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

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Long History of Care: Founders' Day at the Hospital of God, Greatham

It is a long history that we commemorate here at Greatham each Founders’ Day. When Robert de Stichill founded the Hospital of God in 1273, he no was no doubt influenced by the example of his Cathedral Priory in Durham where he had been a monk. He dedicated this chapel to St Mary and St Cuthbert, like the Cathedral: perhaps he wanted to invoke the tradition of Benedictine hospitality that lay at the heart of the Priory’s daily work and ministry. The care of the poor and needy was always a call of monks living under Benedict’s Rule. ‘Welcome everyone as if they were Christ himself’ it says.

This was why Greatham was not simply a ‘hospital’ in the medieval sense, a place of safety, sanctuary and care. It was a hospital of God. Its business was to imitate and live out God’s own hospitality to those who most needed his protection, the people the Hebrew Bible speaks of as his special treasure, the poor. Bishop Stichill was undertaking a project of love: that is what this place represents. ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares’ it says in our reading this morning.

In Durham, the visible survivals of the Priory’s hospitality are scant: the foundations of the guest hall underneath what are now desirable flats in a heritage setting; the remains of the infirmary beneath the Archdeacon’s house.  The monks’ dormitory itself survives, of course: its great length running along an entire range of the cloister and its grand 15th century timber roof make it one of the great rooms of England. It tells you something not only about the size and wealth of the Priory but about the importance it attached to accommodating the community properly.

But you have to go to France to see a ‘hospital’ in the Greatham sense whose whole reason for being was to serve the sick and the poor. This is the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, one of the best architectural statements of medieval charity I know.  There, a room the size of Durham’s dormitory has beds in cells along its walls and, at the far end, an altar where once upon a time the great Last Judgment triptych of Roger Van der Weyden used to hang, a proper focus for the infirm and dying who lay facing it along the length of the dormitory.  It reminded guests that it was God himself who received and entertained them. It was his kindness and care that was expressed through the hands of the staff who looked after them. Like Greatham, that charity continues to serve the sick and needy today.

It seems to me that these couple of words, of God, make all the difference: the Hospital of God. No doubt it was true, when Robert de Stichill founded it, that all charitable endeavour was done for God and in his name: this is what Christendom meant. When we consider how many of our charitable institutions in Europe originated in the medieval vision of a holistic society, whether in education, health care or the service of the elderly and poor, we have to recognise that there was something rather wonderful in the church’s commitment to emulate the generosity of God in its service of humanity.

No doubt there was a lot wrong with those centuries and their preoccupation with temporal power and wealth. Robert de Stichall was one of those who insisted most strongly on wielding his Palatinate power as a prince-bishop, and that should give us pause. But perhaps he redeemed himself by founding this Hospital, endowing large resources to Greatham so that it could care for the needy and vulnerable within his Palatinate realm. We don’t know if he or other prince-bishops had an uneasy conscience about their riches. I am not above helping the wealthy to assuage their consciences by means of substantial charitable giving. And in this place and on this day, we should pray for him as we celebrate our Founder, that he may indeed be resting in peace in gratitude for what his charity continues to do today.

In this Epiphany season, we have been hearing once more the story of the Magi who came to find the infant Christ. Perhaps the gifts they brought him out of their own wealth and power give us an image of a resplendent prince-bishop doing something similar: bending low enough to see and worship the Infant, offering him what he had to give. Can we see in the gold, frankincense and myrrh not simply valuable gifts in their own right, but symbols of the offering of all of life to God in the person of his incarnate Son? The long journey of the Magi, their humility in paying homage to the Child, the generosity of their gifts – it is all in such stark contrast to the fearful, grasping Herod whose clenched fist batters the Hebrew children and drowns their innocence in a bloodbath.  

What use had Jesus of gold? Or frankincense, or myrrh? Not much, I think. In the lovely Epiphany operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors, the composer portrays the Magi as begging shelter for the night at a woman’s hovel where she and her crippled son eke out a parlous existence as best they can. Here, seeing how the gold seduces an impoverished mother, the wise men come to recognise that a Sovereign whose kingship is not from this world does not need these things. All he needs is the homage and love of loyal subjects. The poor cripple-boy wants to make his offering to this new-born Child too. All he has to give is his crutch. As he offers it, he finds that he is miraculously healed. And that somehow feels so much more authentic a gift than all the gold in the world.

And yet, like the bread and wine of the eucharist, any gift offered and blessed through the giving has transformative power. Even poor gold such as the magi offered; like Bishop Stichill’s wealth. This Hospital is the result, still here, still true to its founder’s vision all these centuries later. That is something to celebrate on Founders’ Day. And because his money and resources were offered to God as an act of charity, this this is not just any hospital. It is the Hospital of God. It derives its name and its meaning from why and how the gift was offered. What we do here we do in God’s name, because he is that kind of god: generous, open-handed, far-seeing, compassionate, kind.  It’s not that other institutions in the business of health care and alleviating social need don’t demonstrate real excellence and utter commitment. They do, and we thank God. But I want to say that the excellence and commitment of the Hospital of God has a particular quality, a character that derives from its name, its founder’s intentions and its long, long history of care. 

It is hard to put into words, but I believe we know it when we see it, because we can recognise the hand of God in it at a conscious level. ‘Recognised or not, the Deity is always present’ wrote Carl Jung above the entrance of his clinic at Z├╝rich. God is present, if unrecognised, in so much wonderful care exercised by thousands of people day after day across the nation.  But it is especially wonderful when God is acknowledged as the source and inspiration of what we do when we offer hospitality and care for people in name of the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. For then, strangers become friends, and angels, and we know that we belong to that larger fellowship of those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light. To that place of glory and unending happiness may God bring us all.

Founders’ Day at Greatham Hospital, 23 January 2014
Hebrews 13.1-8, Matthew 2.1-15

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