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

Saturday, 25 May 2013

A Social Network: at a school commemoration day

Many of you have seen the film The Social Network about the college students who founded ‘Facebook’ in 2003.  I suppose my Cathedral should declare an interest: we have a Facebook page with (I believe) more fans than any other cathedral in the world.  When I first set up a Facebook account my children were pretty alarmed: they regarded it as their territory and didn't want me knowing too much about their lives. Well, even oldies like me are getting the hang of social media now. I admit it: I enjoy Twitter and writing a blog. It can be a powerful medium for organising ourselves to do good and make a difference to our world.

Social networking is about the longing we all have for connection, for communities to belong to, for relationships.  It says in Genesis, ‘it is not good for a human being to be alone’.  I am no expert on digital media, though I am intrigued by the way they are influencing our lives more and more - for good or ill.  What kinds of relationships happen in cyberspace?  Does a community need to be face-to-face?  Can you have a virtual church, a club, an online party?

Jesus told a story about a man who wanted to network. He adopts the Facebook strategy which is to ask people you have never met and don’t know and have never even seen before to become your friends.  He does this because he is having a party.  He invites his family, friends, neighbours, business contacts.  But none of them wants to come, and they find every excuse not to: I’ve purchased land and must go and manage it; I’ve bought cattle and must see to them; I’ve just got married, so can’t come.  In the ancient world there’s only one thing worse than not offering hospitality yourself and that’s refusing to accept someone else’s.  Didn’t they like their host?  Were there old scores to settle?  We don’t know.

But this host is not to be outdone.  He tells his servant to go out on the streets and find anyone they can to come to the party.  He means anyone: the homeless, the diseased, the mad, the outcast, the poor.  The story says, compel them to come in, so that my house may be full.  This man will party come what may: so a bit like this weekend here at Giggleswick School, for what is speech day if it is not a great celebration of all that it has been and is today. And Jesus told this story as a picture of what God is like.  It turns out that God loves nothing better than a party.  In the Old Testament reading from Proverbs, God sets the world going and it turns out that to create a universe is an act of sheer playfulness. Worlds come into being and there is a cosmic party.  Jesus dispels all the old assumptions about God being a fierce, stern, vengeful deity.  He says: think again, see how a world you never dreamed of is full of happiness and joy.  That is what God is like.  We reckoned we knew what religion was all about: to make us all serious and solemn. But if we thought this we were wrong. Faith is to make us laugh and sing.  When we celebrate together, we glimpse something of the kingdom of God.  A bishop I once knew said: religion comes down to prayer and parties. When we laugh, perhaps we are close to the kingdom of God.

So this is a day of prayer and partying for our school.  I am very glad to share in it because there is a long connection between this school and Durham Cathedral where I am dean. When this school was first founded, it was on land that belonged to the Prior and Convent of Durham Cathedral. That was 500 years ago. I am not sure that you don't owe us several centuries of unpaid rent. But as we commemorate those far-off days, we want to give thanks for all that this school has come to mean to us and to those who have gone before us.  And look forward to the next half-millennium when, God willing, it will continue to go from strength to strength as a place of education and learning, of community and friendship: a social network, if you like.  That is a serious business and hard work, of course, but also, I hope, being a place where the words thank you are frequently on our lips, a place of wholesomeness and enjoyment where everyone flourishes, or to speak in the language of Proverbs, a place of recreation where we do what God does and bring new worlds into being. Just think of the way this school-shaped social network has had a lifelong influence of thousands of people across the centuries and across the world.

Why do we make this huge investment in education? Because nothing is more important for the future of our world than that we grow and flourish as human beings and take our place in the community as mature, responsible citizens. We call it ‘formation’, shaping us to become the men and women we have the potential to be. As a person of faith I believe that the spiritual dimension of human life matters deeply, indeed, is the foundation of everything else. Which is why we are here today, in this chapel that plays a vital part in the school's life. We are here to celebrate what we are as a school, and to offer its life and our own lives to the God who made us in his image. We are here to recognise that it's the Spirit of God who comes to make us a family of faith, a network or society of friends bound together by his gift of love, who leads us, as Jesus tells us, into all truth.

Our Cathedral was built as the shrine of the north's great saint, Cuthbert. The Venerable Bede, who died on this very day in the year 735, had a lot to say about Cuthbert in his writings. He sums him up as the kind of human being for whom loving others and loving God were what mattered.  You could say that it made him the man he became, and this is why he was remembered. He said yes to the invitation to come to the party, yes to the dream that there is a better way of living than simply being obsessed with ourselves.  He said yes to the idea that connection is everything: connection to the God who made us and loves us; connection to the whole human race we share this planet with; connection to the world of created things where we learn to know our place in God’s universe, the ultimate social network.

Whoever we are, we are his welcome guests at this party.  He wants nothing more than that we should be his friends.  That's why he made us: to come in and be part of his life of joy, peace and love. Our celebrations and the wellbeing they foster can be a symbol of these good things. I hope you all enjoy the party.

Giggleswick School, 25 May 2013
Proverbs 8.22-31; Luke 14.15-24

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