A Sermon preached by The Revd Angela Tilby on 22 May 2011, at Corpus Christi College Chapel on the theme of Temperance, one of seven Sunday evening sermons preached on the theme of Seven Christian Virtues.
When I realised that, in this series of sermons on the virtues, the chaplain had assigned to me the virtue of Temperance I wondered whether it was intended as a personal comment on my lifestyle – a not too subtle prod to go on a diet or to watch my alcohol units. I thought I had drawn the short straw among the virtues. Temperance seems such a chilly virtue; a snobbish distrust of the bodily appetites, a frozen smile of disapproval at pleasure.
I suppose also in the back of my mind were the Temperance movements of the 19th century which encouraged the young and the poor to ‘take the pledge’ to abstain forever from alcoholic drink. Tea was the virtuous drink for those who might otherwise have been tempted, ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’ as William Cowper is reputed to have said, though I don’t find much cheer in the limp tea bag dunked in luke -warm water that passes for tea most of the time. The whole thought of the Temperance thing tends to provoke in me a rash fit of Epicureanism: ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’. Except that eating and drinking most of the things I enjoy brings that tomorrow we die a little nearer.
So I swing, as many of us do from fits of abstinence into fits of indulgence. And our culture and habits encourage that swing, inviting us to reflect on the confessions of the rich and famous especially those who have nearly wrecked themselves with drink and drugs and sausage rolls; with those who remain intemperate and those who have embraced sobriety. We mimic them. It is not uncommon to find people (especially when embarking on a demanding career) working all the hours God gives for four days a week, eating little and drinking mostly only coffee, and then on Friday going out and get smashed, doing the same on Saturday, sleeping it off Sunday, and then starting the whole cycle again on Monday morning. Effort, work, reward, punishment. Start all over again.
Once I had got to this point in my mental preparation for this sermon I began to see how if those people swinging from abstinence to indulgence were not healthy and potentially rich, but poor, jobless and vulnerable it could just be that the temperance movements offered a beacon of hope and dignity to those they reached, just as AA and other twelve step programmes do today.
But I also realised that I was confusing Temperance with abstinence. They are not the same thing. So I apologise to Temperance and start all over again with the recognition that Temperance is a broader virtue than abstinence and perhaps a harder one to learn.
Enter Sophrosyne: the Greek goddess and guardian of Temperance our underrated and misunderstood cardinal virtue. Sophrosyne is about balance, moderation. It is about not being driven by our instincts and our impulses, and at the same time not being so afraid of our instincts and impulses that we can’t enjoy anything. Between the extremes is a sane way to live. And there is a remarkable consistency across religious traditions about the importance of finding this balance. The Talmud says, ‘The Torah may be likened to two paths, one of fire, the other of snow. Turn in one direction and you die of heat; turn to the other and you die of cold. What should you do? Walk in the middle’ (Hagigah 2.1).
So temperance is a kind of poise, a life skill, spiritual yoga. In the classical tradition it is not only a cardinal virtue in its own right; it is necessary for the other cardinal virtues. Without temperance courage become simply recklessness. Without temperance justice descends into vengeance. Even prudence needs temperance if it is to rise above cautious self-preservation. And this takes us to the heart of what temperance is all about.
It is the virtue that comes from becoming aware that we are constituted by multiple relationships. Our most intimate relationships are with our own bodies. But we are also related to the bodies of our past and future, to our parents and children, and then more widely with the bodies of our immediate friends and neighbours, rivals and enemies, with nature and with the whole planet. ‘There are two ways to live in the world’, says Joan Chittester, a Benedictine sister who has written a wonderful commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. ‘We either live in the world as if we were connected to it like a leaf to a tree or as if we were a universe unto ourselves.’
Intemperance is to live as though we were a universe unto ourselves – a kind of gross denial of reality. It is trying to live as though we had no bodies, or as if our bodies were instruments of our will, possessions for us to do with as we like. For some the fact that we were born without our personal consent is an affront against which we rebel. For others the fact that our personal death is already stalking us in our genetic make-up is a challenge which drives us to beat it.
Sophrosyne, Temperance invites us to find a way through this glorious, complex, enticing web of relationships so that we become whole and holy within it. Yet I think many of us only learn by our excesses. I am not a great fan of Tracey Emin’s work, but you can’t help feeling that anyone who is able to obsess about herself in so many different media and with such obvious industry and drive will inevitably end up as a wise old much-loved national treasure. Which may or may not be what she desires. She might actually become holy – it has happened before, because the swings
between indulgence and abstinence can be the way in which we actually learn the middle path of wisdom. So there is spiritual potential in that hangover that makes you swear you will never drink again; in that regrettable indiscretion with the chocolate biscuits, in that sexual disaster that leaves you embarrassed and humiliated; even in that outburst of inappropriate anger in which you suddenly recognise that you are sitting on a volcano of unresolved rage; whenever you find yourself ‘gratifying the desires of the flesh’; as St Paul would call it; there is an underlying call to turn aside from violence towards ourselves and others.
And this is what Paul calls, ‘living by the Spirit’, living by the Holy Spirit who fills the whole world, because it is the Spirit that opens up and blows through the web of complexity in which we live, the Spirit who guides us if we allow the divine life to come to life in us. And these are the fruits of the Holy Spirit: ‘Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.’ As Paul says, significantly, there is no law against such things. In other words these virtues do not need to be repressed, they are not dangerous to ourselves or to society. They do not destroy our bodies or our minds. They do not damage our most intimate relationships. They are the opposite of violence. At this point the ancient virtues of the classical world and Christian goodness come into harmony with one another. This should not surprise us if we really believe that truth is one. The Middle Way of Temperance is universal.
But accessing Temperance does involve some action on our part, a willingness to be mindful of the truth which underlies the virtue, the truth of our relatedness. And this is where I think the Christian Gospel has something to say that goes beyond the universal wisdom that all can access. For those pursuing virtue in the classical world Temperance was a matter of personal effort and discipline. You could train the body and mind for moderation and greet your achievement with due satisfaction. It was a mark of superiority to have risen above the grosser appetites of the body. And you know what tends to happen then? You increase your efforts at self-control, to increase the pleasure at being rather better at living than other people. And so you end up with the chilly virtue I began with.
Christianity took root among the poor, among those who were greedy because they were hungry and didn’t know if they would eat again, among those who glugged a bottle of wine to keep them warm and have a few moments of bliss, as people to do today on our streets.
Paul says that those who belong to Christ crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. Not only greed, but also pride, not only lust but also cold self-sufficiency.
The human vocation is to walk the middle way between the animals and angels, which the Gospel tells us, is the narrow way of Christ which keeps us connected to everyone and everything. We are crucified with Christ between the extremes, we are raised with Christ bringing all things back into unity. The Spirit is the seal of our relationship with God, making us ready to suffer with others, to be trusting, humble and hopeful, not denying the good things of the body but receiving them with thankfulness and generosity. Temperance is forbearance, forgiveness, mercy. It is what the Lord Jesus Christ brought into the world and celebrated in outrageous banquets and lavish miracles; signs of the kingdom to which he invites us today and every day.
A sermon preached in Norwich Cathedral on the Sunday after Ascension, 5 June 2011, by the Revd James Buxton, Chaplain of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, and 2010/2011 Parker Preacher.
All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. +
Thank you very much for welcoming me to the Cathedral today. As this year’s Parker Preacher, and as the Chaplain and a Fellow of Archbishop Parker’s old college, (Corpus Christi in Cambridge), I would like to greet you on behalf of the Master, Fellows, and Scholars of Corpus. We treasure the relationships which were started because of Mathew Parker’s concern and generosity, and indeed that of his wife Margaret. And we hope that by God’s grace we will be enabled to continue to honour their intentions.
I would like to begin with a few words about the Parker sermons, or the Norfolk Course as it is known. I apologize to those who have heard an account of them before. They are surely a remarkable survival of one old Archbishop’s wishes, and those of his beloved wife. My maths is terrible, but if my calculations are correct, I am the 444th Parker preacher, and that means that since 1567 when the first ones were preached, there have been something like 2200 Parker sermons preached in Norfolk. It’s a terrific amount of preaching!
The sermons have always taken place in the same week every year, beginning on Rogation Sunday (that is last Sunday) at Thetford, and concluding here in Norwich on the Sunday after Ascension Day.
These days the sermons are shared out between two preachers who cover the four sermons between them over a two year span. The pattern is broadly the same today as it has always been, with two or three sermons preached in Norfolk, and two in Norwich itself. Originally it was the Master or a Fellow of the College who would have preached them all, riding from place to place during the week. Over a day’s ride, I would have thought, from Cambridge to Thetford for the first sermon, then onward to Mattishall by Tuesday. This was where Mrs Parker was born and brought up. She endowed the sermon herself, by allocating the income from nine acres of family land towards it. Apart from paying the preacher, the money was to be given, a shilling each to the thirty poorest households in the village, as well as to somebody called Mr Sparrow and his family, the schoolteacher, and the vicar. On Wednesday there was originally a sermon at Wymondham and then the two Norwich sermons, here at the Cathedral in the morning and finally the sermon at St George’s Fye Bridge, where I shall preach this afternoon.
The last – very touching and unusual act of the preacher – is to say prayers for the repose of William and Alice, Matthew Parker’s beloved parents, at the graveside in St Clement’s Church Yard.
As Archbishop Parker had various concerns. He felt that Norfolk was a very unruly place and religiously very wayward, and as a loyal son of this county, that bothered him a lot! There was a shortage of decent preachers in the countryside, and had a deep anxiety that the Church he led was in peril from opposing forces – those who missed the old dispensation dreadfully and wanted it back, and others who thought the reformation had only just begun and still had a long way to go until it was complete.
Parker’s avowed intention, was to keep a middle path between these poles in an effort to preserve and build up unity. The sermons weren’t just free standing – they came with scholarships at Corpus Christi College and gifts towards schools, alms houses and a concern for poor families – as we have seen in the case of Mattishall. Who can fail to admire that this sixteenth century figure could see that all these things were connected?
The first part of the week of sermons takes place within the short season of Rogationtide, which first came into the church calendar as early as the fifth century. Rogation from the Latin ‘Rogare’, to ask. Better observed in former times, these are days of intercession for God’s blessings upon rural life. Prayers for farmers, for fruitfulness in the land and for seasonal weather are said, and parishioners marked out the boundaries of their parishes as many still do, by beating the bounds.
Just imagine how, during times of unrest, and plague, drought and flood – and there have been many such times over the last half millennium - these rogation prayers for God’s mercy and generosity must have been heartfelt and intense. It is easy for us for us to forget this in the smoother and more prosperous seasons which we enjoy. I like to think that my forbears on the Norfolk Course would have dwelt on these things, their imaginations fired by the people and places they encountered on those Norfolk journeys. Today’s preacher, nipping up from Cambridge in his Ford Fiesta on the A11 may miss some of what they saw!
There is Rogation and then there is Ascension. For the Norfolk Course is also a spiritual journey – from heartfelt intercessions for fruitfulness in the land, to thanksgiving for the Ascended Christ. The theme moving from those intensely local prayers which we are called to say, for people and places to the cosmic and universal. From the farm labourer’s hut on the parish boundary, to the dwelling of Christ at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Not that these are in any sense opposites, as the message of these Ascension days, is the meeting of heaven and earth through the love of God and the work of his Son.
On this pivotal day in the Church’s year we look back towards Holy Week and Easter, to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the everlasting life and love that he lives for us for ever. It’s not at all that in the Ascension Christ has somehow gone away, like granny in an old newsreel, stepping off the platform into a steam train with the smoke curling around her as it pulls out of the station, leaving us waving ‘goodbye’ helplessly. I’m joking of course, but some of the imagery and hymns we have do put it rather like that, and we have to cast an indulgent eye on the too-literal representations of the scene we may have seen – like the big leathery clod-hoppers that are seen disappearing into a brilliant blue sky in a window of King’s College Chapel, or those famously dainty slippers you may have seen at Walsingham vanishing into a puff of cloud.
It is not Christ’s absence that we celebrate today, but something expressed beautifully in the prayer of Jesus from St John’s Gospel which was read a few minutes ago. Jesus longing that his disciples may be one, gathered up through his sacrificial work, in the Father’s love. This prayer expresses that sense of Jesus bringing his disciples with him into the Father’s presence, where they would always be safe and always cared for, bound together now and always by his love. That is why we prayed in the Collect today, that we might be exalted to the place where he has gone before. Words which express a profound truth: That in Christ our humanity is taken into the divine life, and that this is not just a future promise, but a present reality. By God’s grace, by Christ’s gift of his own life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, we may live in communion with God now.
It must have been that sense of utter security and trust that gave the disciples confidence, faith and hope on the first Ascension Day, so that they returned to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, together with Mary and other friends, to pray and to be full of joy, undaunted by the dangers and challenges which lay ahead. Confident that the Holy Spirit of Jesus would come to them as he had promised to them so clearly. The Spirit who is at once comforting and consoling, and also challenging and inspiring.
It is part of our calling to be Rogation people. People who ask God for goodness, peace, for his blessing on our lives, our parishes, our nearest and our dearest. And that means being deeply engaged in the local. But our life in Christ Ascended, animated and inspired by his Spirit calls us ever more deeply into his love, more and more to share his longing for that love to be all in all. That is why our prayers and our actions for peace and justice are so important. Our consciousness closer and closer to his, full of compassion for the whole universe, and especially for those parts of it which are distorted by fear, exploitation and need.
We know the pattern of the year and that we shall celebrate the coming of the Spirit in a week’s time. Let us now - in this Eucharist – and in the week ahead prepare our hearts and minds to be inspired again, to be surprised, and to be refreshed in our faith and love by the ascended Christ, when we celebrate the sending of his Spirit at Pentecost.
Jesus prayed to the Father, All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.