Sermons

Not suitable for penguins

The lesson of the Penguin Pool

Being a member of the Zoological Society of London I can drop in to London Zoo whenever I feel like it. Each time I follow a very similar routine. I arrive as close to opening time as possible and make my way immediately to the butterfly house.

Last time I went the air inside was full of newly hatched glasswing butterflies. As their name suggests they have transparent wings making them seem even more fragile and ethereal than other species.

From there I make my way back to the Penguin Beach. All but one of the penguins there are Humboldt penguins, which are grey and sleek.

The odd one out is a solitary Rock-Hopper Penguin, who sports a golden punk hair-do. He can often be seen standing all alone on a rock and his lonely state always tugs on my heart strings.

But at least he doesn’t have to live in the old penguin pool.

That famous work of modernist architecture, designed in 1930 by Lubetkin, is oval like an egg and has amazing suspended bridges, but was never at all suitable for any actual living penguins.

The concrete it was made from damaged their feet- giving them the crippling complaint  bumble-foot-, and wasn’t very friendly to a bird that likes to burrow; and the water was too shallow for them to actually swim in.

When the Zoo authorities decided to build a Penguin enclosure which took into account what real penguins were actually like there was quite a strenuous campaign by devotees of the old pool to leave things just as they were.

It seems to me that a lot of damage is done to people when they to, like the original London Zoo penguins, are on the receiving end of theories and ideas which don’t take proper account of human nature.

Here are 2 quotations.

‘ When all is said and done, is there any more marvellous sight, any occasion when human reason is nearer to some sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds, the planting of cuttings and the transplanting of shrubs..’

‘ All kind of things rejoiced my soul in their company- to talk and to laugh, to do each other kindnesses, to share the love of books, to chat about everyday things lightly  and then about deep concerns, and back again.

 

Can anyone tell me who I am quoting?

I can give you a clue- they are not part of an advertising campaign by the Royal Horticultural Society or Waterstones.

St Augustine, whose day it was on Thursday.

These days St Augustine is chiefly remembered for having a pretty bleak conception of human life, epitomised by his theory of original sin.

Simply put he insisted that all human beings are born deeply flawed, into a world of suffering which is also profoundly disordered. God has the power to save and redeem them, but by their own power they can’t escape their fundamental nature or situation.

But those quotes provide a useful reminder that he didn’t think all was bad. There was plenty of avenues around for light and grace, fulfilment and happiness too.

Augustine’s picture of the human condition was complex, full of light and shade.

When I consider young men heading off to Syria to contend against a great evil, with the potential for their idealism to turn into a hateful ideology, plus a host of other circumstances we are all aware of, I can’t help but think Augustine was on to something.

Now consider Richard Dawkins latest brush with controversy.

In case you haven’t followed it. It stemmed from a hypothetical discussion via twitter. A woman who said that if she discovered that she was pregnant with a baby suffering from Down’s syndrome she would experience an ethical dilemma, received a fairly blunt reply.

“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

He followed this up with a more detailed explanation of his reasoning.

Basically his line was that, as he sees the maximisation of happiness and the reduction of suffering as his golden rule when it comes to making moral decisions, logic dictated his conclusion.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of that particular furore a pretty fundamental understanding of the meaning and purpose of life is involved here. To be happy and to avoid pain become the cardinal virtues.

It is the back ground utilitarianism that’s all around us.

Pharell William’s Happy is a great song and great video, but I am not sure it provides an adequate rule for life!

You can probably all remember the famous atheist bus campaign of a few years ago, for which Richard Dawkins was a great enthusiast and in the light of his comments in this situation we can see why.

Its slogan was simple and emphatic.

‘ There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

The writer Francis Spufford was incandescent in his fury about that.

Here are just a few extracts from what he wrote  at the time in his provoking book ‘ Unapologetic’.

The word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry- enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great… but enjoyment is one emotion. The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product.

He writes that enjoyment is just one small part of life.

 The rest of the time, you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest.

I understood better why he was so angry about the narrowing of life’s meaning and value to enjoyment when I read the obituary, in the spring, of his mother, Margaret Spufford

I knew vaguely that she was a historian of great repute, and  a Christian spiritual writer renowned for her honesty and wisdom, but what I did not know was that she suffered from early on in her life with chronic anxiety, developed a rare life- long form of osteoporosis, causing her near constant pain, and had a daughter who had a genetic disorder which took her life at 22.

All of which makes me think that St Augustine wasn’t so wrong after all. Certainly his account of what it is to be a human being has much to re-commend it when compared to some of the modern alternatives, which are as unsuited for real human beings as the penguin pool was for real penguins.

We can’t really live in them, we can’t make ourselves at home and the water is far too shallow.

 

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St Paul the Radical. Sermon 6th July 2014

Sermon Philemon

A couple of months ago I was feeling very guilty because I hadn’t written a  short play for  our church drama group to perform for ages, and I was scratching my head as what would be a suitable subject.

In the past I had been quite ambitious, producing one play which taught the whole history of the writing of the OT and a summary of its contents in 10 minutes or so, but generally I prefer to tackle actual stories- I have covered the life of Moses in 2 short plays and St Francis of Assisi in another for example but I just had a block- that is until Ruth said’ why not do one about the runaway slave Onesimus?. It’s a good story and its found in the shortest book in the whole Bible’- it is found in St Paul’s letter to Philemon which is only one chapter in length.

As I often find is the case- it took me a bit of time to concede the wisdom of her wifely advice, and then a couple of days later I sat down and started writing. But I immediately ran into a problem. One I run into quite frequently- as someone who studies the Bible a lot. The story of Onesimus was not as simple as I remembered it.

This is what I thought it was about. A well to do associate of St Paul, Philemon, had a slave Onesimus, who ran away and found his way to Paul, when Paul was in prison in Rome. Paul in his letter beseeches Philemon to forgive him for running away and accept him back without punishing him. The story has been taken usually in one of 2 ways, both possessing a strong dose of anachronism. Christians have seen it as a story about kindness and people not so keen on our faith, have seen it as a typical example of christianity’s illiberal conservatism with its uncritical acceptance of the institution of slavery.

The first thing I noticed is that it is not absolutely clear that Onesimus was ever a runaway slave. There is something highly unfeasible about the whole scenario as traditionally conceived. Philemon seems to live in what is now Turkey- Paul is in Rome. In those days a massively large distance to cover with hugely expensive travel costs. Onesimus would have had to pilfer a small fortune from Philemon to afford such a journey- and to visit someone in prison. That just does not seem likely.

My own favourite theory is that Onesimus who like many slaves might have been a well educated Greek, could have been a trusted messenger who Philemon  sent to Paul, but simply overstayed. There is no hint in the letter that he had committed a capital offence, which in that culture, running away would have amounted too! We will never know exactly what he had done to merit Paul’s pleas on his behalf.

But whether he had run away or not there is something striking about the way Paul treated him and considered him. His letter is full of intimate and affectionate references to Onesimus. He writes, I am sending him, that is my own heart back to you.

He calls him his child and says he has become his father; which might be even more significant.

Just before I went away I went to hear a talk by a scholar who is not well known, but very well respected in his field, Larry Siedentop, who is a fellow of Keble College, where he has taught intellectual history and political thought for many years

His latest book, is called Inventing the Individual- The origins of Western Liberalism. And in it he proposes that toleration and respect for human rights and dignity, which have been the legacy of the Liberal Tradition, owe their existence to Christianity, particularly the way, to put it colloquially, it drove a coach and horses through the classical world’s assumptions about what mattered and who mattered.

His thesis is that in the ancient world the family was, literally a sacred institution. Each family unit was not only set up on a patriarchal model, as is well known, but was built around a cult focussed around the ancestors and the family gods. The male run family was the key economic and communal unit. Women and slaves were part of it, but of no intrinsic status. They were virtually property of the male line.

St Paul’s radical declaration that there were no slaves, or women, Jews or Gentiles in Christ, and his behaviour with regard to Onesimus seem to me to be 2 sides of this revolutionary coin. The latter shows that he meant what he said.

Some biblical scholars have argued that Paul is recommending to Philemon that he should free Onesimus from the status of slave, although I can’t quite see that, but there is no doubt that he sees Onesimus as a human being- equal to him in the sight of God- someone not at all boxed in by his social position, and he wants Philemon to do the same.

Siedentop argues that by such shifts of perspective the church chipped away at the assumptions of the classical world and directly led to many of the things we value most about the modern one. The institution of slavery eventually becoming obnoxious and the rights of the individual paramount for example.

That turns on its head the version of history that we so often hear. That the church has always been on the side of dogmatism and control and has fought tooth and nail to resist a more humanistic way of dealing with people.

The very short letter to Philemon is well worth reading as it reveals  St Paul  at his most tender and revolutionary in reflecting on the difference that a Christ and God centred life will make.

 

 

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David Cameron and The C of E

Sermon May 4th.

 

As it is now public knowledge that I am an official Labour candidate at the forthcoming election later in the month, I thought it appropriate to begin my sermon this morning with a very clear endorsement of the leader of one of our 2 major political parties.

I am talking about David Cameron, of course!

Those of you who follow the news will have noticed a minor spat around Easter between our Prime Minister and some eminent- I’ll qualify that- fairly well known- atheists, as to whether or not it is sensible to call Britain a Christian country.

I can declare myself an authority on this story for the simple reason that as one of the 34,000 people who buy a Church Times every week, I have actually read what David Cameron wrote. But I want to begin with the letter of objection which turned up in the Telegraph a few days later because in many ways it is more interesting than what the Prime Minister had to say.

The first thing that jumped out to me was the list of signatories. The main one, who I believe penned it, was the incredibly genial and likeable host of the radio programme- ‘ The Life Scientific’, Jim Al- Kahlili .’ There were other notable public intellectuals, such as Philip Pullman, and then there were the comedians.

Times have certainly changed. I really can’t imagine that 3 decades ago Morecambe and Wise, or Tommy Cooper would have been recruited for such a polemical enterprise- although maybe that would have been about right- with Les Dawson to add a due note of solemnity.

But there they were. I didn’t count them all, but amongst their number was Tony Hawks. Best known for his occasional appearances on Just a Minute, carrying a fridge around Ireland for a bet, and challenging the whole Moldovan football team to a game of tennis.

Context is surely important here. David Cameron’s article was written for a small newspaper, which is almost exclusively read by active members of the Church Of England to mark Easter!

What he wrote could be interpreted by the suspiciously minded as a buttering up exercise in the wake of the ongoing tension between the government’s Welfare strategists and the churches, which run most food banks, but it seems to be stretching it a bit to read into his words a contemptuous and menacing attack on everyone who is not a committed member of a church.

The letter of rebuke said this.

 

, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.

The Prime Minister was very careful to say.

.. Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all.

They wrote

”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.

In the last census, just short of 60% defined themselves as Christian; 21% as having no religion.

 

They also said

At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.

Really?  Did the druids have a bigger influence than I had noticed? The classicist, Mary Beard, has argued that the main conduit by which the classical world of Rome and Greece has seeped into our culture is through the public schools, most of which have always been explicitly christian foundations.

One of the arguments that Cameron did make that all the faiths in Britain help to provide social and spiritual glue, and that this is a good thing.

By coincidence I was invited to a meeting at Balham Library on Wednesday. I have mentioned my involvement with the Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network before. It has been going for about 10 years and its main purpose is to try to connect the work of the NHs more directly with local communities and their needs.

Its main areas of concern at the moment are  mental health and dementia.

The gathering was  diverse- as a white Caucasian male, I was very much in a minority.

In the room were Muslims, Hindus, members of the New Testament Assembly- a black pentecostal church, an outpost of which we host here on Sunday afternoon.

Charity workers and an academic who is an expert in dementia and practical ways of mitigating its effects on individuals and families- brighter lighting being as effective as medication. Mainly people of faith but not exclusively.

The meeting was chaired by the Vicar of Roehampton.

That seems to me to epitomise one of the very positive contributions that  faith communities can make to the well-being of society.  There was nothing triumphalist or exclusive about the conversation and all there wanted to offer help to those outside their own faith communities.

As David Cameron put it.

From giving great counsel to being the driving force behind some of the most inspiring social action projects in our country, our faith based organisations play a fundamental role in our society.

I am glad he is proud of that- I am too!

In the Gospel today we heard the story of the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus. What a story?

Disciples who had been captivated by Jesus’ vision of a world healed and redeemed are downcast by his death and fear it was all for nothing. Then in one moment of illumination their vision and hope are restored. There lies one of the great claims and gifts of our faith.

Hopefully we don’t open St Barnabas for theatrical performances, run clubs for the elderly and for those who care for children, collect for Christian Aid, or as individuals do what we can to bring hope and healing  where it is needed, to get noticed or exercise power, but because we are inspired by that vision.

The ongoing promise of Easter.

 

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Quiet day talks and poetry. WH Auden

Talk one.

Why pick WH Auden? Trigger. Alexander McCall Smith little book What can WH Auden do for you?

Quintessentially Anglican, in a manner which is timely, inclusive and challenging.

The lament that the C of E has lost its way is at times like a deafening chorus.

It is too prone to chase cultural fashion, it is not relevant, the liturgy is boring, the worship is too banal, it has abandoned its traditions, it is too evangelical- it is not evangelical enough etc.

We have all heard them and more.

I think that Auden can help, partly as a result of timing. By being born in 1907 and living until 1973, he had to respond to all the great issues thrown up by the first half of the century- from the rise of psychology to mass political movements – but was around long enough to dip his toe in the incoming tide of change and controversy, which is our inheritance- whether that is liturgical reform or more liberal attitudes to sexuality, or the prominence of materialism and consumerism.

He had experience of all and something insightful to say about them too.

And as testified to by his famously crevassed face he lived.

His was a life which was oddly on the edge at the same time as being cossetted, so we find his poetry connects – I will draw a bit on some of his other writings too- with a wide range of human experience.

Funeral Blues- became a celebrity poem thanks to 4 Weddings and a funeral- and was originally a satirical piece from a play, mocking public mourning for a political figure, then in typical Auden fashion was turned into a cabaret song, and yet still has lines which tell.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

 

And September 1939 became a kind of literary anchor to thousands of Americans in the wake of 9/11. As they sort words to describe such a horrendous interruption into everyday city life. The opening verse alone in that context is powerful enough to bring you to the verge of tears.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

This was one of his own

poems that Auden disliked most of all- it is my favourite.

These are examples of what is quite common now. Of taking poems and like popular songs and using them as a kind of sound-track to life. Words which are semi- detached, at least, from their context and original meaning.

Today I want to draw attention to the spiritual and theological under-currents which are present in many of his poems. Sometimes those currents are explicit, but many are concealed. This I think is one of the great joys of Auden. One of his greatest gifts to the church he made his home.

For this concealment was not a result of embarrassment, as some of our noisiest public atheists might assume, but because he didn’t see faith as an add on- like  an extra compartment on a train- but something enmeshed within life as it is lived and experienced.

In what counts to us, what matters- where our hearts are.

When I started researching for this day I was surprised again and again by poems I would have assumed at first glance are in no way religious, but on being nudged in the right direction by those who know better, noticed things I had completely missed before.

 

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:

That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.

You may have noticed from that line about north and south, east and west that Auden had his favourite lines, which he wasn’t ashamed to recycle.

But the surprise about that poem,’ A Summer Night’ written in 1933, is that it describes a defining moment for him in his spiritual pilgrimage. At one level it is a moving poem about good companionship under the stars with fellow staff at Downs school; where he was teaching at the time.

But as he later revealed its significance was much deeper for him.

For him it had a religious dimension to it. At a point indeed when he had assumed that he had left his Christian faith behind him with his childhood.

30 years after he wrote the poem he wrote an introduction to a book on Protestant Mysticism, and said this.

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it- what it means to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

Auden described this explicitly as a vision of agape- of Christian love- and always saw it, despite all his flaws and failings as a defining experience, which beat at the centre of his life.

There are quotations from Auden’s  poems, including this one, and the odd complete poem around the church and the halls for you to read in quiet contemplation, and they will be the ones I will consider most in my 2 subsequent reflections.

 

Talk 2. There is no getting way from God.

There is a strong tradition which appears inside faiths and outside them, of dividing the world into distinct territories. The Sacred and the Profane, the Religious and the Political, the Private and the Public, for example.

We can probably all think of situations in which such categories are helpful, but also of the problems and confusions they bring.

The favourite target of the satirist for example is the public figure who sets himself up as a man of firm moral principle, but acts badly and hypocritically in private. But try understanding the Protestant Reformation without noticing the tangle of social struggles nationalist politics and religious passions-public and interior- involved.

Auden was a very clever man, and a very complex one, so he noticed the great movements of history going on around him and brought those into his poetry, but also the personal dilemmas- the highs and lows- which marked his inner life, as they mark all of ours.

But his religious sensibility, as a put it earlier, was not like another compartment on a train, but a thread connecting all the mess of life; giving it another dimension.

One of his most famous poems is ‘ As I walked out one evening.’ Written in 1937 it  begins

As I walked out one evening.

 Walking down Bristol Street,

The crowds upon the pavement

Were fields of harvest wheat.

It seems to be a poem celebrating romantic love and then recognising its limits, but notice the last 3 verses. Their conclusion is interesting.

’O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

 

O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.’’

 

It was late in the evening,

 The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming

And the deep river ran on.

 

Whatever was happening to him, and however parlous his private life became- often it was lived in squalor and in great loneliness- there was this attitude of blessing. What modern religious writers call a sense of gift. Auden strenuously avoided any sentimentality here by declaring in a talk given years later that you can’t refer to misfortune as a gift to someone else, but only as gift to yourself.

In describing his crooked heart, with which he attempts to love his neighbour he is referring  to his homosexuality- he used the word crooked to describe his disposition in correspondence with his close friend Christopher Isherwood -which although he accepted he was  never able to make peace with.

But above all to the general human condition; the imperfection and folly that lurks in all our attempts to love.

Towards the end of his life he turned to writing very honest autobiographical haikus. One went, very truthfully.

His thoughts pottered

From verses to sex to God

 without punctuation.

 

In the first talk I referred to September 1st, 1939 and how it spoke to people witnessing the horror of 9/11, but of course its original context was the outbreak of war. And it demonstrates how his deepening faith and return to active involvement in church were as tied up with the events in the political and public  realm as much as with what was going on within himself. And it also shows how important the mind and the insights of the intellectual world were to him. Faith was never solely an emotional category for him, but a way of interpreting and responding to big events and big ideas. A prism, through which light is refracted.

So the poem draws on history, the then still novel science of psychology, the classical world, philosophy, political ideas and contemporary high culture- and yet never loses its immediacy and ability to speak plainly to that specific  situation and to others, such as 9/11, to the plight of Syria, and even I would suggest our food bank reliant post crash society, here in London. What to do? Auden’s beginning of an answer is.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie, the romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man –in –the street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

 

Moonlanding. One of my favourites but one fairly universally derided. Stale and avuncular was one of the criticisms I found levelled against much of his later poetry. Hardly the case with this one, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1969.

It shows how he always kept up with events even in old age. Still had an eye which saw through modernity’s habit of thinking that now is always best, and was still certain that the little things of life and a sense of wonder and blessing are vital and more everlasting than any technical triumph.

I am of an age that means the Moonlandings will forever hold a wonder, allowed aged 11 to watch it as I happened, but in retrospect Auden might have been right about the hype and the questionable motivation involved.

It could be dismissed as a cranky outburst by a jaundiced old man, but surely that is a voice which deserves a hearing.

 

Moon Landing

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers

about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.

Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several

with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

 

Talk 3. With evening prayer.

Most of you have heard before how I was converted to the Book of Common Prayer. When I was ordained- 24 years ago- I went to a parish where all the services were in modern language apart from the 8am Eucharist and the sung evening service on Sunday which followed the 1662 prayer book. The Evening service had a large robed choir and hymns which went some way towards mitigating the out of date, antiquated language and, in my view, theology bordering on the barbaric- too much sin and self- abnegation for my taste.

There was a monthly Matins service too, which also used the old liturgy, where I was privileged to hear the great stage and screen actress, Wendy Hiller, read the lessons from time to time. I used to visit her too and we had a few quite energetic discussions about the relative merits of the old services versus the new ones. We were equally unpersuadable.

But over time and due to more frequent use of the old liturgies I understand far better why people hold to the old ways. There is far more to it than just being old fashioned, liking the familiar, and being averse to change.

Auden abhorred the liturgical changes which were just coming into the Church of England as he came towards the end of his life. By then he was dividing his time between his home in Austria and a cottage owned by Christ church college in Oxford- he moved there from New York to Oxford in 1972.

His health had been failing for a couple of years  and attacks of vertigo and fainting had been attended to back in New York by a young neurologist and friend working on his first book- Awakenings- Oliver Sacks.

Auden’s opinion about liturgical reform was very firm.

He hated modern translations of the Bible- actually he only lived long enough to glimpse the tip of the ice-berg with all the subsequent translations- and he valued the language of the BCP to an extreme degree.

He wrote.

We had the extraordinary good fortune in that our Book of Common Prayer was composed at exactly the right historical moment. The English language had become more or less what it is today…

The ecclesiatics of the  sixteenth century still possessed a feeling for the ritual and ceremoniousness  which we have almost entirely lost. Why should we spit on our luck?

So it is appropriate that our evening service uses the words he loved so much. Even those of you who are not utterly familiar with the words will detect echoes of familiar phrases that have become embedded in the language. You might notice too a solemnity and weight to the language which is often elusive or absent in modern versions. It is much harder to let the mind skate over the surface with these words than it is with the more recent alternatives. If you are the sort of person who ever listens to the radio late at night you will have noticed the difference between the words which wash over you and the ones that draw you in by arresting your attention- there is a parallel.

 

 

After service read Thanksgiving. Written very shortly before his death. A summary of the evolution of his life and work and a kind of prayer. You in the final verse is capitalised.  So it is not the poets and thinkers who are being thanked but God.

A Thanksgiving, by W. H. Auden

When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
people seemed rather profane.

Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
Hardy and Thomas and Frost.

Falling in love altered that,
now Someone, at least, was important:
Yeats was a help, so was Graves.

Then, without warning, the whole
Economy suddenly crumbled:
there, to instruct me, was Brecht.

Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.

Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.

Now, as I mellow in years
and home in a bountiful landscape,
Nature allures me again.

Who are the tutors I need?
Well, Horace, adroitest of makers,
beeking in Tivoli, and

Goethe, devoted to stones,
who guessed that — he never could prove
Newton led science astray.

Fondly I ponder You all:
without You I couldn’t have managed
even my weakest of lines.

? May 1973

 

Quiet day talks and poetry. WH Auden Read More »

Sermon on George Herbert

Sermon on George Herbert 2014

The past may be another country but its territory often overlaps with our own.  The case of George Herbert, the C17th Century poet who wrote our first hymn, Teach me my God and King, illustrates this well.

Those verses were only put to music last century by Vaughan Williams; before that they made up a poem, called the Elixir, which is a term taken from alchemy.

From the perspective of the present alchemy is often seen as a foolishly optimistic activity- the attempt to turn lead into gold- but in its day it was cutting edge science.  Behind it lay the same impulse that lies behind today’s efforts to hunt down the Higgs Boson.

To find the fundamental stuff that makes up the universe- what lies beneath the lead and the gold, and is the ultimate source of both.

Herbert was a close friend of Francis Bacon who is considered to be the deviser of modern scientific method and he even translated Bacon’s first treatise on the subject from its original Latin into English.

Shortly after the poem was written a civil conflict broke out in the east of Europe, in Bohemia- when that was still a country and not a life-style- and there was anxiety in the air where it would all lead.

And when he was writing it he was wrestling with the sort of questions which face all reflective people in every time and place. Is my career the right one? Is this the best use of my gifts? Is there something more to life than this?

He had just acquired the prestigious position of Orator at Cambridge University, which made him its official speech-maker, for all sorts of situations including when degrees were awarded and when King James 1st happened to pay a visit.

But he was troubled that his role was distorting his character. Making him a purveyor of flattering and deceptive words, and encouraging him to be someone content to bask in the status and prestige that came with it.

The verse which goes

A servant with this clause

 Makes drudgery divine;

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

 Makes that and the action fine

Was not, as it at first seems, just a declaration that all work can be undertaken well and with integrity, but also an attempt to convince himself that his current vocation was the one he should stick too.

But he could not quite be satisfied.

The second verse.

A man that looks on glass,

 On it may stay his eye;

 Or if it pleaseth, through it pass,

 and then the heaven espy.

Is about looking more closely and deeply into things. Rather than glancing in a mirror as you pass or simply pausing to admire your own reflection you can look within, and see the depths, the truth- heaven espy.

The last verse brings his theme of alchemy to the fore , with his allusion to the famous philosopher’s stone. And it is incredibly hopeful.

Not just for the individual working out what is fundamental in his life, but also for us when we ask why every life matters; from the baby being christened, to the person we see struggling for liberty in a far- away land, or the one who our society writes off because they have low pay, or no pay.

This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold;

 For that which God doth touch and own

 Cannot for less be told.

God’s love, to use Herbert’s favoured word, is there for all people, it dignifies all people, and promises that whatever the outward appearance there are potential riches within.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on George Herbert 2014

The past may be another country but its territory often overlaps with our own.  The case of George Herbert, the C17th Century poet who wrote our first hymn, Teach me my God and King, illustrates this well.

Those verses were only put to music last century by Vaughan Williams; before that they made up a poem, called the Elixir, which is a term taken from alchemy.

From the perspective of the present alchemy is often seen as a foolishly optimistic activity- the attempt to turn lead into gold- but in its day it was cutting edge science.  Behind it lay the same impulse that lies behind today’s efforts to hunt down the Higgs Boson.

To find the fundamental stuff that makes up the universe- what lies beneath the lead and the gold, and is the ultimate source of both.

Herbert was a close friend of Francis Bacon who is considered to be the deviser of modern scientific method and he even translated Bacon’s first treatise on the subject from its original Latin into English.

Shortly after the poem was written a civil conflict broke out in the east of Europe, in Bohemia- when that was still a country and not a life-style- and there was anxiety in the air where it would all lead.

And when he was writing it he was wrestling with the sort of questions which face all reflective people in every time and place. Is my career the right one? Is this the best use of my gifts? Is there something more to life than this?

He had just acquired the prestigious position of Orator at Cambridge University, which made him its official speech-maker, for all sorts of situations including when degrees were awarded and when King James 1st happened to pay a visit.

But he was troubled that his role was distorting his character. Making him a purveyor of flattering and deceptive words, and encouraging him to be someone content to bask in the status and prestige that came with it.

The verse which goes

A servant with this clause

 Makes drudgery divine;

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

 Makes that and the action fine

Was not, as it at first seems, just a declaration that all work can be undertaken well and with integrity, but also an attempt to convince himself that his current vocation was the one he should stick too.

But he could not quite be satisfied.

The second verse.

A man that looks on glass,

 On it may stay his eye;

 Or if it pleaseth, through it pass,

 and then the heaven espy.

Is about looking more closely and deeply into things. Rather than glancing in a mirror as you pass or simply pausing to admire your own reflection you can look within, and see the depths, the truth- heaven espy.

The last verse brings his theme of alchemy to the fore , with his allusion to the famous philosopher’s stone. And it is incredibly hopeful.

Not just for the individual working out what is fundamental in his life, but also for us when we ask why every life matters; from the baby being christened, to the person we see struggling for liberty in a far- away land, or the one who our society writes off because they have low pay, or no pay.

This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold;

 For that which God doth touch and own

 Cannot for less be told.

God’s love, to use Herbert’s favoured word, is there for all people, it dignifies all people, and promises that whatever the outward appearance there are potential riches within.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Midnight Mass 2013

Sermon Midnight 2013

I saw a cartoon last week. It was about the 3 wise-men. They were gathered around a computer screen because they were following the star on Twitter.

You can recognise a successful story by the way it can be adapted to almost any time and culture.

 Wise-men searching for an elusive truth.

A family desperately seeking a safe place to bring their child into the world.

A message of life changing proportions coming in the loneliness of the night.

An ego and fear driven man of power who has few scruples about the means to hold on to what he thinks is his.

People may decry such stories as myth, without perhaps grasping quite what myths are and why we need them.

They travel so well because  they have universal reference to what it is to be human.

But at Midnight Mass the stories we associate with the birth of Jesus live on in the carols but are usually absent from the readings.

 Neither  the OT prophet Isaiah or the Evangelist, Saint John, are interested in specifics.

Isaiah has an inspiring message about a future  divine intervention in the affairs of men, which will come to the attention of the whole world.

 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

 Who brings good news,

 Who announces salvation,

 Who says to Zion.

 ‘ Your God reigns.

And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

St John sees that prophecy as being fulfilled in the events he is about to recount in the rest of his Gospel,  but in chapter 1, which is his introduction, he summarises what is to come using poetic and theological language.

And the Word became flesh and lived among  us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son.

But unlike Isaiah, who looks with hopeful eyes into the future, St John looks deep into the past.

His beginning is not in Nazareth or Bethlehem, but at the point that the universe flashed into existence, and life became a possibility.

In the beginning was the Word.

His take on that most fundamental of all philosophical questions, ‘ why is there anything at all?’, is look to Christ and you might find out.

If you ever decide to read the 4 gospels along-side one another, you will notice that Matthew and Luke very closely follow Mark, and can indeed be seen as commentaries on what he has to say, but when you get to St John you encounter something much more original.

 He appears to know what the others have written but from the off wants to tell it his way.

So there must be some reason why he avoids mentioning any details about Jesus birth. One reason might be that, as I said earlier, the Nativity stories are just so good. They get in the way of the bigger story he wants to tell.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to go whale watching off the New Zealand coast- well that was the intention.

I ended up back of head and camera watching because so many of my fellow passengers wanted to take a snap shot.

But a whale- a rare example of something actually worthy of the word iconic because of what it is, and what we have done to it- briefly leaving its natural element to catch air, before returning fathoms deep to hunt, is something much grander and more significant to my mind than anything  that can be trapped in an instant by a camera lens.

St John seems to be trying to remind his readers that the details of Jesus’ birth are only a small part of a much bigger picture, which he then proceeds to paint, using words.

When it comes to art my tastes are very boring- certainly very un -Saatchi.

Two of my favourites painters are Vermeer and Paul Klee.

In a Vermeer you can see incredibly fine details; of fabric, of a floor, of a facial expression.

 Klee, in contrast to Vermeer, dealt in abstract colours and shapes. In a  well known remark he said Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.

St John spells out the conviction that Christ has made God visible- the measure and meaning of all things. A message of cosmic import and dimension.

The other gospels writers who say more about the Nativity would not disagree, but like Vermeer, point to God’s glory in the smaller things which are easily within our grasp- Vermeer’s profound faith is often side-lined by art critics!

Within the realm of family and politics and when troubling but inspiring experiences of  the divine  come calling.

To engage with the mystery of the Incarnation- God entering into the world thru Christ and glorifying the whole of human existence and shining a light into every corner- we perhaps need both sides; the everyday and intimate focus that we find in the Nativity stories and the grand vision of St John- to help us get closer to what Christmas means.

 

 

 

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