- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.
Thursday, 25 December 2014
Christmas: taking the long view
Nativity - 2014 Style
Sunday, 21 December 2014
The Secret Ministry of Frost: a sermon on the winter solstice
This solstice day calls for a wintry sermon. We may affect not to care for winter, but painters and writers have always loved it. Here is one of the great English romantic poets.
All seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
That is the beautiful last stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ written in 1798. ‘The secret ministry of frost’ is one of those happy phrases that once heard, you never forget. But I love that conclusion for its embrace of the entire circle of the seasons. As the earth turns on its axis and we journey through this shortest day of the year, our thoughts inevitably turn to the promise of spring’s light and the greening of the earth, the happy warmth of summer we begin to travel towards tomorrow. It focuses our minds on the order of time running its course, the turning of the seasons, the human cycles of birth and death and all that comes in between.
Advent makes us think about first and last things. That can mean the order of time that is marked by equinox and solstice, by feast day and fast, and by the times and seasons that hold memory or significance for us. But at a deeper level, it means what is of first and what is of ultimate meaning for us and for all humanity. And this is the real purpose of Coleridge’s poem. He is in a reverie, musing by his fireside on how, outside, ‘the Frost begins its secret ministry’ silently, mysteriously, without the help of wind or weather. Inside all is warmth and peacefulness, a calm gently fluttering flame inducing a meditation about what it means to be alive. I guess that one of the gifts of Advent, even this late, is to urge on us how important it is to stop, ponder the wonder of things, the sheer gift of being human, and aware, and capable of thought and generosity and love.
Coleridge has a specific focus for his wonder, for he is not alone by his fireside.
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes!
His infant son prompts thoughts about his own childhood and upbringing – not an unmixed blessing for Coleridge, sent away from home, deprived of his beloved nature, alienated from his mother. He wants better things for his own child, above all that he will be at home in a beautiful world, and at one with the God who made it and is present in its majesty and mystery, the Creator who will himself shape this precious human life:
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
His prayer is that ‘all seasons shall be sweet to thee’: in youth and in age, for better or worse, happy or sad, disappointed or fulfilled, walking in darkness or seeing great light. What do we not long and pray for when we think of our own children or grandchildren when they are little and still a source of wonder to us? We gaze on them in awe and tenderness, and ask ourselves and God what will become of them when they grow up. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t find ourselves gazing far into the future, hoping that our children will be safe in this precarious world we have brought them into, praying that they will live long and well and happily. What wouldn’t we do to protect them from damage or harm? What wouldn’t God do? we imagine. For each birth, each infancy, each dawning of awareness is a sunrise for the entire human family as well as for a child’s loving parents, family and friends. It is why the hurt, the abuse children suffer at the hands of trusted adults is so terrible, so outrageous. All creation cries out against it, this massacre of innocent children, this massacre of innocence itself.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we contemplate Blessed Mary and her vocation to be the mother of the Lord. We acclaim her, as Elizabeth did: Ave Maria: ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. It isn’t to diminish the force of those words to say that this is the response of every new parent where a birth is waited for with expectancy and joy, like Elizabeth herself looking forward to the birth of her own son. Happy are you, happy is your child, happy your family and community! Mary could not love her Infant more than any other mother loves. She loved, and Joseph loved with her, giving all they had so that their Child would grow strong and flourish. Even when they heard Simeon speak about the shadow that would fall across the holy family one day, the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart, it did not change anything. They loved him just the same. Their hopes and longings for the future were just the same. And like Coleridge, you imagine Mary and Joseph gazing at their firstborn in wonder, filled with thankfulness that God has brought them to this point, offering these tiny hands and feet to God, asking only that he will mould his spirit and shape his life so that he will grow ‘in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and humanity’. And asking that as his feet touch the earth, a new dawn will bathe the world in its sunrise, a light for all nations.
At each solstice, the Precentor chooses a hymn for the year’s turning. Christ whose glory fills the sky, Christ the true, the only Light. On this day when the sun scarcely clears the horizon, and its warmth is extinct, when darkness is long and spirits low, when nature sleeps, and storm and frost have their way on the earth, it is then that we are roused to pray all the more fervently in the spirit of Advent: Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night; Dayspring from on high, be near; Daystar, in my heart appear! All of human life is gathered up in this yearly metaphor of the darkness and cold that will one day be banished as the light lengthens and the warmth strengthens. And in four days’ time, metaphor will become reality. Like the poet, we shall gaze in wondering love upon the beloved Infant, and see in him all grace and truth, all hopes and longings met, and the secret ministry of frost will be past, and hearts will sing, and all seasons will become sweet for us.
O God, by whose command the order of time runs its course: forgive our impatience, perfect our faith, and help us to have a good hope because of your word; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Durham Cathedral, Midwinter’s Day, 21 December 2014. Luke 1.39-55
Sunday, 14 December 2014
A Christmas Homily for the Bereaved
In my personal prayer folder, for most of my life I’ve written down the names of people I’ve known who have died. Some are close family like my grandmother, my wife’s parents, my own father. Some are friends from school or college days. Some are the men and women who taught me or influenced me in important ways. Some have been work colleagues. Many are people I’ve worshipped with in the churches I’ve served in and whose funerals I conducted. At my age, these lists are getting long. I go back to them at this time of year – All Souls’ Day in November, Advent, Christmas. The whole of my life seems to be recorded there, because I have known each of them personally, even if not all in the same way. It helps me to be thankful for their memories, and to keep them alive in mine. And to continue to hold them before God.
It is so important to keep memory alive. ‘Lest we forget’ as we say at Remembrance. We should never forget those whose lives have been intertwined with ours, who have walked with us for a while. Most of our memories of the departed are grateful: we realise afresh how much we owe to them. Sometimes, our memories can be painful or hard: they may have needed to forgive us for some hurt we did them, or we may need to forgive them. I find that this can go on beyond death. It matters for them and for us that we do this spiritual, emotional work, this work of the heart. Christmas is a good time to remember, to be thankful, to be forgiving, to learn and to grow.
This is why we are here today. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the light of the World. St John says that this true light coming into the world at Christmas time enlightens all of us. These sayings draw on a long history in the Old Testament scriptures where God is our light and our salvation, and brings light to all the world’s peoples as heard in the readings earlier. At this dark time of the year when the days are shortest and spirits can be low, we need to hear these wonderful words and be strengthened by them. We need to reawaken our belief that they apply not only to the living but to the dead, for God holds all souls in life, and through Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection he lights up every life that has lived with his grace and truth.
Whatever loss brings you here, whatever your sadness or emptiness or pain, Christmas brings its message of light, peace, hope, comfort and joy. ‘The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more' says the hymn. I pray that the Holy Child of Bethlehem will light up all our lives, living or departed, this Christmas and always.
At St Cuthbert’s Hospice Service, ‘Light Up a Life’, 14 December 2014
And something happened that no-one who was there would ever forget. I have an illustrated book of reminiscences written in 1915 by an army padre called Douglas Winnifrith. This is what he says about it: ‘The opposing forces left their trenches and fraternised on the intervening ground, exchanging gifts and good wishes!...For his enemy individually “Tommy” has no hatred. He is goodness itself to German wounded and prisoners to whom I have seen him give the last of his precious Woodbines’. To him, the trenches were an extension of the rugby pitches of Charterhouse and Eton. Sportsmanship was everything, playing the man. So ‘one was not surprised to find him prepared to shake hands with his foe on Christmas Day’.
I expect many a preacher this year is drawing a message out of this centenary of the Christmas truce. The symbolism is powerful as we have seen in the touching memorial unveiled last week in the National Arboretum and designed by a 10 year old from Tyneside: those precious hours of shared humanity in which enemies were drawn together by the Christ Child. Even the terrible attrition that followed did not undo the significance of that moment. It was like a sacrament, presenting combatants with the possibility of a better world in which swords would be turned into ploughshares. That day it felt near enough to be grasped. How wonderful it must have seemed. And if it laid down somewhere in the combatants’ souls a memory of peace-seeking, the realisation that the enemy we are commanded to love is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, well, that is the purpose of every good dream.
And so it should be at this Christmas time 2014. No-one pretends that the message of ‘peace on earth, good will to all people’ is the truth of things today; like those later Great War Christmasses, it seems further off than ever. Violence, terror and hatred seem ‘dug-in’ in ways that we did not imagine even a year ago. And the worst of it is that so much of it is fuelled by the furies and hatreds of radical practitioners of religion. I mean Islam, that noble religion of dignity, truth-seeking and peace. It is terrible to think that faith can be so debased by atrocities perpetrated in the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. And if that were not enough, we now have more refugees and asylum seekers on the move than at any time since the last war. Then we have Ebola, and unending revelations about child abuse, and the plight of the hungry in our own midst, something that took even the Archbishop of Canterbury – who has seen many dreadful things – by surprise. Meanwhile there is scant progress among leaders trying to address climate change, and isolationist politics are pulling us apart from our neighbours precisely when we need one another most. As 2015 dawns the prospect of a better world is bleak.
Yet Advent and Christmas speak into the state we are in just as they did in 1914. Our seasonal stories touch us because they are always fresh and new; they invite us to rediscover innocence. It is like looking at an old master painting: exquisite, beautiful, filled with adoration and joy. But peer into the dark places and shadows on the canvas. Sometimes you can trace a broken world in there: a poor family crying out for bread, the crippled and diseased longing to be healed. Often they conceal a frozen river or skeletal trees, metaphors of deadness. Or the shadows may just be dark, symbolising human hearts breaking under the weight of fear or grief, guilt or worry or pain, waiting for the illumination the birth of Jesus brings. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ That is what we love about Christmas. It holds out the possibility that we can find hope, and life can begin again.
Other than the medicine of the gospel, I don’t have any cure for our ills. If I did, you wouldn’t believe me. But the voice of the prophet in our first reading heralds good news for victims, freedom for captives, release for prisoners, comfort for the sad, gladness for a people who wait with longing and who keep hope and faith alive. It’s the advent of the Lord’s great jubilee. So we must never give up on God and his love for the world he made and will always cherish. We must never despair. This precious Infant in the manger is for life, not just for Christmas. He will know soon enough the bitterness of dark and pain; a sword will pierce his mother’s heart. But by embracing evil and making it his own, he draws the sting out of death and hell. He gives us back our broken selves, our future, our freedom, our happiness, our life. He inspires us to believe that transformation can happen in our world, in our human family, in ourselves.
Was this what those soldiers glimpsed, however partially, in the trenches a hundred years ago, that the true light that enlightens all people was coming into the world? Like Advent, it was a moment of awakened longing for something better. Far off, yet coming one day: a truce that lasts forever, an eternal reconciliation and peace, a healing of the world’s pain, a love that is without limit and without end. We have a reason for the hope that is within us.
Durham Cathedral, Advent 3 2014 (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end; John 1.6-8, 19-28)
Thursday, 4 December 2014
In memoriam Joy Sykes
The vocation of a senior clergy wife is not, I imagine, an easy one. I did not know Joy in Ely days. But I can imagine her adopting a thoroughly down to earth style in the Bishop’s House: hospitable, supportive, practical, not above saying (or at any rate thinking) ‘come off it Stephen!’ I think bishops need this kind of well-grounded practicality in their spouses; deans certainly do. In their Durham years, not least latterly when Stephen needed so much looking after, her devotion and care shone through.
And her joy. Anyone with such a theological name must be challenged to live up to it. But Joy had a genuine gift for lighting up the lives of others – not in any conscious way but simply because of the person she was. She loved life and it showed in ways that endeared her to all her friends. And her family of course, so cherished and loved. She was one of those people who is naturally generous with her affections and loyalties. Stephen’s moving tribute in an anniversary card is quoted in the introduction to the service sheet: he thanks her for ‘a lifetime of fun, adventure, travel, child rearing and, for the last five years, simply astonishing resilience in the face of an extraordinary disease in yours truly. I simply could not have managed, and been managed, without your steady love.’ Their children Richard, Juliet and Joanna and grandchildren Ella, Rebecca, Matthew and Shannon, all know how much they owe to her.
Wildlife, pets and the garden were important to her all her life. The family recall how they were never without pets, most notably dogs of which her favourite breed was the Pekingese because of its ‘independent and feisty spirit.’ In temperament, like recognising like perhaps? At one point the menagerie numbered 13 and included dogs, a cat, a horse, gerbils, hamsters, a rabbit and Torty the tortoise, her long-lived companion for over 60 years. In gardening she found recreation of mind and spirit. Every house she lived in had to have a decent garden for her to work in, to the point where she chose Ingleside, their last home here in Durham without Stephen having even seen it. Along with Rosie the labradoodle, she leaves behind Irish thoroughbred Sweet William who gave her such pleasure in her last months, and whom she loved to ride when she could.
Joy's intimacy with human beings and with the natural world means that her leaving us is all the more keenly felt. We wouldn’t be human if we did not need to be held at times of loss – by our memories, by one another, by God. This is what today’s service gives us: the opportunity to find strength by celebrating a life of goodness and joy, by helping one another in our sadness; and by giving back to God the person he lent us for a while. In all this we draw hope and strength from the prayers, the scriptures and the music.
What do they say to us today?
In the gospel, Jesus urges us: ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God: believe also in me’. Of course, it’s precisely when our hearts are troubled and afraid that we can find it hardest to believe. Yet what Jesus invites us to do is not to make some colossal effort to believe when we have so many questions, rather it is to trust in the essential truth of things, that it is love that moves the sun and the stars. This is, I think, what Joy would want for us, because it was how she was in herself. In her lifetime, she had found that despite all its changes and chances, there is a deep-down trustworthiness in the universe. She loved life, and inhabited the world she felt at home in. She knew, and we know, that we are cared for, believed in, embraced, held, loved.
And this is the theme St Paul warms to at the climax of the great eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans that we also heard. ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ He lists some candidates: ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword?’ And a thousand other risks and perils that we face simply because we are alive in a precarious world? Shall these hazards have the last word? No, he says, rising to one of the greatest acts of faith in the Bible. ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’
‘More than conquerors.’ Joy she seemed to know the truth of those words during her final illness. It was such a cruel disease. It deprived her of the years she had every reason to look forward to enjoying. Who would not be disappointed, angry even? But I never heard Joy complain or feel sorry for herself. Week by week she was with Stephen here at the Sunday eucharist, and we had many a conversation at the back of the Cathedral afterwards. She would be confident and calm, her wry laughter somehow defying worry and disease to do their worst. I don’t say that she did not struggle with it at times: the cancer and the treatment both took their toll. I am saying that they did not get the better of her. She practised courage throughout her life and did so in the face of suffering. She died as she had lived: in the end, she was the victor, not her illness. This is what we celebrate in this eucharist. Here we remember the goodness and mercy of God as we lay on the altar our dearest and our best. We do this with heavy yet thankful hearts, knowing that nothing is lost, and ‘all in the end is harvest’.
So we say farewell and allow Joy’s spirit to return to the God who gave it. William Blake has a beautiful epigram that plays on her name. It’s about being grateful for a precious gift, allowing ourselves to let go, and in that very act discovering that we are bathed in the unexpected radiance of golden memories. We find that paradoxically, loss brings with it not so much absence but a deeper presence, and that an eternal dimension breaks through our transience and illuminates our lives and our loves.
He that bends to himself a Joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy.
He who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
St Paul says: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Eternity’s sunrise, indeed.
At the funeral of Joy Sykes, Durham Cathedral, 4 December 2014
Romans 8. 28-end, John 14.1-6, 27.
Sunday, 19 October 2014
On Showing Mercy: a hospice sermon
Ebola: fear and love in West Africa
Saturday, 11 October 2014
Bishop Stephen Sykes: In Memoriam
As preachers in this Cathedral know, Stephen was a keen listener to sermons. He could be exacting too. After the service, you could expect comment on your handling of a biblical text, the rigour of your argument or lack of it, the citations you made or might have made. He would always thank the preacher and offer encouragement. But he could be direct in his dissent. He once told me over coffee after a service: ‘Michael, that was the most profoundly unhelpful sermon I’ve heard in years.’ Nevetheless Stephen asked me to preach at this service. This preacher is keenly aware that a decade of homiletic scrutiny is not over yet.
In a beautiful essay on Thomas Cranmer, Stephen wrote about how his communion rite was an invitation to a pilgrimage that would ‘pattern and structure human experience as a whole. Cranmer’s liturgies amount to a map of the heart as topos, a map for pilgrimage from the depths to the heights. It is a pilgrimage with God who is struggling with the heart, addressing comfortable words to it, pouring in the grace of his Holy Spirit to lift it up, melting it and remaking it…not a disembodied mental process but one linking mind and guts.’ That captures Stephen’s life. In those words you can hear the thought and language of a lifelong love affair with Anglicanism, the spiritual insights learned from its liturgy and theologians and poets. He was a man whom, to steal a line from a famous war poem, the Church of England ‘bore, shaped, made aware, gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam’. One of his generation’s best theologians, his Christian identity never lost its practical, visceral dimension. Faith was something deeply felt in the heart, the emotions, the affect – ideas as important to him as the cognitive language of mind and thought.Those of us who heard him preach Holy Week in this Cathedral a few years ago in a series of addresses based on George Herbert’s poems will never forget it. His Good Friday address on St John’s tetelestai, ‘it is finished’, was one of the most moving sermons I have ever heard here or anywhere. He preached in the spirit of Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis: ‘from the heart – may it go to the heart’. You could tell by the catch in his voice that he was close to tears.
This rich, complex inwardness constituted Stephen’s career in public ministry. There is a symmetry in his curriculum vitae. He started out as Dean of Chapel in his alma mater, St John’s College Cambridge. There he inhabited both church and academy as an emerging theologian whose day job had at its heart the daily worship of a chapel community and the pastoral care of a college. He developed a love for students that never left him even at the very end of his life, and to which they responded with huge affection. He ended his career as Principal of another St John’s College, our neighbours here in Durham, where once again the quotidian concerns of student life were married to his continuing intellectual vocation as a Christian thinker, teacher and writer in the Department of Theology and Religion in this University. In between, his successive professorships in Durham and Cambridge consolidated his reputation as a theologian of international significance, as his steady stream of influential writings testified. But then came the bishopric of Ely where he spent nearly a decade. Was this to lay aside the role of a theologian for the sake of leadership in the Church of England? He would not have put it that way. He would have said that it is the calling of every theologian to understand his or her role as essentially ecclesial in character, as a vocation within the church which it is the privilege of theology to serve as faith seeks understanding. Indeed, he would have gone further and said that theology’s audience is not the church only, but the human community in its all its diversity. He looked for a theology that is genuinely ecumenical and public and has something to say to the dilemmas modernity puts to a society prepared to listen, reflect and examine the assumptions of its thought. This was the direction he took in his chairmanship of the Doctrine Commission: not that the church theologises to itself, but that its voice is heard in the public arenas of our time and, as the well-worn phrase has it, speaks truth to power.
Stephen’s last book Power and Christian Theology reflects his breadth of outlook and the range of his thinking. The final chapter is about leadership in the church, especially the role of the bishop. Drawing on Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, he examines the tensions between rule and service, loving your office and remaining humble, zeal for holiness and accepting human shortcomings in yourself and others, and between deference to leaders and affection for them. He concludes: ‘Although [public leadership] is a necessity which we deeply desire to the point of wanting to idolize our leaders, we have also succumbed to the habit of suspicion and mistrust. Both instincts are unjust to the men and women whose real talents are exercised in God’s service. Their powers are best employed when they are recognised by them and by us as genuine and proper, not as a substitute for service or love, but as an expression of them.’ He does not say so, but I doubt he could have written in this way unless from within he lived experience, drawing on the memory of his years as a diocesan bishop. He was writing about his own aspiration as a bishop. Service and love allied to clear thinking and purposeful activity informed by discipleship: that holistic, humane linkage is typical of Stephen’s life.
All his days Stephen made it his goal to live the gospel and allow the cross and resurrection to interpret the changes and chances of human living. The name Stephanos means crown. When I preached at Stephen and Joy’s golden wedding two years ago, I quoted a poem by his beloved George Herbert that happily unites their two names in one line.
My joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say
And still it runneth, muttering up and down
With only this, My joy, my life, my crown.
The poet wants to sing his best hymn in praise of God, indeed he wants to be that hymn. He has the words, the rhyme, the metre but has not yet found the spirit. He knows that life is meant for us to worship God ‘my joy, my life, my crown’. But how is he to live the truth of his own song? In the end he finds the way.
Whereas if the heart be moved
Although the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth supply the want.
And when the heart says, sighing to be approved,
O could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.
To know we are cherished melts and remakes the heart, calms its unquietness, lifts it up to sing. ‘God so loved’ is the best of all comfortable words. ‘God writeth, Loved.’ When we know we are loved, death has lost its sting. It is swallowed up in victory. It no longer has the power to hurt us that it once did. Like Martha, we affirm our faith and hope in the risen Jesus. Our lives are hid with Christ in God: Stephen’s, and ours, and the company of all who have trusted in him. Today we honour the memory of a man beloved by family and friends, a great scholar, a good man, a loyal disciple, a seeker-after-truth, and a faithful priest and bishop. And now, here, while we are still in this vale of soul-making, as we give thanks for his life, we sit and eat with him at this eucharistic feast where, living and departed, Love bids us welcome.
Durham Cathedral, 10 October 2014.
1 Corinthians 15; John 11.17-27