The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham’s sermon from the licensing of canons at Durham Cathedral on Sunday 5th November 2017.
LICENSING OF CATHEDRAL CANONS
Sunday November 5th 2017
Margaret Masson (Lay); Val Shedden, Dorothy Snowball, David Tomlinson (Clergy)
Isaiah 66.20-33 & Ephesians 1.11-end
We are in the season of remembering. Today it is, ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November’. Val Shedden did ask me if there would be fireworks this afternoon. I wondered if the choir might have processed out at the end with lit sparklers … but somehow it did not quite fit. During the past week we have celebrated both All Saints and All Souls’ Day where we have remembered all those who have gone before us following Christ; all who have gone before us through the journey of death. Many parish churches will have held special services remembering those who have died in the past year. Next Saturday the nation will once again pause at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We will do so to remember all those who gave their lives in two world wars, and in conflicts since. This will flow into Remembrance Sunday. The following weekend along with 12 others from the Diocese I will be with our linked Lutheran Diocese of the Nordkirche remembering with them the impact of the world wars on their nation; set this year also in the context of all the remembering they have been doing around Martin Luther and the Reformation.
Re-membering is important for us, both personally and as societies and communities. A failure to remember is a failure to honour and cherish those people and events that have shaped and made us. A failure to remember is a failure to learn from the mistakes and errors that have damaged and torn the fabric of our world and lives. Remembering matters.
But this season of remembering prepares us for the great season of hope; the season of Advent. Our readings this evening have pointed us forward in that direction. They are filled with hope. So let us turn to consider them briefly. I want to do so first by saying a little about each of the 4 new canons.
Today we have admitted into this great Cathedral’s College of Canons 4 people who in differing ways demonstrate ‘faith in the Lord Jesus and love towards the saints.’ They are 4 people who have ‘set their hope on Christ’ and in whom we see something of ‘the spirit of wisdom and revelation’ for which Paul prays for all God’s people.
Margaret Masson now leads the life of St Chad’s College as its Principal. She has been part of the life of this University College for some years. St Chad’s is a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, academic, administrative and domestic staff. It also hosts many visitors for conferences and training during the vacations. St Chad’s has a long history of prayer, worship and seeking to help all engaged with its life to discover more of the extraordinary hope that we have in Christ. It seeks to be a place where ‘ all flesh, all peoples, come to worship the Lord’. Margaret has been key to this for many years. Alongside this she offers care and support to many through her engagement at St John’s Nevilles Cross, and in the wider life of both church and university.
Dorothy Snowball is one of those remarkable people who offer themselves fully to serve as an ordained priest on a self supporting basis. She has not only lead St Thomas’ Eighton Banks serving its community with the good news but she has trained a curate and serves as Area Dean of Gateshead. All on a self supporting basis. She lives out evidence that ‘the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for those who believe’ is worked out in daily life and ministry where people offer themselves willingly to serve.
Val Shedden is one of those people whom some would describe as larger than life. There are few dull moments when Val is around. In the parish of Consett she is committed to the very best for a community of which she has been a part for all her life. More widely she supports and encourages the great work of the Mothers Union across the diocese. She is one who continually seeks to encourage and to point people to hope in Christ. For in a community that at one time struggled for any future vision she helps people realise that where God is there is always hope.
Then our 4th new canon is another Area Dean and parish priest. David Tomlinson is also Chair of the House of Clergy in the Diocese. Here is another person who inspires people to have hope. St Johns sits at the heart of the community of Shildon. The growth in numbers involved in worship is significant; noting that this is far from being about Sunday services only. The many community projects that flow from Shildon Alive have been recognised now nationally as well as locally. What fuels all of this for David, and his wife Davina, is prayer and a conviction that hope in Christ really is transforming of not just individual lives but of whole communities.
So these new canons are 4 followers of Jesus Christ who bring fresh gifts of wisdom, service and hope into the life of the Cathedral.
There is a permanent danger for a place as wonderful, grand, significant and powerful as this; a danger I know the Dean and Chapter are well aware of; a danger that the College of Canons partly exists to both remind of and help respond to. This danger is of being separated from some of the harsh realities of poverty that exist across the diocese. Of course the Cathedral is not alone in this; wealthier churches and communities can easily forget, rather than remember, the reality of financial poverty. I was personally starkly reminded of it last Friday at the first gathering of the Stockton Poverty Truth Commission. Here were deeply discomforting stories of the reality of financial hardship. Yet here too there were stories of hope; of some of the riches found in poorer communities – riches of care and mutual support; riches of extraordinary resilience and creativity; riches of friendship and family.
For it is across society that we can find hope just as we can find despair.
Our reading from Isaiah offers a huge vision of hope. God creating a new heaven and a new earth into which all are welcome. Our reading from Ephesians fills us with the hope that is found in Jesus Christ. A hope which looks to the redemption of all creation; a hope which looks to true fullness.
It is relatively easy to draw a picture of our world which gives us reasons for concern; rising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere; seemingly never ending conflict in the Middle East; tensions with North Korea; strife and hunger in South Sudan and Congo; higher numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in the world than ever before; the uncertainties around Brexit; the confusion of Parliamentary life; the deep uncertainties around Donald Trump’s leadership of the world’s most powerful nation- enough I hear you say.
Too often visions of hope are too small or too bound around material matters alone. The Christian hope is one of God’s purposes being fulfilled. It is a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. But this is not simply ‘pie in the sky when we die’ it is a hope that is intended to impel us into action here and now. It calls us to pull the future into the present. It calls us to be a people who offer hope to the suicidal student; hope to the broken community; hope to children in a local school; hope to our environment; hope to the person who sees no way out of addiction to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. Just as the first Christians spoke and lived a new message of hope in Jesus Christ we are called to do the same today.
New canons in a Cathedral College may appear simply honorific and perhaps even quaint. I want to challenge us all to actually see them as signs and people of hope; encouraged by this act to continue to be people of hope in Christ who help others discover that hope personally and in community; and people who help the Cathedral keep being a place and community of hope itself.
So in conclusion, I pray, with St Paul, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give us all a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may what is the hope to which he has called us all. Amen.