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

Sunday, 24 September 2017

With a Twist of French: a sermon at a music festival

Today this Hexham Abbey festival “with a French twist” reaches its climax. I’d better own up at once to being an ardent Francophile. My love of France and its people, their rich legacy of art, literature and intellectual life, their heritage and landscapes has if anything been strengthened through the torturous Brexit we are inflicting upon ourselves.

At the end of this service we shall hear the Final of Louis Vierne’s first Organ Symphony. After that we are going to enjoy CĂ©sar Franck’s Violin Sonata, one of the greatest ever written. Franck was a Belgian by birth, but he lived and worked in Paris and thought of himself as entirely French. His final church post was as Titulaire and Maitre de Chapelle at Saint Clotilde with its CavaillĂ©-Coll organ that was the love of Franck’s life and the inspiration for much of his music. Vierne was his pupil and later Organist Titulaire at Notre Dame. I tell you all this because of something Vierne said about his teacher. He wrote in his memoirs that Franck had “a constant concern for the dignity of his art, the nobility of his mission, and the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound….Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal: Franck was all these.”

That phrase sermon in sound is striking. A sermon, literally, means a word or a speech, a conversation, a discourse. What we intuit about music is that it’s just that, a form of speech that communicates in ways that ordinary words can’t do. I want to be careful here. The crafted words of literature and liturgy, of drama and poetry do have that capacity, and the way they touch us can feel like our experience of music. For great art somehow knows us and reaches into our deepest selves taking us far beyond the power of ordinary speech. It awakens our imaginations, stretches our horizons, kindles our spirits. And if we have ears to hear, music it speaks to us of life in all its tragedy and glory. It speaks to us about ourselves. It speaks to us of God. “Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal” said Vierne. Beyond the earthquake, wind and fire, or through them, or in them, we hear the still small voice of God’s Spirit.

What we listen to and how is something the scriptures take seriously. In the ancient world and still today, the body's orifices are regarded as needing scrupulous attention because they are the channels by which we are connected to the outside world. In particular, what we see and hear has the potential to uplift us or corrupt, and everything in between, because it allows the world beyond the boundaries of our bodies to penetrate. Seeing well, and even more gearing well, are highly significant. When Israel made a covenant with God, it was couched in the language of listening. “Tell us everything that the Lord tells you,” they say to Moses “and we will listen and do it.” In Proverbs there is a repeated call to find wisdom by paying attention: “My children, listen to me and be attentive to the words of my mouth”. When Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” the test of his authority and his integrity comes down to listening: “the sheep hear his voice…they follow him because they know his voice”.

When St Wilfrid founded this great abbey in 674, it was as a Benedictine community. (Yes, it was rebuilt as an Augustinian priory in the twelfth century, but let’s not forget its Benedictine origins.) The Rule of St Benedict is one of the classics of Christian writing. One of its great themes is obedience: to the scriptures, to the Rule, to the abbot, to the voice of the community, and most of all, to God. The word obedience is derived from the Latin obaudire whose root audire means to listen. The very first word of the Rule underlines that idea of serious listening. “Hearken to the voice of the Master and incline the ear of your heart.” Listen! Pay attention! Train your ears to respond. And when you hear, try to discern the prompting of the Spirit and let your open ears be a symbol of open hearts and open minds – open to God, and open to the wisdom of the inner voice of truth and conscience.

The capacity to listen well is basic to the good life. We know what it is like to be talking to someone who is looking away from us, only half paying attention, not caring enough to lend us their ears. Often it’s the distraction of some other voice, some more important person glimpsed over the shoulder, some better song than ours that's more worth listening to. And if our attention spans in modern life have never been generous, the worldwide web and social media have tended to shortened them still further. Four minutes, some say, is the limit. I’ve already been preaching longer. Who has the patience any more to sit through a Bach passion or a Beethoven symphony let alone a Wagner music-drama?

And that’s our challenge in these times. To let ourselves become overstimulated, incapable of investing time and effort in what is worthwhile is a besetting sin of our age; a craving for what belongs to the instantaneous, the immediate here and now, while we lose the judgment to decide what we should and shouldn’t pay attention to. Here is where music can teach us. There is no quick gratification in great art. You have to invest in it, take the time it takes, surrender to it. Music you give yourself to rather than merely play in the background is an opportunity not only to learn how to listen well, but to grow in the attentiveness that takes the larger and longer view and allows us to see our "instants" in a larger setting. It's how we become open to what the eighteenth century French spiritual writer De Caussade called, in a wonderful phrase, “the sacrament of the present moment”. It’s a gift, but we have to listen out for it, be attentive and open. Then, listening can be a life-changing event. For whenever life is touched and transformed, we can be sure that God is among us.

Back to Vierne and Franck and the phrase a sermon in sound. Cathedrals and abbeys like this one are sometimes spoken about as “sermons in stone”. You look around you as you sit a great building listening to great music. And aren’t you drawn, if you have any feeling, to think to yourself, there is something here that is bigger than me, older and wiser than me, something that touches me, speaks to me, compels me to pay attention? Maybe the music we have been enjoying in this festival has spoken to us, moved us in some way, opened once more the doors of our perception? If so, I call that an experience of God’s presence and his very self. And I think of Jesus walking the shores of Galilee, calling to anyone who would listen, inviting them to hear his words and find their lives changed. Can music call us to new ways of being alive in God’s world, new depths of wisdom and insight, new treasures of human experience to enrich our lives and share with others?

Music preaches the best of sermons if we will sit and listen. Of such is the kingdom of God.

Hexham Abbey Festival, 24 September 2017

Friday, 8 September 2017

In Memoriam John Fitzmaurice Petty, Provost & Dean of Coventry

I remember the first time I met John Petty. It was exactly thirty years ago. The Provostship at Coventry Cathedral was vacant. I had been Vice Provost there for just a few months. You can imagine that no one was more exercised than I was about who the new boss would be. The Bishop told me that his candidate would be coming to look us up and down, and that a colleague and I should go and meet him at the station and take care of his visit. They say first impressions count. Off the train he stepped energetically: lean, elegant, eager, expectant, and with a look of intelligent curiosity as if to say: Im not taking anything for granted and neither must you. Lets see how this goes, and what God might be saying to us about the future. 
Not long afterwards, in January 1988, John was installed as Provost. No-one who was there will ever forget the great procession of people from St Johns, Hurst, streaming down the steps from the ruins led by their former and much-loved incumbent. It seemed that the entire town had turned out for the occasion. This is the best job in the Church of Englandannounced John from the pulpit. Perhaps we should all feel like that about our ministry. I did at Durham, so John was only partly right. But I think everyone in Coventry Cathedral that day was heartened by the way he spoke about his new role and the enthusiasm he brought to it.
John came to Coventry with a long and solid experience of parish ministry. He was ordained priest in 1967, so this year marked his fiftieth anniversary. His curacies in Sheffield and south London formed him in the tough realities of urban life where the church has never had it easy or straightforward. So he relished the challenges of mission and ministry in Ashton Under Lyne and earned wide respect and affection for his complete commitment to the place and its people. He loved them and they him. Some of his parishioners were in tears at that great installation in Coventry. That sense of loss was both telling and moving. 
This earthy parish experience John brought to Coventry. He was no armchair theoretician. He aspired, I think, to be a practitioner for whom Christian prayer, service, mission, pastoral care and lived human relationships were the best evidence of the gospel that he knew. John loved the Cathedral. He had big ambitions for it and from his first day set about realising them with both energy and flair. Whether it was the international ministry of reconciliation symbolised by the cross of nails, or the spirituality of the place nurtured by liturgy and daily prayer, whether it was outreach to civic leaders or day to day involvement with the lives of ordinary people, he gave everything. He grasped avidly every opportunity to champion the Cathedral in the wider world. Some of us wondered whether he could sustain this furious pace. As I got to know him, I realised that this was simply the way he lived loving life so intensely, grasping it so joyously that he could not hold back from giving himself totally to it, in his work, his leisure, his relationships. We have heard earlier in this service about John the human being the husband, father, friend. To see him cycling round Coventry said it all. As did the study light in the Provosts House which would be on well after midnight every evening of the week bar Friday.  
But it takes more than hard work to make a good leader in any walk of life, especially in the church. One of his colleagues said that what was remembered about John was his visibility in the Cathedral, walking the nave several times a day in his cassock to talk to the staff and volunteers whose names and the names of their families and even their pets he remembered with unerring accuracy. He was an instinctive, warm-hearted pastor who was genuinely interested in people and cared about them. He was a natural encourager. The residents and staff of Mount House here in Shrewsbury know this from his years as their chaplain. One of the personal commitments that lived this our was a project he initiated called Remember Our Child, a ministry of prayer and pastoral support for parents who had lost children. John enjoyed the big public ceremonies, but just as characteristic was Johns capacity to reach out in quiet intimacy to those who were hurting years and even decades after experiencing this most painful of all bereavements. 
We who worked with John remember how his leadership style was to give space for his colleagues to flourish in their own roles. As his Precentor, I knew he completely trusted me with the Cathedrals worship and music, even when it came to organising the Royal Maundy service in 1995 and many other events where my job was to put the Cathedral and him personally on a public stage with all the scrutiny this brought. He knew how to delegate. He was proud of his team and was lavish with his praise for them. He wrote copious letters in his unmistakeable blue felt-tip to thank people, cycling round to deposit them at the central post-office in the small hours to make sure they arrived next day.  
Today we gather up the strands of Johns life both public and personal. We give thanks for him and celebrate all that he was and continues to be to us. In my mind as I remember him is what I heard him say a thousand times about Coventry Cathedral, that amazing place that holds together like no other place I know the brokenness of death and destruction with the healing, life-giving spirit of what has risen out of the ashes. To walk from the ruins into the new Cathedral is to walk from Good Friday into Easter he would say as he gazed at Graham Sutherlands tapestry of Christ in Glory, in my view the greatest work of art in a building crammed with treasures of the twentieth century.  
This funeral takes us on that same journey from Good Friday to Easter. For while we grieve Johns loss and feel our own mortality on a day when its natural and permitted to mourn, nevertheless we come here in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. In our reading from Corinthians, St Paul speaks about this movement from transience to eternity, from glimpsing to seeing and knowing. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.Paul is able to say this out of his conviction that while faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these is love. Perhaps thats how we need to remember those who have died, whom we love but see no longer: to allow the mercy and grace of God to shape the way we hold them in our hearts and memories. What will survive of us is lovewrote Philip Larkin, the twentieth century Coventry-born poet. What sustains us all on our journeys is the love from which nothing can separate us, not even the final journey all mortals must make in the dark shadow of death.
This was Johns faith. He held it unwaveringly. It saw this good man through a lifetime of devoted service. It was his reason for living, his nourishment, his inspiration, his joy. It will not have failed him at the gate of death. May he rest in peace, and at the last be received in the outstretched arms of Christ in glory.  
At St Chads Shrewsbury, 7 September 20171 Corinthians 13