A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Bible has a curiously elastic relationship with many of the symbols that appear in it. Water, for example, crops up throughout the Bible, sometimes as a symbol of chaos and sometimes a symbol of healing. Of course both of those symbols are used to great effect in the baptism service. Walls are another ambiguous symbol. Walls, usually stone walls, turn up often, and again sometimes they are quite positive, and at other times less so. And today’s gospel reading, at the beginning of the penultimate week of the Christian year, presents us with the walls of the Temple: “look, teacher,’ say the disciples to Jesus, “what large stones and what large buildings!” They are proud of the temple, they are in awe of it, it impresses them, and, we can infer, it speaks to them as a symbol of permanence, of stability, of confidence. And Jesus’ response: well yes okay, but it is all going to crumble to dust.
Reaching the end of one’s time in any community leads to a certain amount of reflection on the curiosities of one’s experience. The weirdest thing that I think I had to do in my last job was, in theory anyway, on Maundy Thursday every year in the parish of Chaceley, I was required by ancient statute to either preach a sermon in the parish church, or failing that, give bread to the poor. One can imagine that in the years when the statute had a real force, the poor would pray annually for no sermon.
Here I think the most peculiar part of the role actually stopped happening after about a year and a half in post. When I first arrived the Canon in Residence was required, every night at 10.30, to lock the Close. Sometimes I would be so tired by then that I would be almost literally padding round to the High Street gate in my slippers. Sometimes it would mean leaving a dinner party, or something, to go close the gates. Often in the summer it involved meeting tourists and trying to explain to them that if they didn’t move their car within the next few minutes they would be spending the night in the precincts. Always it included a rather uncomfortable moment of theological reflection as I closed the city out of this beautiful environment for the night, and snapped the padlock shut. It is not a comfortable experience. I would wonder on which side of that locked gate Jesus was. Now I recognise that the exclusivity of this Cathedral Close is one of the third rails here. Touch it and you are likely to get a shock. And the sermon is not, in any case, the right context for me to tell you what I really think about whether this close ought to be locked at night or not. But I do think it is legitimate, as we think about walls of the temple, and how we define communities, for me to tell you that story about that repeated nagging theological and pastoral feeling that I experienced night after night as I locked the gates. On which side of these gates is our Lord?
I had the privilege of making a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine during my time at university. Amongst other things we visited the Western, or ‘Wailing’, Wall. Those of you who have been there will recall the experience I am sure. It is immense. The stones are huge. And certainly on the occasion when I visited the curious sense of prayer, lament and hope was really quite tangible as I stood before the wall and tried to frame a prayer in my mind. “Do you see these great buildings?” What do we do with walls? They help to define us don’t they? They help to define community, they help us to feel secure, they speak of permanence and confidence. But they also speak of division, of exclusion, of a movement from one place to another. Think of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall. The wall built even now between Israeli and Palestinian territory, which ought at least to make us feel uncomfortable as we sing O Little town of Bethlehem at Christmas time.
I guess that the exercise for us as the Christian community here in Salisbury, custodians of this extraordinary iconic building, its Close, and its gates and doors is to remember always that it is the space within the walls, and the space outside it, which is the interesting thing. Which is the important thing. Walls really only exist to demarcate space. You would expect a geographer to say that wouldn’t you? But it’s true. A wall is pointless unless it says something about the space either side of it. What is that space for?
When our nieces, Phoebe and Poppy, were a little younger than they are now they had stair gates. You know, hinging metal doors to stop them from tumbling down the stairs, or from accessing spaces in my sister’s house where there were things that could put them in danger. Actually in latter years those stair gates were also very helpful in stopping me from tumbling down the stairs in my sister’s house, which are really quite steep! Is it possible that the reason the Bible is so ambiguous about walls, about dividing points, is that they are really supposed to be more like those stair gates than anything else? That what they are there to do is to create space within which we can learn and grow safely and securely, but always with an eye to being able to move further eventually? That just as in this wonderful church, there are permeable partitions: West doors, Font, Quire entrance, sanctuary and so on, which invite us to move, slowly, sequentially, as we learn and grow, from the place of our entry, to our baptism, to our confirmation and perception of the sacraments, to the place where eventually our coffin will stand, and beyond that into glory - should not all of our walls be speaking of that kind invitation? Of that kind of journey? Creating within spaces which demarcate “common ground”, as our Dean has christened it, and as Chapter will invite us to explore together over the coming years: spaces which invite welcome, prayer and conversation. Where are you going? From where have you come? Tell me about your story. About your journey.
Seven years ago they made me preach a sermon as part of my interview. The text was today’s gospel reading. Or, at least, Matthew’s version of it. I was beaten up fairly badly in my ensuing interview by our beloved Canon Chancellor in a question about preaching, mostly in a conversation about whether it is legitimate to preach the same sermon more than once. Well, just to introduce a bit of symmetry, which as you know Precentors love, and also because Ed is still on his deckchair, here are a few lines from the sermon I preached in the hope of being appointed to this post:
“We cherish our inheritance – buildings, words, music –But we must do something with them. Everything will come to an end. Even this glorious building will come to an end. The music will fall silent, the words will cease…but giving way to the music of heaven, the pavilions of glory, and the countless multitude around the glassy sea.
We run the risk of collapsing the Kingdom of God into structures, organisations and congregations. Please God, the Kingdom is in each of those things, but it cannot be reduced to them. The Temple itself will give way to the reality. The confusing reflections in the mirror yielding to communion with a God who, like his prophet, comes with power and justice and might, and the Spirit.
Even we, who worship in this most wonderful of buildings, pointing as it does to the transcendent glory of God, must remember that “not one stone will be left upon another.” But that will not be because the Kingdom of God has failed. It will be because the Kingdom of God has come.”
I am interested in how I will feel in not very long, when I surrender my key to this Cathedral, and indeed to the Close. I will then be on the outside, at the mercy of your decisions about when I can come in. May the space inside and outside be held, be cherished, be committed in prayer and action to be nothing less than the common ground in which the first sparkling hints of the Kingdom may be found.