Some of you will have heard my sermon last month where I mentioned my summer holiday visits to some of the great cathedrals of France. Two of the most magnificent were Chartres, which many of you may have heard of, and Laon which you probably haven’t. However, apparently Chartres cathedral was modelled on that of Laon, which is situated on a large outcrop of rock in the plains to the north east of Paris, visible for many miles. The architecture of Laon was particularly striking and it was very light and airy inside, a great relief from the 36 degree temperature outside.
The cathedral in the city where we stayed in the south, Agde, was about as different as could be imagined. It was built of black volcanic basalt and was squat and sturdy, more like a fortress than a church, as indeed it was when built. It was dark inside as well as out. But I still found it a good place to pray in the silence of the morning, on my way back from visiting the boulangerie to buy our breakfast croissants.
It’s a bitter-sweet time of year. The holidays and the Olympics are over; work, study, the usual routine resume in earnest, and the nights are getting longer and cooler. Things are maturing in hedgerow, field and garden, and much has already been gathered in. A good time for reflection then.
As a boy at school and living at home, I always thought that August and September were the healthiest months: plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of outdoor activity and the delight and bounty of wild-food gathering. So having had a recent close encounter in our family with the healing work of the National Health Service, my reflections have tended to focus around health, particularly in the form of a good diet, wholesomeness and holidays. It’s only when you or people you care about become unwell that you really value your health, the work of those who seek to bring healing and the importance of maintaining and restoring health by good food and exercise.
Some months ago, I attended a service in another church in this locality and heard a preacher from Cheltenham, who was extolling a book he had read called, "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life".(1) It was, he thought, such an important book that everyone should read it and consider its message carefully. As he was an impressive speaker, (he had been a headmaster and was used to command!) I was challenged to have a go. The book was by Karen Armstrong and as Pauline had an autobiography (2) by her, I read that first. It was something of a lesson to me. She does not come across as a very sympathetic person. She had become a nun at a young age, despite her family's opposition, and it took her some time to realise that it was not her calling. Having marched resolutely into a blind alley, in the face of everyone else's opinions, she found it difficult to admit that she was wrong to have taken it on. The reader is informed of her objections and criticisms and wonders if, maybe, she was unsuited to this discipline, rather than that the Order was wrong. She left and has become a writer and broadcaster and has widened her religious understanding to include the common wisdom of the Great Religions of the World. Maybe she has now found her true calling?
Can you remember how you saw the world of adults when you were a child? I recall thinking how dull most ‘grown ups’ were. They would sit together in a room for hours just talking, when there was so much to explore and do. ‘Grown ups’ had privileges that I as a child craved: staying up late; drinking exotic things like cider and wine; driving tractors and motorbikes; deciding where to go on holiday. Although I was in no rush to leave childhood behind I looked forward to the day when too would be ‘grown up’.
Growing happens in the first two decades of our lives, but after that further ‘growth’ tends to be undesirable. That’s not the way of much of the plant kingdom. Trees and shrubs get steadily bigger season by season. About ten years ago we bought a small Christmas tree with roots and planted it in the garden after the holidays. To my surprise that tree prospered and when I last saw it in the autumn it had grown as tall as a house. When trees stop growing, they start to die.
Do you remember the Silver and Golden Jubilees? Despite years of living in Canada, I was in England for both those occasions. But for me this Diamond Jubilee is even more special. It is remarkable that another monarch has reached such a landmark. And to reach this in such good health and with the lasting affection of the country and commonwealth is even more remarkable.
I think it is right to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in church as well as in community lunches and other gatherings. The Queen has been conscious of her role as head of the Church of England throughout her reign and sought to set an example of Christian faith and service. Whatever the privileges she may enjoy, hers is a life marked by willingness to set aside self-interest for the sake of others and her country.
How do you get on with Christians of other denominations? Are you able to share worship with them happily, or do their differences grate on you? And what of the differences we have in the Church of England, which, after all, is very broad and stretches, on the one hand, towards Rome and, on the other, towards the Charismatic and Evangelical? Are you able to learn about different forms of worship from experiencing a variety of Christian traditions, or do you "Know-what-you-like and Like-whatyou-know"?