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 Cathedral, education has been at the heart of its mission. The 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 them. They 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 Dunelmia! May 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