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

Sunday, 20 July 2014

In the House of Dreams: a farewell sermon to the choir

Yes, it is true: there is wickedness at work in the world, as the parable of the wheat and the tares tells us. We should not be surprised when bad things happen to innocent people. The tragedy of Gaza, the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine, the plight of thousands of desperate Christians fleeing Mosul as their churches are burned – the events of the past week have touched us and we bring them with us in our prayers as we come to the Cathedral today. But as the orthodox funeral rite says that even at the grave we sing alleluia. So once more we celebrate this liturgy of the crucified and risen Christ, and by the miracle of grace we still find it in our hearts to sing.

And singing comes into things today.  Let me speak directly to the choir. For some of you today marks the end of your time as choristers and choral scholars here at Durham. But as we say farewell, we treasure the good memories for which we are thankful. You will remember us, and we shall not forget you, and for all of us this place, this holy place, this beautiful cathedral, will be the focus of our memories, for it was here that we worshipped and sang together for a while; and it is from here that you go out to new schools, new work, new places, new studies, new adventures, new lives. 

In the Old Testament reading, Jacob finds himself alone, in a strange place and spends the night there. The light has failed, and he is afraid of what may lie ahead. As he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels going up and down. But God stands beside him and assures him: ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’. Next day he realises that something wonderful has happened. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’ He is overwhelmed and afraid: ‘how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. 

This Cathedral, this house of God, is an awesome place. It overwhelms us too at times, but we love it for the way it lifts our vision, cherishes us and makes us feel safe, tells us that God is with us. We have found shelter here for a while. Like the stone Jacob rested on, these stones have offered a safe place. They were here long before us, and they will be here long after we have left. They saw us come and they will see us go. Years pass and with them generations of singers and scholars, choristers and clergy, young and old, all for whom this is Beth-El, the house of God where we worship him and learn to love him and know he is in this place. 

And like the stone where Jacob rested, this cathedral is a house of dreams. Here we dream of other worlds as we look up that ladder into heaven and catch a glimpse of angels. Like him, we dream of a promised land where our world comes home to God and all its troubles and sorrows are laid to rest. Like him we dream of a just land where everyone is treated fairly and there is no more war or hunger. Like him we dream of a beautiful land where there is peace and harmony and we join in the music of the spheres. All these worlds are in our dreams as we worship God and imagine that his kingdom is coming among us. The liturgy and the music, the architecture, the sheer beauty of this Cathedral give us good dreams, holy dreams that can change our lives. 

50 years ago a black American preacher and civil rights campaigner made a famous speech. Martin Luther King said: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we shall transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we shall work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day’. We know those words so well, but they have not lost their ability to stir us. That’s the power of good dreams, not to escape from reality but so that we enter into it more deeply. Jacob was asleep when he dreamed of the ladder to heaven, but he was never more awake in his life. Dreams matter. They change the world. 

So let me say to the choristers and choral scholars who are leaving us today: in this house of God, your music has helped us dream of a world as God would have it, a place of peace and justice, glory and freedom, light, life and love.  And you have been caught up in those dreams too, at least I hope you have. You have glimpsed things that are not given to everyone, you have dreamed of a ladder to heaven. It is a huge privilege to see what you have seen and hear what you have heard. Heaven has been opened to you for a while, close enough to touch. Perhaps angels have brushed our sleeve and you did not know it.

But let me mention another aspect of the story. Jacob was on a journey when he lay down and had his dream. He had left his father Isaac and would not see him again until his deathbed. He was in fear of his brother Esau for the wrong he had done him by stealing his blessing. He was afraid, not knowing what lay ahead. The dream was an immensely important turning-point. After it, his mind was clearer, his direction set, his confidence restored. All because he glimpsed heaven and knew God was standing by him. It was not the end of his journey, far from it. Struggles and ordeals lay ahead. The way would often be dark, and faith and hope would be tested. But his inner eyes had been opened. All would be well. He could trust his dream. He could trust God.

This house of dreams has been a part of your journey too. Perhaps you, like Jacob, are wondering what life will mean in the future, where your path is headed. Perhaps your faith and your hope waver at times.  You are only human. But I want to say to all of you: at those times, think back to your time here, to the dreams you shared through your music, to the glimpses of heaven you’ve enjoyed. You have given so much to Durham. Don’t forget what Durham has given you. Let it inspire you in the years ahead, put within you the incentive to serve God wherever life leads you, give you the vision and the strength to make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others. Go on loving and making music all your lives. 
And go on playing your part in creating the music Martin Luther King spoke about, that ‘beautiful symphony of brother- and sister-hood’.

‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, then the Lord shall be my God.’ That was Jacob’s promise to himself and his promise to God. He set up a stone to remember what had happened to him at that awesome place where his dream woke him up and he glimpsed God and the angels’ way to heaven. In the same way, keep the stones of this great Cathedral in your minds as a kind of landmark. Remember what you received here, what you gave here, what you saw and heard here, what you hoped for here, what you came to love. Don’t forget this house of dreams, this house of God, this gate of heaven. And go with our blessing. Go with our profound thanks. Go in hope. Go in God.

At the end of year sung eucharist, 20 July 2014 (Trinity V)
Genesis 28.1-4, 10-21; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Have You Any Soul? A sermon for a music festival

This church is one of the North East’s finest monastic buildings. Brinkburn was Augustinian, though our music today is being by the choir of a Benedictine Cathedral. So let me honour this place by asking what Augustine of Hippo had to say about music. In Book 10 of his Confessions, he admits that he loves music, and that when sung, ‘sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung’.  But he is aware of a trap: ‘finding the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys’. He talks about the risk of gratifying the senses on the one hand, and the gifts that music has to confer on the other. He asks for help not to confuse the gift with the Giver. ‘Have pity on me and heal me, for you see that I have become a problem to myself.’

More famously, he said:
‘whoever sings, prays twice’. This is usually taken to mean first through the words and then the music. But I don’t think he means this. He is saying that when we praise God, our music is transformed through the act of offering: it is lifted above the ordinary song of the dance floor or tavern or concert hall. It becomes an act of self-giving devotion. The ‘twice’ is first what we hear physically, and then where it comes from spiritually, its source at the heart of a human soul when it comes not just out of musicianship but from love.

This is the cue for my theme at this music festival, when the Old Testament reading charmingly announces that ‘the time of singing has come’. In the gospel reading, Jesus draws on a musical analogy. ‘This generation is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “we piped to you and you would not dance; we wailed and you would not mourn”’. There is no pleasing this crowd – that’s the message. A prophet appears, the ascetic John the Baptist, calling for austerity and repentance, and this doesn’t satisfy them. But neither does the Son of Man who loves a party and sits at table with all comers. They don’t like that either. Singing and dancing, wailing and lament – neither finds a hearing among a stubborn, unresponsive people. Whether the music is in a major or minor key, they want none of it. You could say that they have no soul.

Some of you know Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity or have seen the film. It’s set in a record shop (a dying species: if you find one, support it at once). A woman comes in. “‘Have you got any soul?’ she asks. That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no. A few days ago I was right out; now I’ve got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can’t seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn’t be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.” Nick Hornby charts (forgive the word) the fortunes of an obsessive. His public world is the record shop, his private one his collection of discs, his relationships and the complexities of the male psyche. In its off-beat way, the book is not only funny but accurate in the way it lays bare an ordinary human life. His records are a metaphor of his personal world, but they are also a gateway to it. ‘Is it so wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colourful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in.’ Yes, that is indeed art; and that is indeed the human soul. ‘Know yourself’ says the wisdom of antiquity. To peer into our own soul and recognise what is there takes insight, patience and courage.

‘Have we any soul?’ That is the question music and art puts to us. Art says: here is beauty, here is delight, here is tragedy, here is a view of things we may not have glimpsed before. The question is, have we the soul to hear and to listen, to be touched by it and respond to it; even to be changed by it? I doubt it happens by itself. We can use music as mindless wallpaper, even in churches, but there is no guaranteed osmosis that will get inside and make a difference to us. Or we can pay attention, not just hear but listen. Then communication takes place: music becomes a form of speech whose language can elicit a response. Beethoven wrote on his Missa Solemnis, ‘from the heart: may it go to the heart’.  When heart speaks to heart, there is recognition; and by being spoken to, as if by name, we realise in a new way who and what we are. We are brought back into a relationship with our own soul.

I’ve often spoken of the part Bach’s passion music played in my becoming a Christian and later on, a priest. I would not be here now if it were not for the transformative part Bach played in my life: a fifth evangelist indeed. I look back on this experience as one of the ways in which I was humanised, brought back from illusion and fantasy to a deep truth about human life, put back together again. To become more fully human is to rediscover how we are made as the image of God the divine artist and musician who has given us mortals the faculty of imagination, the capacity to respond to beauty, the gift of being enchanted, the ability to create worlds of melody and harmony as God himself creates and sustains the universe. John Milton speaks of the ‘perfect diapason’ that was lost in the fall, but not irretrievably, for the work of redemption is once again enabling mortals to ‘sing in tune with heaven’. So music does not simply give us a glimpse of redemption: it has a redemptive dimension in itself. In the Psalms, the invitation to make music is not, I think, only to celebrate God’s praise but it is to invoke his very presence amidst humanity, to bring him in our midst. With God among us, all of us become musicians who join in the music of the spheres. We dance when God pipes joyfully to us; we enter into his lament when there are tears in things. ‘Do you have any soul?’ It’s God’s question to each of us.

If we take ‘soul’ seriously, music will always be an act of love in all its aspects: composing, performing or listening. This was Augustine’s point: we pray twice when we sing with love. Elgar said of The Dream of Gerontius, ‘this is the best of me, written from my insidest inside.’ He has put the whole of himself into it, an offering of love because love costs everything we have. This is why faith often seems to hover on the periphery of music even when it is not consciously recognised. Herbert Howells said that he was agnostic except when he was composing. Music, like architecture, painting and poetry is one of faith’s companions and interpreters. It enables us to grasp reality in fresh ways. And when it is put to work in the service of the church, it becomes conscious, capable of enabling worship to soar to the heights and plumb the depths of our human life as we experience under God.

Musicians are not named among the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers whose gifts adorn the church.  But don’t musicians bring good news too?  The great rose window of Durham Cathedral that I call ‘God’s Eye’ has the twenty four crowned elders of the Book of Revelation arrayed round Christ in glory, each playing a harp. It tells me that music is enshrined, not just among the arts, but among the bearers of God’s truth and light.  There is the answer to the question, ‘Have we any soul?’ Augustine was right: to sing out of love and adore the eternal God is what we were made for. Just as we are doing in this eucharist right now.

Brinkburn Abbey, Northumberland: at the Music Festival Eucharist, 6 July 2014.
Song of Songs 2.8-13, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end

Saturday, 5 July 2014

'Unimportant'? A brief life of Hensley Henson, Dean & Bishop of Durham

Among my predecessors, Hensley Henson was one of the most waspish of all the Deans of Durham.  He became Dean in 1912, left the Deanery in 1917 to go to the See of Hereford, and returned to Durham in 1920 as its Bishop, retiring just a few months before the outbreak of the second world war.  He wanted to be a scholar-dean: ‘I would endeavour to associate my tenure of the Deanery with some literary achievement which would renew the tradition of Dean Waddington… and finally emancipate me from the humiliating excitements of ecclesiastical conflict’.[1]  He relates that unfortunately for him and for us, it did not turn out as he had hoped. Most of his writings that had impact in their day, and that are still remembered, belong to his later life. And it is probably true to say that it was not for their intellectual substance that they were valued so much as their fearless engagement with so many central issues of global, national and church life. These include church and state, Christian moral thought, the practice of ministry and of course, his autobiographical writings[2].

‘HHH’ as he was often known was born in 1863. A Londoner, his childhood was unhappy, and left him with a lifelong sense of being an outsider. He went to Oxford as an unattached undergraduate: his father who was badly in debt could not afford to support him at one of the colleges. This strongly reinforced the awareness that he did not belong to the mainstream of the talented and intelligent, for all his intellectual ability. He took a first in modern history and was soon elected a fellow of All Souls. Having discerned early on a vocation to priesthood, he was ordained in 1887 and appointed Vicar of Barking the following year. Here his talents made him one of London’s most popular clergy, increasing the congregation, it is said, from 250 to over a thousand. In 1895 he became chaplain of an Ilford hospital, and in 1900, a canon of Westminster and Vicar of St Margaret’s. This great public platform gained him widespread admiration for the brilliance of his preaching. He was noticed in high places. Asquith had planned to make him Dean of Lincoln, but Henson’s wayward behaviour led to a change of mind: he said it would be ‘like sending a destroyer into a landlocked pool’.[3]  The issue concerned his advocacy of union with non-conformists. He had defied his old friend Bishop Charles Gore in preaching in a congregational church in Birmingham. So Henson became Dean of Durham instead. 

His arrival in Durham was heralded by a dramatic development in the Deanery.  Like Spencer Cowper before him, Henson, or rather Ella his wife whom he had married in 1902, took a dislike to the great house which she thought gloomy and colourless.  Her opinion was perhaps not altogether without ground.  The photographs in his predecessor Dean Kitchin’s history of the Deanery[4], an incomparable record not only of its past, but also how it was inhabited in Edwardian times, show that the house was decorated and furnished in a heavy Victorian style that did not do justice to its elegant 17th and 18th century architecture.  So Ella set about putting colour back into Spencer Cowper’s solarium, and the Chinese silk wallpapers, as brilliant now as they were in 1912, show how well she succeeded.  It was a metaphor of a new era in the Deanery, both the house and the office.  The 20th century had arrived.

As I have said, Henson had already gained a reputation as a brilliant preacher and controversialist before he arrived at Durham.  He was a passionate defender of the establishment of the Church of England but had moved away from the high church position he had occupied as a younger man. In the year of his appointment, he published a book arguing that clergy should be free to air their doubts about the virgin birth and bodily resurrection in the pulpit. This led to the legendary controversy surrounding his preferment to Hereford in 1917.  He was appointed by Lloyd-George against the advice of Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. A number of bishops refused to attend his consecration, an act that wounded Henson deeply. In 1920, he was appointed Bishop of Durham. This time, his reception in his diocese where of course he was already well-known was uncontroversial and warm.  

Back in Durham, it was not long before he ran into trouble. The Durham coalfield was seething with discontent and unrest under the economic and industrial strains all England was experiencing, and the recalcitrant attitudes of local pit owners. Conflict was rife, with both miners’ and employers’ attitudes coloured by the Russian Revolution four years earlier. On Labour Day, 1 May 1921, Henson was invited to speak to a gathering of mine workers and employers at Hartlepool to try to achieve understanding and avert a damaging strike. The memory of an earlier episcopal intervention in a mining dispute in County Durham was still green: the great Bishop Westcott had been widely admired during the coal strike of 1892 for bringing miners and employers to Auckland Castle and successfully mediating between the two groups. It was not that Henson misjudged the occasion. He praised the miners, and pleaded to everyone’s better nature for an end to class war. But he unwisely included as a throwaway remark, a reference to the few, not the many, who were ‘shirkers’. This was mistaken to be a denigration of them all. For a while, the mood that year was ugly. Henson was able to redeem it by never failing in his conscientious care for miners and their families and his often generous financial provision for them, despite his dislike of organised labour and the trade unions.

But things soon turned sour again. This time, it came down to a difference of opinion between the Bishop and the Dean and it tells us quite a lot about Henson. Welldon took an exalted view of the office of Dean. Once, he was speaking to a meeting of railwaymen at Stockton and one of them asked, ‘Who is worth more to the country – a Dean or an engine-driver?  He replied: ‘A Dean is worth more than an engine-driver, if only because the engine-driver would take people from Stockton to Newcastle, but a Dean would take them from Stockton to heaven’.[5] 

His relations with Henson were notoriously bad, and the Bishop found in him exactly the right target for his acid wit. When preaching at Court and lunching afterwards at Buckingham Palace, King George V happened to ask his granddaughter Princess Elizabeth what she had liked best at the zoo on their visit the previous day.  ‘The rhinobottomus’ she replied.  Henson at once said: ‘Thank you, my dear Princess, for giving me a word which so adequately describes my Dean’.  When a lady asked him at a dinner-party if he had seen the play Pigs in Clover, he replied: ‘No, but I have seen the Dean of Durham in bed’.  Welldon was suspicious of the telephone, and would only allow a single appliance to be installed in the Porters’ Lodge to serve the entire College.  (That however was more advanced than Henson, who refused to have a telephone at Auckland Castle at all, so his chaplain had to make daily trips to a public phone in the market place in order to transact the business of the diocese)[6]. 

Relations came to a head. This time, it was another matter entirely that proved the trigger. Welldon was a leader of the temperance movement while Henson thought the whole idea of prohibition both absurd in itself and damaging (as he looked across the Atlantic) politically and socially. The brewers regarded Henson as their champion and liked the implication that the ‘liquor bishop’ would ‘rather see England free than England sober’.[7] The Dean decided to brief against his Bishop. He addressed the annual Miners’ Gala in July 1825 appealing to the Labour Party to ‘solve the nation’s drink problem’ and dissenting from Henson’s well-known views. Unfortunately, Henson had written a newspaper article a few days earlier on ‘The Coal Crisis: an explanation and a warning’. The topic was the miners’ demand to be paid a ‘living wage’.

Henson argued that this act of folly would put their very industry at risk. They were furious. A banner was processed on the racecourse proclaiming ‘to hell with bishops and deans! We want a living wage!’ There were mutterings about the vast stipends enjoyed by church dignitaries, and the Cathedral’s ownership of a well-known colliery, the Dean and Chapter pit at Ferryhill. Then a large man attired in an episcopal habit was seen amid the throng. This was not the Bishop but the Dean who had been a colonial bishop in East India. ‘Here he comes’ the crowd shouted, ‘throw him in the river!’. After a beating, they almost succeeded but for the intervention of the police. Who knows if the miners were intent on throwing a church dignitary into the river, not caring whom, or whether they mistook Welldon for Henson? But from then on, Henson paid attention to his personal security.

In the national church, the issue that long preoccupied him was that of disestablishment. I have said that he began as a fervent advocate of the established church. This was to change dramatically with the debacle over Parliament’s refusal to endorse the revised Book of Common Prayer twice over, first in 1927 and then again in 1928. This requires a lecture in itself, but briefly, the reasons for Parliament’s dislike of the draft text were based on a lingering protestant suspicion, fanned by a successful public campaign headed by well-known evangelicals, that the book conceded the historic Reformation position of the Church of England by countenancing such practices as eucharistic sacrifice and prayers for the dead. It is salutary to be reminded that what was called anti-Romanism was in some circles a live issue well into the 20th century, and is still not yet put to rest.

Because the revised Prayer Book had been unambiguously endorsed by the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church Assembly acting under its legal mandate of 1919, Henson regarded Parliament’s rejection as an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of the church. He now began to clamour loudly for disestablishment to which he gave the title of a notorious book he published in 1929. In it, he argued (presciently, many think today), that as the nation could no longer be said to profess the Christian faith, the church should be given the freedom to govern itself. His cry fell on deaf ears and made him more enemies. However, his public role in the coronation of 1937 seems to have moderated his position. He began to talk about the ‘residual’ Christianity held by the English as compared with the outright paganism that was sweeping across Nazi Germany.

And this observation of what was happening across the North Sea brought out what some consider as the very best in Henson. His stepmother, whom his father had met late in Henson’s adolescence, was a German widow. Henson always retained his affection for her, and her memory probably influenced him when, late in life, he observed the capitulation of a nation he admired to the forces of totalitarianism. He was one of only a few in public life vocally to criticise Nazi anti-Semitism, and support the German Confessing Church and its imprisoned pastor Martin Niemöller. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1936, he was quick to condemn Britain’s lack of concern, and when it came to the Munich crisis of 1938, he was forthright in speaking against an act of appeasement that he regarded as a ‘grievous injury’to the Czechs and a shameful capitulation to Germany’.[8] He had opposed spending on re-armament as he believed it promoted war. But he saw in 1938 that war was inevitable, a ‘holy war against pagan barbarism’ to end which there must be unambiguous victory, not a ‘compromise or patched-up peace’.[9]

This pleased Churchill who in 1940 invited Henson to forsake retirement and return to Westminster as a canon who would preach fervently in support of the war. It was not a success because of his failing health, and he resigned in 1941. He died in Suffolk on 27 September 1947. His ashes are buried in this Cathedral in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, near Bishop Anthony Bek and the memorial to the last of the prince-bishops, William van Mildert. Ella lived on for two more years.

Short men are often pugnacious, and this is true of Hensley Henson. This is evident from the best of his huge literary output, his letters and his long memoirs entitled Retrospect of an Unimportant Life. It is hard to tell whether there is an intended irony in the title, or whether he believed, as an outsider who had never attended public school and had been an impoverished ‘unattached’ student at Oxford, that he was a nobody like the famous diarist whose title he was perhaps echoing.  One writer thinks the book is ‘by turns snobbish, self-regarding, and self-dramatizing’[10].  But Owen Chadwick’s enjoyable biography[11] takes a more sympathetic view of this conflicted, inconsistent and troublesome man.  It demonstrates his far-sightedness, his passion for justice, his hatred of hypocrisy and cant.  He was perhaps one of the few prophets to occupy the Deanery.  His tenure as a wartime dean here in Durham came before he had made his lasting mark on the Church of England.  Yet I like to think that some of his enduring insights about church and society were nurtured in the room he and Ella made so beautiful for future Deans and their families to enjoy.  

[1] Henson, Herbert Hensley, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, London, 1942, I, 147.
[2] Complete list of books and papers in Peart-Binns, J. S., Herbert Hensley Henson, Cambridge, 2013, 192ff.
[3] Grimley, Matthew in ODNB, online source, citing The Times.
[4] Kitchin, G. W., The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912, Durham, 1912.
[5] Beeson, op cit.
[6] Gibby, C. W., ‘Some Deans and Canons of Durham’, unpublished reminiscences, 1979.
[7] Chadwick, Owen, Hensley Henson: a study in the friction between Church and State, Norwich 1983, 165.
[8] DNB, Grimley, Matthew on ‘Henson, Herbert Hensley’, 2004-5
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Chadwick, ibid.