This is the first sermon in the series ‘King’s Divines’ preached as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the completion of King’s College Chapel in 1515.
I have to confess that I only recently discovered that the famous nineteenth century Bishop, Brooke Foss Westcott, had a King’s connection. He is commemorated by a plaque at Trinity Chapel as he was an undergraduate there, gaining a double first and becoming a Fellow. He was the President of what was then called the Cambridge Theological Training School – and is now called Westcott House. But he is also one of us, in as much as he was a Professorial Fellow from 1882. In fact he was the first Professorial Fellow the College ever had. He was ‘headhunted’ as soon as the statutes changed to allow such posts. He was, I might add offered a similar position by St John’s, but King’s asked first, and so we got him. At the time he was Regius Professor of Divinity – a post he held along with being a Canon of Westminster Abbey (from 1884) until he moved north to become Bishop of Durham in 1890.
Westcott is most remembered today for two things: his contribution to New Testament scholarship and as Bishop of Durham. This second point is remarkable in as much as he went to that demanding position in his mid-sixties, his predecessor having been one of his former students who died in office. It is clear from his correspondence and comments from others, that Westcott was an extremely hardworking priest as well as a very able scholar. He had a large family, and like many of that time knew the sadness of the death of children. Several of his sons were clergy; one, a missionary in India, died of cholera in the same year as Westcott’s beloved wife – and this not long before the end of his own life.
Westcott is known as the ‘miner’s bishop’, and is, if I can venture this opinion as a former Canon of Durham, one of three Durham bishops who are remembered especially fondly by the people of the North East today. The other two are Michael Ramsey (who was also Regius Professor here and of course went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury) and David Jenkins, also, as it happens, a clerical don in his prior ministry. And so it is that Westcott is one of those great Anglicans who managed to hold together a commitment, indeed passion is not too strong a word, both for the pursuit of truth through the most serious and rigorous intellectual work, and the pursuit of justice by equally strenuous and forthright social engagement. His most famous act was to reconcile striking miners and pit owners and so bring to an end the 1892 Coal Strike. To appreciate the significance of this you need to imagine not only the dangerous and grinding lives of miners and their families in the colliery villages, but also the way in which striking rendered then extremely poor and hungry. This was a long time before the National Coal Board, or indeed the National Union of Mineworkers. They were desperate days, and it was Bishop Westcott who realised that sorting this out was as important a call on his time as had been preparing a new standard edition of the Greek New Testament. Bishops were of course far grander in those days than they are now. It is said that one meeting he had with miners and owners overran and so he was late for the train at Darlington. The train therefore waited on the station for the Bishop.
Grand or not, Westcott remained committed to the miners and to social justice. In 1895 he was instrumental in establishing the ‘Board of Conciliation for the Durham Coal Trade’ – a means whereby ‘labour’ and ‘capital’ could resolve their differences. And he saw this as more than social work. It was spiritual work; God’s work. And it was given lasting expression in the great Cathedral service which happens towards the end of the Miner’s Gala day in Durham; an occasion which continues to this day, brass bands, banners and all, despite the fact that the last pit was closed in 1993. In fact Westcott’s last public engagement was to preach at a Miner’s Gala service in 1901. He was already ill and it exhausted him. He died a week later.
It is moving to read various statements that were made when he died. The Durham Miners’ Association said that, ‘We recognise that we have lost a sympathiser, counsellor and helper in all our efforts for better conditions, both in our home surroundings and our working life.’ Their statement concludes, ‘we tender our sympathy to the relatives of the truly great and kindly Christian who has been taken from a life in which he lived usefully and well to a reward which awaits all who try to correct the wrongs and brighten the darkness of this life’. And the Durham Diocesan Conference agreed a statement that concluded: ‘It is only the late Bishop’s written injunction which has restrained the Diocese from offering to his memory some material monument. Nothing can restrain us from cherishing and profiting by the spiritual monument of his illustrious work and inspiring life’.
Such is the Durham perspective, what of the view from King’s itself? While he was here he was repeatedly offered Deaneries, and at one time was invited to be Dean of Lincoln. He replied to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, in these terms: ‘If I could feel that it would be right for me now to seek comparative rest, there is I think, no place which with all misgivings I should accept more gratefully than the Deanery of Lincoln’. He wrote about this later, saying that the decision had been very easy. The work at the Abbey and in Cambridge was important and demanding. Although a Cambridge man, he was no cyclist, and so his family clubbed together to buy him a tricycle. He was also an amateur artist, and some of his sketches are in our College archives. He could express himself pungently – wishing Matthew Arnold was ‘less vain’, and writing in horror to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he heard that Queen Victoria was planning to visit the Abbey in a bonnet: ‘It would be a national disaster. The empire needs sorely to honour the Queen as Queen’. Before he came back to Cambridge as a Professor he was a Canon of Peterborough, and took a good deal of interest in Cathedral music, not least the singing of the Psalms; such involvement or ‘interference’ by a canon shocking and annoying some of the choir men. He was often in correspondence with Archbishop Benson (himself an important figure for us as it was his liturgical innovation in Truro that inspired and encouraged Eric Milner White to try the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols here) – on one occasion adding what he called ‘A very big PS’ to another letter. It was an invitation to preach here in this Chapel the following month.
The records tell us that Westcott was greatly pleased by his King’s connection, and endeavoured to do his duty as a Fellow. He was in regular attendance at College meetings, attending Congregations until 1898, and he promoted small gatherings for discussion on Sunday afternoons. One of the students he influenced while here was W. R. Inge – who became a famous Dean of St Paul’s. About 10-15 undergraduates would attend these events, which took the form of Platonic dialogues, Dr Westcott taking the part of Socrates. I will let Dean Inge’s remembrances form the conclusion of this address for they offer, I think, the key to the significance of Westcott for us as we reflect on our 500 years here. Not only did he preach beautiful sermons (this is recorded) but he also had a faith and spirituality which connected thought with action, and truth with justice, and to which the fundamental connectedness between people, and their equality in the eyes of God, was a fundamental of faith.
Dean Inge: ‘I took no note of what he said, and have only a general recollection that he spoke often about human personality, propounding mystical doctrines of the solidarity of human beings, which then seemed to most of us rather paradoxical and difficult to follow, but which have since come back to me associated with memories of his face and voice. I remember that he spoke of the shame which he felt in reading of any horrible crime, as if he were in some way partly responsible for it himself. But whether we understood him or not, we always felt that we were in the presence of a saint, and that it did us good to see and hear him’.