Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (25 May 2014) by the Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, former Bishop of St Albans

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Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (25 May 2014) by the Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, former Bishop of St Albans

The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert (Bishop of St Albans, 1996-2009) discusses the Beauty of God.

This sermon is part of a series of four, at which retired bishops are asked to preach on the subject 'What I want to say now'.

A couple of months ago a book was published by Edinburgh University Press. It’s called "A Companion to the Bible and the Arts” and in it is an essay by Nicholas Bielby. It is an essay that has not left me alone. It’s actually about the subtleties and difficulties of biblical translation but in it, almost as a throw-away line, he writes this: "If beauty is an attribute of God and His Word, then we should hope for intimations of it in the translation of his word. This beauty is in the story the Bible tells us and we would hope to find it in the way it is told…” His essay is a delight, and though it focusses on biblical translation it ranges more widely into the whole field of aesthetics. Let me quote him again: "An aesthetic experience has this sense of rediscovery of something unknown but strangely familiar because it feels right and true and beautiful”.

You won’t be surprised to know that he does not over-load the word "feeling” - because something feels right and true and beautiful, it does not mean that it necessarily is.

Well. I have read and re-read his essay with great enjoyment, partly because it is so carefully written and because it also raises an issue to which I believe we need to give serious attention, and that is the whole question of beauty.

Now I know that this series of sermons is supposed to be about bishops being unleashed, speaking out in ways that we were not able to do when we were in office. The hypothesis is that we can now be free and unconstrained and can let rip…

Actually, I can honestly say that when I was a diocesan bishop I did not feel too constrained. I felt able, for example, in the House of Bishops, (a regular gathering of prelates), because of the grace and generosity of heart of both George Carey and Rowan Williams, to express dissent, to speak my mind, to try to say what I believed to be true. Of course my critiques, like all human statements, were partial, no human being, least of all a bishop, can claim omniscience. Nor did I feel too constrained in either General Synod or my own diocesan synod. I was surprisingly free of constraint, though I do recall my disappointment and anger about the shenanigans that went on at both Lambeth Conferences that I attended… and said so. Bishop Tom Butler last week here at St Paul’s outlined what some of those issues were, so I don’t need to spell them out any further. His criticisms and solutions are superb.

So what did I not speak out about, which I can do now?

The main issue I failed to address was the question of beauty. Please bear with me, because when I talk about beauty I am not talking about the overly self-conscious and preening opinions of art critics. They write for a very limited audience. The kind of beauty that I want to talk about is much larger and much more profound than that.

When I refer to beauty I am referring to the absolute, ineffable, ultimately inexpressible beauty of the Divine, of God, of the Almighty…

There is a delicious and troubling irony here: going to churches throughout Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as I did, gazing out from our house across to St Albans Abbey as I did, I did not often reflect on the stunning loveliness of our church buildings. I loved them, I worked in them, I preached in them, but I did not stop to consider the relationship between the beauty of those buildings and the beauty of God. Let me not confine myself to Herts and Beds. Think of any of the countless thousands of our churches in these islands: the medieval glass in Fairford, the soaring perpendicular of Patrington in Holderness, the grace of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, the racy, provocative carving at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, the strange carvings on the font at Melbury Bubb (what a glorious name for a village in Dorset), and whilst still in Dorset, the windows etched by Lawrence Whistler at Moreton, or more prosaically, the graffiti at Ashwell in Hertfordshire concerning the Plague and a design for old St Paul’s.

The fact of the matter is that thousands of our church buildings are lovely beyond the telling of it. And that beauty is not there by chance. Each of them in their beauty tries to reflect something of the ineffable beauty of God.

And as if that weren’t enough of a heritage, think of the poetry of George Herbert, "Love bade me welcome…” or John Donne in his sermon number 126, preached in 1627… "and into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but an equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity” or U A Fanthorpe. Remember the lines she created for St George: "I have diplomas in dragon management and Virgin reclamation”: wry, witty, each word pulling its weight.

Or think of the beauty of English church music: Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Stanford, Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells…(I want "Like as the hart …”at my funeral…) And think of the hymns which have enriched our worship, for example, J M Neale’s translation of Venantius Fortunatus’ great sixth century hymn " Sing my tongue the glorious battle…”

The Church of England, as John Drury might say, is saturated in beauty, in its hymns, its poetry and architecture, and I have not even mentioned the King James’ version of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer…Without being aware of it, the beauty of our buildings, our music and our hymnody is embedded in the way we do our thinking and the way we express our theology.

At which point, I pause, because my rhetoric has begun to run away with me.

I am not certain any more that in the Church of England in the ways we talk of God, beauty has much of a place. When did you last hear a sermon, for example, whose content, delivery or construction you could honestly describe as beautiful? Surrounded as we are by buildings, textiles, hymns, poetry and music of soaring beauty, our words about God have become drained, empty, and ploddingly banal. And worse, look at some of our contemporary so-called worship songs, they make me cringe…they are awful. And blasting them up with Power Point on to overhead screens does nothing for my soul either…

What has happened?

I think that it is something to do with our apparent concern for linguistic truth. We are in love with propositions. So we debate endlessly about issues to do with doctrine or social affairs. We are skilled at structuring arguments. We are always on transmit; we shout long and loud, through megaphones where necessary, and call the church to mission….we believe that we have to gossip the Gospel…to tell others what to think and how to think it. Words are our currency, and we splash words around with prodigal abandon. We are word obsessives.

Where does this come from? I suspect it comes directly from the Reformation and the invention of printing, when the visual gave way to words. And, as a result, beauty has been shoved to one side.

But it won’t do. It won’t do. The radiant, dark mystery of God in Christ requires from us worship and thinking and expression which somehow partake of the very beauty of God. We need worship and sermons and theology which are not flabbily prosaic, but rather we want them to have been created in a language which has been crafted on a poetic anvil, hammered and cajoled into shape, with the kind of joy and disciplined attention that Donne and Herbert brought to their work.

All the evidence we have is that where beauty is actually given room to breathe, in the cathedrals and great parish churches of our land, where room is made for despair and doubt, where time is allowed for us to teeter on the edge of holiness, in those places where somehow the gracious and generous beauty of God is encountered in architectural space and music and poetry, there the re-shaping of our innermost beings can and does take place.

Dominated as our Church now is by words, we miss the truth that for most people it is beauty, in nature, music, poetry and art, which touches, redeems and refreshes their souls. We stuff their ears with words, and do not realise that their eyes are seeking truth elsewhere. What we are taking part in and helping to create, is a kind of tragedy, a withering of the religious imagination. We are no longer interested in what Keats referred to as "Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” ; we are not engaged with possibility; we are no longer content to live in both knowing and unknowing, we are no longer capable of learning to live in and with paradox, (all the things that attention to beauty teaches us), which means that we concentrate more and more on hard propositional statements and then anxiously question why no-one is listening.

So, in this sermon series centred on Bishops speaking out, what is my message?

It is about re-instating beauty into our Christian formation, our theology and our lives, for then we might well discover the common ground that we share with others. But even more important is that we should rediscover the awesome, holy beauty that is revealed within the very life of God himself which, by grace, and through Christ he so prodigally and courteously shares with us.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness…let the whole earth stand in awe of him