A sermon preached by Eva Akerman on the Feast Day of St Nicholas.
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Usually at this point in the service I would be sitting only a few metres away from here, in my normal place alongside my chorister friends on the benches, maybe sharing a joke or settling in for a few minutes of peace within the middle of Evensong.
And yet here I am today, just a few meters distance away, in Bishop Nicholas' ancient dark wooden throne, wearing his heavy and beautifully embroidered cope and getting to experience the fear and expectation which all priests must experience when standing up to deliver their first sermon. A supersonic journey form chorister to Bishop in only a few seconds!
First, I would like to say how humbled I feel in this position. Second, I would like to thank Bishop Nicholas for keeping this old tradition at Salisbury Cathedral alive today. I am told it is a chance to turn your adult world upside down and a chance to bring a child's perspective to hold alongside your own
just for a moment.
As all of you know, today falls only a couple of days after the feast of St Nicolas. Many of you will be familiar with the Christian tradition in many countries, of Nicolas visiting children whilst they sleep during the night of on the evening of December 5th - that would have been Thursday evening this week. Leaving a shoe or boot outside their bedroom door, St. Nicolas would reward the good with gifts and teach the naughty by leaving a stick or coal in their boot. This St Nicolas tradition, along with our wonderful Advent calendar, was for me. growing up in a home with a German mother, a special event, the first taste of Christmas to come. Stick there was one for us on one occasion though, I have to say.
I have been doing a little bit more research into Saint Nick, much assisted by the performance of Benjamin Britten's St Nicolas here in Salisbury Cathedral only last month. As well as children (who could forget the miracle of the three pickled boys), he was, apparently, also connected with a wide range of people from all parts of life - this included "repentant thieves", merchants, archers, brewers, students and of course sailors.
Connections between Christians, fishermen, sailors, boats and the sea run through Scripture. But bringing this a little closer to home, and turning your adult world on its head, I don't know whether you have ever looked up at the roof and imagined our own Cathedral upside down. It does in fact make you quite dizzy, so please be careful. Whilst looking at the cathedral upside down, I wonder whether you've ever imagined the nave to be like a great upside-down ship, with all the arches and passages and galleries in this stone building to be deep in the bowels of our boat and everything at floor level to be up on the top deck. With its very tall columns and pointed arches, Salisbury Cathedral would be a safe and strong deep keeled sailing vessel, capable of riding out any weather and keeping its crew and passengers safe on their journey. Right now the lay vicars and my friends in the choir stalls would be high up in the rigging of that ship and I, standing here on Bishop Nick's poop deck would have a good view over my boat surging through the seas.
A boat and its sailors is a good metaphor for a community, a Christian community in our case, here at Salisbury Cathedral.
But what does St Nicolas also tell us by his connection with thieves and sailors and children, to name a few? It is that he must have been a modest man whose faith encouraged and led him to speak to and support those outside of the protection and safety of his own boat and the [comradeship] of his Christian brothers and sisters.
I think St Nicolas would have encouraged us to be Christians here inside our Cathedral, to support each other and to build the strong and colourful community which we have and of which the musical traditions are such a thriving and special part;
But he would also have encouraged us to be Christians when we leave our ship, when we reach land, when we are out from this place, when we are amongst those who least expect it of us. That, I think, can be our hardest course to steer.
As we all become more and more aware of our delicate world which we are living in, I would also like to think that this includes caring and looking after the precious and beautiful [natural environment] which is outside our Cathedral's walls too.
A privilege of being chorister Bishop for this short time is the right to see our world through the lens of things which I, as a child, know and love myself. One of my passions is sport, but, I admit, references to sport in the Bible have been quite hard to find!!
As patron saint of children, I am convinced that, like me, St. Nicholas would have also been a strong supporter of games and sports, in particular team sports.
Sport makes me feel free and happy. I love the feeling after running around hard, the fun and enjoyment of doing something with my friends outside whatever the weathers, the fresh air, the excitement of winning and of learning a new skill; or (one which I don't enjoy quite as much) sharing the disappointment of being beaten.
But possibly the best part of this is playing as a part of a Team. That same team feeling is also something I am lucky to experience by being part of the Cathedral choir, where I and my chorister friends are part of a much larger team, working together to make the music which is such a main ingredient in your Cathedral's life. Can there be a more level playing field than the Cathedral choir, where boys, girls and the lay vicars practice and perform together daily, tour together, laugh together?
When I look around me at the Cathedral clergy and vergers I actually see a perfect hockey team (even if they don't know it themselves). Starting with the two Nicks, Bishop Nicholas would be in goal; with his cloak and staff and mitre he'd be impossible to get the ball past and he'd have that whole overview of the field that Bishops naturally have. Dean Nick I'm putting up front -I think he could use his height and long reach well and I think he is fast enough. Alongside him up front to score goals would be Canon Anna. Together they'd be a nimble attack force -different approaches, different styles, different voices but a great partnership on the pitch.
Set out between Dean Nick up front and Bishop Nick in goal, conveniently in the shape of a cross would be the rest of the team. I've decided to put Mr Halls in centre half -this is a tough position, requiring an ability to watch both sides of the pitch at once -just like Dec and Can choristers on either side of the choir stalls. Supporting him on either side I am placing Cannon Ed and Cannon Robert. I have seen them both moving at speed around the Close (late for a service perhaps?).
Stepping back towards defence I have selected three vergers: Mr Taylor on the left, Mr Ringwood in the middle and Mr Lycett on the right. Directly in front of Bishop Nicholas, I'm placing the Head Verger Mr Lewis and maestro Cathedral organist Mr Challenger. Both of them ever present. Always there. 100% reliable.
I think the vergers in particular would keep their positions well - have you ever observed how precisely they hold their line when their pilot the choir daily to the stalls?
Just like any successful sport team they have a large group of supporters usually not so visible but incredibly important. For us they are the stewards, flower arrangers, stone masons, the Holy Dusters and many others keeping our cathedral perfect for you.
Any sport is a great example of the power of teamwork and community and of the importance of fun, of daring ·and dash, as well as of stability and continuity, of fair play and determination. I think these are all characteristics which St Nicholas would have encouraged us to grab in our lives.
I hope I haven't given you all a stiff neck now, staring up high into the roof of our nave.
I am almost done now and you can turn your worlds back the right way up -no more sailing Cathedrals or hockey in the Spire crossing.
But perhaps only by turning our world upside down from time to time do we get to see how important the things and people and places nearest and closest to us are.
I wish you all a very happy and sporting Advent.