Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (6 October 2019) by Mr Andrew Carwood, Director of Music
The first in the Cathedral's 'Fantastic Feats' sermon series exploring amazing feats of human endeavour, Andrew Carwood, Director of Music, discusses the Thames Barrier and reflects on seeing ourselves as fantastic feats.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In this month of October, St Paul’s has a series of sermons and music linked to the City of London’s Festival called Fantastic Feats. This
six-month long season of street theatre and circus, art, music, exhibitions, walks and tours is inspired by several important historical
anniversaries, including the 200th birthdays of Sir Joseph Bazalgette (inventor of London’s sewer system) and Sir Horace Jones (architect and
designer of Tower Bridge). It is also 125 years since the completion of Tower Bridge. And 150 years since Blackfriars Bridge and Holborn Viaduct
were opened. It is a brilliant opportunity to celebrate our achievements and find inspiration for the future in a time when we need all the help we
can get. You can find out more details about the Fantastic Feats events on the City of London’s website.
Of course, we are inside a “fantastic feat”, here and now. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the architectural wonders of the world, but it is more than just a building. It has a beating heart of prayer, praise and music and it becomes a temporary shelter and place of inspiration for people from all over the world. This happens because of the tireless work and love of the people in the Community here. They change an empty building into a place of inspiration and welcome.
But the “fantastic feat” I want to consider today is the Thames Barrier and I want to use it as a springboard to think about how we interact with nature, the environment and our climate.
The remarkable structure which straddles the River Thames, connects the Borough of Newnham in the north with the Borough of Greenwich in the south. The building of the barrier was first discussed after the terrible North Sea flood of 1953. This was one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged and sea walls were breached in 1,200 places, inundating 160,000 acres. Flooding forced over 30,000 people from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.
In East London, water poured from the Royal Docks into Silvertown, where it drained into the sewers but flooded back into Canning Town and the Tidal Basin. William Hayward, a night watchman at William Ritchie & Son, died of exposure to gas from a damaged pipe. Almost 200 people were made homeless and had to take refuge in the Canning Town Hall.
The Thames Barrier spans 520 metres across the River Thames and it protects 125 square kilometres of central London from flooding caused by tidal surges. It has 10 steel gates which can be raised into position across the River. When raised, the main gates stand as high as a 5-storey building and as wide as the opening of Tower Bridge. Each main gate weighs 3,300 tonnes and can stop 9,000 tons of water.
When the barrier is open, the gates lie flat on the river bed and they are rotated to move into position to prevent flooding. This ingenious method was devised by Charles Draper using the gas taps on his old gas cooker as inspiration.
At the time of its construction, the barrier was expected to be used 2–3 times per year. By the mid-2000s it was being operated 6–7 times a year. During the barrier's entire history up to April 2019, there have been 184 flood defence closures.
For me, this is a brilliant example of care, care of both people and the environment. Since the beginning of time, the human race has had to deal with the difficulties caused by changes in the weather. Just imagine the preparations Noah and his family had to go through to get ready for the Flood… And, as we have heard in the first lesson from Nehemiah, famines, sadly, have been a regular feature of our history. Climate and the various changes that it goes through are always going to be a concern for us. Is it any surprise that the English are famous for always talking about the weather?
What is so brilliant about the Thames Barrier is that we see people coming together, using their brains and their skill to create a solution to a problem. I believe that in the Book of Genesis, God gives us a task to look after this wonderful planet on which we live, to be stewards of the environment and to protect it and work with it for the successful future of our race. And let us remember, we, the humans of this planet, have a special relationship with God, our Creator and sustainer. This relationship starts with the covenants between God and humanity in the Old Testament and is confirmed in the most loving way with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
Being a steward – having the care of something – is a term which has its roots in the Old English stīweard, from stig (probably used in the sense of a house or hall) + weard ‘ward’. So historically, steward meant someone who takes care of a particular building. To be a successful steward, you had to have various characteristics. You had to be talented, interested, well-organised and above you must have passion for the thing you are stewarding.
The Minor Canons at St Paul’s have traditionally been the stewards of this place. In the days – now long gone obviously – when the Dean and Chapter would often be away at their country estates, or on some glamorous journey, it was the Minor Canons who kept everything going. The Dean and Chapter were only present here for one month at a time, when they were ‘in residence’. The rest of the time, it was the Minor Canons who were responsible for the day to day liturgies and the prayer life of this Cathedral. In the period before the reformation, there were 30 minor canons at St Paul’s. Now we have a smaller number and their work is an even more vital part of this Cathedral’s life. As we welcome Robert into our family, we do so with love and open hearts and prayers and good wishes for his life as a steward here at St Paul’s.
Being a steward is an easier thing if you live or work in the place that you are stewarding. It becomes even easier if it is something which we own. Many of us are good at looking after our houses, or our cars, or the other things which we value because we have investment in them. But we are not always so good at being stewards over the bigger things, the things which concern the whole world. The environment is a case in point. Too often we expect governments to sort out these problems whilst we sit on the side-lines, grumbling and worrying. But the environment is ours. A God-given gift described in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.
Not care about these macro-problems, threatens both a diminution in our relationship with God and our relationship with each other in the global community. We are one humanity and the problems we face belong to all of us, not just those on the front line of a particular crisis.
John Donne, a former Dean of this Cathedral between 1621 and 1631 once wrote,
No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
In this passage, Donne is talking about death, but his point that he cannot exist without being connected to his fellow people is an important one
for us to remember. He couldn’t exist on his own. He understood that all humanity is linked together and that a change in the condition of anyone
has an effect on the wellbeing of the whole. We are surely the same. Not only connected but stronger when we work together.
The building of the Thames Barrier is an example of people coming together to solve a problem and it has been a great success. It makes London more safe for those who live here. But makes it more safe for what reason? Does it make us more safe so that we can continue to exploit the environment and watch whilst the changes in climate alter the world around us? Does it make us safe so that we can watch the reduction in the number of species in this country? The recent State of Nature report claims that a quarter of the mammals in the UK are facing extinction. Does the Thames Barrier make us safe so that we can enjoy the disgusting over-use of plastic and watch the effect it has on land and sea? Certainly not! The Thames Barrier should make us feel safe, but not complacent and not arrogant. It should empower us to make the other changes which we need to save our planet.
We cannot and should not defeat nature, we should work alongside it, care for it and enjoy it, as implied in the Genesis creation narratives. Not to understand this is to be as blind as the men in the Gospel passage from St John that we heard earlier.
The Thames Barrier may be a “fantastic feat”. St Paul’s Cathedral may be a “fantastic feat”. But we need to remember that we are all “fantastic feats”. Every single one of us here now. Everyone in the world. A “fantastic feat” of biological and genetic design, mixed with education, experience and imagination which allows us to do remarkable things.
It is time for us to do some “fantastic feats”. To place God at the centre of lives and to realise that the protection of God’s creation is an essential part of our life as Christians.
And, if you are sitting here now, thinking that you are too small or too insignificant to make a difference, just try spending the night with a tiny mosquito in your bedroom, and see the effect it has on you.