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

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why I love Romanesque

On Sunday we hosted a visit of a group of Cathedral Friends from Rochester. At lunch I welcomed them. In the way that you do when you get up to speak spontaneously, I heard myself saying: 'I'm very glad that you've come all this way from one Romanesque cathedral to visit another. We Romanesque cathedrals need to stick together in the face of Gothic supremacy'. This was well received. And Durham people liked it when one of our guests responded by saying that they were pleased to be visiting their 'big brother cathedral'.

After this good-humoured banter, I thought a bit more about what I'd meant. I've noticed that there is a kinship between lovers of Romanesque architecture: it's a shared passion that is more than simply admiration. We deans of Romanesque cathedrals feel that we are a privileged bunch. Why is this? Is it heritage, history and archtecture? Of course, these play a large part. Romanesque is older than Gothic, so that gives it antiquity value. The fact that it comes from a more remote past than Gothic adds to its fascination: it belongs to 'another country: they do things differently there'. But I think there's more to it than simply pastness....or even vastness (because Romanesque churches and cathedrals can be monumental: no-one in England had built like this since the Romans left).

Let's agree what we are talking about. 'Romanesque' means 'in the spirit of the Roman'. It was coined to describe architecture that harked back to the classical Roman style. But that style was only dimly remembered across the so-called 'dark ages', so 'Romanesque' also had the connotation of being pastiche, even debased imitation. In the UK we tend to call this style 'Norman', because of how it took hold of the nation after the Norman Conquest: the invaders were builders on a grand scale not least because this was one way of expressing their power. I prefer 'Romanesque' because it covers a style that flourished all over Europe in the 10th, 11th and early 12th centuries. The Saxons were adopting it in England before the Normans ever set foot here.

What are its features? If you walk round Durham Cathedral you can see them worked up in their fullest, finest expression: whoever its original architect was, he created one of Europe's masterpieces. The sense of mass is one mark of it: huge, elemental forms like the procession of alternating piers that define the nave and quire like an avenue of great trees; the thick walls pierced by modest round-headed windows that contain the space as if it were a cave in which to hide and be kept safe; and in Durham's case, the high vaults, Europe's first experiment in throwing a stone canopy across volumes so lofty and wide. In the vaults at Durham, as in many Romanesque churches in France, you can see the pointed arch being developed as a new construction technique to strengthen the building, a discovery that would prove vital to the evolution of Gothic. The Normans were engineering pioneers. They took risks in building on such a scale and it paid off. The Cathedral is still here to prove it.

But what about the deeper meaning of Romanesque? And why do its afficionados like me say we love it? Here it's less easy to be precise. But here are some tentative suggestions.

First, because it of its rich spirituality of space. Romanesque churches, even intimate ones, have a wonderful ability to suggest that space means something by pointing beyond itself to the ultimate Mystery of God. You walk up the nave at Durham and the alternating rhythms of decorated drum piers and compound pillars to right and left tell you that this is journey with a purpose, a pilgrimage if you like. Or you stand in the marvellous, too little known, crypt chapel of Durham Castle and are surrounded by a forest of columns as if that numinous underground place in the bowels of a fortress you are protected and don't need to be afraid. The subtle way light and dark play across Romanesque spaces - chiaroscuro - is to me one of its glories: richer and more complex than the brilliant light-filled spaces of high Gothic. Life is light-dark, joy and woe. I love buildings in which I can inhabit this world's complexity and my own, and begin to 'read' it as God does.

Secondly, because of its sense of proportion. In Durham, everything seems 'right': the vaults are not too high or heavy, the piers are not too thick, the nave is not too wide. It's a Goldilocks church. Perhaps this represents the Benedictine love of balance that marked the spiritual values of the community that built it: human life is at its most noble and beautiful when there is stability and proportion and everything has its proper priority and place. This is a church that seems to respect and ennoble your humanity. It neither gives you ideas above your station, nor does it crush it into nothingness. As a young boy said once after a visit, it seems to wrap itself round you. It's a beautiful way of putting it.

And thirdly, because of its fearless witness to the majesty of God. Romanesque churches were built big and strong. Their builders believed they were creating not just sacred spaces to worship in and process around. Their very existence said something about God's rule and power in an age that was hazardous and cruel, where life was short and often cheap. The church or cathedral was a sign of something that rose above (literally) the changes and chances of life, that pointed beyond our human mortality. Yes, these churches were also meant to be reminders of human rule and power, i.e. the Normans': Durham Cathedral and Castle on their acropolis are an undeniable sign of a regime that had come to England to stay. We mustn't forget the ambivalent histories all buildings have, even cathedrals. But this isn't what we remember about them. What moves us is the vision that created them and that still has the power to inspire and transform our perspective on life.

I've spoken about Durham because this is where I do most of my woolgathering. But I could have thought thoughts like these at Norwich, Peterborough or Gloucester; or at Compostela, Vézelay or Pisa or in hundreds of other places across Europe. We all have our favourites. You may like to share yours and tell us why.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Message to Followers

I have set up a new blog where I am posting my sermons and addresses.

You can find it at: http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk/

You'll note that it rhymes with beanstalks, so there may be no telling where Jack may be led. This site is now for wool gathering (i.e. proper blogging) only.

Thank you for following and for comments. I hope you enjoy reading.

Michael Sadgrove

Friday, 25 May 2012

Back in Coventry

Today I am in Coventry, with hundreds of others who have come to celebrate the Cathedral’s golden jubilee. It was consecrated on 25 May 1962. Like half the population of England, I came to see it that year as a boy of 12.  I have never forgotten that visit and the impact it had on me.  Years later I first heard Benjamin Britten's War Requiem performed there against the backdrop of the ruins destroyed in the air-raid of November 1940.  It was unutterably moving to think about 'war and the pity of the war' in that evocative setting.     

I used to work at the Cathedral as the canon in charge of its worship and music.  We arrived in the spring of 1987.  A few days later, the Sky Blues won the cup final and the whole city went mad for joy. Not long after that, we celebrated the Cathedral’s silver jubilee.  That was the first big service I had to organise.

Today it was good (very good) to be part of the service without any responsibility for it. Princess Anne was there and read a lesson.  A brass ensemble lent brilliance and colour. Children from a local school performed a beautiful dance to John Cosin (of Durham)’s hymn Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire.  The sun shone gloriously.  We met up with lots of good friends and colleagues.  It was a great occasion. 

Rowan Williams preached the sermon.  He began with Cosin’s lines enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight and suggested that reconciliation always involves seeing the other person or community in a new way.  The Cathedral could help us to do this. He walked us up the nave towards Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory.  Then he turned us round to reveal the array of colour in the aisle windows hidden on the eastward journey; then drew the eye westwards towards the Hutton glass screen, and beyond that, to the ruins.  This, he said, is how Christ on the tapestry sees the world: not as lost in pain and conflict but transfigured by the reconciliation grace brings. He drew attention to the figure of the human being held between Christ’s feet.  That figure, he said, is also looking out to the world, and is seeing it as the risen Jesus sees it. This diminutive figure represents us. If we see the world in this new way, the task of reconciliation becomes possible.  And this has been demonstrated in the history of Coventry Cathedral.

During the service, I reflected on what Coventry taught me. I learned there that liturgy is a divine performance art, a kind of godly play that imagines the kingdom of God as being among us.  The cathedral is a magnificent theatre for worship, but you have to understand it, love it for what it is, work with its grain.  ‘The building always wins in the end’ we used to say when trying experiments that didn’t quite come off.  I also learned that however noble the setting and dignified the worship, it must always have a human face, for it is the offering of God’s people gathered in that place.  Liturgy needs to care for people, touch them, change their lives by helping them to meet God.  And I learned how important it is for a cathedral to connect with its environment, not sit in Olympian grandeur above the struggles and crises its local community may be going through. Coventry is a tough place with a lot of deprivation.  I’ve come to realise how important it is to get to know the social context in which we worship and ritualise our lives. 

After lunch I walked round the city centre in the fierce afternoon sun.  Much has been done to brighten it up since the 80s when it could feel pretty forlorn.  It is still bleak in places. When you compare how German cities were carefully rebuilt after the war to recreate their historic streets and buildings, you wonder how Coventry could have been reinvented quite so brutally. And it’s clear from the shops and offices that it goes on struggling economically just as it did in our day. That’s familiar from what I know all over north-east England with the decline of manufacturing industry. 

Yet at its heart, the cathedral quarter is a pool of greenness and contemplative calm. You go into this wonderful building, surely one of the great achievements of 20th century architecture, and you are strangely stilled and excited at the same time.  The Cathedral puts you in your place, like the human figure between the feet of Christ, which is a safe, restful place to be.  And then it lifts your vision and stimulates you to reflect before God on who you are and who you might become. It is both moving and transformative. As the Archbishop said, it helps you see in new ways.  I felt proud to have been part of its life for 8 good years.  I am sure the city feels proud today. 

I shall try and preach about some of this on Whit Sunday.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Imitation is....

A few days ago, I was trying to find the exact quotation matching a half-remembered phrase from a poem.  So I googled it, too lazy to pull down the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or get up to fetch the book where I knew I would find it.  Among the top web-hits were two that I followed up. One was a sermon I'd preached some years ago where I'd quoted the poem.  It was about St Mark's resurrection story and was on the Cathedral website.  Text identified, quotation corrected, job done. 

But the other hit intrigued me.  It looked as though this same quotation was being used in an uncannily similar setting, a blog about how St Mark talks about the first Easter Day.  As I scrolled up and down, I thought first: this chap's 'take' on the story seems very like my own.  Then I thought: he even writes like me.  And finally - far too slowly - I cottoned on to the awful realisation.  This is me!  I was reading my own sermon on somebody else's blog. It was topped and tailed and there were a few small amendments, but apart from that it was word for word what I had written back in 2004. 

Now, I wouldn't have minded in the least if the blogger (a priest) had acknowledged his sources.  I'm not proprietorial about preaching: you fling your words from a pulpit (real or virtual) out into the world and if someone picks them up and runs with them, that is gratifying, and indeed, God-given. It's the idea that another writer could simply copy someone else's text and pass it off as his own. That feels like a kind of theft.  (Which under copyright law it is: intellectual property is precisely that - property.)  If a student is found doing it, he or she is awarded zero for that assignment and disciplined, sometimes severely.  Plagiarism is taken very seriously.

I have tried to reflect what I think and feel about this little episode. My first reaction was a kind of amused bafflement.  If this priest down under reckons my work is good enough to pass off as his own, I should take it as a compliment.  Imitation, famously, is the sincerest form of flattery.  But then I began to think about the consequences.  My reason for googling the poem in the first place was that I wanted to rewrite that part of the sermon with the poem in a chapter of my next book.  What if readers were to stumble across the blog and find all-too-similar material there? Wouldn't it be I who would then be suspected of plagiarism?     

I tweeted about this and got a unison response: I need to challenge the blogger.  So I did.  I left an anonymous comment on his blog saying he should acknowledge his sources and directing him to the Cathedral website.  The next day I went back and added a link to my sermon in case he hadn't found it.  One or two others did the same.  None of these comments were published, and 3 days later the blog still hadn't been taken down or amended to attribute the source.  So I tweeted links to both his site and mine and having 'outed' him, waited to see what would happen.  So far, nothing: this story (like Mark's resurrection narrative!) may not have an ending. 

There is moral hazard attached to the worldwide web. It is just too easy to lift other people's writing, photos, artwork or music and pass them off as your own.  When a priest does this, it raises rather sharper questions about Christian ethical behaviour.  OK, so in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was perfectly normal for Baroque composers to lift musical themes by others and incorporate them into their own works.  And in ancient times, pseudepigraphical texts carried the names of well-known writers to lend them authority.  There are examples in the Bible itself.  But that was then; this is now.  Our vastly increased access to information in the digital age needs to be matched by increased moral awareness about how we use these powerful tools. 

What does this leave me?  I don't want to make too much of this. There are plenty of bigger issues to keep us awake at night.  The worst thing would be to become self-important about it. That's the moral hazard the victim faces. Perhaps a Christian response is to register the point and then get over it.  If we follow Christ the Servant, we shouldn't be surprised that we are sometimes 'used' or stolen from or walked over. 

It reminded me of a very Anglican limeric about the famous Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon.

There once was a preacher called Spurgy
Who greatly disliked the liturgy.
His sermons are fine:
I use them as mine,
And so do the rest of the clergy.

Here's the calculus of my emotions so far.  Flattered?  Yes, quite a lot if I am honest.  Amused?  Yes, a little, at this bizarre discovery.  Irritated, angry even?  Yes, but less than before.  Writing a blog is cathartic.  I recommend it. 

My sermon at
http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/schedule/sermons/8 - St Mark

His blog at

Judge for yourself. 

Sunday, 20 May 2012

A day in a life: an encounter in the shrine

Recently I was at a concert in the Cathedral.  I was just leaving when a verger ran after me to say that I was needed at the east end, in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. I hurried down there. There was no-one to be seen.  So I went into the feretory, the raised stone platform on which the shrine of St Cuthbert stands.

Sure enough, there were two women there in great distress.  They were middle-aged sisters.  That morning they had lost their mother. They did not know where to turn or what to do, only that they wanted to sit quietly in a church with their own thoughts and memories.  They had not found another church open at night, so they had come to the Cathedral and found the lights on.  Although the concert was going on, the duty verger had thoughtfully taken them to a part of the church where they would not be disturbed. He had given them cups of tea, a kind gesture on his part.  He had helped them light candles in memoriam.  Cathedrals owe so much to their vergers.

We sat there and talked about their mother.  She had been taken ill quite suddenly and although she had been cared for in hospital, her death was a terrible shock.  They told me how their mother was everything to them.  They could not imagine life without her. They had found some comfort through sitting near St Cuthbert, aware of being in a place that felt safe and good and that could contain their grief, aware too of the music wafting over them and finding it soothing. 

They were glad when I asked if they would like me to pray with them.  We stood by the altar at the shrine and said prayers of thanksgiving and commendation.  I sensed Cuthbert’s presence, as if he was praying with us.  Then we said the Lord’s Prayer.  They joined in falteringly, tearfully, but that only made it more moving.  Afterwards they both gave me big hugs as if I were a close family friend.  They asked if they could stay in the shrine for a little longer. 

One of the Cathedral’s most famous artefacts is the sanctuary knocker on the north door. It shows a fierce monster with a ring through his nose.  It’s one of the finest pieces of Romanesque metal work in the country.  In the middle ages, anyone being pursued for manslaughter could flee to the Cathedral and grasp hold of the knocker ring to claim sanctuary.  They would be taken in by the monks and kept safe inside the monastery to give them time to prepare for the future.  They would wear a gown bearing St Cuthbert’s cross.  So to find two people needing help sitting inside his shrine recalled a centuries old tradition of compassionate sanctuary that has been offered here in Cuthbert’s name. 

I have been a priest for 36 years, but I was touched by this meeting in a way that I can’t yet quite understand. Maybe I’m thinking much about my own ageing mother.  Maybe I'm more aware of my own mortality now that I am near the end of my ministry.  Maybe it was being in that particularly numinous place in the Cathedral.  Maybe it was Cuthbert. Maybe it was the music we’d heard that evening.  Lots of maybes: maybe it was a bit of all of them. Whatever it was, there was something profound about it for me, and that was to do with how God reaches out to us even in our darkest times and deepest needs.  Especially then. 

I know I shall always remember it. 

Monday, 14 May 2012

In memory of a Grandmother

My grandmother died 25 years ago this month.  She was about 95; no-one knew for certain because she would never tell us exactly how old she was.  She was my mother’s mother. There were six grandchildren: I was her first. Then came my sister, and after that, four cousins.  When we were little, we called her ‘Omummy’.  We saw a lot of her in childhood, for like us, she lived in London.  She had been widowed in 1945 so I never knew my grandfather.  

She used to live as a house-guest in a huge Victorian mansion looking out over Blackheath.  In school holidays, I would often meet her in Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand, and after a day out in London we would take to the river at Westminster Pier and cruise down to Greenwich.  I would stay for a few nights, made a great fuss of by a ménage of respectable, elderly ladies. There was a revolving summer house in the garden, and a vast kitchen table at which exotic foods not familiar in north London were prepared.  There was a grand piano to play, or play hide-and-seek under.  She loved music, so preferred the piano to be used for the first purpose rather than the second.  Later, she moved to a flat near our home.  I was a teenager by then, more able to talk about the things she cared about: music, art, serious television.  We didn’t have a TV at home so watching hers felt slightly deviant behaviour.  She was only ever interested in the news and documentaries.  She was an avid reader of the Manchester Guardian and mistrusted the right-wing press.

There was nothing she was not willing to do with her grandson.  Her idea of a well-spent day out was to visit a museum or art-gallery, and we did a lot of that: she believed that education mattered greatly, even in leisure.  We went to concerts, opera and ballet.  We went to the cinema.  Then I discovered train spotting, so we spent long hours on the platforms of London termini where I was oblivious to wind and rain: she must have been bored as well as frozen and must also have questioned its educational value but was too kind and tolerant to say so. 

We talked much, for she was a thoughtful, reflective woman.  When I felt the first stirrings of Christian faith, she encouraged me to pursue the path I was beginning to walk. And when as a student I began to consider being ordained, she encouraged me in that too. Although not a woman of explicit faith, she had a sympathy for it that I responded to.  In a way, I look on her as a kind of midwife of my vocation, though she would not have seen it that way herself.  But I sensed that she had lived and that I had things to learn from her experience of life which had been hard and painful. 

Her story, briefly, is this.  She came from a wealthy middle-class liberal Jewish family in Cologne, and when she married my grandfather they moved to Düsseldorf.  He owned a shoe-making factory.  They had two children, my mother and her elder brother.  With the rise of Nazism, my uncle and mother were sent to England until, as everyone hoped, the crisis was over. However, as things got steadily worse for the Jewish community, my grandparents realised that their only hope was to flee for safety to Holland and begin a new life there.  Other members of the family were not so fortunate and ended up in Auschwitz.  With the German invasion of the Netherlands, they took refuge with a courageous Dutch family who took them in and hid them underground until the end of the war.  Shortly after the liberation, my grandfather died.  So she decided to follow her children to England where she settled in the early 1950s. 

I only slowly pieced together this story, for understandably we did not talk much about the Holocaust in my childhood: the memories were just too painful.  But later on, I began to grasp how significant were two insights this experience had given her and which I now see have been central to my own formation as a Christian.  The first was about living with difference in generous toleration.  Whether ‘difference’ means ethnicity, religious faith, sexual orientation, gender or disability, you cannot be a Holocaust survivor without having had to confront this lesson, and hopefully, learn it.  And the second was about suffering.  When you have walked with suffering as my grandmother did during the Nazi era, it changes everything.  You belong to the ‘fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain’ as Albert Schweitzer (one of her heroes) put it. And that has to inform the way you think about the world, life, faith, everything.  All this, I think, lay at the heart of her wisdom.

She died in May 1987.  At her funeral, the coffin was surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  She would have been proud.  We read our personal choices of poems and prose, and listened to Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a piece of music she had loved all her life. I wish I had given a tribute, at least acknowledged the 37 years in which she had been a generous,wonderfully kind, and wise grandmother.  I have waited 25 years to write this.  I hope it is not too late to say thank you.  And thank God.  

EL: Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Address at Royal College of Nursing Congress 2012

It is an honour to be preaching to you at the beginning of your annual congress.  I come to you not just with generalised good will towards the nursing profession which everybody shares.  Nursing is part of my family: my mother was a nurse and one of my daughters is.  I have personal reasons for being grateful to the nurses whose paths I have crossed in recent weeks. It is when you are a patient that you recognise the conscientiousness and care with which you are looked after in our hospitals and surgeries.  As a patient you are ‘done to’ by many others.  Your dignity and personhood are at risk amid the interventions of modern medicine and its technology.  Last week in the University Hospital of North Durham, I had reason to be thankful for the nurses who are the front end of healthcare.  It was not only for their skill or even their care that I appreciated.  It was because they were the human face of our beloved National Health Service. Every institution, if it is not to become depersonalised, needs to be recalled to the values at the heart of humane life and service. This is part of what nursing represents.

Yesterday was International Nurses Day, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth in 1820. Who am I to tell you anything about her?  I remember as a child having a much treasured book of story-biographies called Heroes for our Time.  There were two nurses in that book: Florence, of course, and Edith Cavell.  I would go back to those two great women again and again.  I would read how Florence Nightingale was so loved by the pitiably injured soldiers of Balaclava that they would kiss her shadow on the wall as she passed by.  For her, famously, ‘the first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm.’  She died in 1910.  Five years later Edith Cavell faced her executioners and said, unforgettably: ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough.  I must have no envy or bitterness towards anyone.’ My perception of nursing was always going to be coloured by these heroic women of courage and perseverance whose watchword was to care. 

In preparing this address I have visited the RCN website and read some of the posts there.  As a layman speaking to professionals, what picture of nursing today do I gain? What comes across is the immense pride you take in your work, your sheer love of what you do.  I recognise from my own path in life the language of calling, vocation: you believe you were meant for this: it is part of what you are and aspire to be.  Perhaps there are not some for whom it is simply a job: that too has its own dignity. But the parallels between nursing and ordained ministry only begin here. Our common role is to give ourselves in the care of others, or as the literature says, to be ‘skilled companions’ alongside people in their need, suffering or pain. One nurse in the RCN bulletin says:  ‘we don’t just heal with our hands.  We heal with our hearts also.  That’s where our care comes from.’  That is a deeply theological way of seeing it.  And another, on Facebook, perhaps burdened by the pressures and difficulties that beset all caring roles at present, says: ‘I suspect that nurses are just as frustrated, aggravated, annoyed, disappointed and concerned by poor care as anyone else, if not more so.’ When your purpose in life is compassion, you are grieved when unsympathetic politicians, squeezed finances, poor allocation of resources and especially your own sense of inadequacy, let you down. 

‘Ministry’ means ‘serving’, and this lies at the heart of both our professions. In our reading from a famous passage in St John’s Gospel, we see Jesus kneeling down to wash the feet of his disciples and friends.  They are in the upper room just a few hours away from his betrayal, suffering and death.  They think they are there to serve him, for is he not their Master and their Lord?  Yet he lays aside his robe, takes the towel, stoops in front of them, and does for them what only the lowliest of slaves would do in ancient society. It is a powerful and evocative picture of what true service means.  It means taking up the task of abasing ourselves by getting close enough to another person to attend to their needs.  It means touching soiled, malodorous bodies in ways that no-one else would wish to do or be able to do.  It means applying the cleansing, soothing unguents that a broken or corroded or diseased body craves.  Foot-washing is symbolic of all these things as water is symbolic of all that refreshes, renews, heals, gives us back our life. Nurses do all these things both literally and figuratively.   

The New Testament has a word to describe this kind of service.  St Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn that speaks of how the Lord of glory ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’.  That word, kenosis, tells us what underlies the best and truest forms of caring.  ‘Self-emptying’ means being ready to act sacrificially, renouncing the self for the sake of others.  And in the account of the foot-washing, St John has an all-important introduction that makes sense of this otherwise inconceivable act of self-emptying. He says that ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’  That is what service ultimately means.  It goes beyond mere duty, for it answers the question ‘what would I not do to care for the people I am given to serve and show compassion towards?’  Remember what that nurse said so beautifully: ‘we don’t just heal with our hands.  We heal with our hearts also’.  In your calling as nurses, you know what it means to love to the end, often to the end of a patient’s life: your touch and your voice may be the last memory that man or woman or child has in this life.  And you know what it means to love to the end of your resources, your capacity to give and cure and care.  When you have done all you could, when you are spent and your arms ache with the pain you have borne for others, that is when you have loved to the end. 

There is something deeply Christ-like in all caring roles, because all of them in different ways involve this quality of self-emptying, self-giving, renunciation.  But perhaps nursing embodies them in a uniquely focused and beautiful way.  In St John, the act of serving and caring and loving to the end is linked to intimate touching.  No other profession is marked by this privileged touching of another person’s body with, or especially without their permission.  To me, it is as sacred as foot-washing: we are on holy ground where we tread with awe and respect. And this is what we should celebrate as we gather here for this annual congress.  Healthcare faces big challenges, and nursing will not be exempt from the difficulties and struggles that undoubtedly lie ahead.  But I hope that you never lose heart, never lose the sense that what you do is cherished and honoured by all of us who come within the orbit of your care.

Elizabeth Jennings has a fine poem, ‘Night Sister’, that captures what I am trying to say. 

You have a memory for everyone;
None is anonymous and so you cure
What few with such compassion could endure.
I never met a calling quite so pure.
My fears are silenced by the things you’ve done. 

During the next few weeks I shall have to be in hospital.  I won’t pretend that I am not anxious about it.  But that last line of the poem speaks for me too.  My fears will be silenced by the compassionate touch that I know I shall receive.  And I also know that in the nurse who reaches out to touch, I shall see the face of Christ.  

Celebrating the Book of Common Prayer 1662-2012

To lovers of literature, Warwickshire means not only Shakespeare but George Eliot, one of the great wordsmiths of the 19th century.  In her novel Adam Bede there is a beautiful tribute to the Prayer Book that shaped and influenced her so profoundly in her youth as a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry.   

Ad­am's tho­ughts of Hetty did not de­afen him to the service; they rat­her ble­nded with all the other deep fee­lings for which the ch­urch service was a ch­annel to him this after­noon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibility.  And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearn­ing and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help, with outbursts of faith and praise - its recur­rent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done.

As we know, the contrast the author is drawing is between the excesses of nonconformist ‘enthusiasm’ as it was called at that time, and the more sober liturgy of the established church.  For myself, the contrast was not between one style of worship and another, but between any worship and no worship at all.  I first attended a church service as a teenager.  It was 1962, so I have my own anniversary this year.  It was evensong, Book of Common Prayer. I had hardly stepped foot inside a church before. My parents had little time for religion. But they did love music. To help me develop musically, I was drafted into one of the best church choirs in London that sang to cathedral standard. No-one took much notice of probationers in those days. I was left to make what sense of it I could.  All of it was utterly new to me. The canticles that evening were sung to Walmisley in D minor. I have had a soft spot for that setting ever since.  I remember feeling awed and moved by what I was experiencing, this tapestry of words and music that seemed to envelope me. It was strange, and yet familiar, as if I had known it all along, but had not known that I knew, like an old friend I had met for the first time.  It was somehow familiar and reassuring at the same time as it was unknown and new. I realised that in an important way I had come home.

I come to you from a cathedral that has a particular interest in the Prayer Book.  In our library we have a first edition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and a copy of the Sealed Book of 1662.  But our closest connection is through the great Bishop Cosin of Durham who was influential in shaping the 1662 book.  The University library has the wonderful Durham Book, his personal copy of the 1559 Elizabethan revision of Cranmer’s two prayer books, painstakingly, and lovingly, annotated with comments and emendations in preparation for the next revision.  Some of the best 1662 collects are written by him.  And like all English cathedrals, ours is a place where you know that Cranmer's work retains an honoured place in the daily round of prayer.

There is a paradox here.  What for Cranmer was a bold experiment in creative vernacular liturgy has become for us the traditional rite. So to honour the Prayer Book is to recognise that that in the 16th century, this was a radical break with tradition.  By the 17th century this had changed, not least because high church Anglicans like Bishop Cosin recognised Cranmer’s debt to patristic and medieval rites, and how his intense focus on the passion and death of Christ was completely in the spirit of late medieval devotion.  Meanwhile, the new liturgies of today have enriched all our churches with fresh insights by taking us more directly back to forms of worship that belonged to the early Christian centuries.  We can be glad that we are in the happy position to do as Jesus says, and in our worship bring out of our treasures things old and new. 

The Prayer Book is part of our cultural inheritance. It belongs to the legacy of Christian England, like the arcades and monuments of our churches and cathedrals, like the King James version of the Bible whose 400th anniversary we celebrated last year, like the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, like Gibbons and Purcell, like Anglican chant and Hymns Ancient and Modern.  Its measured 'rhythms and cadences' as we call them, its unforgettable words and images, its gravity and quiet joy, its undulating landcsapes of contrition and praise, its sense of balance and proportion, these all create a whole that is infinitely greater than the parts. It is something of a miracle, unique to the English speaking world. We are right to cherish it.

But the Prayer Book is more than a treasured part of our heritage. Beauty can remain merely an aesthetic experience, or it can lead us into a more inward place where we find God. For example, the office of evensong speaks at many different levels.  It begins by marking the ending of the day: we go to sleep with the memory of having prayed ‘defend us from all perils and dangers of this night’. But that phrase seems to suggest deeper darknesses that need lightening in whatever ordeals we may be going through: sickness, bereavement, sorrow, fearfulness, shame.  And then we are led further to reflect on the ultimate sleep that awaits us all, death itself.  ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’  Each Nunc Dimittis we sing or recite is one less until eternity. That thought haunts you, but it gives you courage you as well, for it helps you face your own mortality.

I am saying that the Prayer Book is a rich manual of 'soul-making' as John Keats called it.  It trains us to become what we will all one day be for etenity: contemplatives. Like the Rule of St Benedict, it offers a school where disciples can be trained for eternal life. By inculcating the virtue of stability, it exercises an enduring pastoral, formative influence on all who take it to their hearts.  For we are what we pray, as the old Latin tag has it: lex orandi lex credendi, what you pray is what you believe.  The words we say, the texts we sing in worship shape us, whether we like it or not.  And in the case of the Prayer Book, the fact that these words are so imbued not only with biblical texts but also with the Bible’s imagery and symbolism is part of what makes it somehow familiar. These words matter. Their repetition when we truly mean them from the heart has a healing, redemptive effect on us. How many times have we prayed the confession at communion, and found that the burden of our sins is indeed intolerable because we have been made to say those tough words and think about their meaning?  Or discovered the release that comes when we hear the comfortable words read and are then summoned to lift up our hearts?  To be caught up in spiritual dynamics of the Prayer Book is, I think, to experience a kind of catharsis of the soul, a purifying that leads to a more serious sense of purpose in being Christians, and therefore, better human beings. 

Finally, this purifying of spiritual motive and intent is a consequence of being required by the Prayer Book to pay attention and listen.  Many texts are to be spoken by the priest alone, addressing the congregation or God on our behalf.  Take the Prayer of Humble Access.  Why does the rubric require the priest to say it on behalf of the worshippers rather than by the congregation itself? Perhaps because here, at this solemn moment in the rite, the text wants us not to be busy with our heads in our books worrying about written words.  Instead it invites us to approach the sacrament in a more contemplative way, allowing this great prayer to draw our thoughts and meditations towards the gift of God in the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  It is wrong to say that we do not ‘join in’ just because we­ are silent: on the contrary, we ‘join in’ in a more demanding way: by listening and praying while others perform the liturgy on our behalf.  Its carefully calibrated pace slows us down, makes us go deep, something that we need in a world that is often fast and shallow.  We learn that liturgy must never be manic and busy.  It must make us sit at the feet of Jesus.

To Adam Bede, the Prayer Book service ‘spoke for him as no other form of service could have done’.  In the Letter to the Hebrews the author reminds his readers to ‘remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you’.  Today we celebrate the 1662 Prayer Book and the leaders who had a part in creating it during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their labour of love continues to speak the word of God to us today and to testify to Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever.  

The Secret Footballer: how to look at failure

I don't really 'do' sport: I leave that to my wife. But I do skim through the sports pages of the online Guardian, if only to be able to contribute to the conversation about last night's team performances before or after morning prayer.

But there is one column I always read: 'The Secret Footballer'. Here is an absorbing view of top football from the inside. Whoever he is (and wouldn't we love to know?), this anonymous writer is astute, well-informed, intellectually able and (what you wouldn't necessarily expect) emotionally intelligent. He also knows how to write. (We could speculate unkindly that he has an amanuensis, but somehow I doubt that: it feels too authentic and personal to me.)

This man is courageous. He is not afraid to write about homophobia and gay footballers, about incompetent managers, about how sport can be compromised by big money, and about the ethical aspects of the huge salaries top footballers earn. It's the Guardian's gloss on Footballers' Wives.  It is honest, refreshing and sometimes funny. And always eye-opening.

In Saturday's Guardian (12 May 2012), the Secret Footballer writes about relegation. I suggest you read this compelling piece. If relegation feels bad to supporters, how much worse does it feel to players; how much misery and shame they experience, how much failure they feel. It's not just that they have let their supporters down. It's not just the salary and job implications (yes, he is willing to face that too). Worst of all is that they have failed to live up to their team's pride and their own personal aspiration to be the best they can.

There is a lot to think about in this. Success and failure are big themes for all of us, not just for people a the 'top of their game' as we say. It's easy to obsess about both our successes and failures: we can get into a state of mind where they are all that seems to matter.

But Christian faith takes another view. One way of looking at the career of Jesus is to see his life as ending in failure.  Crucifixion is a metaphor we sometimes use when things go wrong: we've been crucified, we say, utterly slaughtered. Yet the disaster and shame of crucifixion proved, and still proves, to be transformative, for Jesus and for us. Through failure, life is changed.  And because of it, we look back on the cross and see it instead as a triumph, however surprising that seems.

I once took part in a whole week's seminar on success and failure. It started with a Bible study that went on for several hours (and involved role-playing).  The story was the episode (Mark 9.14-29) where Jesus is on the mountain being transfigured while at the foot, the disciples are trying to cast out a demon in a young boy.  When Jesus comes down, the lad's father upbraids him for their lack of success.  So Jesus deals with it himself.  'Why could we not cast it out ourselves?' they ask bitterly.  Why have we been relegated?  Why have I failed?  Staying inside that story helped me see failure in new ways, and try to be less hard on myself, more accepting and more forgiving.  Perhaps faith can teach us to fail 'well', with dignity and trust, rather than fail 'badly' in bitterness, self-loathing and despair.

It's important that Christians see the dark side of life through the lens of the cross, whether it's failure, fear or shame, hopelessness or despair. 'Relegation' feels terrible, whenever and however it happens, in football or in ordinary life. When we fail, when we are shamed, we want like the Secret Footballer to run away and hide.

Yet the resurrection gives us another angle on it. Now that all time is Easter time, failure is never the end of the story. Life goes on, with the risen Christ walking alongside us.  In the very weaknesses we hate ourselves for, God's power has a chance to make something new out of us.  That's very good news.

PS I've wondered about offering the Guardian a column called 'The Secret Priest'.  But then you would know who it is....

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Love was his Meaning

Love is our meaning today. Love is the central word of our faith and the truth for which we live and die. We’ve just heard it in the gospel: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’  To be alive is to be loved and to love.  Not to love is to die. To follow Jesus means to learn that I am loved. It’s the heart of the matter, the only life-task that really matters. I am loved, therefore I am. Or as Mother Julian of Norwich said, that great 14th century woman mystic whose life the church celebrated yesterday, ‘Love was his meaning’.  Love is his meaning. 

How do we learn that?  Slowly and with difficulty, if you’re like me. But miracles happen.  There’s a favourite painting of mine by the 19th century German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.  It shows a woman standing in a field gazing at the rising sun.  She’s silhouetted against the sun and you’re standing behind her, so you can’t see the sun itself, only the clear clean light with which it’s bathing the landscape.  In a beautiful gesture, she’s lifting her face up to the sun’s rays and spreading out her hands towards it like a priest, as if saying ‘yes’ to life. It’s an image of love pouring into the soul.  Love comes to us as a sunrise of wonder that prises us open, bathes us in a new light.

Love meets our deepest hungers and desires.  We spend all our lives looking for it, sometimes in ways that are destructive and obsessive. But as St Augustine learned, even the sins of passion are really loves that have become twisted in the wrong direction. But the gospel, he says, baptises our loves, purifies disordered desires, turns our longings round to face the sunrise and find their right focus in God. Even at their most troubled or exploitative, our relationships can still point to what is lacking in the way we love: acceptance, generosity, self-giving, laying down our lives for our friends, says Jesus, which is how God in Christ loves us. At their most fulfilled, they are a foretaste of heaven.  A Graham Greene character says that God is ‘all loves and relationships combined in an immense and yet personal passion’.  With that passion, says St. John, God so loved the world.

It is easy to be platitudinous about love, focus on good feelings and warm glow. We clergy are especially good at that. So it’s important to pay attention to how Jesus defines love, gives it shape and character.  There is only one test of love, he says; and it is this: to lay down your life for your friends. If you can’t contemplate dying for someone, it’s arguable that you haven’t truly begun to live for them out of love.  It’s worth reflecting whom we would dare to die for, what would impel us to give up our lives for someone else.  For most, it is those whom God has given us to be intimate with: family, close friends.  These loves have clearly defined human faces.  For some it is love of nation and homeland: ‘the love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test’ as the hymn puts it.  For others again, it is a genuinely altruistic love for the weak and vulnerable of our world who have little hope in life other than because of those who, literally or figuratively, lay down their life for them in love and service.  Whichever it is, this is the test Jesus applies.  To love one another is to be committed to going wherever it leads, even to the point of death.  This is what it is to ‘love one another as I have loved you’.

And the point of this is that Jesus does not only speak about love but embodies it. In the upper room where he and the disciples are gathered, he has just laid aside his robe in order to wash their feet, just as a song in one of Paul’s letters tells how he laid aside his glory in order to take to himself the humble role of a slave.  And within a few hours, he will be arrested and tried and led out to die a criminal’s death.  And all for us, every human child: that is the measure of love that it goes right to the end.  It is cruciform, has the shape of a cross.  St Paul puts it like this: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. 

What Jesus is saying is that fundamentally, love is always sacrificial, self-emptying, giving its all and giving it to the end.  Love’s endeavour, love’s expense is that it gives everything, withholds nothing, lays itself down for the sake of others. We don’t need to be told when we are loved like this.  We know it whether it is in our marriages or friendships, or in the care we received when we most needed it.  We know it when we observe how the extent of people’s commitment takes them to the most vulnerable people in our society and to the most desperate in our world.  Above all we know it when we gaze upon Jesus on the cross and find ourselves looking straight into the face of God. 

God’s love is always moving among and between us and bathes this world in light. As Julian of Norwich said, we only exist at all because God loves us: creation is the evidence that God is love.  In all our stories, we glimpse how God so loved that he gave, and so loves that he goes on giving, laying down his life for his friends which is how he meets and embraces us. It happens in every act of healing care and compassion we know.  It happens when reconciliation brings together broken peoples and communities and mends them.  It happens when our hearts are glad because some beautiful piece or a poem or painting has touched us.  It happens in the greeting of a friend and the touch of someone we love.  It happens at the altar in the visible words of love: bread and wine, taken, blessed, broken and given.  In all these ways, and a thousand others, each moment, each hour, each day, love comes to us and we glimpse its meaning, God’s meaning.  And we begin to understand the deep magic of the universe that as Dante said, it is ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars’. 

John 15.9-17

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Now Voyager: a sermon from Durham

You may not have noticed this anniversary. 70 years ago in 1942, a classic film saw the light of day, Now Voyager.  It starred Bette Davis and became one of the top love stories of American cinema. If you want a good weepie for a Saturday night, you can’t do better unless it is Brief Encounter. I showed it to the Bishop’s Staff residential conference last week and it worked its magic.  The last words of the film became one of the most quoted tags in the history of film: ‘O Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars’. But the title is all I need for now.  It comes from a poem called ‘The Untold Want’ by the American poet Walt Whitman:

The untold want by life and land ne'er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

Those words are about stepping out towards far horizons, leaving behind the known, the familiar and the safe and heading for the unknown region. It involves crossing thresholds, going through an open door and discovering what lies on the other side.  And this is the image we have in today’s second lesson, in the Letter to Philadelphia.  ‘Behold I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.’ 

This beautiful letter is a favourite among the seven letters to the churches that begin the Book of Revelation. That is because unlike all the others, this one finds no fault in the Christian community in that part of Asia Minor.  This little church has been faithful and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ and has earned the delight of him who walks among the golden lampstands.  ‘I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.’ ‘You have kept my word of faithful endurance’.  ‘Hold fast to what you have so that no one may seize your crown.’ These are rich endorsements of a church that has not been deflected in a time of pressure, that has been true to its name Philadelphia, ‘love of the brotherhood’.  And that faithfulness has led to a door that is held wide-open by him who is holy and true, the One who ‘has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open’. 

Open and shut doors, thresholds that can and cannot be crossed: these are in the hands of the Holy One. It is he who disposes, who creates the environment in which a journey can take place, sets its direction and its pace. By implication, this church has garnered the courage and the will to push at that door and cross that threshold.  It would be easier, and more secure, to stay where it is, satisfied with its quality of life, its achievements, its faithfulness.  Yet precisely because of these, the Lord calls them forth to new endeavours of faith, hope and love, to travel new paths and do new things because he, the Lord, with the new name the resurrection gives him, is creating a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, indeed is making all things new.  ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find’: this is the invitation to the church at Philadelphia.  Enfolded in it is a promise: that the God who for his part has been faithful and true will come soon to lead, to guide, to accompany his people as they travel on. 

I want to make a connection between this letter and the position we are in right now as a Cathedral.  As you know, we have embarked on a big development project called Open Treasure, and as we speak, the contractors are on site delivering the first part of its first phase.  I don’t have time to speak about the detailed plans to move the shop into the former Treasury, release the beautiful space that is the Great Kitchen so that we can exhibit our priceless Cuthbert treasures there; develop our marvellous Monks’ Dormitory as an exhibition space as well as a library so that we can show more of our treasured books and manuscripts; and link the two with a gallery that will help us better appreciate the relationship between these buildings that are almost unique in England.

Why are we doing all this?  That goes back to the open door.  We have called the project Open Treasure because we believe we should open up to our guests, pilgrims, visitors and the wider public the treasures that we are privileged to have inherited here.  But ‘treasure’ means more than heritage buildings and artefacts.  In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about how we must bring out of our treasures things old and new.  He says in the Sermon on the Mount that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. So in a deeper sense, heritage is about the lived Christian community of this place: Cuthbert’s community, the Benedictine community, the Anglican community of the Reformation era, and the community that we are today, the people who belong here because we pray here, live here, work here, volunteer here, receive guests here, witness to the gospel here, help the needy here, offer sanctuary and care for others here.  All this belongs to our treasure: it concerns the whole Cathedral’s mission.  It is about all that we do and are, past, present and future.  And as we attract people to enjoy the fruits of the project, their admission fee will help stabilise the finances of the Cathedral, and that in turn will ensure that we do not have to contemplate charging admission to the church itself. 

In this letter there is an intriguing reference to the Philadelphian church being ‘a pillar in the temple of our God’.  In our statement of purpose, we have developed the ‘Six Pillars of Durham Cathedral’ to be an image of what we are: worship and spirituality; welcome and care; learning, nurture and formation; outreach and engagement; buildings, treasures and environment’, and ‘finance and stewardship’.  You can see the complete text in today’s Sunday sheet.  So just like the letter in Revelation, our project links an open door with the image of the pillar, something that is stable and trustworthy and keeps the building standing.  And like the church at Philadelphia, we believe that God has set before us this open door, this wonderful opportunity to make a difference to what our guests can see and enjoy here and help them to understand the gospel of this place. 

What does God ask of us?  The same things he looked for at Philadelphia: faithfulness, courage, hope, holiness, perseverance.  What else could it be in a Christian community pushing at an open door, longing to go through and discover the God-given landscapes on the other side.  Like them, we have already faced difficulties and pressures, and there will be more to come: there always are when we embark on a journey.  But as an African proverb puts it, ‘he who never travels thinks mother is the only cook’.  So I want to encourage us, invite us, urge us, to take the risk of becoming a people on a journey of the spirit, ready to embrace the future that God sets before us. Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.  ‘Behold I have set before you an open door.’ It will be our own fault if we do not seize the day and go through, and on, and up.  

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral
6 May 2012
(Revelation 3.7-13.)