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Thursday, November 7, 2013

All Saints & St Hilda's - Faith as Story


Once a year the Cathedral hosts St Hilda's Collegiate and the school takes a major role in the service; it is a time when the Cathedral is gratifyingly full as well over 500 pupils, parents and other family and staff overflow the building.  It is a service where churched and unchurched, believers and 'unbelievers' of all ages are present - by any standards a challenging task for the preacher, so, for the record, here is the sermon.  I hope we may yet get some photos of the service.

This morning, if you came into the Cathedral from the front steps, you will have passed close by to what might be the most substantial link we have with the first generation of St Hilda’s students. Though the original St Hilda’s buildings are gone, when this cathedral was rebuilt, those first students (for the years 1896-1918) donated the magnificent Baptismal font – there by the doors on the south aisle.  It is a substantial reminder that from the beginning there has been an intimate bond between the school and its cathedral. Of course times have changed, but St Hilda’s old girls still bring children here for baptism.


Of course what I am doing is to remind us all that the St Hilda’s story is (literally) embedded in your Cathedral and that it is not just a quaint memory of a long gone Anglican past but a story that continues within the life and mission of this diocese and Cathedral.  That is why the special character of St Hilda’s – a Christian School in the Anglican tradition – is so important to us.

So, for example, a 13 year old may go to a church camp and commit herself to following Jesus; she may not be sure of what this means but the experience changes her life, transforms her - and she has just begun to take her part in a vast story of which we can only glimpse tiny fragments. This story changes the world. The story that she has begun to share in is one we never finish with and it never finishes with us.

Some educators may not be comfortable with story as a form of knowledge, a vehicle of reality, but remember how in Hard Times Dickens caricatured a narrow understanding of knowledge in the words of the appalling schoolteacher, Thomas Gradgrind:
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” 

Thankfully, St Hilda’s is not the Gradgrind Academy!

Now, think of your own experience as readers, perhaps with reading The Lord of The Rings.  You will know that to share in a story demands that we just get on with the story; we don’t start arguing, saying ‘I don’t believe’; in all good stories we suspend disbelief, put our questions on hold and simply let the story take us where it will.  In some of the great stories we keep reading them all our lives; we keep coming back to them and each time, despite our familiarity, we discover something new, understand something, see something differently or make connections we had not suspected before.  It is as if the story we thought we knew unexpectedly changes and expands – sometimes more than we could have imagined possible.

Now I am talking about a hypothetical reading experience, a reading experience some of you will have had; but I am also specifically describing the experience of living the Christian faith.

Earlier this week I said to some of our year 9 students that when you enter the Cathedral you enter a story and that is true likewise of the Christian faith generally.  What I am suggesting is please don’t think of the faith as a set of intellectual concepts,  or tick boxes, true or false; but as a story that requires all that we are (heart, body and mind) and that we continue to read and engage with it; some parts we will think we understand; but it winds and twists; it interacts with our lives and experiences; we argue with it; we may put it away but later return to it; we experience moments of insight and discovery; times of confusion and doubt.  So, when we come to the cathedral on any Sunday we join with other ‘readers’; some who might feel a bit jaded; some who might be fresh and new, making discoveries all the time; others who might be struggling and questioning while others are simply glowing with joy.  The story that we share is one we never finish with and it never finishes with us.

The liturgy we share in this morning is a special way of telling and enacting the Christian story.   At the very heart of it, in the passage known as The Great Thanksgiving, it tells one story to which we continually return – how, the night before he died, the Lord Jesus took bread and wine and said that when we do this, he will be with us, among us, as fully present to us as in his body and blood.  And so, in our retelling this story, re-enacting it as a great play in which we all have a part, the bread and the wine, though chemically unchanged, assume a new significance; though visibly still bread and wine, their reality to us is cosmically changed.  So, if we come up to take communion (and all are welcome to) if we come even despite reservations and questions about the story in which we are sharing, we are choosing to move from ‘observer-status’ to becoming participants in the story.  Remember, the story that we share in is one we never finish – and it never finishes with us.


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