Our clypping of the church is a sign of how we need one another that we might be shaped properly, that we might do as Jesus says and “abide in my love”.
So as we go outside to clyp the church, we are taking part in an action in which we find that God goes ahead of us, wherever we go or whatever we go through. We are taking part in an action that shapes us, shapes us into people who love. And after the clypping has finished, we will be sent out to embrace God’s world. Embracing the church is lovely. It is a nice thing to do. But unless it leads us to do something in the world around us, it is a pretty empty gesture. Jesus tells his disciples to “bear much fruit”. Fruit is not there to be eaten by the vine, but by others. In the same way, the church itself does not exist for its own sake. It exists to worship God and to serve the local community. St Mary’s has a good track record in both, it ‘bears much fruit’. But no church can be complacent about this. We too are sent out at the end of this Clypping service to go and “bear much fruit”. To go and live lives that will be of benefit to others. That is the challenge and the calling of our embrace today.
As we embrace this church in our ceremony of clypping, we find that God is with us wherever we are and whatever we go through. We are shaped into people who love one another. And we are send out to embrace God’s world, and “bear much fruit” in lives lived for other people. Let me end with an image that can be found inside this church, on the Wirksworth Stone, that wonderful carved coffin lid that hangs on the north wall of the church. The final panel of this Stone has Christ, held by St Mary pointing away from himself, telling his disciple (almost certainly St Peter) to go and bear fruit in the world. In this panel, Christ sends his disciple out to bear fruit; but the disciple is not alone. He is the last in a great chain, almost as though he is at the end of a clypping embrace. He is supported by the love of many others; and he is sent by Christ, only to discover that Christ is already present in the place to which he will go.As we clyp the church this afternoon, it is my prayer that we will also embrace that image of each one of us as sent by Christ to bear fruit, supported by the love of one another, and finding that Christ is ahead of us wherever we may go. Amen.
Given at St Mary's, Wirksworth 8.9.13.