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

Sunday, 30 June 2013

On the Lindisfarne Gospels

Letters of the alphabet are relevant today when we focus on a text and its writing. I like the letter ‘M’ (something no doubt not unconnected with my name).  It is one of those that are beautifully illuminated in the Lindisfarne Gospels: see the opening page of St Mark.  So you will forgive me for focusing on that letter in an alliterative way today.

We are here to celebrate a manuscript, a man and a message. 
Although it is the focus of this service, the manuscript itself is perhaps what I need say least about. The celebrated Lindisfarne Gospel Book, as we all know, is one of those landmark cultural artefacts that are universal in their value and their appeal. Perhaps there are not many books in the world that are so exquisite, that hold such huge appeal and evoke such strong loyalties. It belongs to the history of civilisation not only in this county but worldwide. Here in this part of England, we think of it as ‘ours’ in a special way because its identity seems so closely connected to the North East’s strong sense of place. It is part of our landscape of faith. And insofar as it once belonged to this Cathedral Priory and lived here from its Saxon beginnings in 995 throughout the rest of the middle ages, there is something truly symbolic about its being displayed here in Durham, in the shadow of these beloved ‘mixed and massive piles’ as Sir Walter Scott called the grey towers of Durham. If only the book could tell us its story and speak! But of course, that is precisely what it does do, even today: speak. We shall come back to that.
The man is of course St Cuthbert. The Gospel Book was written ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’ not much more than a decade after he died in 687. And this too is what gives this summer’s exhibition in Durham real intellectual and spiritual importance. For we cannot understand the Gospel Book unless we know something about Cuthbert, nor can we fully appreciate its significance in isolation from the Saxon Christian world both he and it belonged to. When Cuthbert’s community left the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, they took with them the objects they valued above everything else: the relics of Cuthbert and their other saints, and their precious gospel book. We heard how Symeon of Durham wove stories around that journey in the 12th century. They perhaps did not know that in his coffin they were also carrying Cuthbert’s own Gospel of St John, that marvellous little Saxon book that has just been purchased for the nation and is also in the exhibition. I am saying that it would have seemed impossible to that community that the saint and the manuscript written in his honour could ever be separated. So on these occasions when they are brought together in one place, Cuthbert’s place, it is like a rare conjunction of planets in the sky.
That so much effort, investment and cost went into creating the Lindisfarne Gospels is of course a measure of how Cuthbert was remembered.  No other saint in England has had his capacity to foster not just reverence, not just affection, not just honour but, I want to say, love. We admire our saints but I am not sure that we love them in quite the way we do Cuthbert – or this simply the way Durham people and Lindisfarne people speak of him?  I believe that although he was a native Northumbrian, he like his book belongs to us all. In this respect, he is like St Francis, and perhaps for the same reason: his simplicity, his humility, his closeness to the created world, his love for people, his vision of how all of life is transfigured by God’s mercy and grace.  This was the man the Lindisfarne Gospels were created to honour, every page of this precious manuscript a community’s tribute to the man they remembered with such love. 
And this of course brings us to the point of it all, the message. ‘In honour of God and St Cuthbert’. God first, then Cuthbert. If we could ask Cuthbert what he thought about such an extraordinary book being created in his honour, he would I think have been horrified, just as he would be horrified to think he was buried within this great Norman shrine. We know that he wanted to rest in the obscurity and isolation of the Inner Farne, but acknowledged with a sigh that the monks on Holy Island would not let it be so. He would have said that what matters more than anything, more than everything, is the message that the Gospel Book and this Cathedral exist to bear witness to. He would have said, don’t let your eye linger on the piers and arcades of a magnificent building, don’t let it linger on the pages of a magnificent book. Let these things draw your eye upwards to the God they point to. And if you see anything to value in my own life (this is still Cuthbert speaking), then give God the praise for his wonderful words and works.
When I was speaking to the media about the Lindisfarne Gospels last week, they all asked me the same question: what is significance of the book today?  I replied that as well as appreciating its cultural, artistic and historical significance, it lay in discerning the gospel within the Gospels, the good news that God has come among us in Jesus Christ, and that because of this, we can know that we are loved, there is purpose in being alive, and we can find an anchor of hope amid the changes and chances of this fleeting world. The ‘spirituality’ of the book is, with that perspective, the secret of ‘reading’ it aright, because this was all along at the heart of its message. The gospel was the truth for which Cuthbert lived and died. As another English saint was to put it seven centuries later, ‘love was his meaning’.  We can admire the pages but not penetrate their surface. Then we have ‘had the experience but missed the meaning’, as T. S. Eliot says.  The same can be said about St Cuthbert’s life and career.  The same can be said about this Cathedral.  The sheer greatness of what we admire is, I think, a challenge not to remain on the surface but to probe deep, become explorers of the spirit, try to see into the life of things, glimpse God.
The manuscript, the man and the message all spoke once upon a time with great power and conviction. They still do today, and always will. This unique summer when we celebrate the rich heritage of North East England is an invitation to all of us to listen. We should be intellectually, artistically, spiritually curious. We should expect the rewards to be great, for those who seek will find, for as the Scottish 17th century writer Samuel Rutherford said, ‘God always has more light and truth to shine forth from his holy word’. And at whatever level we find ourselves doing this, I know that whatever brings us to visit the exhibition and see the Gospel Book for ourselves, we shall find our lives immeasurably enriched by what we experience, discover and enjoy.
At a service to celebrate the arrival of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham
30 June 2013

Sunday, 23 June 2013

On the Next Bishop of Durham

Tomorrow is St John the Baptist’s Day, the forerunner of Jesus. He did not know the name of the one who would be revealed as the saviour of the world.  But he was to look for the man ‘on whom you see the Spirit descend’.  This is what he recognised in Jesus. He spoke of him as the promised Lamb of God and people began to follow him.  They called him Rabbi, ‘teacher’.  St John the Evangelist who tells us this seems to be saying that four things mark Jesus out: his spiritual charism, his sacrificial vocation, his teaching, and his insight into human nature.  Four marks of messiahship.
And perhaps they are four marks of leadership in the church in any age, although we do not look for or need little messiahs. Next Saturday we shall ordain new priests here at the Cathedral. So what do we look for in the church’s leadership as we pray for them?  We also await the announcement of our next bishop.  The Commission which recommends the appointment has finished its work. We can expect a name within a few weeks. Whoever he will be (and I wish I could say that it might be a ‘she’), we have been praying for him long before he himself has realised that this is his destiny. But perhaps it will help our prayers if we think about those qualities John the Baptist saw in the Christ who was to come.  What kind of person should occupy the See of Cuthbert? What kind of men and women does the church need in its priests? Obviously, people who put the imitation of Christ above all, who will do what Jesus tells the healed demoniac in our gospel reading: tell everyone what great things God has done.
I don’t suppose our new bishop needs me to tell him what bishopping is about. But it may help us as we prepare to welcome him, we hope this time for a period of many years, to think about these marks of anointing that a spiritual leader should emulate.
First, charism.  ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest.’  It goes without saying that we need a man of prayer, reflection and inwardness, whose vision is shaped by a deeply nurtured relationship with God.  Yet it needs affirming that this is fundamental to spiritual leadership.  There are plenty of good theologians, people who are well read, tough, financially shrewd, articulate, kind and caring, expert strategists, and passionate for justice.  These qualities are all important in a bishop.  But like patriotism, they are not enough.  What is remembered in great church leaders is the charism of spiritual wisdom born of a deep and rich inward life.  I wonder if it is becoming harder for senior appointments in the church to be made with regard to this sine qua non. We don’t know if the next bishop will be a well-known figure with a large following, or whether he comes to us as one unknown, not yet burdened by high office.  Whichever it is, we pray for this charism in him, for under the constant scrutiny of public gaze, only the Spirit of God will set his priorities in order, stop him from thinking of himself more highly than he ought to think, save him from burning out.  Only the Spirit will be his safeguard against the cult of celebrity that bedevils public life today. Only the Spirit can save him from himself. And this goes for priests too.
Secondly, vocation. John says: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’  There is a kind of dying to oneself in leadership that is part of its vocation.  Priests and bishops know what it costs to bear public office in the church.  Sydney Smith, that sharpest of clerical wits two centuries ago, said that what bishops loved most about their role was a dropping-down deadness of manner in other people because bishops had favours to bestow.  I hope we shall have a bishop who is free of the need to receive deference or to give it. The truth about a privileged position is to that it can often mean being laid on the altar of relentless demand.  The new bishop will need to see through the glamour of the job to be a servant of the servants of God.  He will need to model to an often demoralised and discouraged church the real nature of vocation, how it is self-offering for the building up of Christ’s body and the service of the world.  He will be blamed for many of the church’s ills: its decline both in numbers and influence, its waning finances, its fragile morale. It would be unfair to blame anyone personally for these realities whose causes are complex and not always well-understood.  But leaders often find themselves cast into the role of sacrificial victims.  That requires patience and humility when a bishop’s leadership is strange and baffling to some, and marginal to almost everyone else. A strong sense of calling is necessary.  
Thirdly, what I want to call  intelligence. When Jesus comes, he puts a question to those waiting for him: ‘What are you looking for?’  They say to him, Rabbi which means teacher.’  I don’t hesitate to say that the next bishop must be a good rabbi, literally in Hebrew a ‘great one’, like a guru, literally a ‘heavy one’, or as we might say, someone with gravitas. This means he must be a good theologian, that is, someone who constantly asks the question: how do we speak of God in the modern era?  How do we read the signs of his presence and activity?  What account do we give of Christian faith in a complex world of many faiths and meanings, and in particular, this secularised western society of ours?  What does God want for North East England and for this diocese? How can religion be offered as a credible and attractive path for scientists, philosophers, economists, historians, artists, politicians, thinking people in all walks of life?  It seems to me that these are inescapable tasks for a bishop today, and no less importantly, for priests in parishes too.  How the church engages in apologetics and evangelism in this climate will have far-reaching consequences for the intellectual survival of Christianity as public faith in this century.  Our leaders need finely nurtured Christian minds, be immersed in the Bible and Christian tradition yet also wear their learning lightly.  There must be simplicity in their depth.  That calls for real religious intelligence. It’s what it means to be a rabbi
Finally, insight.  St John says that one of Jesus’ first acts is to look at Simon and say, You are to be called Cephas: Peter, the Rock. Later in the gospel he records that Jesus ‘knew what was in the heart of everyone’. The gifts of insight, perceptiveness, discernment cannot be overrated in public life.  A bishop has to move among the great and powerful of the land without losing his integrity.  He sits at the apex of a complex, disparate institution and has to understand why it is what it is.  At times he must speak for a wider public, even the nation, if not in Durham, then in the House of Lords.  He will face difficult issues to do with the future of the establishment, relations with other faith communities, women bishops, gay marriage and human sexuality where he must hold the ring amid fractious disputes.  More intractably, he will be a senior public representative of religion at a time when many people see no place for faith, as I’ve said.  He will not be able to arrest the devastating slide in church attendance, but he may perhaps help the church not to despair.  He needs to be a ‘dealer in hope’ as Napoleon said about leaders. He will need to be a shrewd politician, know the art of the possible, temper vision with reality.  But he will also need not to be afraid of change, of taking risks, of thinking the unthinkable, of being a prophet for our times. And more intimately, he will need to have insight into the daily lives of parish clergy and the communities they serve, and this of course is the special task of our parish priests. To do this pastoral task priests and bishops must listen carefully to many disparate voices, be present to them, commit themselves to them without reserve. 
‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ asks Paul in one of his letters.  Who is sufficient to lead the church in telling what God has done, becoming the kind of society he speaks about in today’s epistle, living the transforming and transformed life where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. It is an impossible job, of course. Anyone offered it would surely respond instantly by saying, as bishops of old used to when they were dragged off to be consecrated, nolo episcopari:: I do not want this. Only a fool would want it.  But to be a fool for Christ is also at the core of the job-description.  For our next bishop, and for our new priests, this may be food for thought and prayer in the days that lie ahead.
23 June 2013 (Trinity IV, the day before St John Baptist's Day)
Galatians 3.23-end; Luke 8.26-39

Friday, 21 June 2013

At St Chad's College Rector's Feast

Welcome to the St Chad’s College Rector’s Feast.

I’d like to join with the Principal and congratulate all of you for your outstanding achievements, not least in this year’s exam results.  It’s right to be celebrating success at this feast  as the year comes to an end. What I hope we all celebrate is success in the widest sense: the satisfaction of having travelled well for another year, having learned and grown in knowledge and our insight, deepened our relationships and enriched our lives.

This week, Palatinate is carrying a thought-provoking article ‘How to survive as a non-Christian at John’s’.  It speaks about our neighbours at St John’s being tucked in between ‘the supposed party animals at Cuth’s and the tiny semi-secret society that is Chad’s’. John’s people, says the author, seem to be the only ones who don’t seem to make much of an impression, reputation-wise, on the rest of the university apart from a vague sense of us being ‘religious types’.

John's people will no doubt be mulling over this intriguing piece. But what the article doesn't say is that Chad’s like John’s is a Christian foundation. As Rector, I don’t have many onerous jobs to do in the college: I give my name to this feast and attend all kinds of nice occasions dressed in this splendid gown.  But when I was invited to take up this honour as titular Head of House, it was as Dean in the Cathedral to help safeguard the historic Christian identity of this college. I hope we all do this in a way that is inclusive, generous and welcoming to everyone of all faiths and no faith at all.

But I also hope that even if you are not a religious person, you recognise the Christian values of our college. Here are some of them: a passion for justice, integrity in our collective and personal lives, collaboration in a trusting environment, the pursuit of truth not just academically but in all aspects of life; curiosity not simply about our own academic disciplines but everything; practising kindness, friendship and care; living out of courage, not fear. It’s about being not only clever and intelligent (which you all are), but humane and wise.  I like those words.

Every college has its USPs, its unique selling points.  But Chad’s are remarkable because they have a lot to do with those values and how we live them out.  Whatever they may think at St John’s about our being a ‘tiny semi-secret society’, perhaps it’s true that this is not a college that makes a big splash, even when we achieve spectacular results as we have done this year. We don’t need or want to parade our achievements. They speak for themselves in a way that is utterly convincing. There is a quiet pride in what we do, and even more, who we are.  I find this understated modesty is hugely attractive, somehow true to the ethos both of this northern city and of our Anglican founding fathers.

But I know that the passion is there. For example, you have been exercised lately about the new random allocation policy for admissions to Durham colleges and have asked that this be looked at again. I think you have gone about this in a way that does you credit: you want to preserve the values and ethos of the college, and to be fair to all who want to come here. I don’t know where this story will end, but you have had the courage to engage and provoke a debate. It’s much easier to be silent than to speak, as I found to my own cost recently when I wrote a blog about fascism and football and was amazed what hatred it drew down.

This is not a formal after-dinner speech, simply a few words of welcome to my Rector’s feast. So let me end by saying three things very simply: 

First, thank you for all that you put into this College.  Thank you if you are leaving, and thank you if you are returning. You receive a lot from your university education and from this college because you give a lot.  That needs recognising, and now is my chance to say so.

Second, for those of you whose days at Durham are drawing to a close: I hope you don’t dwell too much on the word ‘leaving’. These Durham years have been part of a lifelong journey: your learning, your personal development, your membership of a wonderful community, your friendships, many of which will last a lifetime.  This college is a permanent part of that journey. It won’t simply become a glowing memory. You can take people out of St Chad’s when the time comes, but you can never take St Chad’s out the men and women who make up its worldwide family.  I hope you’re as proud as I am to belong to it. 

Third, 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 I am going to add, may God bless you always.

St Chad’s College, June 2013

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Power, Justice and Mercy: on the 60th anniversary of the Coronation

60 years ago today, Elizabeth the Second was crowned Queen. We are celebrating the diamond jubilee of this event at evensong this afternoon. Last year, at the time of the Accession, I explored the significance of the monarchy in the 21st century. One insight, I said, is how monarchy is not only a symbol of who we are and how we understand ourselves as a nation state; at its best it points beyond itself and beyond ourselves to the rule of Christ the King and the celestial city whose builder and maker is God.  And if its exemplar is Christ whose throne is the cross and who washes his people’s feet, it follows that the essence of monarchy is consecration to the service of her people: ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, for I am among you as one who serves’.

This is part 2 of that sermon. And because this weekend’s commemoration focuses on the ceremony in Westminster Abbey in 1953, I want to draw out a further aspect of monarchy from one of the most important elements in the coronation service.

Coronation rites have a long and rich history. They reach back into pre-Christian times where in every society, the king was seen as the deity’s representative on earth, set apart to express divine sovereignty among human beings and to intercede for them in a priestly way before heaven. Ancient Israel learned kingship from her neighbours in a manner that was not altogether approved of by some prophets: ‘give us a king like all the nations’ was a plea that always threatened the faith of the wilderness where the Hebrews had learned that God alone was their king. But monarchy established itself soon after the Israelites settled in their land: first Saul, then David and finally Solomon, the last and grandest king to preside over the one nation before it fell apart in the reign of his successor.

The ceremonies that made Solomon king are told of in well-known words that we shall hear in Handel’s famous coronation anthem this afternoon: ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoiced and said: ‘God save the king!’ Today’s Old Testament reading takes us on into his reign, though it still belongs to its promising beginning, before corruption and decline set in. As a sacral king, Solomon is charged to defend the faith of his people. This he demonstrates by building the first temple in Jerusalem at God’s command. Today we heard part of his prayer of dedication. Solomon invokes the promises of which the temple will be the focus. It will be a symbol of mercy, kindness and generous love. The people are to ‘pray towards this house’, and see it as a source of life and forgiveness; even the foreigner, says the prayer. And these words echo the Deuteronomic view that what is true of the temple is true of the king himself. Both institutions, monarchy and church, will be signs of the covenant between God and his people: symbols of loyalty, justice, and enduring love.

The first English coronation ceremony for which we have a text dates back to Saxon times with the coronation of King Edgar in Bath Abbey in 973. Elements of the modern rite are drawn directly from Edgar’s, appropriately as he was the first king of all England. Here is his coronation oath:
These three things I promise in Christ’s name to the Christian people subject to me. First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrongdoing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments, that God, who is kind and merciful, may vouchsafe his mercy to me and to you. 

60 years ago, Elizabeth took the oath answering ‘I will’ to questions put to her by the Archbishop of Canterbury, among them this which quotes words from King Edgar ten centuries earlier: ‘Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?’  I will!  It must have reminded her forcibly of her marriage vows; indeed, coronation is nothing less than the marriage of the Sovereign to her people. But it also has echoes of ordination promises, and here again, and in the anointing, there is more than an echo of the ordination liturgy. Indeed, I think it is better not to speak of coronation so much as consecration, for the entire ceremony is the consecration of the monarch to royal service of which her crowning is the climactic event.

The words of the whole coronation oath are momentous.  They promise sound governance, fidelity to the laws of God, defence of the Christian faith, and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, making a true profession of the gospel.  But to me this phrase about executing law and justice with mercy is especially revealing in what it says about leadership, for these words link royal power with the virtues of religion: ‘law and justice, in mercy’. This is what God himself is like, and this is how his servant the Sovereign is to be too. It is how Jesus is in today’s gospel reading. The centurion makes unquestioning authority the basis of his appeal to Jesus to heal his slave. Jesus is moved, and acts precisely by demonstrating power through an act of compassion.

There is a Prayer Book collect with a striking opening: ‘O Lord, who showeth thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity’. That is an extraordinary claim to make when we think about it; and yet it is how our faith portrays him: a principled trustworthy ethical deity whose kindness is at the very core of his power and authority. God does not do coersive power; he only knows the cruciform power of mercy and pity: cross-shaped because Golgotha shows us what it looks like. And if God is like this, then monarchy and every other kind of leadership in state, church and society needs to emulate it too if it is to lead with integrity.

This is more difficult than it sounds in a world where everything is allowed and nothing is forgiven; where litigation makes the possibility of mercy practically impossible, where our lives are governed by compliance. How can anyone dare to be merciful in such an environment? In her Reith Lectures a decade ago, Honora O’Neill questioned whether such micro-management of human life was compatible with wise, noble, humane values, as if what matters is not what is good and virtuous but merely what is compliant and legal. If mercy and pity are at the heart of God’s exercise of power and are embedded in the Coronation Oath, then all leadership must embody the graces, virtues and character that belong to the greater authority to whom, whether we know it or not, we are accountable as citizens and subjects of the kingdom of God.

Portia in Merchant of Venice famously speaks about this. She says:  

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

On this anniversary, we give thanks once again the faithfulness with which as a Christian queen, Elizabeth has consecrated herself to live her coronation vow. We celebrate her obedience to this vocation: unlooked for, unwanted, thrust upon her by history, yet lived out for 6 decades with dignity and wisdom. Leadership wedded to humane discipleship is a gift to any people. Today we honour it once more. 

(1 Kings 8.22-23, 41-43; Luke 7.1-10)