Sunday, 10 August 2014

Durham Cathedral: Foundation Sermon

On 11 August 1093, a momentous event took place here on this peninsula. On that day the foundation stone of this Cathedral was laid amid much pomp and ceremony and in the presence of royalty. We are celebrating it at services today, the Sunday nearest.

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)

Sunday, 3 August 2014

An Unimaginable Disaster

I wonder what we think we are doing, commemorating the outbreak of the Great War a century ago? Many things. Some are obvious, but no less important for that: remembering all who would fall in the war, trying to understand why Europe slept-walked into war in the first place, maybe draw tentative lessons about conflict, patriotism, national politics and how we construct a better world order than the one that crashed to the ground in August 1914. But it is just as important to try to reflect spiritually on our history, offer it to God, hold in our hearts peoples broken by the conflicts of today, pray for peace in our world. Let me offer these thoughts today.

My first reflection is about history. My predecessor Hensley Henson was dean of Durham a century ago. His sermons and writings give us a glimpse of both how well and how badly the Church of England responded to the unexpected crisis of summer 1914. ‘When the stroke actually fell’ he wrote, ‘it seemed to have the benumbing shock of an almost unimaginable disaster. The nation… was reluctant to admit the possibility of war between nations so closely linked by ties of interest, culture and tradition’. He did not fall for the easy recruiting slogans of some of the war’s more fervent supporters; yet he never wavered in his belief that England had a duty to engage with the war. Its causes were unbelievably complex, the ambitions of European empires, their unstable alliances, the vicissitudes of trade, the hubris of flawed leaders, and the simmering tensions in the unruly but far-off Balkans (about which people in England knew little and cared even less). Even now it isn’t easy to unravel an intricate history, but aspects of it may look clearer a century later than historians of the last generation found it to be. In some ways the events of June 1914 strike us as surprisingly modern: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo was a familiar mix of radicalised young men wielding the terrorists’ guns and grenades, and all in a city-centre with heavy traffic and a baffling one-way system.

What brought Britain into the war was the German invasion of neutral Belgium. It was this that appalled the nation, precipitated the declaration of war and galvanised most of the church into supporting the war effort. To stand in solidarity with the victim is honourable for people and for nations, and it’s important to remember this when we might easily conclude, viewing it through the lens of the disastrous Battle of the Somme, that this conflict was avoidable. I doubt it was more avoidable than the Second World War once Germany had decided on its course of action. I dwell on this because it is important, in remembering those who went to war on both sides, that most were not starry-eyed dupes dazzled by the rhetoric of dulce et decorum est. Thoughtful people believed it was the right thing to do to defend a downtrodden nation. They asked what Christian obligation should be amid the messiness of actual historical circumstances. Ethics is never straightforward in extreme situations like war. But we should pay tribute to those who went to war a hundred years ago believing it was their moral and spiritual duty. We must try to read the history with a critical yet sympathetic insight.

My second reflection is about memory. It was the Great War that bequeathed to every church, town centre and village green a war memorial. They existed earlier: both Sheffield and Durham have memorials from before the First World War. In Durham Cathedral, the Durham Light Infantry (pals as well as officers) is commemorated for campaigns going back to Crimea, the Sudan and the Boer War. But it was the terrible attrition of the First World War that brought loss to every community and almost every family in the land that gave nationwide impetus to the need to remember. If anything, this instinct has accelerated in our own lifetimes and spread out from war memorials to roadside shrines in memory of accident victims and other symbols that record loss and grief. The Great War also gave us rituals to remember with: the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and local observances of Armistice Day around every war memorial look back to the same watershed. And again, if Durham is anything to go by, we have seen a huge increase in attendance at these commemorations in the past decade especially – and this interests me in particular - among the young. Perhaps this is because war and the pity of war is relentlessly on public view nowadays through television and social media; but perhaps it is also that the public has a better awareness of the covenant between the armed forces and the nation than it did in past generations. 

How we remember is a rich theme in the scriptures. It lies at the heart of this eucharist as we remember in bread and wine the one whose body was broken and blood shed through an act of cruel violence. We do this in memory of him for many other reasons, but his victimhood is not the least of them. I believe that the eucharist gives us important clues about how we should remember before God. One of them is good remembering is always an occasion for thanksgiving. It’s what eucharist means. These next four years will present opportunities for us all to remember thankfully those who fought and fell not just in the Great War but all the conflicts of more recent times. Another is that we must remember in ways that connect the past to our own day. Anamnesis means allowing the past to become actual to us, telling the story so that we can inhabit it and let it shape our lives now and in the future. If we don’t do this, we shall not only fail to emulate all that ennobled so many who served, but we shall also risk falling into the half-truths, brutalised rhetoric and cant that war so easily fosters. And then, remembering at the eucharist is linked to offering: Christ’s offering for us, our own self-offering in him and, I want to say, bringing all humanity, all the world into the offering of the eucharistic prayer to God, pleading in Christ that like the bread and the wine, our broken, spilt lives, wrecked by conflict and hatred, may be transformed and the new creation heralded.

My final reflection is about where understanding, memory and prayer might lead us. Alan Ecclestone, a much-admired priest in Sheffield in the 1960s said: ‘what matters for prayer is what we do next’. That is to say, to give ourselves to reflection in the ways I’ve suggested must always lead to action of some kind, something we do. This ‘doing’ is about expressing Christian discipleship in ordinary life, making some difference to the world in which we live, to others whose lives we share, to ourselves. So we need to be changed by how we think, how we remember, how we pray. The key word here is ‘we’ as the church that celebrates this eucharist. It may sound grand to speak about being the conscience of the nation, though together, the faith communities can wield inestimable influence in the shaping of a better order in our society and in the wider world. They can bring people together, create dialogue, help bring about reconciliation. In a world so divided by radicalised dysfunctional religion, we shouldn’t underestimate how people of healthy faith can bring understanding and wisdom.

In one way especially, the church has a special vocation. This is to be a witness in every generation that the church is a worldwide society that transcends the divisions between peoples, nations and continents. Christianity, said Hensley Henson, ‘is not a national religion and can never tolerate any national limits to its message’. Peace-making is inspired by a larger vision of human beings living together in the spirit of reconciliation and friendship, which in the gospels is how the kingdom of God is depicted. When Jesus fed the crowd in our gospel reading today, he meant it as a powerful enacted symbol of how we were created to be one people, sitting down as one human company, literally, ‘bread-sharers’ who distribute to all the resources that God out of his abundant generosity has endowed us with. War is always a terrible denial of that fundamental truth about humanity. So a worldwide fellowship of faith, the church, can help recover the vision by living out what it means to be a human family of grace and justice, truth, peace and freedom.

We should use the commemorations of these four coming years to ask ourselves what this means in practice, and commit ourselves not only to praying for it but to helping bring it about. It is one way of both praying and living the petition we say at every act of worship: ‘give us this day our daily bread’, our bread for today, our bread for tomorrow, the bread that the victims of war and conflict hunger for. What matters for prayer is what we do next. As we reflect, as we remember, as we pray, we do not forget what we could do to make a difference in our own time. And maybe, just maybe, this unique centenary that has fallen in our lifetime will give us a new resolve to do it.

Sheffield Cathedral, 3 August 2014.
To commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, August 1914
Matthew 14.14-21

Sunday, 20 July 2014

In the House of Dreams: a farewell sermon to the choir

Yes, it is true: there is wickedness at work in the world, as the parable of the wheat and the tares tells us. We should not be surprised when bad things happen to innocent people. The tragedy of Gaza, the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine, the plight of thousands of desperate Christians fleeing Mosul as their churches are burned – the events of the past week have touched us and we bring them with us in our prayers as we come to the Cathedral today. But as the orthodox funeral rite says that even at the grave we sing alleluia. So once more we celebrate this liturgy of the crucified and risen Christ, and by the miracle of grace we still find it in our hearts to sing.

And singing comes into things today.  Let me speak directly to the choir. For some of you today marks the end of your time as choristers and choral scholars here at Durham. But as we say farewell, we treasure the good memories for which we are thankful. You will remember us, and we shall not forget you, and for all of us this place, this holy place, this beautiful cathedral, will be the focus of our memories, for it was here that we worshipped and sang together for a while; and it is from here that you go out to new schools, new work, new places, new studies, new adventures, new lives. 

In the Old Testament reading, Jacob finds himself alone, in a strange place and spends the night there. The light has failed, and he is afraid of what may lie ahead. As he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels going up and down. But God stands beside him and assures him: ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’. Next day he realises that something wonderful has happened. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’ He is overwhelmed and afraid: ‘how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. 

This Cathedral, this house of God, is an awesome place. It overwhelms us too at times, but we love it for the way it lifts our vision, cherishes us and makes us feel safe, tells us that God is with us. We have found shelter here for a while. Like the stone Jacob rested on, these stones have offered a safe place. They were here long before us, and they will be here long after we have left. They saw us come and they will see us go. Years pass and with them generations of singers and scholars, choristers and clergy, young and old, all for whom this is Beth-El, the house of God where we worship him and learn to love him and know he is in this place. 

And like the stone where Jacob rested, this cathedral is a house of dreams. Here we dream of other worlds as we look up that ladder into heaven and catch a glimpse of angels. Like him, we dream of a promised land where our world comes home to God and all its troubles and sorrows are laid to rest. Like him we dream of a just land where everyone is treated fairly and there is no more war or hunger. Like him we dream of a beautiful land where there is peace and harmony and we join in the music of the spheres. All these worlds are in our dreams as we worship God and imagine that his kingdom is coming among us. The liturgy and the music, the architecture, the sheer beauty of this Cathedral give us good dreams, holy dreams that can change our lives. 

50 years ago a black American preacher and civil rights campaigner made a famous speech. Martin Luther King said: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we shall transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we shall work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day’. We know those words so well, but they have not lost their ability to stir us. That’s the power of good dreams, not to escape from reality but so that we enter into it more deeply. Jacob was asleep when he dreamed of the ladder to heaven, but he was never more awake in his life. Dreams matter. They change the world. 

So let me say to the choristers and choral scholars who are leaving us today: in this house of God, your music has helped us dream of a world as God would have it, a place of peace and justice, glory and freedom, light, life and love.  And you have been caught up in those dreams too, at least I hope you have. You have glimpsed things that are not given to everyone, you have dreamed of a ladder to heaven. It is a huge privilege to see what you have seen and hear what you have heard. Heaven has been opened to you for a while, close enough to touch. Perhaps angels have brushed our sleeve and you did not know it.

But let me mention another aspect of the story. Jacob was on a journey when he lay down and had his dream. He had left his father Isaac and would not see him again until his deathbed. He was in fear of his brother Esau for the wrong he had done him by stealing his blessing. He was afraid, not knowing what lay ahead. The dream was an immensely important turning-point. After it, his mind was clearer, his direction set, his confidence restored. All because he glimpsed heaven and knew God was standing by him. It was not the end of his journey, far from it. Struggles and ordeals lay ahead. The way would often be dark, and faith and hope would be tested. But his inner eyes had been opened. All would be well. He could trust his dream. He could trust God.

This house of dreams has been a part of your journey too. Perhaps you, like Jacob, are wondering what life will mean in the future, where your path is headed. Perhaps your faith and your hope waver at times.  You are only human. But I want to say to all of you: at those times, think back to your time here, to the dreams you shared through your music, to the glimpses of heaven you’ve enjoyed. You have given so much to Durham. Don’t forget what Durham has given you. Let it inspire you in the years ahead, put within you the incentive to serve God wherever life leads you, give you the vision and the strength to make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others. Go on loving and making music all your lives. 
And go on playing your part in creating the music Martin Luther King spoke about, that ‘beautiful symphony of brother- and sister-hood’.

‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, then the Lord shall be my God.’ That was Jacob’s promise to himself and his promise to God. He set up a stone to remember what had happened to him at that awesome place where his dream woke him up and he glimpsed God and the angels’ way to heaven. In the same way, keep the stones of this great Cathedral in your minds as a kind of landmark. Remember what you received here, what you gave here, what you saw and heard here, what you hoped for here, what you came to love. Don’t forget this house of dreams, this house of God, this gate of heaven. And go with our blessing. Go with our profound thanks. Go in hope. Go in God.

At the end of year sung eucharist, 20 July 2014 (Trinity V)
Genesis 28.1-4, 10-21; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Have You Any Soul? A sermon for a music festival

This church is one of the North East’s finest monastic buildings. Brinkburn was Augustinian, though our music today is being by the choir of a Benedictine Cathedral. So let me honour this place by asking what Augustine of Hippo had to say about music. In Book 10 of his Confessions, he admits that he loves music, and that when sung, ‘sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung’.  But he is aware of a trap: ‘finding the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys’. He talks about the risk of gratifying the senses on the one hand, and the gifts that music has to confer on the other. He asks for help not to confuse the gift with the Giver. ‘Have pity on me and heal me, for you see that I have become a problem to myself.’

More famously, he said:
‘whoever sings, prays twice’. This is usually taken to mean first through the words and then the music. But I don’t think he means this. He is saying that when we praise God, our music is transformed through the act of offering: it is lifted above the ordinary song of the dance floor or tavern or concert hall. It becomes an act of self-giving devotion. The ‘twice’ is first what we hear physically, and then where it comes from spiritually, its source at the heart of a human soul when it comes not just out of musicianship but from love.

This is the cue for my theme at this music festival, when the Old Testament reading charmingly announces that ‘the time of singing has come’. In the gospel reading, Jesus draws on a musical analogy. ‘This generation is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “we piped to you and you would not dance; we wailed and you would not mourn”’. There is no pleasing this crowd – that’s the message. A prophet appears, the ascetic John the Baptist, calling for austerity and repentance, and this doesn’t satisfy them. But neither does the Son of Man who loves a party and sits at table with all comers. They don’t like that either. Singing and dancing, wailing and lament – neither finds a hearing among a stubborn, unresponsive people. Whether the music is in a major or minor key, they want none of it. You could say that they have no soul.

Some of you know Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity or have seen the film. It’s set in a record shop (a dying species: if you find one, support it at once). A woman comes in. “‘Have you got any soul?’ she asks. That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no. A few days ago I was right out; now I’ve got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can’t seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn’t be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.” Nick Hornby charts (forgive the word) the fortunes of an obsessive. His public world is the record shop, his private one his collection of discs, his relationships and the complexities of the male psyche. In its off-beat way, the book is not only funny but accurate in the way it lays bare an ordinary human life. His records are a metaphor of his personal world, but they are also a gateway to it. ‘Is it so wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colourful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in.’ Yes, that is indeed art; and that is indeed the human soul. ‘Know yourself’ says the wisdom of antiquity. To peer into our own soul and recognise what is there takes insight, patience and courage.

‘Have we any soul?’ That is the question music and art puts to us. Art says: here is beauty, here is delight, here is tragedy, here is a view of things we may not have glimpsed before. The question is, have we the soul to hear and to listen, to be touched by it and respond to it; even to be changed by it? I doubt it happens by itself. We can use music as mindless wallpaper, even in churches, but there is no guaranteed osmosis that will get inside and make a difference to us. Or we can pay attention, not just hear but listen. Then communication takes place: music becomes a form of speech whose language can elicit a response. Beethoven wrote on his Missa Solemnis, ‘from the heart: may it go to the heart’.  When heart speaks to heart, there is recognition; and by being spoken to, as if by name, we realise in a new way who and what we are. We are brought back into a relationship with our own soul.

I’ve often spoken of the part Bach’s passion music played in my becoming a Christian and later on, a priest. I would not be here now if it were not for the transformative part Bach played in my life: a fifth evangelist indeed. I look back on this experience as one of the ways in which I was humanised, brought back from illusion and fantasy to a deep truth about human life, put back together again. To become more fully human is to rediscover how we are made as the image of God the divine artist and musician who has given us mortals the faculty of imagination, the capacity to respond to beauty, the gift of being enchanted, the ability to create worlds of melody and harmony as God himself creates and sustains the universe. John Milton speaks of the ‘perfect diapason’ that was lost in the fall, but not irretrievably, for the work of redemption is once again enabling mortals to ‘sing in tune with heaven’. So music does not simply give us a glimpse of redemption: it has a redemptive dimension in itself. In the Psalms, the invitation to make music is not, I think, only to celebrate God’s praise but it is to invoke his very presence amidst humanity, to bring him in our midst. With God among us, all of us become musicians who join in the music of the spheres. We dance when God pipes joyfully to us; we enter into his lament when there are tears in things. ‘Do you have any soul?’ It’s God’s question to each of us.

If we take ‘soul’ seriously, music will always be an act of love in all its aspects: composing, performing or listening. This was Augustine’s point: we pray twice when we sing with love. Elgar said of The Dream of Gerontius, ‘this is the best of me, written from my insidest inside.’ He has put the whole of himself into it, an offering of love because love costs everything we have. This is why faith often seems to hover on the periphery of music even when it is not consciously recognised. Herbert Howells said that he was agnostic except when he was composing. Music, like architecture, painting and poetry is one of faith’s companions and interpreters. It enables us to grasp reality in fresh ways. And when it is put to work in the service of the church, it becomes conscious, capable of enabling worship to soar to the heights and plumb the depths of our human life as we experience under God.

Musicians are not named among the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers whose gifts adorn the church.  But don’t musicians bring good news too?  The great rose window of Durham Cathedral that I call ‘God’s Eye’ has the twenty four crowned elders of the Book of Revelation arrayed round Christ in glory, each playing a harp. It tells me that music is enshrined, not just among the arts, but among the bearers of God’s truth and light.  There is the answer to the question, ‘Have we any soul?’ Augustine was right: to sing out of love and adore the eternal God is what we were made for. Just as we are doing in this eucharist right now.

Brinkburn Abbey, Northumberland: at the Music Festival Eucharist, 6 July 2014.
Song of Songs 2.8-13, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end

Saturday, 5 July 2014

'Unimportant'? A brief life of Hensley Henson, Dean & Bishop of Durham

Among my predecessors, Hensley Henson was one of the most waspish of all the Deans of Durham.  He became Dean in 1912, left the Deanery in 1917 to go to the See of Hereford, and returned to Durham in 1920 as its Bishop, retiring just a few months before the outbreak of the second world war.  He wanted to be a scholar-dean: ‘I would endeavour to associate my tenure of the Deanery with some literary achievement which would renew the tradition of Dean Waddington… and finally emancipate me from the humiliating excitements of ecclesiastical conflict’.[1]  He relates that unfortunately for him and for us, it did not turn out as he had hoped. Most of his writings that had impact in their day, and that are still remembered, belong to his later life. And it is probably true to say that it was not for their intellectual substance that they were valued so much as their fearless engagement with so many central issues of global, national and church life. These include church and state, Christian moral thought, the practice of ministry and of course, his autobiographical writings[2].

‘HHH’ as he was often known was born in 1863. A Londoner, his childhood was unhappy, and left him with a lifelong sense of being an outsider. He went to Oxford as an unattached undergraduate: his father who was badly in debt could not afford to support him at one of the colleges. This strongly reinforced the awareness that he did not belong to the mainstream of the talented and intelligent, for all his intellectual ability. He took a first in modern history and was soon elected a fellow of All Souls. Having discerned early on a vocation to priesthood, he was ordained in 1887 and appointed Vicar of Barking the following year. Here his talents made him one of London’s most popular clergy, increasing the congregation, it is said, from 250 to over a thousand. In 1895 he became chaplain of an Ilford hospital, and in 1900, a canon of Westminster and Vicar of St Margaret’s. This great public platform gained him widespread admiration for the brilliance of his preaching. He was noticed in high places. Asquith had planned to make him Dean of Lincoln, but Henson’s wayward behaviour led to a change of mind: he said it would be ‘like sending a destroyer into a landlocked pool’.[3]  The issue concerned his advocacy of union with non-conformists. He had defied his old friend Bishop Charles Gore in preaching in a congregational church in Birmingham. So Henson became Dean of Durham instead. 

His arrival in Durham was heralded by a dramatic development in the Deanery.  Like Spencer Cowper before him, Henson, or rather Ella his wife whom he had married in 1902, took a dislike to the great house which she thought gloomy and colourless.  Her opinion was perhaps not altogether without ground.  The photographs in his predecessor Dean Kitchin’s history of the Deanery[4], an incomparable record not only of its past, but also how it was inhabited in Edwardian times, show that the house was decorated and furnished in a heavy Victorian style that did not do justice to its elegant 17th and 18th century architecture.  So Ella set about putting colour back into Spencer Cowper’s solarium, and the Chinese silk wallpapers, as brilliant now as they were in 1912, show how well she succeeded.  It was a metaphor of a new era in the Deanery, both the house and the office.  The 20th century had arrived.

As I have said, Henson had already gained a reputation as a brilliant preacher and controversialist before he arrived at Durham.  He was a passionate defender of the establishment of the Church of England but had moved away from the high church position he had occupied as a younger man. In the year of his appointment, he published a book arguing that clergy should be free to air their doubts about the virgin birth and bodily resurrection in the pulpit. This led to the legendary controversy surrounding his preferment to Hereford in 1917.  He was appointed by Lloyd-George against the advice of Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. A number of bishops refused to attend his consecration, an act that wounded Henson deeply. In 1920, he was appointed Bishop of Durham. This time, his reception in his diocese where of course he was already well-known was uncontroversial and warm.  

Back in Durham, it was not long before he ran into trouble. The Durham coalfield was seething with discontent and unrest under the economic and industrial strains all England was experiencing, and the recalcitrant attitudes of local pit owners. Conflict was rife, with both miners’ and employers’ attitudes coloured by the Russian Revolution four years earlier. On Labour Day, 1 May 1921, Henson was invited to speak to a gathering of mine workers and employers at Hartlepool to try to achieve understanding and avert a damaging strike. The memory of an earlier episcopal intervention in a mining dispute in County Durham was still green: the great Bishop Westcott had been widely admired during the coal strike of 1892 for bringing miners and employers to Auckland Castle and successfully mediating between the two groups. It was not that Henson misjudged the occasion. He praised the miners, and pleaded to everyone’s better nature for an end to class war. But he unwisely included as a throwaway remark, a reference to the few, not the many, who were ‘shirkers’. This was mistaken to be a denigration of them all. For a while, the mood that year was ugly. Henson was able to redeem it by never failing in his conscientious care for miners and their families and his often generous financial provision for them, despite his dislike of organised labour and the trade unions.

But things soon turned sour again. This time, it came down to a difference of opinion between the Bishop and the Dean and it tells us quite a lot about Henson. Welldon took an exalted view of the office of Dean. Once, he was speaking to a meeting of railwaymen at Stockton and one of them asked, ‘Who is worth more to the country – a Dean or an engine-driver?  He replied: ‘A Dean is worth more than an engine-driver, if only because the engine-driver would take people from Stockton to Newcastle, but a Dean would take them from Stockton to heaven’.[5] 

His relations with Henson were notoriously bad, and the Bishop found in him exactly the right target for his acid wit. When preaching at Court and lunching afterwards at Buckingham Palace, King George V happened to ask his granddaughter Princess Elizabeth what she had liked best at the zoo on their visit the previous day.  ‘The rhinobottomus’ she replied.  Henson at once said: ‘Thank you, my dear Princess, for giving me a word which so adequately describes my Dean’.  When a lady asked him at a dinner-party if he had seen the play Pigs in Clover, he replied: ‘No, but I have seen the Dean of Durham in bed’.  Welldon was suspicious of the telephone, and would only allow a single appliance to be installed in the Porters’ Lodge to serve the entire College.  (That however was more advanced than Henson, who refused to have a telephone at Auckland Castle at all, so his chaplain had to make daily trips to a public phone in the market place in order to transact the business of the diocese)[6]. 

Relations came to a head. This time, it was another matter entirely that proved the trigger. Welldon was a leader of the temperance movement while Henson thought the whole idea of prohibition both absurd in itself and damaging (as he looked across the Atlantic) politically and socially. The brewers regarded Henson as their champion and liked the implication that the ‘liquor bishop’ would ‘rather see England free than England sober’.[7] The Dean decided to brief against his Bishop. He addressed the annual Miners’ Gala in July 1825 appealing to the Labour Party to ‘solve the nation’s drink problem’ and dissenting from Henson’s well-known views. Unfortunately, Henson had written a newspaper article a few days earlier on ‘The Coal Crisis: an explanation and a warning’. The topic was the miners’ demand to be paid a ‘living wage’.

Henson argued that this act of folly would put their very industry at risk. They were furious. A banner was processed on the racecourse proclaiming ‘to hell with bishops and deans! We want a living wage!’ There were mutterings about the vast stipends enjoyed by church dignitaries, and the Cathedral’s ownership of a well-known colliery, the Dean and Chapter pit at Ferryhill. Then a large man attired in an episcopal habit was seen amid the throng. This was not the Bishop but the Dean who had been a colonial bishop in East India. ‘Here he comes’ the crowd shouted, ‘throw him in the river!’. After a beating, they almost succeeded but for the intervention of the police. Who knows if the miners were intent on throwing a church dignitary into the river, not caring whom, or whether they mistook Welldon for Henson? But from then on, Henson paid attention to his personal security.

In the national church, the issue that long preoccupied him was that of disestablishment. I have said that he began as a fervent advocate of the established church. This was to change dramatically with the debacle over Parliament’s refusal to endorse the revised Book of Common Prayer twice over, first in 1927 and then again in 1928. This requires a lecture in itself, but briefly, the reasons for Parliament’s dislike of the draft text were based on a lingering protestant suspicion, fanned by a successful public campaign headed by well-known evangelicals, that the book conceded the historic Reformation position of the Church of England by countenancing such practices as eucharistic sacrifice and prayers for the dead. It is salutary to be reminded that what was called anti-Romanism was in some circles a live issue well into the 20th century, and is still not yet put to rest.

Because the revised Prayer Book had been unambiguously endorsed by the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church Assembly acting under its legal mandate of 1919, Henson regarded Parliament’s rejection as an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of the church. He now began to clamour loudly for disestablishment to which he gave the title of a notorious book he published in 1929. In it, he argued (presciently, many think today), that as the nation could no longer be said to profess the Christian faith, the church should be given the freedom to govern itself. His cry fell on deaf ears and made him more enemies. However, his public role in the coronation of 1937 seems to have moderated his position. He began to talk about the ‘residual’ Christianity held by the English as compared with the outright paganism that was sweeping across Nazi Germany.

And this observation of what was happening across the North Sea brought out what some consider as the very best in Henson. His stepmother, whom his father had met late in Henson’s adolescence, was a German widow. Henson always retained his affection for her, and her memory probably influenced him when, late in life, he observed the capitulation of a nation he admired to the forces of totalitarianism. He was one of only a few in public life vocally to criticise Nazi anti-Semitism, and support the German Confessing Church and its imprisoned pastor Martin Niemöller. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1936, he was quick to condemn Britain’s lack of concern, and when it came to the Munich crisis of 1938, he was forthright in speaking against an act of appeasement that he regarded as a ‘grievous injury’to the Czechs and a shameful capitulation to Germany’.[8] He had opposed spending on re-armament as he believed it promoted war. But he saw in 1938 that war was inevitable, a ‘holy war against pagan barbarism’ to end which there must be unambiguous victory, not a ‘compromise or patched-up peace’.[9]

This pleased Churchill who in 1940 invited Henson to forsake retirement and return to Westminster as a canon who would preach fervently in support of the war. It was not a success because of his failing health, and he resigned in 1941. He died in Suffolk on 27 September 1947. His ashes are buried in this Cathedral in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, near Bishop Anthony Bek and the memorial to the last of the prince-bishops, William van Mildert. Ella lived on for two more years.

Short men are often pugnacious, and this is true of Hensley Henson. This is evident from the best of his huge literary output, his letters and his long memoirs entitled Retrospect of an Unimportant Life. It is hard to tell whether there is an intended irony in the title, or whether he believed, as an outsider who had never attended public school and had been an impoverished ‘unattached’ student at Oxford, that he was a nobody like the famous diarist whose title he was perhaps echoing.  One writer thinks the book is ‘by turns snobbish, self-regarding, and self-dramatizing’[10].  But Owen Chadwick’s enjoyable biography[11] takes a more sympathetic view of this conflicted, inconsistent and troublesome man.  It demonstrates his far-sightedness, his passion for justice, his hatred of hypocrisy and cant.  He was perhaps one of the few prophets to occupy the Deanery.  His tenure as a wartime dean here in Durham came before he had made his lasting mark on the Church of England.  Yet I like to think that some of his enduring insights about church and society were nurtured in the room he and Ella made so beautiful for future Deans and their families to enjoy.  



[1] Henson, Herbert Hensley, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, London, 1942, I, 147.
[2] Complete list of books and papers in Peart-Binns, J. S., Herbert Hensley Henson, Cambridge, 2013, 192ff.
[3] Grimley, Matthew in ODNB, online source, citing The Times.
[4] Kitchin, G. W., The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912, Durham, 1912.
[5] Beeson, op cit.
[6] Gibby, C. W., ‘Some Deans and Canons of Durham’, unpublished reminiscences, 1979.
[7] Chadwick, Owen, Hensley Henson: a study in the friction between Church and State, Norwich 1983, 165.
[8] DNB, Grimley, Matthew on ‘Henson, Herbert Hensley’, 2004-5
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Chadwick, ibid.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Floreat Dunelmia!

1414. Henry V had come to the throne of England the year before. The year after came the Battle of Agincourt. There was a Council of the Church at Constance to sort out who should be elected Pope. An obscure alliance called the Parakeet was founded by European princes to defend themselves against a common enemy. But these are nothing compared to the event we celebrate today: the founding of Durham School 600 years ago by Thomas Cardinal Langley. It always moves me to see Durham School students at his commemoration in November when flowers are laid on his tomb in the Galilee Chapel.

We say that Langley founded our school, but that may not all of the truth. The founder of my Oxford College, John Balliol, was a Durham man, and he said he attended a School here as long ago as the thirteenth century. It’s clear that for as long as there has been a Cathedraleducation has been at the heart of its missionThe grammar school, now Durham School, and the song school, now the Chorister School, both belonging to the Foundation, were two aspects of this. The Cathedral Priory founded a college in Oxford to educate its monks. The library was, still is, legendary for its manuscripts and early printed books, many of which still survive here. The monastery took scholarship seriously: the Rule of St Benedict required that the monks spend one third of each day in study alongside prayer and work. What Langley did was to establish the school as a community of learning with its own identity and resources. And this was necessary if it was, in the words of the school motto floreat Dunelmia, to flourish (so much more upbeat than my own school motto which is paulatim sed firmiter – ‘slowly but surely’; I have always been one of life’s plodders).

This service, however takes us even further back, to before there was a Cathedral here in Durham. The coffin that was processed in at the beginning of this celebration tells a longer story that begins on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in the seventh century. From there, the monks carried Cuthbert’s body on a journey lasting more than a century until they ended up here at Dun-holm and built their first Cathedral round his coffin.This is the long march Durham School students have been making in the past few days: reminding us of that journey without which Durham Cathedral, Durham City, Durham University and Durham School would not be here. What Cuthbert’s monks brought with them to Durham was the memory of how learning had been cherished on Lindisfarne. When St Aidan founded the community there in the seventh century, he educated boys to become future leaders in church and nation – we know this from the writings of the Venerable Bede. So in a way, it is correct to say that the origins of Durham School, like the Cathedral, lie as far back as 1300 years ago.  

This great history that we celebrate on this 600th anniversary: how does it speak about the kind of school we are now, and want to be in the next 600 years? I think the answer lies in our two readings from the Bible. They both give the same message: remember those who have gone before you. Let them inspire you to do great things in the present and to embrace the qualities for which we admire them: their goodness, their loyalty, their faith, their generosity, their service to their fellow men and women, their wisdom, their sense of justice, their passionate love of God. ‘Their bodies are buried in peace’ says the Old Testament, ‘but their name lives on generation after generation’. Like Cuthbert, here in this Cathedral; like Thomas Langley; like Granville Sharp and other Dunelmians whose memory we treasure and of whom we are truly proud.

And this makes me ask a question: if a school is for the formation of young men and women, equipping them to become citizens of the future, what matters most in education? The statement about Durham School’s ethos says that it aims ‘to educate pupils in the very broadest sense…sound judgment and the exercise of moral courage are the cornerstones of this, developed through such attributes as tolerance, compassion, self-discipline, imagination, flexibility and resilience….It values and nurtures skills such as leadership, teamwork and intellectual reasoning which will enable its pupils to thrive in the twenty-first century world living life in all its fullness, but mindful always of the obligation to put back into society more than has been taken out’. It’s a noble statement in that it recognises how intangible values are as important as those that have measurable outcomes like academic achievement and sporting success. They have much to say about the kind of people we are going to be, and not simply what we shall one day do. This service is a good time to ask why we are here, what we are doing, what we aspire to in the years ahead. And we begin to answer those questions by looking back to our past, drawing inspiration from those who have gone before us, and striving to imitate them.

But there is a particular quality in the litany of the great and the good that the New Testament reading brings out. The writer emphasises how each of these Old Testament heroes looked into the future, filled with a hope that gave them extraordinary confidence and trust as they persevered to live and die well, often in extreme circumstances. Abraham, says the reading, set out on a journey ‘not knowing where he was going’. He ‘looked forward’ to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’. That says to me that faith is focused on the future, on the opportunities tomorrow brings, on what God will do in the days ahead. ‘All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted themThey desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, indeed, he has prepared a city for them.’

Investment in people and institutions like ours is always an act of faith and hope. We give it everything we have because we believe in its worth. We believe that the fruits of that investment will be harvested one day – not by us, possibly not even known about by us, but by others who will find new reasons to be thankful for the education that Durham School gave its students. But ultimately, says the reading, there is one investment we must make that gathers up and crowns all the others, gives them permanent meaning and significance. It’s that little word ‘faith’A sound education never neglects that spiritual dimension. It recognises the part faith plays in making us truly human. It helps us ‘look beyond’ as Abraham did, so that we see the transient trials and rewards of this life in a larger context. It prompts us to reach out for what lasts for ever: the grace and truth of the eternal God himself.

This is the faith and hope by which Aidan and Cuthbert lived and died, and Thomas Langley, and Granville Sharp and so many others beyond number. This is the foundation on which Durham School was built. Floreat DunelmiaMay our school flourish as we celebrate not only an illustrious past but also an unquenchable hope in the future that is both God’s and ours.

Sirach 44.1-10; Hebrews 11.8-16

Sunday, 18 May 2014

A Sermon on the Farne

Yesterday I went with the choristers to the Farne Islands and then to Holy Island. We walked in the steps of the saints to visit the sources of northern English Christianity. If you love Cuthbert as northern people do, then you want to discover the places he loved too. If you had asked him where especially, he would have said: go to the Farne. Imbibe the spirit of that remote place where the North Sea’s cold slatey waters beat against the whin sill rocks, where guillemots, puffins and terns have their island home under the wide Northumberland sky. Who knows where the name comes from? – an old British word farran meaning ‘land’, or faran meaning a traveller, or that the island group was thought to resemble a fern in shape?
 
Bede says that the Farne ‘is an island far out to sea’; that it was a ‘remote battlefield’, haunted by demons and that Cuthbert was the first person brave enough to live there alone; that he built himself a city, which is how hermits talked about their cells, consisting of a circular wall cut out of the rock, a shelter to live in and an oratory to pray in. He prayed hard, dug a pit and lo, God turned the solid rock into a standing water whose supply never failed. He built a lodge for guests and cultivated the meagre soil whose first harvest was a good barley crop. When the birds set about devouring it, he told them off. ‘Why are you eating crops you did not yourselves grow? If God has said you can, so be it. If not, be off with you and stop damaging other people’s property.’ Here Cuthbert spent the last part of his life, dying there on 20 March 687. The islands passed to Durham Cathedral Priory which kept a cell of two monks there. Prior Castell built a pele tower while the chapel is probably on the site of Cuthbert’s oratory. Surprisingly, the Farnes remained the Cathedral’s property until the nineteenth century.
 
I have preached often on our northern saints. They are among our prized gospel texts here in North East England. I put it that way because when the gospel is written on the hearts and lives of men, women and children, it comes alive in a unique way. ‘They being dead yet speak’ says our miners’ banner in the south transept, a quotation from the letter to the Hebrews. The writer wants to inspire his readers to courage in following Jesus, so he lists some of the great heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible and says: live like them; believe like them, hope like them. We read the passage in that chapel: ‘seeing we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith’.
 
But as I put it in my book Landscapes of Faith, holy people are inseparable from the locations they populated. The places where they lived and walked and preached and prayed have become sacred sites where pilgrims travel to remember how the saints did the work of God and bequeathed their spirit of faith and hope to those who came after them. So places become gospel texts too. Where the Spirit touches the earth, a sacred geography is establisheda way of reading ‘place’ in terms of its influence on human beings and their influence on it, and how people of faith have responded to God’s presence in particular places. This place, Durham Cathedral, is a great example: we are sitting within sacred geography. This Cathedral and the city that grew around it, what the monks called an English Zion, only exist at all because of the monks who brought St Cuthbert’s body here a thousand years ago and created a spiritual legacy that has shaped lives ever since.
 
The Farne is another of these places. So let me ask: what is the gospel written into the old eternal rocks and the deep salt sea that swirls round them? Among many words I hear there is one about creaturehoodI mean that these remarkable islands tell me something important about the natural world and how I must try to find my place within God’s creationdoubt that this has much to do with the conventional response of saying how beautiful they are. That would not have impressed Cuthbert who built his city wall high enough to stop him being distracted by his surroundings. Moreover, when the sea is stirred and the wind is up and the sky is like gunmetal, their gaunt isolation seems to seize hold of you, and the sense of exposure can be threateningThe thousands of birds wheeling round vast sky and nesting precariously on the basalt sea-stacks are one of the awesome sights of England; but Cuthbert knew they were not always comfortable bed-fellows. 

Yet this numinous quality of nature, ravishing or grim, grasps youIt puts you in your place, reminds you of your own smallness in the face of what can’t ever be tamedWe learn that we are mortals and not gods. The Farne is one of those places where our vision is brought back into focus, where we see what we always were and arefashioned by our Creator and a part of the same chain of being as the islandsthe rocks, the birds and the sea. How important that corrective is for our whole existence as a human race capable of destroying the planet given to us as our home. It keeps us humble to recognise that we must act with courtesy towards all living things, as Mother Julian says, not so much out of enlightened self-interest, as because reverencing God’s world is part of reverencing him for himself. To honour his handiwork in sky and earth and sea ought to teach us to honour one another made as his image charged with the care and stewardship of what he has made.
 
Reverence for God and courtesy for his fellow beings lay at the heart of Cuthbert’s life on the FarneHe went there, as Bede saysto find solitude and devote himself to prayer. Bede is clear that this was not an act of withdrawal for the sake of gazing out on beautiful sunsets and thinking beautiful thoughtsThe hermit saints looked for fierce landscapes where they would not be distracted from doing God’s work of prayer. Cuthbert knew he must focus on this daunting spiritual ordeal, just as Jesus did in the desert. The sea journey our monks frequently made across the sound from Holy Island to the Farne were often difficult under the fierce blasts of wind that rush down from Cheviot. The voyage was its own metaphor of arduous spiritual endeavour. When you step on to the Farne, you are reminded how demanding it is to take up your cross to follow Christ.
 
Yet we find this tough spirituality sits well with reverence for nature. The solitaries have always been strangely companionable. It is not that they are reclusive; rather that they perceive their friends - humans or birdsanimals, plants or rocks - as also belonging to a world that is charged with the grandeur of GodFor where our inner noise begins to be stilled, we become open to God in new ways, more responsive to our fellow-travellers and the environments we share with themSo while this Cuthbert vocation is not for most of us all of the time, it could be for all of us some of the time. I’m thinking of how important it is for health of mind and body as well as the soul to find regular times and spaces to be still and alone and prayerful. Whether it is for minutes or hours or days, we can embark on journeys large or small for the sake of travelling more deeply into God and into our own selves. As people of faith, it’s natural to want to imitate Cuthbert in seeking places that would nourish the spirit, as Jesus himself often did when he went up the mountain or in the wilderness to wrestle and prayIn the words of a desert father, ‘go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’. So go wherever your soul finds it can drink deep of the Spirit of the living God whose risen Son shows us the Father, and as our way, our truth and our life, looks for human hearts in which to make a home.