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

Friday, 20 November 2015

Stirring us up to Sing: Sermon at the Consecration of Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham

Honour comes into things today. We are here to celebrate the consecration of a new bishop. We are glad for him, for the diocese of Lincoln and for the whole church. And it is not wrong to say that we honour him as we give thanks for Nick, this man of God, this friend, this priest whom we surround today with our love, our affection and our prayers.

Why do I use that word ‘honour’? Because it’s found in the gospel reading for this holy day, the feast of St Hild. (Two things to say here in parentheses. First, you’ll forgive me for preferring to speak of her by her Saxon name Hild rather than the Latin Hilda despite Nick’s honourable role as incumbent of St Hilda’s Church Jesmond. The second is that she died not on the 19th but the 17th of November 680. But as Lincoln people know, that day is also the anniversary of Hugh of Lincoln who died in 1200. To my mind Hugh, who was not only five hundred years Hild’s junior but also a gentleman, would not have hesitated to concede the 17th to the senior lady and taken the 19th himself. But the Church calendar has a wisdom of its own.)

But back to this word honour. In the gospel, Jesus has a lesson about good behaviour at a party. Be careful. Don’t grab the place of honour for yourself. Wait to be invited. It’s a pertinent reading at an episcopal service, for diocesan bishops as we know have seats. Cathedrals are named after these seats of honour, these cathedra; pretty grand some of them are too, if Durham’s is anything to go by. But, Jesus says, be properly reluctant about occupying a place of primacy and taking honour. Once, bishops-designate had to be dragged to their consecrations, so fearful were they to take up this awesome office. Nolo episcopari! they would cry, ‘I don’t want to be a bishop.’ Quite right. That should be an essential quality in the person spec of every episcopal appointment.

It’s so characteristic of Jesus’ teaching. Doxa, honour, is only to be had by those who begin by sitting in the lowest place and are invited to take a privileged seat. Why? Because his rule is a kingdom of nobodies where the greatest are least and the last first. Jesus himself is the example of this way of being: he who was rich became poor so that we might become rich, who took the form of a slave and was obedient unto death. All of Christianity is about this. But public ministry in particular, and episcopal ministry most of all. To be ‘grand’ is to subvert the very thing a priest or bishop embodies as-Christ. To be a ‘dignitary’, as we call it, is to embody true Christian ‘worth’, dignitas; and this means above all else, evangelical poverty of spirit, the virtue of humility we heard about in Ephesians, the grace to be as nobody and become one of God’s poor.

Hild was born into the royal house of Northumbria. But her vocation did not lie in being a princess but an abbess pledged to religious poverty. She had the oversight of a double monastery of women and men like her given as God’s poor in imitation of the humble Son of Man and in response to his call to follow. Like others inspired by gentle Aidan, she is depicted by Bede as a woman who embodied the spirit of the gospel herself by noticing and honouring those of little account. One of those to whom she said, in effect, ‘friend, come up higher’ was Caedmon. He was a nobody in that community. While the brothers and sisters were at prayer in quire or dining in hall, he would be outside in the stables caring for the animals and sleeping among them. Once in a dream, someone came to him and asked him to sing about the origin of created things. ‘How can I sing?’ he replied helplessly, 'how shall I sing that Majesty?' Yet in his dream, he composed a poem and sang the praise of the Creator. Next day he remembered the song. Hild heard about it and summoned him. Testing and recognising his gift, she called him to take vows and enter the monastery as its poet and singer in residence, one of the earliest poets to write in English. 

I love that story because of what it says to me about Christian vocation and ministry. For one thing, it underlines the Bible’s insistence that God’s humble poor are his special treasure. This is always a privilege of public ministry as deacon, priest or bishop, to notice and care about those in the stable no less than those in quire. But to go on, this ‘noticing’ is about paying attention to what God is doing in the lives of others, even when they are the most unlikely of others. We should learn from this story not to think we can ever predict or know where God is going to be at work. All ministry is to do the work of God, indeed, but part of this is the difficult and exacting task of discernment: understanding that God is at work in the world before we ever get to see it or know about it. Only then are we in a position to bring about reconciliation and healing, one of the gifts Hild was especially remembered for in the Saxon church. This is where we look to bishops to lead. I don’t simply mean that the recognition and calling out of gifts and ministries belongs to episcope as your act of loving oversight of the church. I mean something altogether larger than this: teaching the church to pay attention to creation, to all of life in its flourishing and in its brokenness, to listen and discern so that we do not miss the often hidden stirrings of the Spirit of God. Hild, we can safely say, always acted in an episcopal way as Abbess, and the story of how Caedmon was brought to her and her eyes and ears were opened gives us a clue about the leadership style of this remarkable woman.

And then there is the nature of the gift itself. To compose poetry and to sing songs in praise of God: this was the charism Hild discerned in Caedmon and brought out to flourish. Isn’t it the vocation of a bishop to help the whole church find our voice as poets and singers? When it comes to worshipping God and speaking about him, poetry and song are far closer to the truth of things than prose can ever be. In Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines, he traces the footsteps of native peoples who sing as they walk and bring worlds into being, echoing the primordial song by which the universe was made. ‘The trade route is the Songline because songs, not things, are the principal medium of exchange.’ Oscar Wilde says that Christ was a poet who makes poets out of all of us. I have a hunch that if bishops and all of us who are Christian leaders could worry about the prose a little less, and trade in song a little more, our church might breathe a great sigh of relief. For with the lightness of spirit and quickness of step that poetry and song bring, who knows how our worship could begin to dance, and our mission glow with gratitude, and our service of God and humanity, and our pursuit of all that is just and right be transformed from Pelagian duty into gospel joy?

This story of Hild and Caedmon fits so well with our gospel reading. Here is the man who knew his place but was called to a new role because his gift was discovered and recognised. I doubt if Hild ever forgot the day she first heard Caedmon sing. To him, like so many in the Saxon church of Northumbria, ‘she was known as mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace’ says Bede. To be a father or a mother in God, like every act of parenting, is to recognise the giftedness of those who are as children to us, and raise them to the place of honour where their God-given potential is realised, and where the base metal of prosody is transmuted into the shining gold of song.
'We need each other's voice to sing the songs our hearts would raise.' Nick, you are among us as God’s bishop to stir us up to sing even in dark and evil times, especially in dark and evil times*. So find your own voice, and help us to find ours so that we may be a church of joy and hope as together we learn how to 'sing that Majesty which angels do admire.'

*A reference to the bombings in Beirut and Paris by Daesh a few days before, and heightened security in the UK.

Southwark Cathedral, St Hild’s Day 2015.
At the consecration of The Right Reverend Dr Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham. (Ephesians 4.1-6, Luke 14.7-14)

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Global Terror and Christ the King

How do we respond to terror?  I don’t mean the strategies governments resort to in the so-called ‘war on terror’.  I doubt if the many-headed hydra of terrorism will be defeated in our time: the best we can hope for is that it can to some extent be contained.  What I mean is the effect it has on us, all of us probably, in generating anything from a low-level unease when stepping on to the London Underground to a much keener sense of fear when some outrage yet again destroys innocent lives and reminds us that we are living on eggshells. I guess we are leaning to live with fear, and to be prudent in the face of it.

There is nothing new in this.  Bloodshed, violence, terror are as old as the race.  Those who wrote the Book of Daniel from which we read in the Old Testament lesson knew this for themselves.  The era was the mid 2nd century BC, when the Jewish community had come under the rule of the Seleucid kings.  Antiochus Epiphanes’ programme was to impose all things Greek on this beleaguered Semitic community.  The terror was relentless in its operation and ruthless in its scope.  Jewish religion was proscribed under pain of death: practices such as circumcision, possessing the Torah, observing the Sabbath and the festivals, taking part in temple worship.  The crowning insult was the offering of swine’s flesh on the altar of the temple, what the writings called ‘the abomination of desolation’. Those who would not conform suffered terribly: they were tortured without mercy and then slain.  Their stories are told in the Books of the Maccabees. It isn’t too much to say that this was the first Jewish holocaust. It was not to be the last. 

How does a community live with its fear?  The Book of Daniel responds in two ways.  The first is by telling stories of heroic survival to inspire faith and perseverance.  Daniel and his three friends, depicted as exiles in Babylon, undergo all manner of ordeals because they refuse to obey the royal command to worship the tyrant’s golden image, and indeed the tyrant himself.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the burning fiery furnace for their loyalty to God (an eloquent image of the fires of persecution), yet they sing a Benedicite from the very heart of the cauldron and emerge unscathed as a testimony to how the God of Israel protects his own.  Daniel too is hurled into the den of lions; he too is unharmed.  The message is: the worst that others can do to you is as nothing if you remain faithful to God and to his covenant.  To do this, says Daniel, is what it means to be wise. 

But of course for most of the faithful living in times that must have seemed like the end of the world, there was to be no deliverance.  So the second part of the Book of Daniel draws out of those tales of deliverance their fundamental truth. It does this by using the colourful, dramatic imagery of what is called apocalyptic writing.  The threats to the community are presented as terrifying monsters, catastrophic floods, global conflagrations.  Amid ordeals such as these, where was God?  What was he doing to protect his people?  Why was he so absent from their suffering?  And the answer apocalyptic gives is to say that despite appearances, God is indeed king.  In our Old Testament reading, the Ancient of Days ‘has dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.’  And ‘his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.’  The persecuted author, perhaps on the threshold of death, can say that God is the Lord of history.  Only it is not yet time for him to intervene to rescue the faithful and claim his true sovereignty.  But that day of the Lord is coming.  When it does, the righteous sufferers will be vindicated.  Evil will be banished. Chaos will be returned to cosmos, just as it was at the creation.  The universe will regain its right order.

When we turn to today’s gospel from St John, we seem to be in an entirely different world.  We are in the presence of Christ before Pilate in the praetorium, one of the great scenes not only in the Bible but in all literature.  Their encounter turns on the meaning of kingship.  Jesus has been arraigned as ‘king of the Jews’.  Are you a king, asks Pilate?  You say so, says Jesus.  But he goes on to explain carefully what this means and what it doesn’t mean.  ‘My kingdom is not from this world; if it were, my servants would be fighting that I might not be delivered up to the Jews’.  So this kingdom is not founded on human power, imperial hegemony and the force of arms.   Rather, it is a kingdom of truth.  Jesus has come into the world to bear witness to the truth.  His subjects know the truth because they listen to his voice. There is a power that brings people into this kingdom.  But not the coercive power Pilate understands, rather the power of self-giving love.

Now for the Fourth Gospel, it is not a case of saying that whereas Daniel’s Ancient of Days has a worldwide glory and dominion, Christ’s kingship is hidden, inward, known only to those who follow him.  On the contrary, St John’s Gospel tells a story that leads to a climax that is visible, public and cosmic in scope.  That climax is what he calls Jesus’ ‘hour’ of glory where he is acknowledged as the world’s true king.  Where is his throne, his place of transfiguration?  The answer is: Golgotha.  The cross is where he reigns, where he takes the dominion and glory of the Ancient of Days, where he is lifted up and draws all people to himself so that peoples, nations and languages may serve him.  Here his dominion is everlasting, his kingship never to be destroyed.  The cross is where he acclaims in triumph that greatest of the eight passion words: tetlestai, ‘it is accomplished!’   

How can I transfer the extravagant apocalyptic language of Daniel to the gentle Good Shepherd of St John?  Because for John, the true glory of Jesus is that he lays down his life for the sheep.  John tells us, as Jesus begins his journey to the cross, that ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’.  It’s this ‘love to the end’ that proclaims Jesus’ glory which the Christmas gospel will tell us we have beheld in the face of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  And because love is his meaning, we find the hope and strength we need to go on living with our fear; for we know that the cross is not only the sign of the love that sustains us through the ordeals we face, but is the demonstration that God knows from within the pain and suffering of his children.  He too is their victim, for he too has given his life and known the cost of bearing witness to the truth. 

Christ the king calls us his subjects and invites our allegiance and our love.  It isn’t much of a kingdom: nobodies, peasants, fishermen, prostitutes, tax-gatherers.  Yet the common people heard him gladly, and were the first to recognise what shone out of this man.  This king does not promise that if we go with him, his way will be glorious, or lead to wealth or success or even personal fulfilment, only afflictions and trials. Yet he also promises that we can discover a new way of living that is not driven by an oppressive sense of dread.  And this is the answer to our fear: not a palliative religion that denies fear’s reality, but a faith that takes away its power over us, and gives us the courage to live by hope and by the truth that sets us free.  Christianity is to acknowledge that Jesus is the king who has overcome the world.  It is to live as subjects of this kingdom ‘not from here’, whose law is the perfect love that casts out fear.    

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King, 26 November 2006
Daniel 7.20-27, John 18.33-37


Monday, 28 September 2015

Farewell at Durham: the Dean responds

First, and most important of all, a big thank you from Jenny and me for so much kindness and generosity: not just gifts to treasure, but for being at this service today. There are people here from all the places where we have lived and I have served in ministry, going back even to student and school days. I want tonight to pay tribute to all the places I have served as a priest: Oxford, Salisbury, Alnwick, Coventry, Sheffield and Durham. You have given so much friendship and encouragement and when I have needed it, forgiveness.
When you retire you hear a lot about ‘legacy’. ‘What are you most proud of from your time in Durham?’ I’m asked. I am proud of many things, but not for myself: it’s all the colleagues past and present who have brought energy and flair for us to do so much together. It’s not ‘I’ but ‘we’ in the plural.
For example. I am proud that we have nearly completed our great project ‘Open Treasure’ which will open next year. The exhibitions are a celebration of our North East Christian heritage, but they’re much more. By opening our doors to more visitors, and by telling our story, we are doing a serious piece of Christian mission and outreach. I am very proud that we admitted girls to the Cathedral choir in 2009. I am proud of arts projects like the Transfiguration Window which, like the music, enrich our spirituality so profoundly. I am proud that with the University and the County, we brought the Lindisfarne Gospels back to Durham in 2013. I am proud of Lumière, Durham’s great winter light festival in which the Cathedral plays a large part. I’m proud of the day to day ministry of this Cathedral in its worship, music and preaching, this community and its welcome to guests, its intellectual and spiritual contribution to this region.
I’ve also been asked: ‘what will you miss most?’ How do I begin to answer that in this place of gifts? This amazing building, our Deanery that has been such a happy home, the saints both living and departed who have been companions in faith and prayer. County Durham people are so warm, genuine and hospitable. And at the heart of it all is the Benedictine rhythm of prayer day in, day out. How shall I live without evensong, the psalms of the day, the evening canticles, the rhythms and cadences of the liturgy?
I have some particular thanks tonight:

the four diocesan Bishops I have worked with, two suffragans, their senior colleagues and to clergy and lay people across the diocese for their generous invitation to contribute to the life of this great diocese;
the Cathedral Chapter who have held to the highest standards in the oversight and leadership of this Cathedral and have been wonderful travelling companions;
our magnificent staff, committee members, volunteers and the Cathedral community itself who all love this place and give so much to it;
colleagues in the University and at St Chad’s where it has been a privilege to contribute to the academic life and governance of this great institution;
the Lords Lieutenant of our two counties (and for the honour of serving as a DL in this one), to civic leaders, and those in all sectors for so much friendship, encouragement and support;
those who support us through their financial giving;  without you we could never undertake what we aspire to do and to become;
the Chorister School where I’ve chaired the governors and have always been warmly welcome in that lovely community;
those who in personal and intimate ways have been there for us. You have enriched our lives and added to our happiness more that you know;
and my family. Jenny has travelled the whole journey with me; our children joined us on the way. I couldn’t have got to today without them.

Someone once said that cathedrals are ‘asylums for amiable gentlemen with indistinct convictions’. If that was ever true, it isn’t now. They stand for lively Christian faith in its profoundest aspects, lived out on the thresholds of church and world where disciples are made. These great places are flagships of worship and mission. You feel the force of religion here. I’ve learned in three cathedrals how vital it is that Cathedral and Diocese are in partnership as we bear witness to the kingdom of God. When the synergy is good, the opportunities are endless.   
Hensley Henson was Dean here one hundred years ago during the Great War. When he arrived at the station to leave Durham, as he thought for good, the station master recognised him and said goodbye ‘with much feeling’, says his diary. That Dean, a complex man beset by self-doubt, was moved by this show of affection and wondered if it was sincere. This Dean, not a stranger to self-doubt, is in no doubt at all about the love and affection we have found here. It has been outstanding, unforgettable. Thank you to Isaac, Lilian, Margaret and the Bishop for putting it into words that have touched us.
So: you are in our hearts as we cross the Tyne and go back to Northumberland. We’re still in North East England: far enough not to haunt the Cathedral; near enough to stay in touch. If you can’t stay in a medieval Deanery, the next best place to live is within sight of a level crossing with its comforting sound of trains. You know where we are. Thank you again. God be with you.

All in the End is Harvest: a farewell sermon

‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost’ says Jesus to his disciples after he has fed the crowd. That seems like an apt theme as my time in Durham draws to an end, indeed, as I venture into the pulpit one last time after forty years of public ministry. ‘Five barley loaves and two fish – but what are they among so many?’ Ordained ministry can feel like that at times. Yet out of such meagre resources is shaped this demonstration of God’s generosity and goodness. The fragments scattered on the hillside are its memory. And because this is God’s doing, nothing must be lost. In one of her poems Edith Sitwell concludes: ‘Nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest’.

Perhaps in St John, the gathered fragments in the fields are meant to echo harvest-time. We know from the next chapter that this was the season of one of the three great Jewish pilgrim feasts, Sukkot: Booths or Tabernacles. It marks the end of summer, the gathering-in of the harvest, the celebration of the year’s abundance. Tonight there is a big harvest moon, and a total eclipse to go with it. Tomorrow the Jewish community from which I come will keep the first day of their harvest festival and today they are preparing for it. We heard the Torah’s instructions in the first reading. The people are to make booths out of branches of willow and palm and live in them out in the open for a week. Here, exposed to the elements, to the creation, to one another and to themselves, they are to ‘rejoice before the Lord your God’.

There is a rich symbolism here: touching the earth and living close to the soil that has yielded this harvest; putting aside the securities human beings surround themselves with and learning a deeper dependence on God; and as the text says, reliving the memory of the past ‘so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’. For the Hebrews had themselves been a pilgrim people, a migrant community looking for a home. Therefore, as so many passages in the Torah tell us, Israel must never forget the homeless, the migrants, the displaced, to whom they must be as compassionate and merciful as God himself.

I see this theme of going out, leaving our securities behind as a metaphor of saying farewell today. I don’t simply mean leaving this Cathedral where we have been so happy for a dozen years. I am also recalling the places that have shaped these forty years of ministry: St Andrew’s Headington in Oxford where I was ordained deacon, and Balliol College where I was ordained priest, Sarum College and the Cathedral at Salisbury, the parish of Alnwick, Coventry Cathedral, Sheffield Cathedral and Durham. These communities have welcomed us, made us feel at home, offered friendship and forgiveness, cared for us, taught me everything I know about the art and the craft of ordained ministry. They have yielded a harvest for which I want to give thanks. In the passion Jesus says: ‘of those whom you have given me I have lost not one’. All these places have been given us to treasure and keep safe in the memory. ‘Gather the fragments so that nothing is lost.’

The themes of harvest, this time of Booths, can help us see what life should mean for us as people of faith. Thankfulness to God because to praise Almighty God, to practise gratitude, eucharistia, is the first principle of religion and the foundation of all it means to be human. Dependence on God because it is as we turn back to him and acknowledge his reign over us that we understand how he made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him. Living close to the earth because reverence for life, treating the world with courtesy and charity is to discover our true place in God’s creation. Remembering where we came from because the story of the great acts of God is the foundation of all Christian life, mission and the pursuit of truth and justice. And solidarity with the poor and needy such as the desperate and voiceless, the refugees and asylum-seekers, because as the sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral door announces, God’s household is a place of refuge, safety and care.

For twelve years, St Cuthbert has been a travelling companion. I was installed as dean on his day in 2003. I have often pondered that mighty stone slab in the shrine that has his name etched into it and been moved. The letters are rough and crude, in contrast to the finely wrought architecture of this cathedral where he would be amazed to find himself lying more than thirteen centuries later. When you are dean a cathedral that is loved all over the world, it could go to your head. You could become grand, think of yourself as Someone, whereas Jesus teaches us that his kingdom is for the nobodies of this world, the poor in spirit, the mourners and the meek, all who know their brokenness, their frailty, their need for mercy.

Cuthbert has recalled me to the essential simplicity of Christian ministry, helped me get my values back into perspective. Thankfulness, dependence on God, living close to the earth, remembering where we come from, solidarity with the poor: these were the qualities that were remembered in him. Perhaps the memory of the saints here in North East England is a particular gift to us who seek holiness and look for models to inspire us on the path of discipleship, for Cuthbert was only one of many in his fierce love of God and burning desire to serve the human family. Aidan, Oswald, Hild, Bede and many others: you find these visionary yet humane qualities in them all. We are all called to emulate them, live not out of the risk-free securities we crave but out on the dangerous edge of things where trust and faith in God are everything, as if indeed we were going out into the open air to live a perpetual feast of Booths.  

This is how Jesus himself was and is for us. In his cross and resurrection the broken pieces of our lives are gathered up. ‘Nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest.’ In these fragments, like the bread scattered on the hillside are the abiding traces of God’s generosity in which the seeds of promised glory are enfolded. I mean nothing less than the transformation we call the kingdom of God whose coming we long for, his great project of love that is always moving out to all creation. I have tried for 40 years to give an answer for the hope that is within us, our reason for being alive. In such ways, for all their flaws and brokenness, we bear witness to the story that is both God’s and ours: the tender mercy out of which God reaches out to the world in Christ, finds us and gathers us in as the harvest of his love.

So trusting in that hope, we cast our bread upon the waters and wait to see what God will do. We cannot know what lies ahead for us, what fragments will be for us or others to gather up. But our hope in God is enough to sustain us in the days that are to come. ‘All in the end is harvest’. ‘Gather the fragments, so that nothing is lost.’  

Durham Cathedral, 27 September 2015
(Leviticus 23.39-end, John 6.1-15)

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Seashore of Endless Worlds: on childhood and mystery

My last ever sermon at the sung eucharist in Durham Cathedral...

When Jesus brought a small child into the circle of disciples it was a beautiful gesture in a life filled with beautiful gestures. And the words that went with it were beautiful too: ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’

This was Jesus’ response to the disciples when he asked them what they had been talking about on the road to Capernaum. Maybe it took even Jesus aback, for they had argued about which of them was the greatest. In his gospel, Mark doesn’t spare the reputations of the disciples: they never seem to grasp what the gospel is about. And even afterwards, the lesson of the little child is not learned. On the next page, two of the most prominent ask Jesus to place them on either side of his seat of glory in his kingdom. Once more he has to help them to grasp it. In the kingdom, self-importance has no place, only being humble, simple and childlike. ‘Whoever would be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

I have thinking about that child. Was it a boy or a girl? What was his name? How old was she? Quite small if Jesus took her up in his arms. (I am trying to spread the pronouns even-handedly: in the Greek it is neuter.) We should love to know. And in later life, when he was not so little any more, did that child remember what had happened on that day? You would think it was unforgettable to be held safely and tenderly by the strong Son of Man, gaze up into his eyes and see God there. All the evidence tells us that Jesus loved children and could not bear the thought that anyone would hurt or damage these little ones so precious to him.

Now that my working life is almost at an end, I’ve found myself looking back to my own far-distant childhood and have been surprised how vivid some of the memories are. Sights, sounds and smells conjure up long-vanished worlds. On the Antiques Roadshow last week, someone produced a clip of Uncle Mac giving his immortal Children’s Hour greeting: ‘Hello children everywhere’. The same day on the wireless, as we called it then, they played the Berceuse from Faure’s Dolly Suite for piano duet, the much-loved signature-tune of Listen With Mother that was each day’s Home Service staple for young children while our mothers took their after-lunch nap. 

I can’t easily trace the beginnings of my spiritual path back to childhood. I have told you about how my life changed when I was singing Bach’s St John Passion. My first explicit encounters with religion had to wait until, late in life, I became a chorister as an eleven year old. Yet when you are loved from infancy, when you are held in your parents’ arms, when you cry and they comfort you, when you are afraid and they reassure you, when they play with you, sing to you and laugh with you, don’t you glimpse God in all these ways even if you can’t name him? ‘Sweet infancy!’ cries Thomas Traherne in an ecstatic outburst of delight as he contemplates childhood, the lovely experiences that shape our lives when we are fortunate with our parents. These are things I do remember. They make me thankful.

But I want to tell you about another experience in early childhood, perhaps my earliest memory of all when I cannot have been more than two or three at the most. We were in Germany where we went from time to time to sort out my mother’s affairs after the war. We were staying in lodgings somewhere in Düsseldorf, I imagine, and had a room right at the top of the house. There was a huge church on the other side of the road. I clearly recall its vast spire looming up and filling the view out of the attic window. That evening, I was woken up by the tolling of its bells. Not elegant change-ringing like in England, but the more primitive sound of mighty bells clanging at random against one another. The house seemed to tremble at that sound. There was something archaic in it, and not a little frightening as if it was emerging from out of the bowels of the earth. I felt obscurely that I was on the brink of some great disclosure, drawn into something I couldn’t articulate, but of what or whom? I glimpsed another world, where what I could see or touch was not all there was. Looking back, it feels like an encounter with what historians of religion call Mysterium tremens et fascinans, a great mystery that arrests us and compels us to notice it, what Rudolph Otto called in a famous book ‘the idea of the holy’.

Why am I telling you this? Retirement gets you thinking about ends and beginnings and what belongs in between, in mid-passage. I have given my life to Christian faith and bearing witness to it in public ministry. Where did it come from in my own experience? What has shaped and nurtured it? How has it influenced me in adulthood?

That memory I shared with you is rather different from what the child lying peaceably in Jesus’ arms must have recalled of that unrepeatable day. Yet maybe not. Yes, the memory of the bells has left me wanting to reverence the divine as an awesome and fundamentally mysterious Presence among us, within us and especially beyond us. We should not make easy assumptions about God nor think we can ever fully know him or understand his purposes. Perhaps that is what has drawn me into cathedrals for most of my ministry, for these are places where ‘the ‘idea of the holy’, numinous buildings, beautiful liturgy and profound music reach into the soul to help us do justice to the great mysteries of faith. Yet while the bells shook me, they did not repel me. I felt I stood on the threshold of something awesome, as if what was strange was not only fascinating but even enticing. In retrospect, I think of it as a gift to cherish.

Isaac Newton famously said that: ‘I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me’. Surely this was true also of that little child who gazed into the eyes of Jesus on that far-off day. What we love in children is their capacity for innocent wonder, their openness to mystery, the flowering of imagination and clarity of vision that tends so often in adults to unripen to a mere bud. So Jesus teaches his disciples humility by showing them a child. The foolishness of God is wiser than mortals. It teaches us to open the doors of our perception like children, emulate their simplicity, their humbleness and their purity of heart which, says the beatitude, is how we see God?

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’ First among the joyful mysteries of human life is being loved into life. Yes, it is baffling at times, can feel risky or dangerous to get too close to, yet always surprising us as it draws us back to the God from whom we came and to whom we must return. What words can do justice to the infinity of ways in which God touches us and changes our lives? ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing said Pascal; what the heart does know without being told comes from the very being of God himself, eye gazing on eye, hand holding hand, heart speaking to heart like the child in Jesus’ arms. We live on a sea shore at the edge of endless worlds. And as we gaze out across the undiscovered ocean of wisdom, truth and love that we call God, we reawaken the child within us that understands. We know that this is why we are alive.

In my favourite Dickens novel Bleak House, there’s a wonderfully drawn character called Mr Skimpole. His refrain is: ‘What would I know about these things? I am only a child.’ You are not supposed to like this disingenuous, manipulative man. But I admire the sentiment. Being Dean of Durham is like playing ‘on the seashore of endless worlds’. Who am I? It’s so big, and I am so small.

But what the Cathedral points me to is even bigger, infinitely big: the grace and truth of God, his fierce and wonderful love for me, the salvation he invites me to find in Jesus, my lost childhood that he gives back to me. As it points us to him, it holds out the noble vision of how we should grow up in God to maturity, what Ephesians calls ‘the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’ Nothing less is the goal of our humanity. It’s why we are here at the altar today. It’s why I have been privileged to be among you as a priest in this community for the past twelve wonderful years. We are here because we are learning that in Jesus, every hunger is satisfied and all our longings met. Nothing matters more than this.

Durham Cathedral, 20 September 2015 (Mark 9.30-37)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

In Memory of 'Papa Joe' 1954-2015

The full text of my address in memory of Dr Joe Cassidy, Principal of St Chad's College. It was given in a shortened version.

I am honoured to give this sermon in memory of Joe Cassidy. I was among the many, the very many, who loved him. I still can’t take it in that he has gone from us, taken, I want to say, cruelly out of time when he had so much life to live, so much wisdom to impart, so many gifts to offer with which our lives would have been lit up in years to come. His family, Gillian, Emmeline, Marianne and Benedict whom he loved with a fierce and wonderful devotion, are in all our thoughts and prayers.

When I came to Durham twelve years ago, Joe was one of the first to welcome me. The Cathedral is St Chad’s nearest neighbour on The Bailey. He invited me to be its Visitor, and then its first Rector. He believed that a lively partnership between these two great Durham institutions could only be good for both. I have loved my roles in the College, thanks not only to its warm, generous hospitality but also to Joe’s personal kindness and gift for friendship.

Joe had been a distinguished Catholic philosophical theologian and ethicist whose fine mind was already recognised in awards and prizes gained in undergraduate and postgraduate days. His specialism was the thought of the twentieth century Jesuit theologian and fellow Canadian Bernard Lonergan. He joined the Society of Jesus and was deeply shaped by the clarity and focus of the Jesuit way. He became a gifted and much valued retreat conductor and spiritual director. Accompanying others on their spiritual journeys was close to his heart all his life.

It’s not unknown for Jesuit priests to become Anglican, A catholic Benedictine who makes the same journey finds, I think, a natural home in this church so influenced by the Benedictine ideal and, of course, with its own Benedictine communities. There are no Jesuit communities in the Church of England, probably because the Order was explicitly founded as a Counter-Reformation organisation. Many Anglicans today practise the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius guided by directors trained in the Jesuit tradition. Joe and I often talked about these things at College high table. I mention this because Joe brought spiritual insights into Anglicanism that as a temperamental Benedictine myself, I found stimulating and refreshing. In some ways he never stopped being a Jesuit in his energetic outward-facing openness to the world, his attention to the interior life, his mentoring and spiritual guidance, and the spiritual, social and intellectual vision he brought to St Chad’s.

As an Anglican, Joe contributed significantly to the councils of the Church of England, including the General Synod where he and I would sit in the back row and commiserate about the Byzantine processes of ecclesiastical decision-making. He championed theological education and formation in the national church where he looked for seriousness, rigour, Christian wisdom and well-earthed familiarity with ordinary human life. I wonder if his own intellectual acuity as a theologian was sufficiently realised. In 1997 he came to Durham as Principal of St Chad’s. If he thought that being head of house in a Durham college would allow lots of time for leisured literary and scholarly output, reality quickly set in. Running a college  nowadays is an all-consuming enterprise. It is to Joe’s enormous credit that he succeeded in stabilising St Chad's which was then going through demanding times. His prodigious energy always in the fast lane, his practicality, his capacity to solve problems, his sheer appetite for hard work were all important aspects of his leadership.

It was a joy to watch the college flourish. It’s true that the fortunes of any institution are not simply down to the person who leads it. Next weekend I say farewell to Durham Cathedral after twelve years as Dean. I am profoundly aware that whatever our achievements, the right pronoun to use is not ‘I’ but ‘we’. You can’t be a leader in the church or higher education unless you understand that every institution these days is an organisation of consent. Collaboration and teamwork are fundamental; old-fashioned command-control techniques won’t work and aren’t respected any more. Joe would be the first to ascribe St Chad’s successes to the teams he led and was justly proud of. But leaders identify directions, inculcate values, set the tone, are influential in aligning and shaping their communities. Joe never wavered in his energetic pursuit of these goals. For him they were an act not just of duty but of love.

If you ask Chad’s students and alumni what they will remember ‘Papa Joe’ for, they will tell you about his wisdom, his warmth, his quick-witted love of repartee and his intellectual liveliness. He thought and spoke fast: you had to keep up. You will also hear about his belief that a higher education institution like a Durham college should – indeed, must – be a living community of human beings in which people care about one another and about the world they are part of so that everyone can flourish. This was the kind of college he set out to shape at St Chad’s: a humane society in which wisdom, truth and social justice are cherished. In this, he was brilliantly successful.

I last sat with Joe at the Domus Dinner in March. For some strange yet providential reason that only made sense after Joe had died, a number of us there, students, staff, alumni, wanted to pay special tribute to Joe’s leadership. Some of us decided we would get up and say something that evening. I’m so glad that just before he died Joe was able to hear these tributes expressed publicly on that lovely occasion and that he could know how much he was honoured and loved. In his modesty, he did not want to make too much of it. Self-deprecation was more his style, arising out of his genuine humility, always a beautiful quality but especially in those who lead.

Joe belonged to this Cathedral Foundation as a member of its College of Canons and Council. He loved this place and valued his own as well as the College’s connection with it. He could challenge as well as affirm us, but you always listened to what he said, whether it was to do with the Cathedral’s values statement, the Open Treasure project or arising out of his close scrutiny of the annual accounts. When Chad’s were here for the College Day service in March, at the end, he suddenly produced from nowhere a green College hood and invested me with it, saying that the Council had resolved to make me a life-fellow as a sign of the importance it attached to its relationship with the Cathedral. ‘Now this relationship is for life’ he said and gave me a fond embrace. Looking back, how moving that was for me personally, and how poignant.  

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. ‘If you want a monument, look around you.’ So runs Christopher Wren’s famous memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral. What will Joe’s monument be? Talk to Chadsians across the world; or look into the life of this remarkable community for yourself. It’s written on the hearts and lives of the men and women he served so devotedly – and loved. And I believe this is because of what he fundamentally believed about God and about humanity. His beloved Lonergan wrote about what it means to be created in the image of God. Such a person practises ‘total surrender to the demands of the human spirit’ – others’ and his own. ‘Be attentive’ he said, ‘be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible, be in love.’ And always cherish and honour the mystery at the core of human life for, as Pascal said, the great thinker to whom Lonergan owed so much, ‘the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’ This was Joe.

‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ St John’s grasp of the central insight about human life, how everything is transformed by our capacity to be loved and to love lies, I think, close to the centre of Joe’s view of things. It inspired him to be as he was. It inspired us who saw it in him. You knew that his God was as St John says he is: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ This was his way, his truth, his life.

Thank you Joe for everything you gave us. May you rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Durham Cathedral, 19 September 2015 (1 John 4.7-16; John 14.1-7)

North East Chamber of Commerce 200th Anniversary

The North East Chamber of Commerce is a great institution in this region of England. This week we celebrated its bicentenary. Seven hundred guests from across the North East and beyond came to the Cathedral for a reception and speeches, followed by a gala dinner in a marquee on Palace Green. The Cathedral Choir sang Parry's I Was Glad and Handel's Zadok the Priest. The NECC asked me to welcome the guests from the pulpit and speak about the Cathedral's ambitious development project 'Open Treasure' which is nearing completion. (Go to www.DurhamCathedral.co.uk to learn more.) There were envelopes on every seat so that guests could make donations there and then if they wanted to. Here is what I said.

It’s a great privilege to welcome you all here tonight. First of all, let me congratulate the North East Chamber of Commerce on reaching its bicentenary. For 200 years you have promoted the North East’s business because, as you say in your promotional material, we are stronger together than we are separately. This collective voice for the region and its business has been influential since the early nineteenth century. The North East would not be what it is without your boundless vision and energy. 

Your aim is to make the North East a success and help it reach its potential. What has a place of worship like this Cathedral got to do with that? The answer is, everything! Our own purpose statement says that we want to do all we can to contribute to the flourishing of North East England, this wonderful part of the country where it is such a privilege to live and work.

The NECC has asked me to say something about how we are doing this. As some you know, I am about to retire after more than twelve years as Dean here at the Cathedral. It always seemed to me that the Cathedral had limitless potential to function as an emblem of the North East: the mental picture of the towers of Durham perched on this acropolis next to the Castle and almost surrounded by the river is one of the most familiar images of England and one of the best-loved. Nearly three quarters of a million people come here to find enjoyment and inspiration every year.

This is part of what we contribute to the visitor economy in this region. All the evidence is that ‘heritage’ and ‘religious tourism’ is a growing industry. Our region is extraordinarily rich in ancient Christian sites: Wearmouth, Jarrow, Hexham, Auckland Castle, Durham Cathedral and the mother of us all, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. We are glad to add value to the economy of the North East both directly and indirectly through visitor spending in shops, hotels, pubs and restaurants across the area.  
As some of you know, I am about to retire after twelve wonderful years as Dean. When you leave a place, all the talk is about ‘legacy’. When I announced my retirement, the Durham Times ran a generous leader saying that perhaps these years we have been in Durham should be remembered not for anything we had done but for something we had not done: charge visitors for admission. It has always been a point of principle to the Chapter that you do not levy a charge to enter a place where we come by God’s own invitation. And when most large medieval cathedrals now charge, our resolve not to do this has been admired well beyond this region.

When you are Dean of a great cathedral like this, your love of the heritage makes you want to promote it vigorously and see it work for the mission of the place. This is what Open Treasure is all about. We are heading towards the culmination of a £10.5 million project to reconfigure the buildings round the cloister as world-class exhibition spaces for our priceless early books and manuscripts (including our three copies of Magna Carta), the precious relics of St Cuthbert such as his coffin, his pectoral cross and his portable altar, the oldest extant church vestments in England dating back to Saxon times, and much, much else.
Why are we doing this? Fundamentally, to welcome more visitors to the Cathedral by opening up the treasures of which we are guardians, the magnificent spaces in which they will be housed, and above all, the treasure that is this Cathedral community in its history of Christian life and worship across the centuries up to the present day and into the future. So this is about welcome and hospitality as we help guests understand the Cathedral by walking a time-line of its long and wonderful story.

But we need to be hard-headed about this too. By charging for admission to the exhibitions, we can continue to offer free admission to the Cathedral itself, and the income will help stabilise our precarious finances. In terms of the capital costs, we still have a funding gap to bridge. The substantive development project costs of £7.5 million have been met, thanks to a splendid Heritage Lottery grant of nearly £4 million and grants and donations from many generous individuals and organisations some of whom are here this evening. But unforeseen conservation requirements on the buildings that came to light during the later phases of the project have added a further £2.5 million to the project cost.

So I am asking you: please will you support this project? When you are in your last ten days of a job, you can ask for anything without fear or embarrassment! And whatever your religious faith, I am asking you because you wouldn’t be here if you did not support enterprises that promote the economy of North East England. If you care about the North East, I believe you will care about this Cathedral that is one of its emblems.

If you would like to help us, you will find information about giving on your seats. Please be imaginative in thinking about how you might respond to my plea. Our Development Office will be more than willing to talk to you about giving possibilities. Those donations received tonight will be represented on our '3-D totaliser': an extraordinary LEGO model of the Cathedral whose current construction already contains over 180,000 bricks, each representing £1 donated to the Open Treasure appeal. This LEGO Cathedral, a great talking point round Durham, is proving in its own way that by coming together we can achieve great things.

‘Legacy’ of course is much more than fine buildings and beautiful stones. I am proud to be leaving behind this project on which so many have worked so hard. The legacy that matters ultimately to me is what our project, and the whole life of this cathedral symbolise: giving people back some hope and confidence in the future, touching the lives of men and women, playing a part in the transformation of this region that we love. Durham Cathedral is a place of the human spirit. But much more, it's a place of God's Spirit, the living source of all that gives us hope.

Thank you for listening tonight, for your generosity towards this place, for being fellow-travellers and friends during these past dozen years. God bless you all.

17 September 2015

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Every Family: a baptism sermon

Today we baptise Evelyn Eleanor Mary. It’s a day of happiness for all who love her. For them, for all of us, she is and always will be, a gift beyond price.

There’s a big word for today in our first reading from Ephesians. The author speaks about ‘the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’. In the original, it’s ‘every fatherhood in heaven and on earth’, every patria. It’s what Horace said it was right and proper to die for, pro patria mori. ‘That great lie’ exclaimed Wilfred Owen in his famous war poem, meaning not that you wouldn’t lay down your life for your friends, those you love, but the narrowing of patria to mean no more than your national tribe. So what does Ephesians mean by this patria that takes its name from the Father?

I think we can allow it to include our human families, those communities of love and goodness where we first glimpse how the kingdom of God becomes real and tangible to us. But I doubt whether the author has the modern western nuclear family in mind. Much more likely it means the extended family of kinship and affinity into which our infants are conceived and born, and over the years are drawn into ever larger circles of human nurture and care. All this is patria because its loving shape and character reflect nothing less than God’s own infinite love and care for all his creatures.

But in Ephesians, the word takes on a far broader aspect. If we read on it becomes clear what the author is getting at. He prays that ‘you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’.  It’s true that this is our longing and our prayer for every human association and society. But there is one community that the author has particularly in mind, and that is the church of God, whose flourishing and blessing is the great theme of this epistle.

Baptism is Christening, en-Christ-ing, incorporating a human being into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (Why do people take against that beautiful word Christening?) In baptism, we die to the old life and are born again to the new, ‘by water and the Spirit’ as St John says. Evelyn’s baptismal names are not just forenames or first names. They are her Christian names imparted in this holy sacrament. As the old Prayer Book catechism reminds us, every time we are asked ‘What is your name’ we recall our baptism when our names were given. And because we the church are the community of the baptised, we should rejoice to speak to one another by our baptismal names. I may be Mr Dean in the formality of a Chapter meeting, but my God-given name is Michael and it’s how I want to be known.

And this is the family Ephesians has in mind, the patria that takes its name from God. The author isn’t thinking of a cathedral or even a parish church. He has in mind the household Christian communities that met in Ephesus and in every great city of antiquity, each of them a ‘family’ beloved by God. In the New Testament, every such family is part of a worldwide household, united in Jesus as his body dispersed across the world.

Evie’s baptism is at one level such an intimate act. What could be more tender than parents presenting an infant at the font, just as Joseph and Mary presented their Child in the temple so that Simeon could take him up in his arms and bless him? But at the same time, baptism is something global. Today, Evie becomes a member of a universal family, a catholic community of believers that is not limited by the constraints of city or tribe or nation. In an age when angry nationalisms and bitter tribal dogmas threaten the peace and wellbeing of our entire planet, the church remains one of the few worldwide that transcends nationhood and all the other limits we place on our belonging. The universal church stretches the narrow boundaries of our perspective and imagines a humanity that is reconciled with itself and at peace. There is no such thing as a national church, only a catholic church that is the sign of a new humanity. The Christian denominations and territorially organised churches are expressions of this in particular places and times. But baptism points to the largest and most noble vision of humanity and summons each of us to play our part in building it. This is Evie’s vocation as a citizen of earth and of the church of God.

There is more. The phrase ‘every family in heaven and on earth’ suggests to me that the author has the departed as much in mind as the living, for to God, all are forever alive through Jesus’ resurrection. Each local family takes its name from a family that transcends all the boundaries of time and space. So once again, the consequences of baptism are momentous. Today, by participating in the resurrection life of Jesus, Evelyn becomes a member of a community that inhabits eternity, ‘that multitude which no-one can number’ says the Book of Revelation. She is marked with the sign of the cross, not only the symbol of obedience and suffering, but also of a kingdom that is coming, nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth.

This is the faith we confess with her in this service. It’s the Apostles’ Creed we use at baptism, but had we sung the Nicene Creed as we usually do at this service we would not only affirm our faith in ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ but would also acknowledge ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’ and ‘look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. These clauses are inseparable. They tell us what family Evie is baptised into this morning. They remind us, as John Cosin’s huge canopy above the Cathedral font does, that baptism is a truly momentous event in the life of a human being. Nothing greater can ever happen to Evie until the day she dies. For today she inherits all that is worth possessing as she takes on the faith of this heavenly and worldwide family, this patria that bears the very name of God, her Father and our Father.  All things are hers, ‘whether the world or life or death or the present or the future’: all belong to her; and she ‘belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.’

What better prayer could we make for her today than the words of the Ephesian letter: that she ‘may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,’ that she ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God.’  It’s our prayer for all of us on this happy day, and all our lives.

Durham Cathedral 26 July 2015
At the Baptism of Evelyn Eleanor Mary Crawford
Ephesians 3.14-21