From fresh-faced student to principal of the same college in the space of 20 years, and with a detour to Blackburn of five years.
I speak of course of our friend Chris Chivers who is now the principal of Westcott House, Cambridge. That’s where he trained for the priesthood, and now he’s training priests. (For other links between the Cathedral and that College, please see John Bertalot’s inestimable publication Music and More!).
I have no doubt that some pretty lively days lie ahead for the students there. In some ways, I wish I was one of them.
But it was not ever thus.
I studied for the Methodist ministry literally across the road from Westcott, at Wesley House, starting there the year before Chris Chivers was born.
In those far off days of the so called swinging sixties, relations between the churches were not as swinging as they are now. I fear that we Methodists, mostly from the North of England, looked upon those southerners with their cut glass accents and their ready consumption of alcohol as a class apart. I shudder to think what they thought of us, but I have no way of knowing, because we had nothing to do with each other. I know, these stereotypes are ridiculous, but I’m sorry to say that’s pretty much how it was
Truth be told, I did not really enjoy my time at theological college. I think it had something to do with the fact that the exceedingly strict rules allowed me to entertain my fiancée in College only between the hours of 4.30 and 5.15 pm, before we had to get back to our studies. Marriage even as a mature student was absolutely out of the question. It made the life of a monastery seem free and easy by comparison.
But my, how quickly things changed in the revolutionary 1960’s.
Philip Larkin said that sex began in 1963, between Lady Chatterley and the Beatles first LP
I don’t know about that. All I can say is that two years after I left, married students, even with families, had moved in, and lines of nappies were strung across the lawn; prams parked around its edge.
Still, at this time, the pattern of family life of a married couple with two children was seen as the norm, and any kind of deviation from it often an unmentionable scandal.
But my, how things have changed.
Today, the Catholic Church has just finished a three week gathering of bishops in Rome, called by Pope Francis as the ‘Synod of the Family’: (be it noted, of course, that its participants are all unmarried men!)
The aim is to try to reach some sort of agreement about how to deal with the fact that many families are now very different. Many Catholics are divorced and have re-married, but they are not allowed to receive communion. Most couples co-habit before they get married. Although the Church wants to offer a warmer welcome to gay people, and recognises that this is not usually a matter of life style choice but a natural and therefore God-given inclination, it finds it hard to know what to do: not least because some of the bishops will insist on quoting a verse from the Old Testament which demands the death penalty for homosexual acts.
But the Pope has asked the bishops to recognise that the traditional teaching of the church is not, as he puts it, “a museum to view, nor something merely to safeguard, but a living source from which the Church must drink “. He urges them to be guided by God (I really like this) “the God who always surprises.”
Today is Bible Sunday, and a key verse from today’s readings is in the letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking correcting and training”
Now I absolutely believe that the Bible is God-breathed… inspired by God and that it is fundamental to our faith.
But the right way to understand it is not to pick out isolated verses and take them always literally, but to follow the grand sweep of Scripture, and to interpret it in the light of Jesus Christ, the keynotes of whose ministry are acceptance, welcome, forgiveness and mercy.
There are some in the church who take this text from Timothy as meaning that the Bible is the infallible, unchanging, fixed and rigid word of God, which cannot be questioned. And there is no other yardstick by which our life-styles should be judged.
But that is not the position of the Church of England.
The students at Westcott House will be taught, as indeed were those across the road, that the word of God is mediated to us through Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and that we must use all three to guide us. When we do, we will realise that our understanding of God and of his world and of his will must inevitably develop and change. As the Pope said, we are not inspecting a museum, but drinking from a living source.
Let me give you an example of how this works: there are plenty of verses in the Bible which could be used to justify slavery, but we have come to realise that it is completely incompatible with the gospel.
It is true that St Paul said to the Colossians “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything….”
But the more William Wilberforce, Member of Parliament and an evangelical Christian studied the slave trade, the more he realised that something must be done. Reading reports of how young Africans were kidnapped 700 at a time and blindfolded as they were loaded into the hold of ships where there was space for no more than 100; chained together, flogged at any sign of dissent, starved, sick and dying by the score, their bodies tipped into the sea so that
the slave traders could be sure that they delivered only healthy slaves to the plantations…the more he was absolutely determined to abolish the trade…which he did 26 years later. And it was entirely on the basis of his Christian belief that “in Christ, there is neither slave nor free, but all are one in him”
Just before the Dean baptises Ella-Mae, he will pray over the water that identifies us all with Jesus Christ who is the living water, whose love and mercy and forgiveness are shown in every encounter with him.
It is he who is the centre of our attention; he who guides us in the way we should live; he who offers us life in all its abundance.
In the silence which was called for before the bishops at the Synod of the Family began their deliberations, the crying of a three-month baby rent the air. There was no little consternation among the assembly: how could this be allowed to happen at such a solemn moment in such an august gathering?
It turns out that the sound came from the mouth of baby David Paloni, whose mother and father were attending the Synod in an official capacity; technically as ‘auditori’, that is ‘listeners’ to the debate. I can only assume, but I don’t know for sure, that, having listened, they would be expected in some way to share their thoughts with the church fathers.
How reminiscent of the occasion when the families brought their children to see Jesus, and his friends said No, you must not disturb him. His reply? “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”
Surely we now understand that no one who has faith in Jesus Christ must be hindered, barred, disqualified or ejected from his kingdom.