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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)


  1. Very good and so close to Stir Up Sunday as well. Could this possibly be the first sermon in Volume Two? "Jesus in a Bait Tin". Another entry could be your excellent address on Pitmatic? Pleased to see reference to Bruce Chatwin, my favourite Travel Writer. Having been made Deacon many years ago by a previous Bishop of Grantham, may I send my best wishes and the assurance of prayers to Dennis Hawker's newly consecrated successor.

  2. Thanks. Will think about the Bait Tin. Happy Advent.