Today (Sunday 17th August) I preached my final sermon as a Canon of Durham Cathedral. The gospel reading was Matthew 15.10-28. The service was a choral Eucharist with Baptism.
This is what I said:
It’s what comes out of your mouth that matters.
This is the one line summary of the rather complicated paragraph that was the first part of our gospel reading.
This is perhaps an appropriate warning to a preacher who, after all, has nothing more than words to offer. And words can be a poor offering.
It was E.M. Forster, who lived out his final years in King’s College, Cambridge, to which I return as Dean next term, who used the phrase ‘poor talkative little Christianity’. Forster, like many at that college, was one of Christianity’s cultured despisers. Many of his generation would have justified their contempt with reference to the drivel that they believed the clergy to come out with. That line of argument has come to a high point in the writings of the new atheists, whose own capacity for talkativeness and drivel is increasingly apparent.
Today people in general and young people in particular are less likely to condemn Christianity because it talks drivel, but because it talks prejudice, fear and hatred. As I heard someone say, it seems as if Christians are only interested in finding another reason to hate gay people.
This is itself an offensive generalisation, but while we might protest that we have no nastiness inside us, and that if people think we are broadcasting negativity they are not listening to us carefully enough, the actual, responsible truth of the matter is that we are properly exposed, and rightly judged, not by what we think we are saying but by what others hear us saying.
And this doesn’t primarily mean being unduly ponderous in our words, or carefully editing our press releases. Rather it means taking care about what is in our hearts.
Because Jesus’ point is that if it is in the heart, then it will sooner or later come out of the mouth.
Of course, what comes out of the mouth is not only words. We are blessed to be present at the baptism of Amy Elizabeth today. The presence of very young children at church, like the presence of those who are say autistic or stroke victims, reminds us that producing words is not the be all and end all of human personhood or Christian discipleship.
It also reminds us that sometimes from our mouths come nonverbal sounds. Maybe it is easier to appreciate that these come from the heart than some of our finer phrases. It is with these that we express the extremes of delight, despair, excitement, joy, loss and surprise. It’s when you have just heard yourself make a sound you didn’t anticipate or consciously form that you know something of your own heart. This is what Paul was talking about when he spoke of the spirit praying within us with signs too deep for words.
And how can I speak about what comes out of our mouth without speaking of singing, which is kind of hybrid between verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. We don’t know whether Amy will be a singer but the chances must be good.
Singing is something very natural for children, so natural that the more serious question is not ‘why does this child sing so well?’ but, ‘why does that child not sing at all?’. It is a great sadness that as they grow up so many people lose their confidence as singers.
Singing will always persist, in church because it is song that gives voice to human emotion and to human spirituality with unique subtlety, depth and passion. Personally I feel that the role of silence in our common spirituality often underplayed in western Christianity. But oddly it is when music and song stop that silence can be deeper and more inclusive.
Today, our visiting choir is singing a setting of the Eucharist which owes its provenance to the fact that the composer Herbert Howells spent the years of the Second World War as Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge. While there, he met the Dean of King’s, Eric Milner-White who asked him to consider writing a set of canticles for the Chapel of King’s. Howells responded by writing the Te Deum and Jublilate that we heard at Matins. Later he produced his highly popular setting of the evening canticles and in 1956 completed this setting of the Eucharist. And so we have the whole Collegium Regale /King’s College suite.
Howells also wrote the tune for our Offertory hymn today. And this is an important part of the story.
Most hymn tunes are named after a place – a town perhaps like ‘Thaxted’ or ‘Aberystwyth’. Vaughan Williams – an important influence and inspiration for Howells – wrote one called Down Ampney. The tune of ‘All my hope on God is founded’, however, is named ‘Michael’.
And Michael is not a place but a person. Michael was Herbert Howells’ second child and only son – who died of polio in 1935 at the age of 9. It was a devastating blow for the musician and all his subsequent music – however glorious – carried that shadow of unreconciled lament.
Of course Howells composition came out of his fingers, but it also came from his heart. And people sing from their hearts when they sing his music whether in choir or congregation. It is the sound of hope – but also the sound that carries the cost of hope and the pain of loss.
And it my belief that when we are honest about the sadness in our hearts – disappointment, grief, loss, pain experienced or anticipated – that it is when we are honest about the aching shadows within that what comes out of our mouths will have the greatest integrity.
It is when we are truthful to ourselves about the mess inside us, that our words will be of the highest value to others
It is when we are emotionally candid with ourselves that we begin to move away from that dreadful catalogue of poisons listed by Jesus in our gospel reading: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.
For these are not rooted in responsible reality but in puerile fantasy.
They certainly comprise a grim list – but while we are appalled by it we should not pretend that this is an alien agenda to us. It reads a bit like the local news in abstract summary – or maybe the upcoming themes for your favourite soap. Certainly we are all fascinated by this stuff – this bilge and bile, this junk. But we need to learn that this fascination, while inevitable, is not good. There are, to be frank, far better things to be thinking and talking about.
It is natural today to be intrigued by the bad side of life. But the church must help people to be interested in all that is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. As St Paul wrote – ‘think about these things’. Seriously think about them – be fascinated by them. Let them fill your heart and you will find that good, kind helpful, truthful words flow from your lips.
It should be our prayer for Amy Elizabeth that as she grows up, her parents and godparents, together with the wider church community can help her to have a good and positive, one might even say Godly and holy agenda. Not that it should be pious or other worldly. Rather that she should be deeply interested in what is today most attractively called ‘spirituality’ but which is called in the language of the church and its liturgy ‘faith’.
And as well as being helped to be fascinated by worthwhile stuff, Amy should also be helped to speak well, and to know that what she says is revealing, has power and matters deeply.
What we say, and how we say it, and what we communicate without words – these things really do matter. Christianity knows nothing of the distinction that some would make between saying and doing. All saying is an important and meaningful kind of doing. The idea that ‘sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is the infantile rhyme it sounds.
Words and other forms of expression matter because whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, they come from the heart. And the heart, as we know from the Bible, is that on which the Lord looks, and it is the heart, George Herbert tells, that us bears the longest part.
This is the truth which Herbert Howells discovered as he lived out the years of his loss, and we, in a small way perhaps, feel it too when we encounter the grief-freighted yearning which characterises his music – music which carries something central to the Anglican tradition, the beautiful public expression of emotionally honest faith, hope and love.
That’s what really matters – not the cynical chat or the relentless talkativeness that we can so easily stoop to and be demeaned by, not superficial, fingers-crossed, reality-denying cheeriness. My friends, there is nothing cheesy about the Christian gospel. Nothing sentimental or cloying about it either – and people should not pretend that there is.
Public worship serves many purposes. But the great choral foundations must always aspire to the beautiful expression of emotionally honest faith, hope and love.
If that honesty includes a nod in the direction of the limited capacity of words, and gives some kind of voice to the not yet satisfied hopes in our hearts, and the unhealed pains deep in our person, it will be authentic.
And to be authentic before God is more than enough. It is, in fact, the whole of spirituality – but to achieve it requires faith, hope, love and complete trust in the grace of God.
The God who created and redeemed us and brought us to being who we are today and to whom we should every pray, in the words of Henry VI, that he should do with us as he wills.