With one hand a young woman clings to an overhead strap as the tram lurches from the stop and winds up the hill; with the other she clutches a copy of the Scriptures. These she reads quietly to herself, oblivious to the commotion all around her.
Two pretty little girls with clouds of dark ringlets and faces wreathed in smiles wave excitedly from an upstairs window. It is covered in close steel mesh.
All along a busy shopping street, stallholder after shopkeeper calls out “Where are you from? Welcome! Where are you from? Welcome!”
Please excuse the verbal equivalent of the post-summer slideshow. I left school several decades ago but every September my default sermon remains “What I Did in My Holidays”. One year the people of St Peter Eaton Square had to put up with me building a sandcastle in church. Some of them are here today. They are endlessly forgiving.
The holiday from which I have just returned was spent in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. The young Jewish woman said her prayers on a Jerusalem tram as though doing so was the most natural thing in the world. The little girls waved from behind steel mesh because their parents’ flat looks onto an illegal settlement in Hebron and leaving the window unprotected would put them at risk. And because of the unrest that the settlement provokes, the shopkeepers and stallholders are unused to the sight of visitors in their city. Hence “Where are you from? Welcome!” Visitors to Hebron represent hope for Hebron.
These are my holiday snapshots: a dogged habit of prayer; the harsh reality of injustice; an exuberant offer of hospitality. But I'd like to suggest that my snapshots capture the heart of a cathedral’s vocation. Ponder the tapestry of Scripture that has been unfolded this afternoon. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray he responds with a pattern which will become as familiar to them as their breathing, one that can be prayed as well on the tram as in the church. When Mary is told that she is to be the mother of God’s Son she responds with a song of God’s justice, the Magnificat: the mighty will be put down; the hungry will be filled; barred windows will be no more. And when the Israelites enter the Promised Land they believe they do so at God’s invitation. Hospitality is a sacred business from the very beginning.
Holy places, writes my friend and colleague Dean Robert Willis in his new hymn, give us glimpses of a deeper meaning. Jerusalem and Hebron are holy places: so too is Salisbury, this beautiful city built in a place where five rivers meet. Common to the threefold vocation to prayer, justice and welcome is the profound accountability which this holy place demands of us.
Prayer is when we hold ourselves accountable to God. Michael Mayne, who loved this Cathedral, writes that it is the disciplined taking of time to remind ourselves who and whose we are. So in teaching us to ask regularly for our daily bread Jesus teaches us to be honest about our needs and to be honest about our desires. Whether these are virtuous and sustaining, or unhealthy and damaging, he requires us to admit them, to hold ourselves accountable for them, and to look to our Father for their satisfaction or their healing. Here we offer ourselves to God, confident that he will do his work in us. “You have only to keep still” says Moses.
The pursuit of justice is when we hold ourselves accountable to one another. The Prisoners of Conscience window, the inspiration of my predecessor Dean Evans, speaks of the abuse perpetrated by unaccountable power. Our greatest treasure, Magna Carta, speaks of the reining-in of unaccountable power. Our history means that here we have no choice but to recall our responsibility to one another and for one another. The cruel attacks on our fellow citizens in this city have made this vocation ever more urgent. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” writes the psalmist. We pray for the peace of Hebron, and Juba, and Riga,and Salisbury – and for justice for their people.
And welcome is when we hold ourselves accountable to the stranger. This is an exceptional place, but it is not our Promised Land beyond the Red Sea, to be enjoyed to the exclusion of others. It belongs to all, because all belong to God. All. To those who come to worship with us; to those who come to pray quietly; to those who come to marvel at the architecture; to those who while away the long summer evenings on the lawns: to them we say, this Cathedral is yours, and your presence among us is a sign of hope to us. Where are you from? Welcome!
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” wrote William Butler Yeats in 1919 as he surveyed the wreckage of post-war Europe. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. One hundred years later many have invoked those lines as an apt description of our own times. We inhabit the era of the strong man; we hear loud voices full of fear and hate; we strain at the ties which bind us. Accountability is sneered at as a technocratic buzz-word, a bar to productivity or its subtler cousin, effectiveness. We need to reclaim it as an imperative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“The centre cannot hold”. My conviction is that cathedrals are places where the centre can hold because cathedrals are places where accountability is practised: the daily discipline of opening ourselves to the stranger in the belief that they will have something of value to teach us; the daily pursuit of justice in the community as the necessary outworking of our common humanity; the daily practice of holding ourselves accountable to the holy one whose gaze is always knowing, forgiving and loving.
In 1847, twenty-two years before his consecration as Bishop of Salisbury, George Moberly preached on ‘The Transfiguration of Christians’ at the University Church in Oxford. It's unmistakably the sermon of the Victorian headmaster that he then was, but it concludes with words that are timely for us. “We must be real” he said, “and we must be at peace. The cause of holiness, which is the cause of God and of eternity, is too sacred to be imperilled for the sake of ease, or jealousy”. Real – and at peace – with God, with one another, and with the stranger. Gathered beneath this glorious spire, which soars heavenwards and requires us all to lift our eyes, that is our vocation. If we are faithful to it then in Richard Church’s words, so beautifully set to music by David Halls, our humanity will be transfigured, touched by immortality. Amen.