Sermon by The Right Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
Peter 2. 4-10
Luke 4. 16-21
You can also listen to this service here
Being locked out of our cathedrals and church buildings makes a strange context in which to mark the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the “new” Cathedral here in Salisbury. It is one of the most beautiful and recognisable buildings in Europe with the highest spire in England earthing heaven set in the largest and loveliest Cathedral Close with water meadows beyond.
Church buildings are closed but church continues. We’re praying at home, holding worship online, organising care for neighbours especially the most vulnerable. Church is people, as the reading from 1 Peter said ‘living stones’, as well as buildings. But it’s not one or the other: church is both. People and buildings are intimately connected across time. Our churches, what Simon Jenkins calls “the museums of England”, carry people’s stories and history.
February seems a long time ago but at the start of what was to be a series of events marking the 800th anniversary there was a light show projecting the history onto the building inside and out. Night after night the place was packed with people come to look at the stones like they were crying out from a building populated by thousands more people than we could see across time.
Look at and around Salisbury cathedral – as you can do in the virtual tour online - and you can see in it the sweep of 800 years of history. The adaptability of Christianity to speak of God in time, is one of the reasons Christianity is a great missionary religion.
For centuries this English Gothic building with its medieval Sarum Rite influenced the Church across Europe.
You can see in the stones the impact of the Reformation and of repeated re-orderings that changed people’s experience of being the people before God in this place. I love the thought of George Herbert, 17th century country parson, priest and poet, walking across the meadows to Evensong: “Teach me my God and king in all things thee to see.”
Towards the end of the 1700s the building was closed for two periods of two and three years for refurbishment and renewal, much longer than now.
In 1816 John Constable began a series of visits to what was then a very fashionable renewed Salisbury. The paintings he produced are now among the nation’s favourites. One in 1826 from the garden of what was the Bishop’s Palace has the small figures of the bishop, his wife and ahead of them their soon to be married daughter. The bishop is pointing something out on the great cathedral with his stick. An art historian commented that the bishop is the master of all he surveys, but the building doesn’t work like that. It’s bigger than any of us. The bishop in his day might seem quite a big figure but I’m the 78th Bishop of Salisbury and the bishop at any one time has a small part in an enterprise that spans time and points to eternity.
Philip Larkin memorably wrote in a poem called Church Going,
A serious house on serious earth it is.
What is much less well remembered are the opening lines,
Once I am sure there is nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Well, now the doors are shut and the people outside, but the building is still working for us; “a thin place”, “where prayer has been valid.” These are not just the museums of England. They are places where we find ourselves in relation to God and one another and all creation.
In 1831, Constable made another of those great paintings of Salisbury cathedral from the meadows. The very dark clouds above the cathedral reflect Constable’s own grief after his wife’s death, as well as the difficulties England was facing of poverty and of political reform. So the storms Constable was depicting had some parallel ingredients to the grief we are experiencing now with this wretched virus after years of austerity and the (political) divisiveness of Brexit. The spire soars into the sky and light breaks through the storm clouds as sunshine falls on the west front of the cathedral. Later Constable added a rainbow, a popular addition that instantly made the painting a winner. The rainbow was not in support of the NHS but a sign of hope when the Biblical flood is past: God’s covenant with all creation. In troubled times the cathedral is a symbol of hope. That’s why we feel so acutely our not being able to go into it.
Nowadays a visit to Salisbury cathedral is interpreted by three contemporary artistic commissions. We enter the Christian life and the Church by the font, through baptism. Here in Salisbury, we go past William Pye’s large font at the west end of the cathedral, its huge volume of water wonderfully still and reflective, overflowing, the water of life abundant.
Beyond the font, the large space is for prayer, contemplation and worship. At the east end to which we are pointed is a window by Gabriel Loire. It’s very dark blue and populated by people hard to see, figures from the Passion of Christ and prisoners of conscience today. From bottom left to top right it’s as if a door has been opened giving light to people in darkness. Like Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth that we heard today, there’s a vision of God’s kingdom in which the sick are healed, the blind given sight and the oppressed go free. Christianity is for worship and what we do as a consequence is the test of it.
So the third contemporary artistic commission that interprets the building for us today is outside the cathedral that is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Elizabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna, walking away from her cathedral into the city. It’s what happens at the end of every service when the people are dismissed to go out and get on with the work of God in the world God made and loves. It is in that interplay of Church and world where we find what it is to love God and neighbour. What happens in church is an inestimable resource for our daily lives.
Like people in exile, we long to return home. We will get back into our churches and we will be different, changed by the inner journeys we’ve made and the simpler everyday faith at home we’ve been experiencing. And when we are back in our buildings how much more we will value their sacred space that contains our joys and sorrows and points creatively beyond itself to the revealing and healing truth, love, justice, and peace of God that makes us fully human. May the Lord bless our going in and coming out for ever more.