The Very Reverend Philip Buckler preaches at the Festival of the Friends of St Paul's
In the crypt of this Cathedral lies the tomb of Sir Arthur Sullivan the composer whose name is inextricably linked with W S Gilbert, through the
operas they wrote together.
Gilbert’s words punctured much of the pomposity of their age, but it is one of his poems entitled ‘Etiquette’ to which I want to draw your
attention this evening.
It tells of two men shipwrecked on a desert island. Thrown together in such a situation you would imagine they would develop a bond of friendship
in their struggle to survive. But not so, for a very particular reason. Let the opening verses explain:
The Ballyshannon foundered off the coast of Cariboo,
And down in fathoms many went the captain and the crew;
Down went the owners - greedy men whom hope of gain allured:
Oh dry the starting tear, for they were heavily ensured.
Besides the captain and the mate, the owners and the crew,
The passengers were also drowned excepting only two:
Young Peter Gray, who tasted teas for Baker, Croop & Co.
And Somers, who from Eastern shores, imported indigo.
These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast
Upon a desert island were eventually cast.
They hunted for their meals, as Alexander Selkirk used,
But they couldn't chat together--they had not been introduced.
Such was the power of convention that they were unable to speak with each other because they had not been introduced.
Somehow each adopts a side of the island. One has oysters in abundance – but cannot stand them; whilst the other has turtles everywhere, but
they make him sick.
How they wished an introduction to each other they had had
When on board the Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad.
To think how very friendly with each other they might get,
If it wasn't for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!
Miserably they eke out their existence until one day the lamentations of one are overheard by the other
"I wonder how the playmates of my youth are getting on,
McConnell, S.B. Walters, Paddy Byles, and Robinson?"
Suddenly a familiar name – Robinson - is mentioned as an old school friend. This changes everything. For now they have an acquaintance in
common. Surely this is as good as an introduction. So they begin to converse and life changes for the better. Then one day they espy a sailing ship
and a rowing boat heading towards them. In excitement they recognise one of the oarsmen – it is Robinson himself. But all too soon they realise
that this is a convict ship and Robinson has fallen foul of the law. How embarrassed each feels, how shameful to be the friend of a convict! The
rules of etiquette condemn their acquaintance. Slowly they withdraw into themselves and return to their old separate ways, each living on a
different side of the island and never speaking again. Convention has triumphed over common sense.
As we gather for this festival of Friends we do well to remember that there are many in our world today who are bound by the human conventions of
greed and self-centredness – what we call sin. They have not been introduced to the Christian gospel, or more importantly to the one who links us
all in friendship, Jesus Christ. We may be less restricted by the conventions of the 19th century, but an introduction is still necessary to
draw people away from their isolation into the fullness of God’s love and mercy.
This Cathedral stands as a place of introduction, many come here to visit day by day, not always knowing what it is they are encountering. Others
come, as yesterday, to mark events which take us beyond our normal comprehension. The opportunity to provide an introduction is one of the glories
of our Cathedrals today. They point to Jesus Christ, to effect this introduction, but not necessarily to conclude it or take control of the
relationship. That is God’s work.
Christ calls us all to be his friends – a special relationship to which each brings something of themselves. There is trust and loyalty in true
friendship – though as we look at the first friends of Jesus we see them scattered, betraying him under pressure. So another aspect of friendship
is a readiness to understand and forgive – and that we see in the relationship that Jesus Christ offers to us all..
But friendship has a wide embrace, for we share in a gift that extends across the world and down the ages. As Friends of this Cathedral we ally
ourselves with those who have been engaged with it in times past.
Tonight we remember especially that group of people who displayed their love for and friendship of this Cathedral in their bravery during the
Second World War. The St Paul’s Watch kept this place safe from the threat of incendiaries at risk to their own lives. From their dedication to
preserving this place began this Association of Friends.
To know ourselves as friends of a place like this which God has blessed, to know ourselves as friends of Jesus Christ and part of his body on
earth, this is cause for festival indeed.
But hold on: as we peer out to sea like Gilbert’s castaways we find ourselves acknowledging one who was himself a convict. For Jesus Christ was
condemned as a convict, and we can never forget that human society rejected him and often rejects those who follow him.
Yet the convicted criminal put to death on a cross outside Jerusalem had an even greater friend – indeed it was his heavenly Father who raised him
from the defeat of death into newness of life. That is why we are able to acknowledge him as our friend and saviour.
This is the gospel our Cathedrals are proud to proclaim. They do it by what lies at their very heart – the daily worship and praise of Almighty
God. Whether there are just two or three gathered, or two or three thousand, it matters not. For this worship is not put on for those who come, it
is put on as an offering to God. If others come, all well and good – for this might be their introduction, their overcoming of isolation, and their
being welcomed as friends in God’s name. This is what our Cathedrals can offer – a place of introduction to Jesus Christ, the human face of God. To
do this, they need the support in so many ways that the Friends of St Paul’s so faithfully have given. But above all they need the prayers of each
one of us, asking God to bless his friends – amongst whom we are privileged to be numbered.