Sunday, 28 June 2015

Head in the Chapel, Feet Outside

A few weeks ago I went to Canterbury for a conference marking the 800th anniversary of the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215.  I never studied Magna Carta at school, so I have had to read up on it and it has caught my imagination.  While I was there I took the opportunity to see the grave of Archbishop Stephen Langton, who was influential in it coming to fruition.  His grave is not easy to find, hidden in a chapel in the south transept.  Langton was a scholar, who was part of a school of thought in Paris that was involved in disseminating ideas about what it means to be a good king, what just rule should look like.  He drew on his biblical study of the prophets calling kings to account.  He was also familiar with charters of earlier kings which set out rights and responsibilities for good government.  Langton was instrumental in mediating between King John and the barons in bringing the king to see that the charter had to be issued.  His thinking is reflected in it.

Stephen Langton’s tomb is interesting because of a twist of history.  Originally occupying the central position in the Chapel of St Michael in Canterbury Cathedral it got moved because a wealthy woman wanted the spot for her tomb, so Langton was moved under the altar.  The East Wall was rebuilt and the chapel shortened bizarrely leaving his head in the chapel and his feet poking through the wall outside.  You can see this in the two pictures on the back of the service sheet.  Having your head in the chapel and your feet outside is a good model of this church’s ministry in the heart of this city centre.  It is a good model for a church named after John the Baptist and also in this anniversary year for Magna Carta and we think about the church’s influence on it.

A lot has been said about Magna Carta over the last few weeks, not all of it accurate.  It is important because it is a marker on the long journey to democracy, but it is not a very democratic document, not exactly the charter of liberties people credit it with.  What it did establish was that the king was subject to the law and that taxes should only be levied with the agreement of what became parliament.  Justice is bigger than the individual monarch or ruler, bigger than whoever happens to be in power at a given time.  As a charter, the 1215 Magna Carta was abandoned within months, but it came back and became an important bargaining chip for the young King Henry III and his advisors when wanting to persuade the barons to fall in with him rather than the French prince who was after the throne.  It was revised to remove the difficult bits and the fourth edition, issued in 1225, is the one that really sets the tone for the future.  As a principle it proved inspirational around the world, not least for the American Bill of Rights.

In negotiating Magna Carta, Archbishop Langton knew how to keep his powder dry until the moment was right.  He kept his distance formally from earlier charters, though he may well have provided much of the thinking and encouragement for it.  He struck decisively just before Runnymede, getting protection for the church set out clearly.  Although this had already been agreed in a charter the previous year, he was skillful in how he brought it in.  He is a good example of how to do politics.  He knew what he wanted, he had a vision of what good government should look like, and he knew to keep his cool until the time was right.  He had his head in the chapel and his feet outside.  The Church of England can learn a lot when engaging in politics.

Having our head in the chapel means that we put prayer and reflection on life and faith as our number one priority.  It takes precedence over everything else, and it shapes how we approach everything else.  It sets our agenda.  But it does not exist in a fantasy world.  Our feet are to be outside, where life is real and where it makes a difference.  Anyone who thinks the church shouldn’t be involved in politics hasn’t read the bible.  They don’t understand what it means to be named after John the Baptist, who was hardly silent on calling rulers to account for their actions and abuses of power.  John the Baptist proclaimed the Kingdom of God and was not afraid to say uncomfortable things to miscreant rulers.  Those who want churches to be quiet usually don’t like what they are saying, which it has to be said is not a view that David Cameron has taken.  He is happy if he disagrees to say so and then the onus is on those who challenge him to come up with the arguments to back up whatever campaign they are launching.

Many of the issues that we face today are actually very difficult circles to square.  For some things there are no easy answers.  How Europe should respond to boatloads of migrants crossing stretches of water is not straightforward.  We can begin though by remembering that they are people who are desperate and have made incredible journeys in the pursuit of a new life away from horrors unbearable.  We have been reminded again what comes of what some of those horrors are with the events in Tunisia and France.  Many have been trafficked, some even phoning for help from inside a lorry outside our city.  The root cause of their migrating lies in the countries they leave.  Many of the ethical issues that we face today don’t lend themselves to easy soundbites, which makes communicating difficult in a media dominated age.  We saw this with the mitochondrial DNA debates earlier in the year.  Anyone who aims to speak on behalf of the church needs to work on how they are going to present their case, what the person who led my media training a number of years ago termed as ‘the Sun-reader’s headline’.  Having our feet outside means we have to do a great deal of research before commenting and the communicating needs to be clear what we see  the central issue as being, finding an accessible way in.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t comment but making sure we have something valid to say and that it is said clearly matters enormously.  And we won’t have anything distinctive to say unless it stems from a faith that is rooted on prayerful reflection; head in the chapel and feet outside.

These last few days have seen some atrocious acts and it is natural to feel nervous.  One danger is to blame all religious people for violence and want a ‘neutral’ world.  That is a delusion.  There is no such thing as neutral, nothing comes values free.  When we proclaim justice we base this on what we see as being true, right, how things should be.  That is always based on an underlying belief about who we are, who you are and how we should live.  If our faith doesn’t give us that it is in the words of the Epistle to James useless.  Faith without works is dead. But works without a faith, without a guiding philosophy, is routeless and directionless.  It floats free.  Faith that is true will be just, will be honouring and will be life-giving; it will bless.

Sitting, as this church does, in the middle of the city square we have a special vocation to proclaim faith as the inspiration for life; that blesses and proclaims justice.  We are called to follow John the Baptist in prophetical witness that calls to follow God, prepares for his Kingdom.  We are called to have our head in the chapel and our feet outside.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th June 2015

Friday, 19 June 2015

How to build a tiltyard

As part of the 2015 Heritage Festival, a tiltyard is being built in front of Peterborough Cathedral.  It will host jousts over the weekend, billed as the first in a city centre for 500 years.  It promises to be a spectacular show.

It has been interesting to watch the tiltyard being created over the last 24 hours, so below is a pictorial guide to how to build one.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Significant Anniversaries

This year will see a number of significant anniversaries.  They will all be marked in the Cathedral in a variety of ways.  On 15th June our attention will be directed to a meadow at Runnymede where King John was forced by the barons to issue the Great Charter, which became known as Magna Carta.  We will observe this as part of the Heritage Festival weekend (19-21 June), as well as it having been the theme for the Rutland Service back in March.  In September we will jump nearly 700 years to 1940 and this year being the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.  This is a significant occasion for the RAF and there will be a regional service to remember this.  That service usually takes place each year in St John’s Church, where I am also vicar, but this year the Cathedral will host a larger scale commemoration.  The following month we will mark local student, Edith Cavell, who as a nurse was shot by the Germans in 1915 for aiding Allied servicemen to escape.  Again the Cathedral will host special commemorations.

The challenge in all events in the Cathedral is to relate the story of the commemoration to the Christian story.  We are not just here to paint a holy gloss over whatever anniversary anyone might bring to us to mark.  That would be to capitulate the faith that challenges and inspires us.  It always offers something of blessing to honour but also a yardstick to measure against the events to see where we can learn and rededicate ourselves to live differently.  The standards of justice and righteousness always bring a call to repentance and acknowledgement of our frailty and fallible nature.

Magna Carta has become a banner of democracy and the 800th anniversary of it being sealed at Runnymede, near Windsor, has captured the imagination.  It has inspired charters of rights and good government around the world.  It is seen as the great standard for our own government to aspire to.  It was forced on a reluctant king, who ditched it within months.  It came back though, and version four is the one that has stood the test of time, sealed in 1225.  

Influential in the framing of Magna Carta was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and he based his contributions on the biblical principles of just kings who rule for the benefit and flourishing of their people, not their oppression.  He also wanted to protect the church from the king’s medaling and interference.  The first principle that the English Church should be free was a late entry in the charter, not in earlier drafts.  The version in the cartulary of Peterborough abbey, held by the Society of Antiquaries in London, seems to reflect an earlier version.  It should be noted that Magna Carta was sealed just 40 years after King John’s father, Henry II, had been responsible for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 and Canterbury Cathedral was being rebuilt at the time of Magna Carta following a fire, the climactic focus of the building being Thomas’ shrine.  Stephen Langton was instrumental in the design of Becket’s tomb.  Revenge really is a dish best served cold and decisively: the clear message is don’t mess with the church’, and Langton seems to have kept his powder dry making his move when the time was right.  The church had already been granted its freedoms but there was in Magna Carta a cementing of ancient understandings of what it meant to be a good king.  

Incidentally I still get a thrill out of the thought that the painted ceiling in the nave of Peterborough is probably how the ceiling of Canterbury would have looked prior to the fire there in 1174 and not only did we have a reliquary and chapel for Becket, but the building forms a link too.  Benedict, the Abbot of Peterborough at the time the ceiling was constructed, had been a monk at Canterbury and this may have inspired the décor[1].

Magna Carta was not quite the bill of rights at the time it was issued that it is assumed to be, though its scope has been expanded over the centuries as freedoms have become more universal.  The 1215 version protects the free, which did not include serfs and others in feudal bondage.  But as the freedoms we now take for granted increased over the centuries, the protections for ‘freemen’ have been expanded, and also extended to include women in the 20th century as emancipation increased.  The 1225 version is addressed to everyone.  That justice will be free of corruption, and not denied or delayed, is a foundational principle found in clause 40.

“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice”[2]

There are provisions for inheritance and for widows, taxes will only be imposed by the agreement of parliament, liberties of certain cities are set out, goods are to be paid for and not extracted by menaces, weights and measures are to be standardized so that people are not cheated, trial by jury is enshrined in law and there is something strange about fishing on the rivers Thames and Medway.  If we read the Old Testament books of Amos and Hosea we can find the justice behind these clauses set out and their infringements castigated.  Magna Carta enshrines some foundational biblical notions of ‘doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8).

We have travelled a considerable distance since 1215 and the later versions of Magna Carta.  We have gone from a notion of the Divine Right of Kings to a constitutional monarchy with governments being elected.  Magna Carta was a landmark in the journey setting out that even the king was subject to his laws, though that has not always been obvious, and that taxes are only to be levied with the agreement of Parliament.  This year is also an election year where the sovereignty of the people is demonstrated.  We have chosen to remove monarchs in the past (Charles I, James II, Edward VIII) and even decided to appoint others overriding direct succession (Victoria), so our Queen occupies the throne by consent.  Once we pick at the threads of absolute monarchy and dictatorship, democracy is inevitable.  Magna Carta sets out some key principles for democratic and just government.  Even the strange references to fish weirs are about the protection of free movement of trade.

The Battle of Britain in 1940 was a defining moment in the RAF’s history, even though it didn’t exist as such then.  Their 100th birthday will coincide with our 900th anniversary celebrations of the rebuilding of the present Cathedral structure in 2018.  Battle of Britain Sunday is for the RAF a significant date that stands alongside 11th November.  It is sometimes said that the first duty of government is defence.  From the Bible, the first duty of government is justice, which is why Magna Carta matters so much to us.  But justice requires security for it to be maintained, so defence from aggression is linked.  As a child, my mother-in-law recalled seeing dog fights overhead in Kent and watching the planes setting off and some returning to airfields nearby.  It was a memory that stayed with her for the rest of her life.  The airborne battle was touch and go, and the outcome could easily have been different.  War brings courageous sacrifice, the putting of lives on the line in the hope of achieving liberation and the defence of freedom.  The cost is all.  It is never to be celebrated, always marked with a somber reflection on what has been required, even though we acknowledge the bravery and self-sacrifice of those who rose to the hour.  That it came to this is a moment best marked by silence.

Remembrance Services in the Cathedral, as in all churches, are moments when the struggles and conflicts of now are placed under the searing judgment of the eternal.  In the centre of the Cathedral hangs George Pace and Frank Roper’s crucifix with the Latin motto of the Carthusian order underneath, ‘Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis’.  This translates as ‘The cross stands while the world turns’.  Our faith is a still point around which so much moves and rushes, clamours and struggles.  We crucify so many in the process and the Christ there catches the broken, twisted lives that are destroyed.  It brings them to redemption and shines out a hope of a new tomorrow where peace and justice reign so that all can flourish.

Edith Cavell attended a school in Laurel Court, the large house on the western side of the cloisters.  Her lamp hangs on a pillar in the south aisle of the nave, above a memorial to her.  Although she is buried in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, formative years were spent in the shadow and shelter of Peterborough when she attended the school briefly in the 1880s.  She is remembered for treating the wounded of both sides of the First World War.  Humanity displayed amidst the hatred and violence of warfare.  One of the drives for Just War Theory is to bring restraint and limitations to the horrors of war.  It too finds its roots in the Bible.  Edith Cavell was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman from Norfolk.

She was arrested on 3rd August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers.  At 7am on 12th October she was executed by firing squad at Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, Belgium.  The night before her death her words to the chaplain who took her communion have become inspirational and are recorded on her memorial near St Martin-in-the-Fields in London:

“Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

This is a counter to the ‘my country right or wrong’ patriotism that drives divisions and builds conflict.  It holds out the hope of reconciliation when the guns fall silent and the prospect of building a new peace where justice has space to flourish.

The central theme holding these major commemorations together through this year is that of the real primary purpose of government: the upholding and pursuit of justice.  Keeping these anniversaries is a moment to recall what sustains this and the cost when it is threatened or attacked.

This is an amended version of an article in the 2015 Peterborough Cathedral Friends' Journal, correcting some errors in the one submitted for publication, for which I apologise.

[1] Paul Binski ‘Peterborough Cathedral 2001-2006 from Devastation to Restoration’ Paul Holberton Publishing 2006 page 79

[2] David Carpenter ‘Magna Carter’ Penguin Books 2015 page 53

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Jesus in my porridge - Corpus Christi

I need to acknowledge my wife’s brother for this, because he posted the link on Facebook and it rather set my mind off on this train of thought.  The tantalizing title was ‘Is there any Isaac Newton in my bowl of porridge?’  I don’t know why Isaac Newton or a bowl of porridge were chosen, but they catch the attention.  The question is based on how frequently the cells in our body are renewed, that we are largely water and the food we take in, which forms the raw ingredients for atom and cell structure, is also largely water.  The amount of water that passes through us is enormous and the cycle of water is such that it moves round the world.  We are what we eat, literally.  Due to how our bodies replenish and replace atoms all the time – skin flakes off, nails and hair grow, other cells are replaced – and use the food we eat to do this, basically atoms get moved about and are sometimes part of you and sometimes part of me and sometimes part of the carrots on your plate.  The baby you is not atomically the same you as the older you is and the older you are, the more stuff has been recycled.

One answer, after some very big number maths, is that there will be about 10 million atoms of Isaac Newton in every ounce of what you eat.  The claim is that the same is true of any other person who has ever lived. So the theory is that your bowl of porridge, or pie, or whatever you are planning on having for tea, contains the elements that made up Isaac Newton and pretty much every other person who has ever lived.  Bon Apetite!  Whatever the actual scale of this, there does seem to be some sharing of atoms between people at different stages of their lives.  And of course that would include Jesus, because he was a real person of flesh and blood, and as he lived and grew his atoms will have changed just like ours do.  Now this idea took me on an interesting thought journey.

When Jesus says ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’, I don’t think he actually meant it like this, but, if this is all true, there is a sense in which it really could be.  He was referring to the bread and wine at the Last Supper which have become this central act of worship, the Eucharist, and we repeat his words.  Made of physical food, they are just like my porridge and contain atoms which have been recycled from all sorts of other things and people.  Some of those people will have been good and some not so, even evil.  Since water makes up so much of us and that water moves around the world, who knows who we are eating with this bread and wine. 

The sharing of atoms means that we are fundamentally linked in our humanity, in our physicality.  We turn out to be even closer than being metaphorical brothers and sisters.  We are structurally linked!  When we say that this Eucharist binds us together, is a vehicle of unity, then it now has a layer to it that really does link us.  But we also look at this at another level, focusing our communing on Jesus Christ.  To limit that, or hone in on one person in particular, something else needs to take place, beyond the surface physicality.

Here, the crucial element is Christ’s words to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.  When we take this food, we retell the story of Jesus, we retell his life, his teaching, his call, his transforming love, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and inspire us.  We bring into the present all that he meant and continues to mean.  We make his story the defining story for everything we do, not least eating the elements which will become us, the atoms which will form the cellular structure of our bodies.  There is in this Eucharistic act a declared intention that we want to be shaped and moulded, guided and to live like Jesus.  We take on the food that will become us and say may these elements form us into the likeness of Christ.  To do that, we retell his story.

And because we are sharing the elements of Christ and the elements of all humanity, or at least a shared humanity, we are united in this sacrament in a way that I don’t think I had really thought about in these terms previously.  We share the physical atoms that make up our world, our life, our shared life.  These are the same elements that make up the people who work for good and those who work for evil, just like Jesus shared that fallen humanity in becoming one of us.  He did not claim a special exemption here.  So in him the physical elements are blessed with a holiness that raises us to the throne of God.

A 4th century Bishop of Alexandria, St Athenasius, talked of Christ sharing in our life that we may share in the divine life: ‘Christ became human so that we may become divine’.  In this meal we say that what it means to be human is to share in the created order of the universe, made with the love and purpose of God, and touched by the blessing of Christ.

So take this bread and wine in remembrance of Christ, eat and drink, and be thankful.  You are sharing the body and blood of Christ, in the Corpus Christi, of humanity, of the call to grow in his likeness.  As you eat the elements that made him may the sharing of his story make you grow in his likeness.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral for Corpus Christi, Thursday 4th June 2015