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