I retain a little scepticism at this new-found festival. Not that I have anything against fathers – I have an excellent father, and indeed I have been one myself for nearly 2 decades. It’s just that Fathers’ Day seems to have arrived somewhat out of the blue in the early 20 century (dare one say it, from the States) as a complementary celebration to Mothering Sunday. Well it must be for real now that the Church of England have prayers for it. And actually I quite like the What Dads Add link site, so perhaps I am just being churlish.
In 2008, Michael Colclough, previously my Team Rector in Uxbridge, moved from a subsequent position as Bishop of Kensington, to be a residentiary canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Michael promptly started calling in favours from many of his previous contacts, including a number of the previous team clergy, inviting people to preach at the cathedral on the weeks Michael was ‘canon in residence’. It was a surprise and a joy to be asked to preach at St. Paul’s in June 2008, on what transpired to be Fathers’ Day, and also one of the church’s newer ‘saints’ Evelyn Underhill, remembered on 15 June, which happens to be being commemorated today, exactly a year later.
Preaching at St. Paul’s is a unique experience – never have I been ‘wanded’ by a wandsman to my place in church, or had to climbing so many stairs to a pulpit, or measure each spoken phrase so carefully as to allow the natural reverberation of the building to subside. I think it added about 10-15% additional time to the sermon delivery time (making me slightly over-run my allotted time!).
For the 5 years I was at Uxbridge, St Paul’s was ‘my’ cathedral, and it was always awe inspiring to gather with fellow clergy for the ‘blessing of the oils service’ in Holy Week under the majestic dome. So I loved the opportunity of being there – chances like that don’t come very often. And thanks particularly to Bishop Michael for sharing that with me, another example of the generosity of the man I typically experienced as a colleague in his team. Incidentally, the service order above also mentioned that the preacher the following Sunday at evensong was one of my other colleagues from Uxbridge days with +Michael, Carolyn Headley, for whom I had to be ‘priests hands’ for a while, until she was ordained priest herself. The preacher on the morning I was there was Andrew Watson, who very shortly after, was announced as Bishop of Aston.
You can click on the page below to download the sermon, or follow it in the full sermon text further down. I found some nice bits from Mark Twain, and some from Evelyn Underhill – and even manged to gently question this transatlantic infiltrator of a festival, without offending too many of the American cousins in the congregation.
You can also find the original article on my ‘Papers‘ page.
The full text follows:
Evensong Sermon – St Paul’s Cathedral – 15 June 2008
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
A number of years ago, before Bishop Michael was Canon Pastor; before his episcopal, or even archidiaconal responsibilities, when he was a humble Team Rector, I was a junior part of that Team. So all these years later it was a privilege and a joy to be invited by him to speak at his new pad. Or at least that was what I thought until I saw the readings for Evening Prayer set for the day, and I quickly cottoned on to why he was so generously inviting me on this occasion… As one who usually starts with the scriptures in preaching, on the basis that at least where I am not theologically sound, at least the Bible is, I struggled a bit with these passages: Beelzebub in the NT; and in the OT, King Achish says “Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?”. Frightening words for any visiting preacher to hear in a reading!
Had this been a Eucharistic service, I am sure I could have worked on some interesting reflections picking up on King David’s request for ‘five loaves of bread’, even if he did not mention fish. But this is not a Eucharist. So I started to explore other possible themes.
My home parish is Copthorne, near Gatwick airport, just into Sussex if you were on your way down to Brighton from here. One of my congregation reminded me that I ought not to lose sight of the fact that Magna Carta was signed on 15 June in 1215.
King John, who as AA Milne reminds us, was ‘not a good man’, had a run-in with the church. About how the Crown appoints bishops.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. How things change (!)
However King John forgot that if you are having a row, it is risky to have it with those who write the history books. Those monks were not called “clerks” in holy orders for nothing – and perhaps that was the start of his losing his reputation, becoming known as ‘not a good man’.
Magna Carta however enshrined a number of rights that remain in the law of the land even today. Not only the ‘almost late lamented’ habeus corpus if we are to understand David Davis, but also some pertinent Church law too. I brought a copy with me. Apparently there were many copies made – it is probably the sort of thing St Paul’s has an original copy of, in a drawer downstairs somewhere:
Clause I says: FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.
The freedoms of the Church of England were at one point from the constraints of a monarch; but were later used against as a protection from those across the Tiber too. No point in letting a good law go to waste.
There are perhaps some other themes around today we may pick up on. Our American brothers and sisters have brought us many good gifts, but I am sometimes a little dubious about some of imports that have made it across ‘the pond’. Not all of them fit easily into British Culture as perhaps rock & roll, or McDonald’s have been able to. Take trick or treat, for example – or, for today, Father’s Day. They have the reputation of being rather tacky, commercial enterprises, with little substance.
I paused to think over fatherhood a little though. I have two teenage girls, who keep me from becoming too complacent about my place in the world. They greeted the news of my being at St Paul’s this evening with the degree of indifference only teenagers can. One said she was working, attempting to earn some money to offset the looming Student Loan; – or to buy another pair of shoes – I forget which. The other decided to – er – stay at home. Probably watching ‘Scrubs’.
One American certainly knew where my teenage children were coming from was Mark Twain. Even if he later changed his opinion, he famously said of his father:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.
But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
In our family we have been privileged to have some excellent role-models of fatherhood, though I am aware that for some individuals that is not the case. It is interesting to observe for example that though Twain made a joke about his father, in reality his father died of pneumonia when Mark Twain was 11 years old. For some, fathers have been absent, for others they have been abusive – which gives us such great difficulty when trying to bring to people the prayer that Jesus taught us. Our Father.
That leads us to perhaps another echo for today. A local saint. – Well almost local, and almost a saint.
Almost a saint, because Evelyn Underhill the Anglican writer on mysticism & worship, who lived between 1875-1941, is commemorated on 15 June in the Common Worship lectionary.
And almost local, because she was educated at King’s College for Women, London, where she read history and botany; and later elected a Fellow.
She was in her thirties before she began to explore religion. At first, she wrote on the mystics, most notably in her book Mysticism, published in 1911. Her spiritual journey took her from the Church of England, through the Roman Catholic Church, and brought her in 1921 back to the Church of England, in which she had been baptized and confirmed.
From the mid-1920s, she became highly-regarded as a retreat conductor and an influential spiritual director. Of her many books, Worship, published in 1936, embodied her approach to what she saw as the mystery of faith.
To quote from one of her meditations, possibly a retreat script:
From Abba – a treatise on The Lord’s Prayer
In those rare glimpses of Christ’s own life of prayer, which the Gospels vouchsafe to us, we always notice the perpetual reference to the unseen Father; so much more vividly present to Him [Christ] than anything that is seen. Behind that daily life into which He entered so generously, filled, as it was, with constant appeals to His practical pity and help, there is ever the sense of that strong and tranquil Presence, ordering all things and bringing them to their appointed end; not with a rigid and mechanical precision, but with the freedom of a living, creative, cherishing thought and love.
Throughout His life, the secret, utterly obedient conversation of Jesus with His Father goes on. He always snatches opportunities for it, and at every crisis He returns to it as the unique source of confidence and strength; the right and reasonable relation between the soul and its Source.
I’m not very good with word’s – though here Underhill has done well to capture my imagination too. I often use graphic images in my home territory, projected on to a screen that subtly appears, and can then disappear, whilst I am preaching – though I understand that practice has got some clergy into deep trouble.
The image I think I would be projecting now, had I had the opportunity here, would be Rembrandt’s Loving Father or Prodigal Son.
Painted in his old age, Rembrandt’s portrayal is of one who has discovered that ‘the old man has learned a lot’, – as has his son. Here is a father, an abused and ignored father, who still reaches out to caress his wayward offspring, welcoming the prodigal home again.
So on this – Father’s Day – let us reflect on our God and our Father
Of the Son’s relationship with the Father
Of the prodigal son’s relationship with his father
Of our relationship with our own human father, if we knew them
For those who are fathers, of our relationship with our children
For single parents who have had to be both mother and father to their children
Let us remember the pain of strained or broken parental relationships
Let us seek ways to enhance the status and quality of fatherhood in our families, communities, and churches
Let us remember our Heavenly Father’s desire to welcome and to forgive
We return to Evelyn Underhill, in her meditation called Abba, the word Jesus used to speak to God, the word sometimes respectfully translated as Daddy:
Our inheritance IS God, our Father and Home. We recognize Him,
[Underhill, referring to St. John of the Cross, quotes] because we already carry in our hearts a rough sketch of the beloved countenance. Looking into those deeps, as into a quiet pool in the dark forest, we there find looking back at us the Face we implicitly long for and already know. [The Spiritual Canticle. 2nd Version, stanza . 17] It is set in another world, another light: yet it is here. As we realize this, our prayer widens, until it embraces the extremes of awestruck adoration and confident love and fuses them in one.
Let us pray:
A Collect for Evelyn Underhill
O God, Origin, Sustainer, and End of all your creatures:
Grant that your Church, taught by your servant Evelyn Underhill,
guarded evermore by your power,
and guided by your Spirit into the light of truth,
may continually offer to you all glory and thanksgiving,
and attain with your saints to the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have promised us by our Savior Jesus Christ;
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.
The Rev’d Alastair Cutting, Vicar of Copthorne
15 June 2008