Sunday, 19 October 2014
Saturday, 11 October 2014
As preachers in this Cathedral know, Stephen was a keen listener to sermons. He could be exacting too. After the service, you could expect comment on your handling of a biblical text, the rigour of your argument or lack of it, the citations you made or might have made. He would always thank the preacher and offer encouragement. But he could be direct in his dissent. He once told me over coffee after a service: ‘Michael, that was the most profoundly unhelpful sermon I’ve heard in years.’ Nevetheless Stephen asked me to preach at this service. This preacher is keenly aware that a decade of homiletic scrutiny is not over yet.
In a beautiful essay on Thomas Cranmer, Stephen wrote about how his communion rite was an invitation to a pilgrimage that would ‘pattern and structure human experience as a whole. Cranmer’s liturgies amount to a map of the heart as topos, a map for pilgrimage from the depths to the heights. It is a pilgrimage with God who is struggling with the heart, addressing comfortable words to it, pouring in the grace of his Holy Spirit to lift it up, melting it and remaking it…not a disembodied mental process but one linking mind and guts.’ That captures Stephen’s life. In those words you can hear the thought and language of a lifelong love affair with Anglicanism, the spiritual insights learned from its liturgy and theologians and poets. He was a man whom, to steal a line from a famous war poem, the Church of England ‘bore, shaped, made aware, gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam’. One of his generation’s best theologians, his Christian identity never lost its practical, visceral dimension. Faith was something deeply felt in the heart, the emotions, the affect – ideas as important to him as the cognitive language of mind and thought.Those of us who heard him preach Holy Week in this Cathedral a few years ago in a series of addresses based on George Herbert’s poems will never forget it. His Good Friday address on St John’s tetelestai, ‘it is finished’, was one of the most moving sermons I have ever heard here or anywhere. He preached in the spirit of Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis: ‘from the heart – may it go to the heart’. You could tell by the catch in his voice that he was close to tears.
This rich, complex inwardness constituted Stephen’s career in public ministry. There is a symmetry in his curriculum vitae. He started out as Dean of Chapel in his alma mater, St John’s College Cambridge. There he inhabited both church and academy as an emerging theologian whose day job had at its heart the daily worship of a chapel community and the pastoral care of a college. He developed a love for students that never left him even at the very end of his life, and to which they responded with huge affection. He ended his career as Principal of another St John’s College, our neighbours here in Durham, where once again the quotidian concerns of student life were married to his continuing intellectual vocation as a Christian thinker, teacher and writer in the Department of Theology and Religion in this University. In between, his successive professorships in Durham and Cambridge consolidated his reputation as a theologian of international significance, as his steady stream of influential writings testified. But then came the bishopric of Ely where he spent nearly a decade. Was this to lay aside the role of a theologian for the sake of leadership in the Church of England? He would not have put it that way. He would have said that it is the calling of every theologian to understand his or her role as essentially ecclesial in character, as a vocation within the church which it is the privilege of theology to serve as faith seeks understanding. Indeed, he would have gone further and said that theology’s audience is not the church only, but the human community in its all its diversity. He looked for a theology that is genuinely ecumenical and public and has something to say to the dilemmas modernity puts to a society prepared to listen, reflect and examine the assumptions of its thought. This was the direction he took in his chairmanship of the Doctrine Commission: not that the church theologises to itself, but that its voice is heard in the public arenas of our time and, as the well-worn phrase has it, speaks truth to power.
Stephen’s last book Power and Christian Theology reflects his breadth of outlook and the range of his thinking. The final chapter is about leadership in the church, especially the role of the bishop. Drawing on Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, he examines the tensions between rule and service, loving your office and remaining humble, zeal for holiness and accepting human shortcomings in yourself and others, and between deference to leaders and affection for them. He concludes: ‘Although [public leadership] is a necessity which we deeply desire to the point of wanting to idolize our leaders, we have also succumbed to the habit of suspicion and mistrust. Both instincts are unjust to the men and women whose real talents are exercised in God’s service. Their powers are best employed when they are recognised by them and by us as genuine and proper, not as a substitute for service or love, but as an expression of them.’ He does not say so, but I doubt he could have written in this way unless from within he lived experience, drawing on the memory of his years as a diocesan bishop. He was writing about his own aspiration as a bishop. Service and love allied to clear thinking and purposeful activity informed by discipleship: that holistic, humane linkage is typical of Stephen’s life.
All his days Stephen made it his goal to live the gospel and allow the cross and resurrection to interpret the changes and chances of human living. The name Stephanos means crown. When I preached at Stephen and Joy’s golden wedding two years ago, I quoted a poem by his beloved George Herbert that happily unites their two names in one line.
My joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say
And still it runneth, muttering up and down
With only this, My joy, my life, my crown.
The poet wants to sing his best hymn in praise of God, indeed he wants to be that hymn. He has the words, the rhyme, the metre but has not yet found the spirit. He knows that life is meant for us to worship God ‘my joy, my life, my crown’. But how is he to live the truth of his own song? In the end he finds the way.
Whereas if the heart be moved
Although the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth supply the want.
And when the heart says, sighing to be approved,
O could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.
To know we are cherished melts and remakes the heart, calms its unquietness, lifts it up to sing. ‘God so loved’ is the best of all comfortable words. ‘God writeth, Loved.’ When we know we are loved, death has lost its sting. It is swallowed up in victory. It no longer has the power to hurt us that it once did. Like Martha, we affirm our faith and hope in the risen Jesus. Our lives are hid with Christ in God: Stephen’s, and ours, and the company of all who have trusted in him. Today we honour the memory of a man beloved by family and friends, a great scholar, a good man, a loyal disciple, a seeker-after-truth, and a faithful priest and bishop. And now, here, while we are still in this vale of soul-making, as we give thanks for his life, we sit and eat with him at this eucharistic feast where, living and departed, Love bids us welcome.
Durham Cathedral, 10 October 2014.
1 Corinthians 15; John 11.17-27
Sunday, 5 October 2014
Once, as a child, something didn’t go my way. I was upset and angry. So my father told me a story. He and a friend, they were teenagers at the time, decided to go on a cycling holiday. For months they planned their journey, discussed provisions, chose youth hostels to stay in. At last the long awaited day arrived. His friend was to call for him at six o-clock in the morning. My father and his bike were ready by five. Six came, and then seven and eight. By midmorning it was clear that something had gone wrong. My father cycled round to his friend. He opened the front door in his slippers, surprised to see him. ‘But what about our cycling trip?’ my father asked. ‘O that’ said his friend, ‘I thought it was just make-believe.’ That experience of disappointment was indelibly burned on his memory. I knew I would never forget it either. A penny dropped.
Sunday, 28 September 2014
Sunday, 21 September 2014
Finally, in one of the darkest episodes in our history in the winter of 1650-51, hundreds of Scots captured at the Civil War Battle of Dunbar were marched into England by Cromwell, and imprisoned here to die of cold, hunger or disease. I doubt that any English cathedral is as implicated in a long Scottish history as ours. But here in England, it is the future as well as the past that has greatly concerned many of us. It isn’t dramatizing things to say that the very existence of Great Britain was at stake. We need to be clear: a Union without Scotland would have made England a very different country from the country we grew up with within the United Kingdom. So when the Supreme Governor of the Church of England said that the decision was ‘a matter for the people of Scotland alone’, I’m afraid I needed loyally to dissent. A Yes vote would profoundly have affected everyone who is a citizen of this country, not least those like us who live so close to the Border.
The United Kingdom is not a perfect union. We English have a history of treating the Scots with disdain, even contempt. We need to repent of this and start treating Scotland as an equal honoured partner in the Union. We should always have celebrated the intellectual, social, economic, cultural and spiritual benefits Scotland has brought to the UK, not belatedly talking them up in the last few panicky weeks. No doubt much will need to change in the way Scotland, and the United Kingdom are governed. A new covenant between Scotland and England will mean greater devolution, and this could blaze a trail for the regions of England too, not least here in the overlooked North East. The way ahead will be far from easy. But I want to underline the words federation and partnership: these are the covenant virtues that should inspire us to work together so that all our peoples respect and celebrate one another’s charisms, dignity and worth.
On St Matthew’s Day we remember a man whose imagination was stretched by meeting the Messiah. He saw that there was a larger future awaiting him in the company of Jesus and those who followed him. Through a life-changing relationship, he gave his life to the vision that so inspired him. He recognised that to join the community of Jesus’ disciples could only immeasurably enrich his life: better together than being held captive within the prison of self-absorption and self-interest.
Is God calling the peoples of the United Kingdom to make a similar transformative journey? This is what we could model as we embrace newly-covenanted relationships among the rich diversity of its peoples. Scotland, thank God you did not leave. We need you as we travel together. It is not good to be alone. As they say on the Isle of Skye, ‘May all evil sleep, may all good awake as you walk the path ahead.’ God bless Scotland. God bless all our peoples.
Sunday, 10 August 2014
It was a watershed spiritually, historically, politically and architecturally. As we know, we have the Norman bishop William of Saint-Calais to thank for it. It was he who embarked on the enormous project of replacing the Saxon ‘white’ church with a great new cathedral in the Romanesque style that by the late 11th century had become familiar across France and after the Norman Conquest, England too. No doubt he was motivated by many aspirations. We can take it that he wished to build to the glory of God. But he also wanted to honour St Cuthbert, whom the Normans adopted as the North’s patron saint not least to win the Saxons’ allegiance. Then he intended to express visibly the ideal of the great monastic church of a religious community following the introduction of Benedictine monks to Durham a decade earlier. Finally, and perhaps not least, because human motivation always comes into things, he wanted to build big and grand to demonstrate that the Normans now held power in the land, and to signal to Saxons and Scots alike that this peninsula was the seat not only of spiritual but of secular authority.
William of Saint-Calais did not live to see his cathedral finished, nor even the placing (or ‘translation’) of Cuthbert’s body into its final resting place behind the high altar when the shrine had been completed in 1104. But I always tread lightly near his grave in the Chapter House: the monks had wanted to bury him near Cuthbert but he insisted that he was not worthy of it. (When my wife and I went to Saint-Calais, a little town in the Loire region of France, we found an elderly woman cleaning the church and asked about the great Norman bishop of Durham who was baptised there. She had never heard of him, and realising that we were Anglais, told us that we had evidently confused Saint-Calais with the better known ferry-port just across the Channel.)
You do not need me to tell you what we owe to him. This Cathedral is consistently regarded Britain’s best-loved building and praised as a masterpiece the world over. That is a tribute to his vision and his eye for architecture. If you wanted to imagine a church that would be an embodiment of the Benedictine virtues of stability, balance and the beauty of good order, you would not do better than Durham. Here is a building to lift the spirits, point you to the skies, drive you to your knees, enlarge the imagination, guide you to contemplate the vision of God and dream about a world in which his will is done on earth as in heaven. But it is also a building that affirms our humanity, holds us in a safe place, protects us from threat, a church that doesn’t crush us with its awesomeness but upholds our human dignity, makes us feel honoured and valued. The laying of the foundation stone in 1093 inaugurated an era that despite the changes and chances of centuries, still goes on in our day, drawing admirers, guests and pilgrims in their millions. We who worship here, live here, volunteer here, work here are privileged to be a part of this history of a place of awesome majesty and beauty.
But the word ‘foundation’ is perhaps misleading. For what took place in 1093 was not of course the founding of the Cathedral itself. That had existed on this site since the Saxon community of St Cuthbert with their bishop, the relics of their saints and the Lindisfarne Gospel Book arrived here at the end of their long journey round the north a century earlier and recognised that this was where the body of their saint would lie. Their cathedral had been lovingly built around Cuthbert’s shrine. No doubt those who had known it shed tears when they saw it being torn down, just as some of the Jews returning from exile wept at the dedication of the new temple because they had not forgotten the old. So when we speak the language of ‘foundation’, we should not forget an earlier history so deeply embedded in the founding story of this place: how (says a later legend) the community were first guided on to this peninsula by a lost dun-cow and the milkmaids looking for her. This ‘foundation’ of 995 is important too, for it marked the transition from being a wandering community of Lindisfarne exiles to establishing themselves as settled in one place, like the Hebrews entering into the promised land. It was another threshold that needed to be crossed with awareness of untested demands of a new, unknown environment.
But even this is not all we need to say today. If you look at the list of Bishops of Durham in Crockford’s Clerical Directory, you will see that it begins, not with the Saxon bishops who arrived here in the 10th century, nor the Normans who succeeded them. It begins with the See of Lindisfarne founded by St Aidan himself at the instigation of King Oswald in 635. St Oswald’s head is interred in the shrine along with Cuthbert, and we celebrated his feast last Tuesday with a procession to the feretory in which we remembered how he was the founder of the mission to Christianise Northumbria. So the true foundation of the See of Durham and its Cathedral lies not here at all but 80 miles to the north, on the Holy Island where Aidan first gathered around him as bishop a community of prayer, study, evangelisation and the service of the poor. This is where the story of our Cathedral begins. This is where the word ‘foundation’ ultimately points.
It matters that we are accurate about our history: the monks of Durham were always clear that as the shrine of St Cuthbert, this Cathedral looked back across an honoured era of Christian life and witness that preceded the Durham years by centuries. It also matters that we recognise that this cathedral has been through many different incarnations and they are all part of the story of our ‘foundation’. You could say that the Lindisfarne era was our apostolic age when saints like Aidan and Cuthbert, Hild and Bede, Wilfred, Chad and Cedd walked the landscapes of Northumbria and bore witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ with such power. You could also say that what followed it was just as significant: the century of exile after the Vikings had driven us from our Holy Island and forced us to travel around the north ending up at Chester-le-Street where the Cathedral was resident for more than a century. We learned through that experience to be a roving cathedral, a community that was discovering how to travel light, adjust to ever-changing circumstances, realise that there is something deeply ingrained in Christian faith about being readily responsive to God’s call. There is something attractive to me about being a Cathedral on the move. In a metaphorical and spiritual sense, this is how we must always be as we are led by God into futures that glow with possibility and promise. ‘To live is to change; to live long is to have changed much’ said John Henry Newman.
So ‘foundation’ is not finally about great stones and magnificent buildings. The fabric of a sacred space is there to demonstrate the deeper truth of our New Testament lesson. St Peter refers to ‘living stones’, people like us from St Oswald and St Aidan to the present day whose life in this community is founded upon Christ the Living Stone. And he says, while we are aliens and exiles like our Hebrew forebears, nevertheless we carry the mark of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and are always ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. That is why Durham Cathedral is here. And that is why it is good to celebrate its foundation today.
Durham Cathedral, 10 August 2014 (1 Peter 2.1-12)