Bishop Dominic’s sermon for the installation of Canon Jeremy Winston as Dean on Monmouth in Newport Cathedral on Saturday 10th September 2011 (taken from the Diocese of Monmouth website)
Some of you may be old enough to remember a series on BBC1 called All Gas and Gaiter in which Derek Nimmo played Mervyn Noot, the bishop’s chaplain. The series ran from 1966 until 1971 and featured life around St Ogg’s Cathedral. The characters included an amiable and happy-go-lucky bachelor bishop, a very tall and very elegant and somewhat aristocratic dean (the Very Revd Lionel Pugh-Critchley) and an elderly archdeacon (played by Robertson Hare) who was rather fond of the sherry and still had an eye for the women. I can’t imagine how the script writers could dream up such unlikely characters, but the programme gave an insight into cathedral life which was very protective of its history and traditions and somewhat independent of the bishop and the rest of the diocese.
A cathedral should of course, be rightly proud of its history. Worshippers at this cathedral are frequently reminded that Christians have worshipped on this site for fifteen hundred years and it was recently featured in a new book about the five hundred holiest places in Britain. This cathedral is indeed built on a hill. Parts of the building are a thousand years old and the restoration works being carried out are to ensure that the cathedral will stand in this place for many generations to come. This is indeed a holy site, hallowed by years of prayer and it is an important symbol for the city and the diocese.
The gospel reading reminds us of the importance of building on a solid foundation and not on sand. There are many shifting sands in our society, and in the recent riots Britain has witnessed what happens when society lacks the values of respect, discipline and justice. There is no point blaming it on parents, teachers, politicians or the police – we all need to ask questions about the society that we have created or with which in various ways we have colluded. A society built on shifting sand will not survive, but a society built on the values of the gospel where there is love, truth, justice, mutual respect and forgiveness is a society built on the rock that will survive the test of time.
A cathedral is primarily a place of teaching. It is where the bishop has his cathedra, his chair and from which, in former times, he would sit and teach. A cathedral is a place where the preaching and teaching should be biblical, inspirational and challenging. I remember some years ago attending Evensong in Cape Town Cathedral when the Dean, Edward King was preaching. [He had incidentally been ordained here in this cathedral]. As the Dean got into the pulpit, I heard a woman behind me say to her neighbour, ‘I have been listening to this man preach for nearly 30 years and I have never heard a dull sermon yet’. Wow! And I can still remember the sermon! The gospel reading challenges us, Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and never do what I tell you? Yes, there should be no distinction between what we believe and how we behave – word and action should be in perfect harmony.
A cathedral set on a hill is a reminder to the city that the ‘Big Society’ is not a new idea – it is something the church has been doing for two thousand years. The Christian faith teaches that men and women are made in the image and likeness of God and are infinitely precious. It reminds us that we are given stewardship over God’s creation and entrusted with the task of making the world a place of peace and justice. The teachings of Jesus fly in the face of many modern values that are about achieving wealth, beauty and fame. We are called to bring faith and hope and love and to seek those values and virtues that are of eternal significance because they are built on rock, not sand. Jesus said, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice – and then everything else will be given to you’. Justice (or to use the old fashioned word ‘righteousness’) lies at the very heart of the Christian faith and the lack of justice made Jesus angry. The account of the Cleansing of the Temple reminds us of how Jesus reacted when he saw poor people being exploited and of how we are all subject to God’s judgement.
Near the grounds of this cathedral are buried the remains of ten men from this area, who in 1839 were shot and killed in the Chartist rebellion in Newport. They were part of demonstrations and riots taking place in various towns and cities to demand justice and voting rights for the working classes.
When the leaders and people of our city worship here, they are reminded that there is a higher authority and that they do not serve in their own strength alone but need the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that ‘to those whom much is given, much shall be required’ and so we bow in humility before the throne of God praying that we may have clarity of vision and desire only the good of others.
A cathedral is also the Mother Church of the Diocese where clergy and people from all over the diocese will be welcomed. Hospitality is a sacred duty. I know one bishop who used to say that the art of hospitality is making people feel at home in your own home when you wish they were in theirs! I think he was wrong – hospitality is about opening your home and your heart in unconditional love. The New Testament reminds us of the need to welcome the pilgrim and stranger and St Benedict reminded his monks of the need to welcome others as we would welcome Christ. A Dean is not just called to be a teacher and preacher but also a welcoming host who will seek opportunities of welcoming people as visitors so that their visit is not just a tourist event but a spiritual experience in which they feel they have been welcomed, nourished and loved in the name of Christ.
A cathedral is also about building living circles of community. When you throw a stone into a pond it creates ripples and circles that move outwards. A cathedral should do the same. At the very heart will be that community of love which we call the Holy Trinity where Father, Son and Holy Spirit are joined in a dynamic of perfect love. The wonderful icons of the Holy Trinity often feature the Father, Son and Holy Spirit depicted as three angels seated on the three sides of the table but the front of the table is always open to welcome those who pray before it, inviting them to join in the very life of the Holy Trinity.
As the circles move outwards, there will be the community of regular worshippers, musicians and volunteers who valiantly maintain the worshipping and serving life of the cathedral. Then there will be the parish served by the cathedral, and then the city and the diocese, our link diocese in South Africa and beyond. St Benedict taught how communities are built up by regular prayer, by mutual love, by a lack of jealousy, by an ability to listen to one another and to respect those whose opinions differ from our own. But he also taught how communities are destroyed – by lack of restraint by which he meant unkind and unnecessary comments made by the tongue and by what he called ‘murmuring’ by which he did not mean justified complaint but by generally creating an atmosphere of dissatisfaction and grumbling. Benedict had very severe penalties for those sick souls who engaged in ‘murmuring’.
So a cathedral must be like a bicycle wheel with spirituality at the centre but with spokes that reach out into the wider community of parish, city and diocese – and beyond. It should be a place of prayer that uses the best of traditional and contemporary music and liturgy. It should be a place of teaching and preaching. It should be a reminder to the city it serves of the values of the kingdom of God where justice and peace are paramount. It should be a Mother Church for the diocese where all feel welcomed, and not just for those great diocesan occasions presided over by the bishop, but at other times as well. A cathedral is a Christian community called to serve and build communities.
This is Jeremy’s task as the Dean – ‘no pressure’ of course – and I pray that God will bless him in this challenging and exciting task and I pray that the cathedral and diocese will support him – and to God be the glory. Amen.