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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

John Cosin: the beauty of holiness and social conscience

‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’: we sang it earlier in one of the classic Epiphany hymns, or as the verse in the psalms puts it, sing praise ‘in holy array’.  I link it with that enigmatic saying of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’.  It is an allusion to the story in the book of Genesis where Jacob dreams of the ladder to heaven and sees angels ascending and descending, ‘in holy array’ we might say.  When he awakes, he exclaims: ‘how awesome is this place!  Surely this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.  So he names it Beth-El, ‘house of God’.  In St John, Jesus is saying that he is that ladder, that way to God, the one in whom heaven comes down to earth and earth is raised to heaven: not in a dream, this time, but in God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine.  He is the way, because he has come as the truth and as the life.  In epiphany, we behold his glory and celebrate it, full of grace and truth. 

How do we do this?  We encounter him in many ways that we do not always recognise
at the time.  For he takes us by surprise, as he did Jacob, as he did Nathanael. It is often not at the time but afterwards that we ponder that unexpected epiphany, that strange meeting, and say to ourselves, ‘Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!’.  Here on earth, we see through a glass darkly, and do not yet know him face to face.  So human instinct has always been to build temples that will memorialise some sacred encounter or holy man or woman, symbolise our yearning for what is beyond us, guard the possibility of glimpsing the holy and transcendent in our midst. And in the long history of constructing earthly temples, there has always been the belief that something of heavenly glory can be contained within a humanly-created shrine, there can be a ladder to heaven with angelic presences and a holy array. 

Here in Durham we have one man who embodied this vision par excellence and gave it substance.  I am referring to John Cosin, canon residentiary and then bishop of Durham, the anniversary of whose death in 1672 falls today, 15th January.  All over north-east England, but especially around Durham, you can see how he brought splendour and richness into parish churches such as Brancepeth (as it used to be before the fire), Sedgefield and Haughton-le-Skerne, his own chapel at Auckland Castle, and especially into this Cathedral.  The civil war and commonwealth had left this building a forlorn, empty shell after the Scottish prisoners Cromwell held here were said to have stripped out everything combustible to keep themselves warm during the terrible winter of 1650-51. On St Andrew’s Day we dedicated a plaque by the St Margaret Altar to commemorate the many who died here.  The Restoration of 1660 was nowhere welcomed more warmly than here in Durham, when Cosin returned as bishop and determined to put right the wrongs this bleak chapter of history had inflicted on the Cathedral.  His achievements are all around you: the mighty font cover, the organ screen at the west end, the stalls in the quire that echo the great 14th century Neville screen behind the high altar.  The message was: 17th century Anglicanism stood in direct continuity with the medieval church in pursuing the beauty of holiness.  This sumptuous woodwork, for which only the best craftsmen would do, tells us that Cosin’s vision of the church was as a place of beauty and glory where all that human creativity and craftsmanship could achieve would be pressed into the service of God.  He believed that the church building should bring you to your knees.  In his Private Devotions he prays that we, ‘evermore endeavouring to set forth the beauty of thy church militant here on earth may at last be transported to the glory of thy church triumphant in the heavens’.

After being canon of Durham, Cosin went to Peterhouse Cambridge as Master of the College.  Its chapel had been built by his predecessor, but it fell to Cosin to furnish it.  In the chancel, there was an inscription in Latin, Jacob’s saying: ‘this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.  It expressed Cosin’s belief that the worship on earth and in heaven were one activity.  Above the altar was the dove of the Holy Spirit with carved cherubim all around.   The altar was covered with bright silk and in front of it incense burned as the offering of prayer to the Most High.  This was a chapel that made you pray.  Rich choral music filled the incense-laden air, for Cosin believed that music should serve ‘for the dignity and glory of God's high and holy service, and be also a means to inflame men's affections, to stir up their attentions, and to edify their understandings’. Alas, like Cosin himself, like this Cathedral, his noble chapel suffered at the hands of puritan iconoclasts.  Much of the glory departed, though enough was put back at the Restoration (thanks to the generosity of Bishop Cosin as he became) to recall what it had been like. 

In Durham of all places we should celebrate the importance of Cosin’s legacy to the Christian life of our nation: he deserves to be better known and honoured than he is.  His investment in the liturgy and spirituality of the Church of England was profound.  His version of the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus is familiar and loved the world as an essential introduction to the ordination prayer in the Anglican rite.  In Cosin’s Library on Palace Green, they have a most precious book, his own copy of the Book of Common Prayer known as the Durham Book.  It has his painstaking handwritten comments, elaborations and suggestions for revision, some of which would find their way into the 1662 Prayer Book we have inherited today.  But it is not only as an architect of that book that we remember him, nor simply his classically constructed (and very long) sermons, nor his contribution to architecture, liturgy and the arts.  He used his wealth to found almshouses for the poor (including Cosin’s Almshouses on Palace Green), build schools, endowing libraries, provide for the needy in many places. and even give money to liberate a party of Christian captives in north Africa.  This illustrates Cosin’s belief that the beauty of worship and the service of humanity must always walk hand in hand.  Liturgy must always have a social conscience: we do not leave the pain of the world outside at the church door but bring it with us into the presence of God because it is his and our special care.  Cosin would have said that to invest in sacred space, and in the worship offered there is to sensitise us who pray to the imperatives of our world: to care for those who need our help, to look for reconciliation and wholeness in society; to reflect our love of God by loving our neighbour as ourselves. 

In the new Jerusalem, there is no need of shrines and temples, says the Apocalypse.  But in this life, meanwhile, we still need sacred spaces whose beauty will enchant us to re-imagine the world as God designed it and as he purposes in Christ to re-make it: a world premised on justice and mercy, goodness, truth and love.  In our worship this is the world we re-create for a while: we play-act the life of the world to come, live for a while as a people for whom there are ‘no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity’.  ‘Come to church and be in heaven’ would not be a bad marketing tag for any parish or cathedral.  And we carry heaven out with us as we cross the threshold and return to our ordinary days; we take it into the world and become the sources of renewal, like little ladders between earth and heaven where angels congregate in holy array, and epiphanies happen, and the doors of paradise are flung open, and humanity is welcomed home. 

15 January 2012 (John 1.43-end)

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