Sunday, 28 June 2015

Summer on Lindisfarne

Our readings on this summer Sunday are of St Peter whose festival is tomorrow. It’s moving to be here on this particular day. Tomorrow I shall have been ordained forty years, so it’s a special time of thankfulness. Also, this is my last sermon as Dean of Durham outside the Cathedral at an ‘away match’. Where else was I meant come but back here on my beloved Lindisfarne, Durham’s mother house? And today is significant for you because the monastic church that St Aidan’s successor Finan built here on this Island in the seventh century was dedicated to St Peter. So on this festival Sunday we celebrate the centuries there has been a church, a Christian presence, in this wonderful and numinous place.

And that is the first of three themes I want to mention today. Aidan’s monastery founded nearly fourteen centuries ago, and the Priory that was re-founded by the Benedictine monks of Durham in the twelfth century, were at the heart of this island community. As was this church of St Mary which has its own long story to tell. This building was here to serve the islanders, while the Priory served the monks and their mission across Northumbria and beyond. But they belonged together on this one holy site. Today, the one is a romantic ruin loved by tourists and sea-birds; but the other continues to do what it always has: be the home of a living Christian community and a sign of God here among us.

Great monastic churches were often dedicated to St Peter, or to Peter and Paul. Finan’s church would not have been large, but it was ‘great’ in its significance, for from here the mission of those Irish monks, and the native Saxons who joined them, spread far and wide, not only across Northumbria but across England. Canterbury may claim to be the mother church of English Christianity, but you and I know better, for Lindisfarne has a stronger claim. Its reach was right across England: the North of course, and the Midlands too, and East Anglia and as far south as Sussex. You can see how appropriate it was for the headquarters of a great mission enterprise should be dedicated to Peter. In our gospel, he is the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed one. He is the one, Petros the rock, on whom Jesus promises to build his church; he is the one he gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to, charging him to take the gospel to the world and to bind and loose in his name. So we honour and celebrate the great apostle whose influence was so far-reaching, just as the influence of Lindisfarne’s own Apostle Aidan who perhaps took him as his model and touched countless lives six centuries later.  

But the Christian presence on Lindisfarne is about more than simply the life of the Priory and this parish church. Churches and priories, even when they are in ruins, stand for the truth that God is in the midst of the whole of our life, not simply the churchgoing part of it. We call it ‘common grace’, and we need to recognise it. It’s another of the Bishops of Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, who symbolises it for me (and I can hardly come here from his shrine at Durham and not mention Cuthbert who is so cherished by us all). This is my second theme. What people loved in Cuthbert and remembered him for among many other things was his love of the natural world, his closeness to animals and birds, flowers and vegetation, the land, the soil and the deep salt sea. He was England’s St Francis, or rather, because he lived so many centuries before him, we should say that St Francis of Assisi was Italy’s St Cuthbert. For us who also love the seascape and landscape and natural history of this Holy Island, it is difficult not to be reminded of Cuthbert who loved these things as well.
Common grace means celebrating the presence of God in all creation, and in the life and activity of human beings. So your music festival in which this church is taking an active part is a way of honouring the goodness of God at the heart of things, and perhaps making it a little more conscious to us all so that we can give thanks for it. But there’s another aspect of common grace that comes to my mind this summer. Pope Francis has just issued his courageous encyclical on climate change and the threats it poses to all of life on our planet. It’s clear in the way he writes that he has St Francis very much in mind. He says, for instance, that we need to get away from the old idea that humankind exercises ‘dominion’ over nature, which has been taken as a licence to exploit it, and instead recover St Francis’s friendship with the natural world, his courtesy towards it, how he saw the good earth as a home to all living creatures, not just to the human race. Pope Francis could have said all this of Cuthbert too. So a festival that celebrates God in our midst helps create an environment, an ecology if you like, in which we are more open to seeing nature’s gifts for what they are and reverencing them, whether it is in the beauty of this island or the beauty of music and the arts, or the beauty of human character and community and our closest personal relationships.
My third point brings these two themes together. Today we are dedicating a new frontal for the Fishermen’s Altar in the north aisle. This aisle is a much-loved space within a much-loved church. It symbolises the sea that is all around us, and the lives of those who derive their living and indeed their very identity from the sea. St Peter was of course a fisherman, one of those Jesus summoned to leave their nets and follow him and become fishers of people instead. The Sea of Galilee plays a big part in the gospels just as the North Sea dominates life on Lindisfarne. You can’t get on or off Holy Island without taking account of the tides, a daily reminder of primordial rhythms that were familiar to every ancient society but of which most of us have become almost unaware in modernity. That too is one of Pope Francis’s pleas, to reconnect ourselves once more to the patterns of the seasons and the days, dusk and dawn, the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of tides. Cuthbert, who regularly plied the sea between here and the Inner Farne, knew all about these. So should we who come after him.
So the altar in this sacred place with its beautiful frontal that we dedicate on St Peter’s Day joins it all together: God’s grace that abounds in nature and in human art and craftsmanship; this island community that is so dependent on the sea, and this ancient place of prayer at the heart of England’s Holy Island where all of life is offered to God in praise and prayer. We are here this morning to celebrate the eucharist. That word means thankfulness. It’s the most important word in any celebration and the greatest word in the life of faith: gratitude to God for his goodness and lovingkindness to us and to all people; gratitude to him for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, whose apostle Peter we celebrate today. And gratitude too for our life and work as a community on this island where we recognise in one another’s creativity, talents and dedication the God-given gifts that keep us alive and sustain what we are and do, and delight us with glimpses of the One whom the Gospel calls Immanuel, the God who is with us always in his risen and ascended Son.
Lindisfarne, 28 June 2015. Matthew 16.13-19

Sunday, 21 June 2015

What Makes a Good Leader? Sermon at the Mayor's Civic Service

In an age with a love-hate attitude to celebrity, leadership has never been more demanding than it is today. My imminent departure from Durham has exercised my own mind on what I think I have tried to be and to do as a spiritual leader in the last twelve years; my colleagues are asking the question, what is needed in the next Dean of Durham? Today, our thoughts are focused on a new Mayor of Durham who steps into this role as Chair of the County Council. I am sure I speak for all of you when I say at the outset that our prayers and good wishes are with Jan as she begins her mayoral year. We shall all want to support her mayoralty in every way we can.

On the 9th September, we shall mark the day when The Queen becomes the longest reigning English monarch, overtaking her predecessor Queen Victoria. We shall honour this remarkable achievement at a special evensong that day. I have been looking at her Coronation Service to see what hopes and expectations surrounded her when she was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Here are some of the prayers from that day.

Strengthen her, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost the Comforter; Confirm and stablish her with thy free and princely Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and government, the Spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill her, O Lord, with the Spirit of thy holy fear.
The Lord your God endue you with knowledge and wisdom, with majesty and with power from on high; the Lord clothe you with the robe of righteousness, and with the garments of salvation. May wisdom and knowledge be the stability of your times, and the fear of the Lord your treasure.
The Coronation rite asks many things for the Sovereign: peace in her times; stability so that her realms may flourish, a fruitful reign, the capacity to serve well and to oversee the administration of justice. These are all good aspirations for the exercise of every kind of power, prayers we can all echo for those who undertake public roles on behalf of other people. But if ask what was uppermost in the minds of those who, centuries ago, composed the coronation service, I think we would have to say: wisdom. It is a theme that runs through so many of the prayers for a young sovereign on her coronation day, because it is the secret of sound leadership, as Solomon knew when he prayed for the gift to govern his people wisely. There is nothing that so adorns a leader as his or her embrace of wisdom, or as we might say, insight and awareness, discernment, understanding, and sound judgment. These are the qualities that inculcate a sense of trust and confidence: you believe that those who possess them are in it not for themselves, not acting out of self-interest or aggrandisement, but for the sake of others. And there is nothing that so corrupts leadership and discredits it as the lack of those hard-won qualities.
By coincidence, in this year that we reach a milestone in the history of the monarchy, we also celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Last Monday, I was in that sunny meadow at Runnymede with thousands of others to witness the ceremony that commemorated this event. Her Majesty was there, lineal successor of King John; and the Archbishop of Canterbury too, the spiritual successor of the great Archbishop Stephen Langton who, we believe, contributed to the drafting of the text. I wondered whether The Queen was thinking about her 63 years on the throne, and the nature of our constitutional monarchy whose carefully defined relationships with Parliament and the body politic go back ultimately to Magna Carta. For the checks and balances that discipline leaders, so signally lacking when an autocratic sovereign collided with recalcitrant barons, are essential to the good ordering of a modern state. It took many centuries to get there: 1215 was the start of a long journey. But we now take them for granted, not only in the monarchy but in every other aspect of public life. It comes down to the fundamental principle of our freedoms, that all of us are equal under the law, and no-one is privileged, however ancient their office or exalted their powers.
We might think these constraints, these limitations on power make it easier to lead. On the contrary. They make leadership an extraordinarily subtle art that calls for the kind of wisdom I have been speaking about: the insight and discernment that enable us to understand the gears that synchronise our roles with the complex and intricate systems and processes of our public institutions.  This is true of leaders in government; it is true of leaders in the church (take my word for it), and of leaders in every other sector of society. You, Madam, are a constitutional mayor. I am a constitutional dean. In our more sinful moments we may wish we had more power than we do. In our better hours and days, we are profoundly grateful that it is as it is. And so I come to my fundamental question. Where does it come from, this gift to be wise?
Our Old Testament reading speaks about wisdom as the gift of the Spirit, ‘a breath of the power of God, an emanation of the glory of the Almighty’. ‘She is more beautiful than the sun; against wisdom, evil does not prevail.’ The Wisdom of Solomon is one of a number of texts written to instruct those who being prepared for leadership. Wisdom in the Old Testament means many things: a shrewd knowledge of the world, the capacity to read human life and behaviour, the ability to manage oneself well and order the affairs of the institutions we are responsible for, a moral compass that is orientated towards what is good and right, and more than anything else, a reverence for God who alone is wise, in whose name we mortals exercise leadership. All this is part of wisdom’s ‘admonition to rulers’. You could sum it up like this: know your role; know what you are responsible for; know your place in how the world is ordered; know your people; know yourself. If we want to clothe wisdom in contemporary dress, the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life that people in public life sign up to nowadays do a good job: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
But there is one more dimension that we who lead must always remember. Our New Testament reading spells it out in a marvellous paradox. ‘Where is the one who is wise?’ asks St Paul, ‘has not god made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ So it depends on what kind of wisdom we cultivate. He tells us that it is not human wisdom or intelligence in itself that we should aspire to, nor the crude coercive force of naked power that we find so seductive. Rather it is to trace both power and wisdom back to their God-given source. Where do we find this? It is ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’.
Which is why we hold this service at the start of the each mayoral year. It is to worship and acknowledge our dependence on God from whom all good things come, among them the best gifts and virtues we aspire to. And it is to pray for our Mayor and all who lead that they may be equipped with everything they need to inhabit their office with the wisdom and justice, the compassion and humanity that will serve and build up the common good. In one of the psalms, a blessing on the city goes like this: ‘May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, no cry of distress in our streets. Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall. Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.’ Indeed so, God only wise in all places and in this place, our beloved city and county, this northern land of saints.

Durham Cathedral
At the annual civic service, 21 June 2015
Wisdom 7.22b-8.1; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: St Paul on vocation

This is a strange month for me. On this summer solstice it is just 100 days until I retire and we say farewell. The nights gradually drawing in will have a poignant significance this year. June also marks the twentieth anniversary of my becoming a cathedral dean, and the fortieth of my ordination. When I lead the retreat for this year’s new deacons and priests and preach at their ordinations, I shall recall how I started out in public ministry all those years ago and think with amazement how swiftly this chapter of life is coming to an end.

St Paul too is looking back in that colourful passage we read as the epistle today. His matchless rhetoric brings four incomparable chapters in his second Corinthian letter to a marvellous climax. He has been speaking about the ministry of reconciliation that it has been his privilege to serve, proclaiming ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. He has offered some glimpse of how fragile it all is, the risky way God is taking in making him known, entrusting to frail human beings this ‘treasure in earthen vessels’. He has explained how ‘knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others’,  which is what Christian mission means, how in all things we are ‘ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us’.
This vocation to be an apostle has brought him difficulty, frustration and pain. Paul catalogues his ordeals in today’s passage: afflictions, hardships, calamities... the list seems endless. Yet through it all, he has not lost his focus, his clear-eyed grasp of how ministry is God’s work, not our own. He lists the virtues he has coveted: ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God’. In all these things, he has told us earlier, he does not lose heart. It is a ‘momentary light affliction’ compared to the glory that is being revealed. If only all of us could look back on our decades of service in the church and say that!

But there is something Paul says that I want, indeed need to say too as I look back like him and ponder these forty years of public ministry. I hope you will not misunderstand the spirit in which I say this. ‘As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way so that no fault may be found with our ministry.’ How do I have the temerity to identify with that claim? Paul is not, I think, claiming perfection in everything he has done and how he has done it. As I read this, my favourite of all Paul’s letters, I see a man courageously laying bare his own flaws as a human being, knowing how even the best that he can attain to is always compromised, always needs to be redeemed from the corrosive taints of self-interest, envy and the sin of pride.

And that applies not only to achievement and performance in ministry, but also – and especially – to our motives. To serve God well is to be keenly aware of our brokenness, the shame of not living up to the very ideals that inspired us to offer for ministry in the first place, the peril of hypocrisy or ‘play acting’ that can haunt even our best moments. Archbishop Michael Ramsey has a beautiful prayer about this: ‘Jesus, Lord and Master, who served your disciples in washing their feet; serve us often, serve us daily, in washing our motives, our ambitions, our actions; that we may share with you in your mission to the world and serve others gladly for your sake’. I doubt there is a priest in the church who does not pray that prayer often, if not in those words, then in their own. Motives are everything. They make all the difference to who and what we are, and whether or not we are trusted safely to undertake this project of ministry and hold the sacred charge laid on us in ordination.

Paul had taken the advice of the oracle at Delphi. Perhaps he had even visited it and seen for himself the famous words written there: gnothi sauton, ‘know yourself’. He knew where he was strong and where he was weak. He knew the tendencies in his own personality, his passion, his alacrity of spirit, his irascibility. He knew about the thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, that so disabled him. He knew how storms rush down unbidden upon our calm and placid seas and need to be stilled, as in our Gospel reading. And yet he still made this appeal to his readers to honour his integrity as an apostle. I think he means that in his heart of hearts, he has always wanted the best for the people, the churches and the God he is serving. I hear myself say ‘always’ and wonder if I am right. Did he want the best for poor John Mark over whom he had a fierce falling out with Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles so that they could no longer work together? I happen to think that Barnabas was right and Paul was wrong in that dispute. Nevertheless, the matter that split them was precisely how the church and the mission should best be served; and if for a moment, Paul wavered, it is still true that he always longed that the church should flourish and that nothing must get in the way of God’s work of reconciliation.

Each of us in ministry can only speak for ourselves here. But here is my perspective on it. Despite my failures in ministry: the errors of judgment, the fallings-out, the mistakes, the compromises, the easy speeches, the lazy short-cuts, I hope we can always say that we longed, in Paul’s words, ‘to commend ourselves in every way’. I hope we can always say that despite everything, our motives have been honourable, and as pure in heart as we can make them, and that in this respect at least, ‘no fault may be found with our ministry’. It means having had God’s interests and the church’s interests at heart, not exploiting people, not acting out of self-interest. 

I was talking to someone last week who is researching what is called ‘dark personality’. This means Machiavellian tendencies, narcissism and psychopathy. It seems that people with such traits are often attracted to leadership. It made me think hard! Serious dysfunctions like these cause a lot of damage to people and institutions, as some of us know. But even when through cowardice, or dejection, or ill health, or lack of sleep, or sheer exhaustion we did not live up to our ordination vows, when some relief from this burden of ministry would have been welcome, I want to believe that we can say (in another echo of Michael Ramsey) that if we have not always wanted the best, we have at least wanted to want it. In that lie the seeds of forgiveness, redemption and the gift to begin again. During the past forty years of ministry, twenty as a dean, twelve as the Dean of Durham, how many times have I had to throw myself once more on the mercy and compassion of God, and his patient, kind, understanding and forgiving people!

As I near the end of this stage of the journey, I come back to Paul’s words and am strengthened by them. ‘As sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ – this is how he sums up his apostolic career. This is what I pray will always inspire my colleagues here in this Cathedral and Diocese. This is what I want this year’s ordinands to know as they stand at the threshold of public ministry. Is there any other vocation more privileged than this – our apostolate as Christ’s ambassadors, bringing the gospel’s entreaty to all whom we serve, ‘be reconciled to God’?

This is not yet a farewell sermon. But retirement offers the chance to do some summing up, try to trace patterns and meanings in our life’s work. Ministry, like human life, is a work of art. We collaborate with God in designing and shaping it, co-creating something beautiful we can celebrate when it is done. Like Jesus on the cross in St John, we can never say tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished’ until our dying breath. But we can perhaps begin to see it for what it is.

On the score of his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar wrote: ‘this is the best of me’. I might wish in some grandiose way that my ministry had been a masterpiece. However, most of ministry is unspectacular, ordinary, workaday. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, nor should it. Yet as we see in this eucharist, God takes what is commonplace and makes something extraordinary out of it when it is offered with love. So, not a masterpiece. But before God and his church, I have still wanted it to be ‘the best of me’. It was all I had to give.

Durham Cathedral, 21 June 2015
2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-end

Friday, 19 June 2015

A Toast to St Chad's: the Rector's Feast

The first thing I want to do tonight is to pay tribute to Dr Margaret Masson for her outstanding leadership of this college following the death of our Principal. We all owe her and her colleagues whom she has already paid tribute to a huge debt of thanks. Her wise, steady and inspirational presence are exactly what is needed at this demanding time. Margaret: we salute you. 

The last time I got up and spoke at a dinner in St Chad’s was at the Domus Dinner in March. I was sitting next to Joe Cassidy. The conversation was lively as it has always been at countless formals here. We talked quite about retirement, and he tried to persuade me to stay on as Rector here for a while after leaving the Cathedral. I laughed and said that this would be to break the rule of a lifetime. When you leave a place, you leave, I said. I also told him how much I liked his new portrait in this hall – one of the best, I think. I think he was proud of it.  

On my other side was an alumnus of the college who has been remarkably successful in his chosen profession. Nothing unusual in that, of course – it’s what we expect of Chadsians. We got talking about the college as it was in his day, and as it is now. He was full of praise for the way Chads has been led during the past decade and more. We agreed that Papa Joe needed to hear this. So we both paid tribute to him and the warm applause that followed showed that we had accurately judged the mood in the hall. Not long after that, he was dead. I shall always be glad that he lived long enough to hear not just the praise and admiration of all who were in the room but, I hope, the real affection of all whom we represented, that is to say, every generation of Chadsmen and women who owe so much to the way he touched our lives. I don’t often say that someone was ‘much-loved’ but it was true of Joe and continues to be.

This was coming through yesterday when I was privileged to join in part of the College Council’s strategy day. We had a fascinating discussion about what make this college what it is, what we cherish about it, what makes it distinctive among Durham’s colleges - the best indeed! - and what we believe its central purposes and values are. It’s important to do this work thoroughly as we think about what we look for in our next Principal. But it was clear yesterday how deeply Papa Joe had influenced the shape and character of this college. His name frequently came up in our discussions, not because we should or could look for another Joe, but because we wanted to distil from his era an enduring legacy as we look to the future. 

I have to say that I am full of admiration for the way St Chad’s has come together and forged ahead during this past term. Yes, of course the college has been grieving deeply in a time of sharp loss, and grief can’t be put away in a matter of a few days. There’s a Jewish saying about this. As you know, one of the marks of grief in Judaism was to rend your clothes as a sign that in some deep way, life has been torn apart. Someone asked a Rabbi whether, after a period of mourning, it was permitted to sow them up again and carry on wearing them. Yes, said the Rabbi, but the sown-up tear must always show. You mustn’t pretend it isn’t there, because even though life must go on, it’s never the same when someone you care about dies. 

St Chad’s has handled this really well. You have supported one another marvellously during a dark time. Life has gone on, the college is flourishing, our exam results are the best ever, and as I've said that’s a tribute not only to Joe's achievement but also to Dr Masson and her colleagues, all who share the leadership of the college. I want to include in that the three common rooms and their leaders. What I saw yesterday was a college that is in excellent spirits, vibrant, forward-looking, embracing a future that is filled with possibility and promise. I have been privileged to be a small part of that.

‘Have been…’ When Joe died, the Chair of the Council asked if I would stay on as Rector for a year even though I shall have left Durham. So this is not my final Rector’s Feast that I thought it would be. I am looking forward to being back during the coming year and to seeing you all again.  

Let me finally say three things. 

First, a thank you. Thank you for all that you put into this College.  Thank you if you are leaving, and thank you if you aren’t just yet. You receive so much from Chad’s because you give so much.  There is a wonderful loyalty among Chads people past and present. It has moved me to hear you speak about your love for this place and its community. It’s right to recognise it and applaud it.

Secondly, a thought for those of you whose days at Durham are drawing to a close. I hope you don’t dwell on the word ‘leaving’. What you have been given here is just a part of a journey: your learning, your personal development, the way your citizenship and your values have been shaped, maybe too, faith and friendships that will last a lifetime.  St Chad’s will always be a permanent part of that journey. You can take people out of Chad’s, but you can never take Chad’s out of the men and women who make up its worldwide family.  I hope you’re as proud as I am to belong to this great extended family.  I know you are. 

Thirdly, an invitation. Come back often: you will always be welcome. Stay connected as alumni.  Let me wish you the very best for the future, wherever life leads you.  And because this is a Christian foundation and we are allowed to speak in these ways, I am going to add, may God bless you and keep  you always.

Here’s to your future.  Here’s to the College’s future.  The toast is: ‘St Chad’s’. 

18 June 2015    

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Veni Creator: the seven gifts of the Spirit

At the end of this service, we shall sing one of the best known of all Whitsunday hymns, our own Bishop Cosin’s Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. It has the distinction of being the only hymn, in the modern sense, to be included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer where it invokes the Spirit at the start of the ordination prayer for priests and bishops.

            Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
            And lighten with celestial fire;
            Thou the anointing Spirit art,
            Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart
Cosin drew on a 9th century Latin hymn of Pentecost when he wrote it in 1625. But the event he composed it for was not an ordination but a coronation, that of King Charles I. And in this his instinct was faithful to the biblical origins of this opening stanza. Its reference to the ‘sevenfold gifts’ takes us back to the lesson from Isaiah that we heard earlier. There, the prophet is looking forward to a new and glorious reign of the coming king who will emerge from the root of Jesse, the line of David. What kind of ruler will he be? Isaiah tells us. ‘The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. That makes six gifts. What about the seventh? That was added by the Greek translators of the Septuagint who included the spirit of piety or reverence.
In catholic moral theology, these seven gifts came to be seen as among the God-given lists that offer compass-bearings for the faithful as they navigate the spiritual life: seven deadly sins to avoid, seven virtues to embrace and live by, the four cardinal and three theological virtues, and the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer. So on this Whit Sunday, let’s reflect briefly on these beautiful qualities as gifts of the anointing Spirit to the Messiah, to the church and to us. And although they have moved some way from their original setting in the prophecies of Isaiah, John Cosin, an accomplished moral theologian who had read St Thomas Aquinas, would have understood this way of speaking about them.
Wisdom, sapientia, embraces all the other gifts; it means having the insight and capacity to place the spiritual above the material and transient and to see into the life of things. Understanding, intellectus, suggests the disciplined training of a Christian mind to think as God thinks, pursue truth as it is taught us by the Spirit of Truth, see through falsehood and illusion. Counsel, consilium, is right judgment or discernment to know right from wrong and make and follow the choice to live by what is good and true. Courage, fortitudo, is the overcoming of fear and evil and embracing risk to follow the way of Jesus Christ and publicly stand up for it. It is the virtue that emanates from a mind that is single-focused, set only on doing the will of the Father as Jesus obeyed him in his life and death. Knowledge, scientia, is one outcome of the second gift of understanding as the believer begins to grasp the meaning of God, not as the accumulation of information or doctrinal grasp, but as an aspect of Christian formation whereby we make the good choices of loving God and our neighbour.
Piety, pietas, is not simply ‘spirituality’, but rather the respecting and honouring the sources of our life and health: our parents, teachers and the church who together have shaped us, the public institutions to which we owe gratitude and loyalty, above all God himself whom we reverence as the author and giver of all good things. Finally, the fear of the Lord, timor Domini, stands for the gift of wonderment and adoration as we become ever more aware of the glory and majesty of God. The fear of the Lord teaches us that God is the perfection of all we long for: perfect knowledge, goodness, power, and love. Thomas Aquinas says this is not being afraid of punishment but rather a child’s fear of displeasing the parent they love. The Hebrew Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, so it brings us full circle to that first and all-embracing gift of wisdom.
All this, says Isaiah, is true of the promised anointed king, the messianic ruler who will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, in whose days the lion will lie down with the lamb, and children will play safely over an adder’s den, when nothing will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We cherish these promises and live by the hope they set before us, and are right to think of the reign of Jesus our risen and glorious Lord whose kingship we have celebrated in the days of Ascension and whose just and gentle rule we long for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come!’ And come it will, be it soon, be it late. We wait for it, we long for it, and because of it, we are always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.
Whitsunday invites us, not indeed to lose that long view but also to set our sights on the tasks and obligations of Christian living in the present. This, says Jesus to his disciples in the upper room, must be our daily concern when he is gone. It is for this that the Spirit of Truth comes, to lead us into truth, to give us a right judgment in all things, to impart the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit the hymn teaches us about. For in Christ, these are not the prerogatives of anointed messiah alone, but are for all who are anointed in baptism and sealed by the Spirit, for all of us whom Christian faith has made into the royal companions of the King of Glory. In St John, Paraclete is a word that glitters with expectation and is bright with promise: the Comforter, the Strengthener, the Encourager, the Advocate who both teaches and puts into our hearts the blazing fire and rushing wind and living water of God’s eternal love. Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love. What would life be without the Spirit among us, between us and within us? What use would we be without the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts to make us fully human and perfect in us the image of Jesus? How can the church be a transforming influence in the world unless the Spirit’s gifts animate and inspire every breath we breathe?
Which is why I want to urge on the church the need to meditate on these sevenfold gifts. I see a church today that is at risk of panicking as it watches itself diminish in numbers and influence, as it wonders whether even Christian faith itself could be at risk of eclipse and a lingering, painful, sclerotic death. It’s understandable that our church is tempted to become busy and excitable, embark on great outreach projects with relentless energy, invest vast sums of money to try to turn this stately galleon Christianity round before it is too late. It is understandable. Like climate change, we can either pretend it isn’t happening, or engage seriously in mitigating its inevitable effects.
But the texts of Pentecost tell us that all the best-intentioned endeavour in the world will count for nothing without the Spirit of God and the seven gifts of an anointed people: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord. They give us a ‘values statement’ for the imitation of Christ. But they call for a deep and spiritual intelligence – ‘mindfulness’ - if we are to become life-changing agents of mission. These are gifts to make us into reflective practitioners, as they say, to foster wisdom before they are impulses to activity. The question at Pentecost must be: how do we cultivate the vocation of the church to practise mission with this kind of contemplative wise biblical insight? How do we make sure that in what we do and the way we do it, we are truly emulating our anointed King, and listening to what the Spirit is saying to the churches?

Durham Cathedral, Whitsunday 2015. Isaiah 11.1-9, John 16.1-15

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Lion Hunt: farewell to school-leavers

In Iraq and Syria, Isis has been destroying priceless remains from the ancient world. The legendary site at Palmyra is only the latest threat. A few weeks ago we learned about the ancient site at Nimrud where Isis has hacked down marvellous buildings and sculptures that were irreplaceable. Human life is cheap at the hand of radical Islamists, whether it is flesh and blood men, women and children, or the memories and heritage previous generations have left behind.

However, all is not lost. If you go to the British Museum, you can see some of the reliefs from Nimrud that were taken away by archaeologists in the 19th century. My favourite is a 9th century lion hunt from Ashurnasirpal’s palace. Lion-hunting was the sport of kings in the ancient world. Ashurnasirpal claimed he had killed 450. The king is standing in his horse-drawn chariot. One poor lion is being trampled underneath, while another is rearing up behind the king who is firing arrows at him. But don’t be taken in. These iron age lions were not wild. They were reared especially for the king’s entertainment, stabled and then released like greyhounds let out on to the track. It was entirely staged.

Maybe leaving school feels a bit like being a captive lion let out of the trap in order to be hunted for the sport of others. Not for you I’m sure: Dunelmians have the prospect of excellent results this summer, and university, college or a promising job to go to. That’s not true of other, less privileged students whose future may be a lot less promising. When my Jewish mother came out of Nazi Germany as a refugee, she was much the same age as you. But it meant the end of her education. This was among many things she could never forgive the Nazis for. She made sure that her own children had nothing but the best when it came to school and university. How much I owe to that!  

At leavers’ services I’m usually the one who stays behind while everyone else heads off for new horizons. Not this year. I am in the odd position of being a leaver too. When School reassembles in September, I shall be retiring. This is my last school sermon here. So what I say to you I’m saying to myself too.  For you and me, what lies ahead of us is a threshold we must cross into another life beyond. It may not seem real just yet. After all these years of schooling, what is life going to be like for you? After all these years of taking services and preaching sermons, what will it be like for me? It is edgy, facing a future that we can’t know yet. Yes, life should always be opening up ahead of us, full of possibility and promise. But like E. M. Forster’s past, the future is another country. They do things differently there. It’s a landscape we need to get to know. It will take time.
So how so we say goodbye? First, with thankfulness. My schooldays weren’t the happiest time of my life: I’ve found that life goes on getting better. But education is such a formative period in our lives. There will have been difficult or uncertain times when we have been under pressure, or wondering why we are here, or feeling anxious or fearful or alone. But I hope that while still being true to those experiences, we can all celebrate this rich period in our lives. In our second reading, St Paul asks us to think about what is true and honourable and commendable: ‘if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ This isn’t just the popular wisdom of the old song ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with mister in between’. It’s seeing how all of life is a great gift. At these thresholds it’s important to take stock, reflect on the ways God has been good to us and has led us on our journey to this point. And this should make us thankful. Gratitude lies at the heart of a contented and fulfilled life.

Second, we should say goodbye in a spirit of hope. Looking ahead is as important as looking behind. Yes, so much is unknown to us. How can we predict where we shall be even a year ahead, let alone a lifetime? But life has begun well for you. I remember as a five year old seeing a huge advert in the tube for Start-Rite shoes. It showed a child holding the hand of a parent, brave but not quite certain yet, taking tentative steps down a long straight road towards a sunrise. ‘Start right and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ I used to wonder what lay beyond, how far these little shoes of mine would carry me. The journeys you make, your life’s work, the friendships and the loves that shape your lives: it is all part of the sunrise that lies ahead. And school has given you the foundation of lifelong learning which is not simply gaining knowledge and skills, but about knowing yourself, about emotional and spiritual intelligence, about becoming good citizens, about forming sound values and growing into mature wisdom. Even in dark times, we can grasp the future confidently, for God walks with us at the best and worst of times. He promises never to leave or abandon us; he is the focus of our best hopes and expectations.

 ‘For all that has been: thanks! To all that shall be: yes!’ said a great UN statesman Dag Hammarskjold. So we pause on this threshold today, being aware of what is happening to us. I am finding out that ‘mindfulness’, stopping to think and reflect rather than rushing headlong from one phase of life into the next, is making a big difference to how I feel about leaving here and retiring. But let’s end where our readings do. From the Old Testament: ‘you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace.’ And St Paul: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.’ He goes on: ‘do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.’ I should love to promise you a future free of anxiety and care, and would be glad if someone offered it to me. That’s not reality, of course. But this is: something that was said by a great woman of the middle ages, Julian of Norwich. ‘God did not say We shall not be troubled, we shall not be travailed, we shall not be dis-eased; but he said, we shalt not be overcome.’ Isaiah and Paul would have liked that. It makes all the difference to how we navigate the challenges and complexities of life.  

Paul says finally, ‘the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ That is the truth by which I have tried to live and hope to die. He will not let us down. So have wonderful lives. Make a difference to the world. Flourish and be happy. Trust in God. Go well. And God be with you all.

Durham School Leavers’ Service, 22 May 2015 Isaiah 55, Philippians 4.4-9

Sunday, 10 May 2015

70 Years after the End of the War in Europe

‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Those words we heard in today’s gospel are familiar to us from thousands of wartime graves and memorials from both world wars of the twentieth century. Our thoughts have been much occupied with the Great War for the past year. But 2015 marks the seventy years that have passed since the end of the war in Europe.  We must not forget that in the Far East the war did not end until August 1945 with the terrible bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But here in Europe, on the 8 May seventy years ago, the bells rang out to announce the long awaited end of hostilities. We observed the silence here on Friday to remember the fallen, and yesterday the bells rang out at 1100 as they did in cathedrals across the country.

Today we can be thankful that since then our continent has been spared armed conflict on this scale.  We must not be complacent about this. The Balkans and Ukraine showed that war can erupt along forgotten fault-lines without warning.  Global terror poses new threats to peace and stability.  Our democracies must be vigilant in the face of far-right neo-fascist movements that reawaken old hatreds.  We must keep alive the vision of our common European home where our peoples are learning to live together as a community and heal past memories.  This vision ought forever to have laid to rest any thought that we could ever be at war again.  You cannot stand in the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral, or in the Frauenkirche in Dresden, or in the Marienkirche in our partner city of L├╝beck where the shattered bells still lie where they fell during the allied bombing raids of 1942 without recognising this.  Each human life that was lost in the war on either side was unique and precious.  We do not forget that today.  Because of this attrition, our nations have invested in peace.  The memory of sacrifice demands it of us.  The work of reconciliation is how we best honour the fallen.  

What is a Christian take on today as we look back to the 8 May 1945? In our church, the same day is kept as the festival of one of our most remarkable saints.  Her name was Julian, and she lived in the fourteenth century.  She devoted her life to prayer walled up in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich. You can see a rare example of a surviving anchorite cell just up the road at the beautiful church of Chester-le-Street. Many people came to her for spiritual guidance.  She was famous for the visions she received, her ‘showings’. Julian wrote them down in her book Revelations of Divine Love, to this day one of the most treasured classics of English spiritual writing.  She said, you might almost think for VE Day: ‘He did not say, you shall not be troubled, you shall thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased; but he said, you shall not be overcome.’ It came out of the profound assurance that whatever life’s circumstances, whatever the trouble or difficulty or pain, whatever the hardships and sufferings, nevertheless God’s nature and God’s name is love.  So she wrote: ‘all shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.’

It is a promising saying for this day. On 8 May 1945, the message was that despite all that war had inflicted, people dared to look forward.  They dared to hope once more, dared to believe that all might ‘be well’.  After the pain, there was the prospect of healing; after the conflict, reconciliation; after the passion, resurrection; after death and destruction, life and love. No doubt it felt hard to say this out of the ashes of war. No doubt it was hard to say it in Julian’s time: the middle ages were a cruel and dangerous era for most ordinary people. There are times for all of us when it is still hard to say, and harder still to believe.  Yet Easter requires us to take this massive step of faith.  For the first dawning of Easter faith was a hoping against hope that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead.  Easter faith dares to believe that God’s purposes of love can never be thwarted: all shall be well. 

This is our faith in this eucharist as we gather together on the first day of the week to give thanks once more that God raised Jesus from death and that he is alive forever in our midst and in the life of our world.  Thursday is Ascension Day when we acclaim that he is Lord of all things.  He fills heaven and earth with his presence, for as the psalm says of the Son of Man, ‘God has put all things under his feet’.  That means all nations and rulers, the world empires, every human family and institution, even, in the New Testament, the demonic powers of the air.  His reign gives us the strength to do his work on earth.  He is the Prince of Peace, so we make peace in his name.  He is the righteous Servant, so we establish justice in his name.  He is King of creation, so we care for the environment in his name.  He is King of kings, so we bring hope in his name.  And because this Lord of glory bears the wounds of the passion, we stand with all who suffer, in his name.

Our world is more broken than ever: the reign of the risen and exalted Christ is not realised yet.  That is to come in God’s time, be it soon, be it late. But the resurrection invites us into the movement of God’s eternal love for the world to play our part in embodying and living it in our own love for the world and our service of humanity. It is as clear as the day in this morning’s gospel: ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ The greater love of a friend for a friend, of a comrade for a comrade, of one human being for another is the love of the Saviour for his people, of an incarnate Son for those whose lives he comes into our world to share. The laying down of our lives for our friends delineates the cross-shaped character of our humanity as the Spirit of Jesus is re-making it in his own image. It is the self-emptying, self-giving sacrificial character of God himself. It is how love manifests itself in the myriad ways whose truth and beauty we see all around us when people are good, and merciful, just, and kind, that is to say, when they act out of their true God-given humanity and recognise, with Julian, that in all things, ‘love was his meaning’. 

We have just emerged from an election. Our freedoms to speak, debate and vote are central to VE Day, because the war was fought precisely to resist the tyranny that overwhelmed Europe in the 1930s. Now our politicians must turn their thoughts to building a society where people flourish, the common good is honoured, and all are treated with justice and compassion. Peace-making and the quest for a better world order, about which we have heard far too little in the campaign, require that the voice of the weak is heard, refugees are cared for, the despairing are given hope and the poor are not forgotten. But the lesson of the last war is that nationhood, like patriotism, is not enough. Our flourishing happens as we play our part in the family of nations to whom it falls to care for the world and for humanity. This was the vision that sustained those who fought and fell in the war, and the architects of the peace that followed seventy years ago.

Mother Julian gives us the inspiration to turn our hope into the prayer that all may be well because ‘love is his meaning’. She says: ‘See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?’. This is what we see with our own eyes at Golgotha in the greater love God shows us as he lays down his life for his friends. 

Durham Cathedral, 10 May 2015.  1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17