Sermon: Founders and Benefactors 2011
The Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York
Preached on 20th November 2011
(Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors)
by The Very Reverend Keith Jones
“Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened”
Never was a hill more perfectly crowned than this. It has become a turreted island of sanctity and scholarship. It holds aloft castle, university and above all cathedral. And these are set in an ancient and distinctive town, and that town is set in an industrial and industrious county whose history has been most marked by the proximity of the Scots and the availability of coal. All those who love the intricacy and particularity of English towns love Durham. And today we celebrate and prize that unique quality and glorify the Holy Spirit that has given such a gift to us all.
Durham Cathedral is a telling contrast with York Minster. I regard the passion for ranking preferences among cathedrals as the vice of an age obsessed with winners. Each has its own genius, and does in some things what no other does. For example: York Minster is a church of a major crossroads, a capital town, an imperial and archiepiscopal landmark. It is not a warlike place but a mercantile, and its close is negligible; an uncloistered site not demarcated from the city. The clergy have generally been considered worldly – as worldly, say, as Laurence Sterne who traipsed in to preach frequently there in the 18th century. Lay vicars at York had once been notorious for their lax morals, and the nave for years became so habitual a resort for the citizenry that they barely removed their hats. York’s shrine of St William, I confess, is in keeping with a church so close to the market streets and the drawing rooms; for although we like you have at least kept the body of our saint, he is in comparison with Cuthbert and Bede an indistinct figure, and I suspect more the symbol of an ancient marketing campaign than somebody whose sanctity caused spontaneous veneration (though I am told that for certain discomforts of the bowel his influence is surprisingly effective). By contrast, Durham is a shrine set aside and above, a Benedictine secret, a daedal mystery. York Minster is approached now by a boulevard, which the Victorians thought altogether an improvement. But what a contrast with here! Who does not value the survival in Durham of Dun Cow Lane and Owengate? From Palace Green Bishop Ranulph Flambard even evicted the market so that “the church should neither be endangered by fire nor polluted by filth.” It’s good to know that worldly bishop had such fine perceptions. He drove the worldliness out, so that still we come to the heart of the maze, the secret of the casket, the place of mystery, surrounded by scholarship and guarded by a castle tower. Here is a place of safety. Here fabrics and documents survive beyond all expectation. I may be wrong, but it sometimes seems to me that those who work in what used to be the academic groves now seem to me to be rather hag-ridden people, but if you want a picture of what life dedicated to finding out ulterior causes for things should at least look like, Durham is as good as you will find. Certainly that is how it has been on this hill for longer than the University has been here. You will perhaps be familiar with the late Professor Southern’s celebration of Canon William Greenwell, who died in 1918:
“He had been the parson of a parish and canon of Durham for over 50 years; he had been Principal of a University Hall, librarian of the cathedral, Justice of the peace, Fellow of the Royal Society, he had edited two important volumes of mediaeval documents; he had discovered in a secondhand bookshop some precious leaves of a manuscript of the age of Bede; he had had invented two highly successful flies for catching trout; he had collected seals, and excavated prehistoric barrows. He died in his ninety-eighth year and perhaps the type died with him. ....this human and tolerant tradition represented the most lasting contribution of the Benedictine Order to the world.” (R. Southern, “Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages”, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1970)
I am incidentally not clear the spirit has died, though it is a style harder to achieve in our world. All this leads me to suggest that Durham and York provide an illustration of two aspects of the teaching of Christ. He too was active in the market place and the city square, like York. But he withdrew, prepared himself for loving service by seeing things at a distance, devoting time to vision and meditation. And that also is necessary, especially in a world where escape from the instant communication with the world is now universally difficult. it would be wholly wrong, in celebrating Durham, to look back only and think only of heritage. Durham, as the place above and outside, provides an experience of penetrating to the heart of reality with singular power.
That is part of its fascination. Coming to Durham is responding to an invitation to a discipline, to entering the pattern, to explore it with a particular intent, and seeing the world from another angle. If you don’t seek you will certainly not find. Too many people pay good money to see things the wrong way, like the man I remember coming out of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence once, about half an hour after he went in (God knows how long the queue had been). “I had a look, but I didn’t see much I liked”, he said. “Time for a cappuccino” I suggested. But if you come to search, Durham will help you to the heart of things.
The visitor comes through the bustling life of the town, from bridge and market place to narrow climb, to where there is space to draw you to the intriguing door under the shaven, uncarved towers of Zion, where the mystery of God’s real presence imbues material things and ordered human life to a more than usual extent. So anyway I like to imagine and so read this lovely place. At the heart of it, deliberately and steadily, is the Holy Eucharist, where we do not know where in the bread the human making and the divine reality have their boundary. But the blending is here evident in other things too. Here are the bodies of the holy people, Cuthbert and Bede, which are in one way mere carbon traces, mere earth, but, as T S Eliot expressed it “tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”. And then, as if to state the theme definitely, there is Tom Denny’s window celebrating Michael Ramsey, showing the Transfiguration, with God’s glory shining through created things, not destroying but completing, not abolishing nature but fulfilling it.
I do not know if it is right to say that particular places are more holy than others. But in some places, we are especially helped to see who God is if we want to. The art of seeking God was once taught to each generation without their realizing it was being taught. Now, the sheer volume of information deafens us to what we once did with comparative ease. We know all about, and we do not know what. We see endless surface detail, but we are resistant to the depth of things, where God meets us. It is as if our present culture made us like people at a concert but with our hearing impaired, or placed before the most delicate food with a burnt tongue: no wonder so many atheists are at once so keen to tell you how they think religion is for fools and bigots but are also so very angry. I think our culture has let them down.
To such a spirit of betrayal, we, as we give thanks for the people who have enabled this place to be this place, are resistant. Never more than now such a place as Durham is needed. Here there is an opportunity for those who come in any capacity to learn to see, to taste the quality of the gifts of God in ways we had forgotten.