Silence is golden
WE HAVE just celebrated the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the chapel of St John’s College. The Tudor chapel here was dismantled after a sermon by William Selwyn suggesting that the college needed a new one. At the same time, and in a very Victorian manner, he offered a warning: “The glory of Athens lyeth not in her walls but in the worth of her citizens. Buildings may give lustre to a College, but learning giveth life.”
Learning also giveth disputes. After the new chapel was built, there was “a battle of sermons” between differing theological positions. Finally, to cool the atmosphere, all preaching was suspended until further notice. The suspension lasted nine years. I’m sure I’m not alone in college in occasionally wishing it was still in place.
PREACHING has been much in my mind lately, as a collection of 50 of my sermons is being published this summer. Although some sermons (by Eric James, Michael Mayne, Barbara Brown Taylor, and others) have influenced me profoundly, I don’t really warm to books of them — including this one. Sermons are not texts: they are events. Something is lost when they are pinned to the page, and it was tempting to edit them into little essays to be seen and not heard. I resisted; but it makes me nervous when I think that the book’s chief value might be as a helpful antidote to the many current sleep disorders.
Who sweeps a room
IN 1619, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes said in a sermon that our charge was to preach to people “not what for the present they would hear but what in another day they would wish they had heard”. I can’t help wishing that the world’s political leaders might take this to heart, too. Andrewes was one of George Herbert’s great mentors, and, as I try to write a short Lent book looking at some Herbert poems, I find myself once again drawn to those early-17th-century Anglicans who combined devotion to God with honesty about the times of dereliction. Their prayer and humanity were mutually expressive in a way that shows up the warm shallows of much of contemporary Christianity.
“God loveth adverbs,” Herbert’s contemporary, Joseph Hall, said. As I get older, I understand that it is not so much what we achieved in this life that matters as how we went about it — and that includes our mission.
I WAS happy to lead this year’s annual pilgrimage to Little Gidding. It ends with a laying of flowers on Nicholas Ferrar’s tomb, and I said my “Thank you” to him for not having put Herbert’s poems on the fire when he was sent them by his dying friend.
I read a variety of poems to the hundred or so pilgrims at our various stops en route. After some A. A. Milne, we resumed our trek and found ourselves in a field heavily utilised by sheep who, I can only assume, were munching laxatives as well as grass. The line I had just read — “Wherever I am, there’s always Pooh” — seemed remarkably apt.
Sense of proportion
I HAD never been to Lancaster before, and was happy to discover it. I was speaking at a conference made up of clergy and laity who serve in minsters and large church buildings across the country. We were looking at how the visual and other arts can help to interpret who we are and where we worship — as much to ourselves as to visitors.
I recalled overseeing a project which involved positioning Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo — a life-size figure of Jesus on trial — outside the door of St Paul’s Cathedral in Holy Week. One angry priest (there seem to be quite a few around) protested that I had subverted the authority of the church by placing a statue of Christ in front of the cathedral, because it made the building look so grand in comparison. Hmm. Go figure.
I AM now preparing to lead an ordination retreat. It’s always a privilege to do this, and it takes me back to my first time when, as we boarded the bus, I happened to notice the travel company’s strapline boldly printed on its side: “Happily taking you for a ride!” I told the driver it might be best not to park outside the Bishop’s house.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.