THERE’S A LOVELY PIECE by Liz Dodd in The Tablet this week about the “anti-Jubilee resolve” in her that hadn’t yet considered what two archbishops (Canterbury and Westminster) had: the Marian-like “fiat” or “yes” uttered by Queen Elizabeth II sixty years ago, and the resolve, perseverance and dedication with which Her Majesty has fulfilled that promise.
“Prince Charles’ speech at the end of the concert (‘my father has been taken unwell’); the Queen, accompanied only by a Lady in Waiting to the Service of Thanksgiving; Archbishop Williams’ brave words about ‘ludicrous financial greed’ at that same service – [which] will stick in my memory long after I’ve forgotten the hymns, the hats and the pearly sword”
Liz writes of the importance of the humanity revealed in the celebration, and of how
“My own anti-Jubilee resolve eventually crumbled when I found myself stuck in a pub in Hackney that was showing the concert. As the national anthem brought the event to a close everyone – every hipster, drinker and cynic in the bar – stood up. Including me.”
This is really important stuff. A theological college Principal recently suggested to one of our ordinands here that “I would really have to see the whites of their eyes before I preach.” The way we feel about people, and their celebrations and circumstances, and the way we speak with and to and amongst them, is changed irrevocably when we’ve truly met them as human persons, as “one of us”. That, of course, involves a very particular kind of “fiat”, a very particular kind of commitment to the persons we presume to know, address or speak about. Preachers and would-be teachers in the life of the Church (or any institution) absolutely owe it to their hearers to make some real effort to know WHO it is they’re addressing, to know something of the issues going on in the lives of the human persons seated before them. (And actually, whether you’ve a congregation of 20 or 2000, or a Commonwealth of billions, that’s really not an easy thing to do).
Once upon a time I worked with a church council who were exceptionally unkind and discourteous to one another and to the people they were called to represent and serve. Meeting in a cavernous ecclesiastical space, all parties felt at liberty to “slag off” any and all others at will. So we moved to a much smaller space and we sat round a table that made for a tight fit. Behaviour improved immediately. Falsely inflated opinions about persons are deflated by proximity to them.
Still, however, we all find it easier to be rude about others than to them. Proximity ordinarily makes us more civilized (and we really are pompous buffoons if it doesn’t). Close up, one can almost hear the heartbeat. Close up, one can feel warmth and loving kindness, or isolation, illness, anguish or pain. Close up, one can feel one’s own falsity and neediness, and hear one’s own balderdash and blustering. Close up, we wonder, embarrassed, how we ever came to be in possession of such grandiose ideas of our own importance in the scheme of things. (Sight of Archbishop Rowan’s desk and study in the recent Lambeth Palace video left me thanking God for a gentle, humble, scholarly GIANT of an archbishop, at around the same time as I spotted an account of his reading The Gruffalo to playschool children). Close up, the idea of inclusivity feels a better idea than we’d hitherto imagined (and we’re acutely aware of our own longing to be accepted for who we really are). Close up, a particularly vociferous and homophobic “Christian” of my aquaintance, suddenly saw, in the Bishop Gene Robinson he’d hitherto despised, a loving, warm, kindly and Christ-like human being – and repented of his former arrogance and “theological and doctrinal certainty.” Close up, we’re faced, and others are faced, with the reality of our character, values, and virtues – or the lack thereof.
Moving, forgive me, from one ecclesiastical journal to another, I was delighted to read the Church Times account of the University of Birmingham’s having been given “a multi-million pound award” by the Templeton Foundation (great videos) “to support [The Jubilee Centre] the first UK centre dedicated to research into the character, values, and virtues that shape UK society” … The director of the new centre, Professor James Arthur, said:
“In the aftermath of the August 2011 riots, there have been many calls for the renewal of public and private virtues. As a country we appear to want to change people for the better and so improve the quality of public life. However, there is very little definition of what these changes might be and how they might be made. The Jubilee Centre will not simply research past and present attitudes to character, but help to develop new knowledge and understanding of character that will benefit civil society.”
The same edition of the Church Times carries an extract from a sermon of Dean Jeffrey John who, attending St Alban’s Cathedral as “an ordinary worshipper” a week before being installed as its Dean, was approached by someone who didn’t know him and invited to sign a petition protesting his own appointment! That’s nearly as odd as one of my own, more straightforward – if impatient – parishioners who complained directly in my first week: “but we don’t know you …“
Liz Dodd’s article in The Tablet, some reflection upon the Queen’s “fiat” – and her 60 years of absolute commitment to making real effort to know her peoples, together with an ever more widely adopted willingness to “see the whites of their eyes before I’d preach” would make for a really encouraging, exciting start to the Birmingham project. Well done the Templeton Foundation (again). This is research I’d really love to be involved with in depth. But, then again, I am. We all are. Her Majesty the Queen, the governments of the nations, the faith traditions, the philosophers and thinkers, the peoples of the world, we’re all involved. And I do not doubt that yet further grace will flow from Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. Magnificat! There’s real hope.
” … every hipster, drinker and cynic in the bar – stood up. Including me.”