Sermon on Bishop Foss Westcott

I had a very interesting conversation with someone recently who surprised me by saying that after years of church attendance they had become disenchanted with Christianity. We then had a fairly long conversation about some of the reasons.

Among them were that they were no longer comfortable with the insistence that so many things simply had to be swallowed whether you agreed with them or not. That dogmatic certitude was demanded.

Another was that the Sunday service was so busy, and wordy, that there was no room for silence or deep reflection. Mindfulness and attentiveness- key elements of spirituality were simply pushed out.

I had a lot of sympathy with what they were saying and took it as a sharp reminder of how we clergy and others responsible for worship and the understanding of our faith can end up projecting a message, completely at odds with what we think we are seeking to convey.

Or should I say ‘ let be heard’ ?

Because I am not in control. I am not the guardian of the Gospel. The keeper of the mysteries. Too often ministers do inadvertently, or deliberately give that impression.

 I would argue that we should be rather more like singers or musicians whose main vocation is to let the music be heard.

The music of the church being polyphonic, because God’s Word always comes to us through a variety of voices.

When the person reading the Scripture says this is the word of the Lord at the end of the lesson that voice may have been articulated by a prophet living 3,000 years ago, or a psalmist crying out to God during a war 400 years later, or St Paul grappling with what is the most important facet of a thriving church- his answer of course being love.

When the priest at the end of a reading from one of the four Gospels proclaims.

‘This is the Gospel of the Lord.’

He or she is saying here in the story of Christ, told from a variety of perspectives, by four separate spiritual writers, wisdom, truth and God can be found.

Christian truth is never conceived as unmediated- as a crystal clear fountain of rules and certainties.

 It is always about people, responding to something from beyond themselves, and within their own integrity and their actual context as a human being, seeking to connect with it and be nourished by it- I might again suggest , like music- or indeed poetry or philosophy.

The Church of England has its own formulation for thinking about these things- dating back to the C16th.

Scripture/ Tradition and Reason.

We have the whole Bible to gain inspiration from, and be challenged by.

As Christian people before us have been practising their faith and putting it into words for 20 centuries we have their wisdom and experience too as resource. Saints and theologians, artists, architects, painters, poets and good people.

But we also have our world and our collective and individual place with it. No previous generations before the 1940’s had to ask what should a Christian do in response to nuclear weaponry or artificial intelligence or mass extinctions.

 The Bible and those who have come before us did leave us many resources for being human in a complex world.

Yesterday the Church of England celebrated the life of Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott.

I will guess that most of you will be immediately thinking, who?

I think he is an ideal example of someone who understood how this three part formulation should work out., and he is now part of the tradition himself.

His life- very briefly.

He was born in Birmingham in 1825. And one of his earliest memories is of civil disturbances in the city around the Chartist campaign for a more participative democracy for all people.

 His father was a botanist.

He was educated at the famous Edward V1 Grammar school in the city.

And studied at Trinity College Cambridge, before becoming a fellow.

 After marriage, in 1852, he split his time between scholarly pursuits and school mastering.

He became one of the preeminent New Testament scholars of his day.

 In 1870 he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, and later became in turn Bishop of Truro, and finally in 1889, at the age of 64, the Bishop of Durham.

And he had 7 children, one of whom became an archdeacon, and two of whom became bishops themselves, in India.

But I want to pull a few threads out of his life.

His father’s devotion to botany passed on to Westcott a love of the natural sciences.

He made a very close friendship with one Joseph Lightfoot at school- a friendship which developed into scholarly collaboration. Lightfoot even became Bishop of Durham too – immediately before he did himself.

And at Cambridge he was invited to become a member of the Apostles- A kind of thinking man’s anti Bullingdon Club- a select band of seriously minded intellectuals who got together to think and converse over coffee- Ludwig Wittgenstein was a member in the following century but he felt it was too unserious!

But all these relationships were knitted together by affection and respect, as well as common intellectual endeavour. Lightfoot and Westcott, with a small circle of others went on to produce a text of the New Testament, drawing on all the scholarship available since the King James version appeared 300 years earlier, which was really aimed at establishing what Scripture really said- all modern English translations build on their pioneering work.

And his experience of political turmoil as a child marked him, and when appointed to Durham he got involved in social and political matters. His intervention in the miner’s strike in 1892 brought reconciliation.

He became a leader of the Christian Social Union, along with Henry Scott Holland, who laid the foundation stone of this church.

If you have ever heard a preacher say that at the heart of Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation, and that it is Christ coming into the world which inspires Christian engagement with the political and social realm, they have been influenced, probably indirectly, as he is rarely read these days, by Westcott himself.

But there is something invaluable about his legacy which might help to answer those deficits I started with. The Bossy, noisy and dogmatic side of Christianity.

He was attuned to the polyphonic nature of the Bible. He didn’t see tradition as a reservoir of ancient immutable ideas and practices, but as the lived experience of people living with questions and complexity.

He saw science as another resource for understanding the world and he delighted in it

And he was convinced that just as Christ walked in the fraught political Middle East 2000 years ago, the love of God revealed there and then still illuminates the world today. The Incarnation is not an obtuse doctrine but the insight that everything is sacramental. Shot through with God’s glory. People and Creation.

I will finish with a short quotation from Westcott himself which I find particularly important today.

As years go by there is a great danger lest we should lose the ennobling faculty of wonder. We are occupied with small cares and they become the measure of our universe.

Failures depress our faith; and disappointments dull our hope.

 Then the great spectacle of sovereign love rises before us, and the common things of earth are  again touched with a heavenly light and become to us figures of the divine.

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