From the fourth chapter of St Luke’s Gospel: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Last Friday, I found myself together with your Dean of Chapel at a funeral. We didn’t actually connect – we’ll come back to that word later – but we’d spoken earlier in the day so we knew that we were both going to be in Southwark Cathedral later on.
The man we were there to honour – Canon Eric James – was for me a consistent encourager, friend and inspiration. Wider still, he was thought by many to be one of the finest preachers of the second half of the twentieth century. For many years, he alternated Mondays on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day with Rabbi Lionel Blue.
When your Dean and I were preparing for ordination at Westcott House, there was no preaching course. We actually started our own. On enquiring why no provision was made we were told that “one picked it up by osmosis”. I would submit that ignorance is a dubious quality to be picked up by osmosis and then liberally shared with unsuspecting worshippers across the church. I know that Eric James agreed. “The Preacher,” he was wont to say, “has the Bible in one hand, the newspaper” – I guess the ipad, iphone, or blackberry these days – “in the other, and the full extent of his or her hinterland infused by the Holy Spirit in between.” The aim is to bring the challenges of the Gospel to the fore for a particular community at a particular time and place, and tonight this inevitably means reflecting on how the Gospel is good, indeed liberating news for the poor. It also means considering who, from the perspective of this College community, we suppose the poor to be.
We shall return to those questions.
Eric James was a great exponent of preaching quite simply because he brought his whole spirit-infused hinterland to bear on it. Shakespeare was his fifth gospel, other poets, artists, composers and musicians his sixth. His life experience, well, that added a very long Gospel – with the biblically significant status of being seventh.
You’ll recall I mentioned that your Dean and I didn’t connect at the funeral. But it didn’t really matter because all of us there were connected of course through our love of Eric James, through his love of us, and the friendship we shared with him and which he encouraged us to share with one another.
Speaking directly into the sense that here was a cathedral full of friends, the funeral preacher – whose task I did not envy one bit – based what he said on a sermon I heard Eric James preach when Richard Harries was consecrated bishop of Oxford twenty five years ago on Ascension Day in 1987. Indeed, he produced variations on this sermon which was itself a series of variations on EM Forster’s famous dictum from Howard’s End, ‘only connect.’
“Only connect …”Eric counselled the new bishop, “only connect scholarship and the church, not least in the pulpits and pews of university and diocese. Ensure that those who read and who teach theology,” he continued, “connect with the realities of life; indeed [ensure] that theology rises out of the realities, the often cruel realities of life. In these past months and years,” he added, “it has thankfully become abundantly clear that the church has not lost its ancient power to connect with and speak to the soul of the nation, and to recall it at this time from an uncaring absorption in sectional avarice to concern for justice and compassion. Only connect church and state …”
I’d suggest that these observations and challenges made a quarter of a century ago, speak as urgently if not more so to us now. Challenges which surely take us to the heart not just of what true education but of what true discipleship is all about.
If in this college and university connections are not made, if the nuanced business of connecting we call atonement – at-one-ment – the overarching form that this connecting takes in the Christian worldview. If, here, such deep connecting is not moving beyond being merely a learnt behaviour and establishing itself instead as something instinctive, something that’s part of our DNA, then we shall simply end up further along the utilitarian cul-de-sac, to the end of which the current Secretary of State for Education beckons us, and which is only after all the one-way street down which so many of his predecessors since the 1980s have encouraged us to walk.
The poor, in this sense, are as much those who are intellectually and spiritually impoverished – unable or unwilling or lacking the opportunity to connect with the riches on offer – as those materially impoverished because they cannot access their daily bread. Both kinds of poverty need attention and alleviation.
Eric James’s passion – it must surely, I repeat, take us to the heart of what it means to be a university or society, indeed of what the kingdom itself is – his passion was to connect the academy and the ghetto. This was so because the Gospel imperative is to have this world become nothing less than the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, that’s the journey that made explicit in the synagogue at Nazareth.
But if that sounds daunting – it is – he energised this vision by the means that such a community as your own most has to offer, most claims to offer but which the relentless drive to hit targets and markets, could easily push to the margins of corporate life.
Eric James never wrote an autobiography – “not a question of skeletons my boy,” he once joked to me, “more a question of cupboards!” He was outrageous and risky – always pretty close to the cliff edge, the place, incidentally, well not incidentally but fundamentally, from which all the best pastoral care by priests and the best connecting by disciples is made.
“Faith, hope and chastity”, he once remarked in a sermon – as his funeral preacher reminded us – “but the greatest of these is hope!”
He never wrote an autobiography but he did write a memoir, The house of my friends. It’s based on a line from the prophet Zechariah and it’s a celebration of friendships across the generations of his life. But equally it’s about those friendships which, to use Alan Bennett’s words, arise through “breaking bread with the dead”, those sustaining friendships on which the life of any university turns. It’s a beautiful book full of Eric’s characteristically pellucid prose. But the beauty can’t mask the pain; since it doesn’t ignore the cost of friendship, the potential for disappointment and betrayal that must be as true in this college as in any human community. It’s certainly true of the church.
When Zechariah refers to the house of my friends it’s actually in a context of some pain, the pain of discovering his own identity: “and if anyone asks the prophets, what are these wounds in your hands or chest,” he says, “the answer will be ‘the wounds I received in the house of my friends’.”
Eric knew those wounds of friendship as deeply as he knew the transfiguring light of healing. He didn’t forswear, as I’ve suggested, the complexities of human living, the messiness as well as the glory of human relationships. He embraced reality fully, sometimes too fully, and it often cost him dearly. He discovered that he was gay at a time when society told him to be so was to be deviant and criminal, and when the church told him to be so was to be damned. Some, sadly, have not moved so far from those un-Christian assertions. In a way, he was never quite able to be himself as a result. He sublimated as the jargon goes. He preached connection in the hope of making it. Sublimation is also risky of course. But for him it took the form of the gift of friendship, which he bestowed liberally, and in respect of which very few have in my experience been as generous.
The multi-disciplinary nature of a college like this one suggests the possibility that the liberality and generosity of friendship, of shared insights, experiences and perspectives across generations, not simply within them, is utterly central. It also suggests a place to learn the wounded-ness of friendship and to discover how healing and transfiguration may emerge from crucifixion. I want to challenge you to reflect on how far this is in fact the case. Is the dining across the generations, for instance, merely purple prose for the prospectus, part of the history of a supposed golden age that never existed except in the minds of the romantically-inclined, or is it real? And is it a sign in a deeper sense of what characterises this community? As St Thomas Aquinas might have put it, is this a school of friendship that is therefore a school for at-one-ment, for salvation. Because let me suggest that the Gospel for a place like a college today may perhaps only be fulfilled in your hearing if this is the case. And let me go just one step further by suggesting that the fragmented and fragmenting context not just of this nation but of our global context, surely demands that we exercise our responsibility as citizens, as people of faith and good will privileged to be called together in this particular place, by modelling what it means at best to be a dependent, independent and interdependent community? That’s of course rather ugly jargonese. But what it looks like in reality is shown at Nazareth when a young rabbi has the courage to challenge his elders with the age-old call to alleviate the poverty of vision within and the material poverty without their community, and when his courage is matched by theirs in the conversation that it prompts. That’s what the jargonese looks like when a community has become a house of friends, with all the transfigured wounded-ness that this entails. For then the Gospel is indeed on the way to being embodied and fulfilled. Thanks be to God.