David Houlding preaches at Glastonbury
FROM THE OPENING of the Rule of S. Benedict,
‘Listen carefully, my son, to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.’
Coupled with the words of Jesus from his High Priestly prayer,
“Father, may they all be one.” [John 17]
You can shop until you drop – quite literally – there is nothing quite like it. Shop, shop, shop. With over 350 shopping outlets, as I believe the modern phrase is, with restaurants, creche facilities, car parking that makes the multi-stories at Heathrow Airport look like a garden lean-to, your every need is catered for. It is a complete family day out. On the outskirts of many of our major towns and cities, we find these so called shopping centres, which are rapidly changing our lives. Known sometimes as shopping cities, they have been described as our modern cathedrals of the late 20th century – ecumenical temples of commerce where we may all be drawn together in the common pilgrimage of purchasing power.
So it was, shortly after Easter, I found myself driving from London down to Kent to visit the very largest such city to have been built, very close to the Dartford Tunnel just off the M25 – Bluewater. Complete with fountains, piazzas, and colonnades, all in the continental style, there is nothing quite like it, it is in a class all of its own, in the whole of Western Europe. Designed in a great triangle, and like every city in order for it to qualify for such a title, it has its great cathedral – a John Lewis store, larger even than the one in Oxford Street. With two clerical friends – how the clergy love to shop – we made our way to this great piece de resistance only to find – and yes, you’ve guessed it – it was shut. It was a Monday and, as any shopping gourmet will tell you, John Lewis is always shut on a Monday. In any case, we were told, the weekends at Bluewater were always so busy – indeed Sunday was the busiest day of the week.
And I reflected on what a topsy-turvy world we live in. What have we done to Sunday to make it the busiest day of the week. The day of resurrection has for two thousand years been different from the other six. Following in the tradition of the Sabbath, it is a day of rest, a day when the rhythm of the week is able to regain its strength, a day universally accepted as one with more space for family and friends; a day when, as Christians, we are obliged to worship the one, true and living God, who calls us into union with him through his Church, and to live our lives in obedience to his instructions.
In a remarkably short period of time, culminating in the reversal of the law governing Sunday trading just a few years ago, the whole pattern of the week and our lives accordingly have changed immeasurably. It is, in fact, not simply a question of what have we done to our Sunday?, but what have we done to our Society? How have we changed the whole structure of a weekly pattern of daily living, of the rhythm of time through the days of the week?
Shop, shop, shop. It is all rush and tear. Every day is the same – there is no respite or let up – indeed, the roads are at their busiest on a Sunday. With 24hour shopping and 24hour banking now readily available, the whole of life is changed by our shopping experience. Our modern cathedrals are indeed packed, but not with worshippers….
Well, S. Benedict was writing his rule in a very topsy-turvy world as well. He, too, lived in an age of extreme change, with the recent fall of the Roman Empire and new states jostling for power, people were left bewildered as they are today with such fundamental questions. As we look at Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, we ask where will the next war be. As we see across the world, as in Benedict’s day, great movements of people; of refugees fleeing from their homes for safety; of so many seeking political asylum in the so-called safe countries of the West, we ask: how can this be? While our country champions the cause of right on behalf of the refugees in Yugoslavia, at home the government seeks to tighten the controls of those coming here for safety through the new Asylum and Immigration Bill, now passing through the House of Lords. Our human family, as well as many individual families, is indeed in a state of shock.
In contrast, and in answer to this human problem, Benedict sought to create a rule of life that would once again focus on the fundamental rule of God, to echo those words of scripture, Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and for ever. Something which would reflect the rock-like nature of God – his sure stability amidst the shifting sand of life all around. In his Rule, he sought to reflect the rhythm of life, through prayer and work, pleasure and study; to create a balance between the different aspects of life, to divide up the day in such a way that it could all be offered up to God and consecrated to him. He wanted to build a school for Christian living. Laborare est orare is his famous dictum, to work is to pray. It is all of a piece; prayer is that which undergirds every human activity. Specific times of prayer serve simply to remind us that all we do is an act of prayer to God and entering into deeper communion with him.
His ordering of the day and ideas about the consecration of time seek to reflect the rhythm of life itself, so that the changelessness, the immutability of God may be experienced from day to day.
So it is that Benedict speaks of stability. It is, if you like, his fourth vow. A Benedictine is traditionally vowed to their house for their lifetime. In other Orders members can move, not so with the Benedictine. It is through the community, and in obedience with it, that stability is to be found and the strength which leads to spiritual growth. The local community is always part of the whole. Stability need not be inward looking – rather the opposite. The local is stable because it is part of the greater whole. Stability is necessary in order to give strength to others. Within the Benedictine life, this is focused in the person of the Abbot. He must listen to everyone, from the youngest to the eldest, but the decision is then taken for the good of all.
Now the Benedictine model for a community is also a good model for a universal church. Every voice is heard – the church must always, by definition, be inclusive. But authority needs to speak for the good of all.
None has embodied this more than Cardinal Basil Hume OSB, whose life touched so many beyond his community. As we commemorate St. Benedict today, we honour another great Benedictine of our own time. His inspiration was such as to make Catholicism as a way of life, acceptable not only to many Anglicans, but others of no faith as well as of other faiths. He welcomed those who in recent years have become Roman Catholics and became a true Father to them, but he also encouraged those who have continued in the Church of England, trying to make sense of the situation we face, through his generosity and understanding. He knew it was in the interests of the Catholic Church in this country to see a strong Church of England and a strong Catholic movement within it. As such, his influence over the Anglo-Catholic movement of our Church can never be overestimated. His memory will always be treasured by us. We owe him our gratitude, our prayers, and our love.
But it is now to the search for Christian Unity that I wish to say something in relation to the living out of this vow of stability.
It is fashionable today to speak about religious experience, as if what matters most is our own feelings and fervour or not, as the case may be. We seek self-justification over the traditional norms. We can hardly be surprised if the boat begins to rock when we use it as our private vessel, indiscriminately firing cannons of our own personal agendas.
What Cardinal Hume taught us, both in his life as a monk and as a bishop, is obedience. His unique gift and cause of his popularity and respect was his ability to listen and affirm everybody in their own experience and relate it to that of the Church. This he did without becoming like a doctrinal blade of grass in the wind, rocked by every fleeting change. It is so easy for the Church to be ruled by trend rather than the Gospel. He was able to connect innovation with the tradition, the ancient with the modern, the particular with the universal. He was, in essence, a good catholic. So he is buried in the Chapel of St. Gregory and St. Augustine, symbolically enough, and vested simply in his monk’s habit but with the Pallium – the symbol of papal authority and communion with the See of Peter – around his neck.
The questions that Benedict poses for us today are: where are your landmarks? Where is the stability in life today? Where is stability to be found in the life of the Church?
Benedict [and Basil Hume] is anxious always to relate to the local community with that of the universal. A local abbey is not a congregationalist chapel. It must relate always to the wider vision of an all-embracing universal Church. Of course, there have always been differences in the monastery, tensions within any given community – just as there are always differences of opinion within the parish or discussions in the diocese. What binds the monastic communities together is the Rule – and obedience to it – a common pattern of living, which creates stability, tried and tested, and universally accepted. It is precisely that sense of orderliness which prevents us from diversifying so much that we end up with little or nothing in common.
The Church of England has much to learn from this pattern of Benedictine life. What are the limits of our diversity, if our claim to be part of the Church universal is to be heard? How far can an individual province, or collection of provinces, be permitted to step out of line with the universal Church, especially when there is already a break with that centre of unity in the Church Catholic as it is? Any local church or community must beware of falling into the trap of what St. Bernard of Clairvaux called taking steps of pride in order to achieve its own ends. Humility here is the clue. Does not St. Paul warn of every vain blast of doctrine? Of the danger of not having a stable faith? The arrogance of our individual Church knowing better than the universal Church will only be overcome through a restored vision for the visible unity of Christ’s Body, so that His will might be done on earth as in heaven.
That universal stability, I believe, is only to be found ultimately in union with the See of Peter. Any Catholicism separated from Peter must be incomplete, and I believe it is incumbent upon Catholic-Anglicans once again to rekindle the ecumenical endeavour, which has been allowed to give way in preference to what could be described as our local concerns.
After all the upheavals of the last few years, Catholics who find themselves remaining in the Church of England now have a unique vocation to continue witnessing to catholic truth and to seek a fuller catholic identity for our beloved church. This can only be done, I suggest, through a renewed commitment to bring it into greater unity with that part of the Church from which it was hewn. The waters may have been muddied of late, but the C of E remains the catholic church in this land and continues to claim to be of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Christ throughout the world.
‘The future must lie with Catholicism’, to use the words of Archbishop John Hapgood. And indeed we must look to the rock from which we were hewn. Augustine was Gregory’s man. To this end, so recently, we have seen published the latest ARCIC Report entitled the ‘Gift of Authority’ – calling as it does for a fresh study on the part of all Christians on the place of the Bishop of Rome and for all once again to become in communion with the Apostolic See of Peter. It is a controversial report and one which, as we have already witnessed in the press, many Anglicans will find difficult to receive. As Catholics within the Church of England, we must see this document for what it is – a gift – it is a gift to us to enable us to rekindle this ecumenical vision for the stability of the catholic church.
And let’s be quite clear about it – if we, as Catholic-Anglicans, do not run with it, no-one else will. Indeed, we must lead the way. The report will have far-reaching consequences and will be with us for a very long time to come. It is part of a whole series of reports on the ministry, the Eucharist, where agreement has already been reached. What is now holding us back?
Our concern must be for a fully and truly catholic church in this land, validated by the Gospel, upheld by the tradition, stabilised by the rock of authority and obedience, sanctified through prayer, fed by the Sacraments, and ministered to by a catholic priesthood and episcopate. Above all, it must be populated by a faithful ‘laos’ – a faithful people of God – so completely imbued by the presence of the living Lord that all may be one and all may believe. The High Priestly prayer of Jesus is still to be achieved and is within our grasp. I pray that they may all be one. Father, may they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the all the world will believe that you sent me.
John Henry Newman said, ‘The Church gains nothing by sitting still. I am sure the apostles did not sit still.’ and ‘To change is to live, to live is to change. To be perfect means to have changed often.’ Our Church must be prepared to undergo many changes, if this unity is to come about, but never to lose its stability in the rock which is Christ.
Brothers and sisters, you and I are called today to witness to catholic truth as the Church of England has received it, and to work with renewed vigour for the healing of Christ’s broken body. There are many obstacles still to be overcome. There will be things we love which we will lose; there can be no gain without loss. There will be times when we feel threatened and will be upset, but we will never lose heart. Many shopping cities are still to be visited, where we will pick and choose according to our own tastes. But remember the menu is not a la carte, it is a table d’hote, a full menu, a complete menu, giving us all that is necessary for salvation – a meal that will satisfy indeed until we are brought to that heavenly banquet where food will be needed no more. For then our goal will be achieved, our quest over, and our unity complete. The John Lewis cathedrals of our present age will crumble as we rediscover our real cathedral – the rock from which we are hewn, even Jesus Christ.
As T.S. Eliot wrote
‘We shall cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.’
The prayer of Jesus will have been answered. In God’s time, and in God’s way it will be fulfilled – and it will be truly a vision glorious – Amen.
David Houlding is Master of the Society of the Holy Cross. This Homily was preached at Evensong at the 1999 Glastonbury Pilgrimage.