Sermon: Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors
Right Honourable Lord Hurd of Westwell
Preached on 25th November 2007
by Right Honourable Lord Hurd of Westwell
Speech by Rt Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell Commemoration of Founders and BenefactorsDurham CathedralSunday 25 November 2007 We meet to celebrate today the great institutions of Durham, the Cathedral, the City, the University. We give thanks for St Cuthbert and for all those Benefactors who helped to found and preserve what we see around us today. The task of remembering is perhaps easier at Durham than elsewhere. I can think of no city in this Kingdom where the achievements of the past are as strikingly visible as they are in the great buildings gathered on this hill. St Cuthbert worked in an age of dissolved authority. Men and women were struggling to recreate in a new way some form of authority based on that sense of community without which all authority is fleeting and insecure. Around them the Wall and the other ruins of Rome reminded them of one kind of authority, but that had vanished beyond recall. The Saxon Kings fought each other for territory but while they did so a different kind of authority was growing up from below. The religious houses in which St Cuthbert worked, Melrose, Ripon, Lindisfarne established themselves as points of light in a dark world. It was not easy to keep the light burning because those who tended it often disagreed. In St Cuthbert’s time there was fierce argument between those who followed the Roman and those who preferred the Celtic tradition of Christianity. But at the Synod of Whitby the need for authority based on community enabled wise men to override this difference. Thanks to St Cuthbert’s patience and persuasions that agreement held together, and the points of light kept burning. We live again today in a period of dissolved authority. The Saxon kingdoms and their equivalents across the world evolved slowly into that collection of nation states in which all of us have passed our lives. They still provide a familiar framework. In any atlas we can see nation states marked by clear firm boundaries as if they were decreed by God or nature, though in fact most of these resulted from the ebb and flow of battles long ago, or from treaties negotiated in distant rooms. Indeed the United Nations, the whole international structure of law and treaties in which I have spent most of my working life, depends on the assumption that these 192 nation states each represent a genuine authority. What is the foundation of that authority? The sociologist Weber defined a state as an entity which has a legitimate monopoly of the use of force. That will pass as an adequate definition; it conveys a truth which we do not always recognise. In any developed country law is an institution which rests day by day on silent consent rather than on physical force. If physical force were the only reality then a city would be at the mercy of a mob, a prison under the control of convicts and an army dominated by any group which staged a mutiny. This assumption of organised consent within the boundaries of a nation state has defined the nature of international relations for at least two centuries. We have concerned ourselves overwhelmingly with the questions of war and peace between nations. In the nineteenth century a balance of power was constructed between the nations of Europe; in the twentieth century that balance collapsed into two world wars. In a great burst of institution building after 1945 our predecessors created the United Nations and its family of organisations; they were intended to supersede the balance of power as an instrument for securing peace and wellbeing. But these international institutions still rest firmly on the membership of nation states. They are growing rusty now after sixty years and efforts to improve and modernise them have so far had meagre results. One reason for this is that the fundamental assumption underlying the nation state is crumbling. In this century the agonies of the world are increasingly caused not by wars between states but by the breakdown of states. We agonise over the suffering in Darfur, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. We try to mobilise policies of nation states and the resources of international institutions to cope with this suffering because these are the only means at our disposal. But we have to acknowledge that they are inadequate, or at least adequate only when they sustain local leadership and the local desire for peace. From outside we can help to keep a light burning; but it has to be lit from within. The same is true within our own country. I sit in the House of Lords watching and sometimes commenting on the never ending parade of legislation from the Home Office and now the Ministry of Justice designed to prevent crime and improve the security of the citizen. But the passing of laws can only be peripheral and auxillary. One of the main tasks of politicians in this age is to explain to the electorate the limits of political authority. You cannot by law create a safe neighbourhood, a brilliant teacher or a good parent. So in the twenty first century we are back with St Cuthbert in the 7th, tending our points of light, not downcast by the darkness which surrounds them. These points of light may be great events or great leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and the peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. It may be a great university. It may be a priest struggling in a desolate apathetic parish. It may be even smaller, even a single candle lit in a cathedral out of good will. One of the institutions of this city is Her Majesty’s Prison, Durham which I visited as Home Secretary. In developing the prison the authorities had to dig up the area in which hanged prisoners had been buried. They found among the graves several tiny glass containers which had once been filled with flowers. Someone, in disobedience to strict rules, must have thought fit to honour the disgraced dead and so lit a small light of compassion in a human heart. Of course Presidents, Prime Ministers, Secretaries General of the UN, Archbishops, Bishops must continue to work with the institutions at their disposal. We must not despair of tools because they are not quite the right shape or because they have been partly distorted by misuse – if they are the only tools we have. St Cuthbert probably did not welcome being summoned back into the world of ecclesiastical politics from his contemplative cave on one of the Farne islands. He heard the call. But the work of conferences, cabinets and parliaments in this world of dissolved authority will not prosper except by the light of all those, such as the Benefactors whom we remember today, who showed in their individual lives how the darkness could be overcome.