‘It is in the context of the Chapel that many outside the University experience the humane and liberal values for which the College stands’. These words come from what for me at least is a very important document – the papers written eighteen months ago to explain the College and its Chapel to candidates for the post of Dean.
Anyone who has lived and studied in the College for three or more years in entitled to have a view as to whether or not the College deserves its reputation for liberalism and tolerance. My hope is that you will feel that you have been treated with fairness, kindness and generosity, and that you have been well supported as you have had to deal with the many pressures and stresses, objective and subjective, that are an inevitable part of Cambridge life today. (No, it wasn’t just you who was going through all that.)
‘Humane and liberal values’. If these words possibly have a slightly quaint ring to people today, it is because such values have not become so widely accepted in our society that many are looking for more challenging ones. That quest for values can go in one of two directions – either towards values that are stricter and more exclusive, or those which are broader and yet more inclusive. This is perhaps one of the dynamics we see being played out in public, professional and personal life today; it is certainly an issue that will, over the coming decade, tease the minds and tug on the heart-strings of the young people graduating this week.
As you leave the College I want to suggest to you that the liberal and human aspirations of this place are grounded not in the ideological preference of a few influential fellows in the second half of the twentieth century, though those days of heady and liberalising vision did and do matter, but in events of much longer ago.
Way back in the fifteenth century Henry VI literally imagined this place – this very place – on this amazing scale, and for purposes of education, community and religion. Henry was a hopeless King if the criteria for success are winning battles and maintaining dominance over rivals. And yet here we are – inhabiting his legacy and being inspired by his inspiration – and learning, learning, learning – all the time learning.
And in the middle of the fractious seventeenth century, it was a Provost of King’s, Benjamin Whichcote, who opposed the doctrinaire and oppressive religion of his day – scholastic Calvinism – and offered an example of kindness, gentleness, and generosity that began to turn the tide and lead to a religious and spiritual sensibility that was life affirming and empowering, rather than domineering and diminishing.
It would be wrong to suggest that you could tell the story of our College simply as the triumph of humane values over inhumane ones. Or to suggest that we have done so well that we can now relax and enjoy our own excellencies and perfections. Nothing could be further for the truth. But if the College has infected you with the good bacteria of liberal humanism it will have done you and the world a favour.
You – because while being a liberal humanitarian doesn’t necessarily make for an easy or happy life, it does make for a worthwhile one; a life in which, if I can put it this way, the causes of anguish, concern and suffering are the right ones. For the point is not whether we find life difficult or not, but why we find it difficult. If we do so because we are motivated by kindness and the empowering of others our suffering will be okay.
And the world – because all of you will be of exceptional influence, and some of you will be of very great influence indeed both on other individuals and on whole communities, maybe whole cultures. And it is good when the most influential people are the most humane and kind people: if only that were more often the case.
So in the future, whenever you catch a glimpse of this place, or hear Cambridge or King’s mentioned in the media, by all means allow yourself a moment of nostalgia, and think about your friends and teachers here. But I also invite you to call to mind those liberal and humane values that lie behind a King’s education, and ask yourself whether they are still core to who you are, still a defining part of your identity. For it is by being true to the legacy of the likes of our Founder and Provost Whichote, and many other of our forebears, women and men, that we will be, each in our own idiosyncratic, individual and inimitable ways, people who care about both truth and kindness, both justice and generosity, and who do the very rare thing of judging success not in terms of short term victory but long term influence for good.