Sermon from Obit Evensong on 26th September 2019

September 26, 2019

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Preached by Robert Quinney, Organist and Tutorial Fellow in Music at New College, Oxford at Obit Evensong of William of Wykham on Thursday 26th September 2019.

Not quite knowing how to begin,
I turned to a learned friend for advice.
Of course, I did this at the eleventh hour.
Necessity is the mother of invention & all that,
but what I needed was a midwife.
‘I’ve agreed to preach a sermon in Winchester Cathedral on Thursday’, I
wrote. On Tuesday.
‘I know what I want to say, but how do I say it?’
She responded, ‘That’s like me saying,
“I’ve agreed to play Stanford in A for Andy Lumsden on Thursday.
I know how it goes, but how do I play it?”’
Fair enough: point taken. But it’s a good question:
How do we play it?
How do we say it?
Let us begin a few years before William of Wykeham.
Quite a few years before, in fact, with the legend of Orpheus.
Orpheus, the archetypal musician, is the metaphorical representative of
every artist, even today.
A specific moment in his story – the crucial point, the crux – is a metaphor
for the creative process:
having rescued his beloved Eurydice from the underworld, Orpheus
looks back, just to make sure she’s actually there.
In that moment, she vanishes, forever.
(He’d been warned not to do it, obviously.)
Musicians, among whom we count the fine body of singers here, & even,
heaven help us, the organists—we musicians experience something similar in
our creative process.
Musicians especially of all artists, in fact. Our art is not imprinted upon
canvas or delivered through text into the reader’s subjective consciousness.
Rather, music depends upon sound, & sound is an elusive medium:
literally elusive—as the OED defines that word, it ‘refuses to be caught’.
If you think music can be caught, captured in a sound recording, you
haven’t been to enough live performances. Like Eurydice, music is no
sooner here than it is gone. If we try to capture it, we will be disappointed—
like Orsino at the start of Twelfth Night, vainly ordering up a memory:
That strain again! It had a dying fall;
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing & giving odour! Enough, no more;
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
What on earth has this to do with William of Wykeham? He, after all, is the
reason we’re here today: in the case of the Wykehamists present—well, the
clue’s in our title, he is the reason we are here.
Stay with me and, if we’re lucky, all may be made clear.
On occasions like this it is difficult to escape a pervasive historical trope.
Let’s call it OSF: Our Sainted Founder.
It’s one of those categorisations of historical figures satirised so brilliantly by
Sellars and Yeatman in 1066 & All That;
thanks to which the founder of our sister institutions at Eton and Cambridge
is forever, with capital letters, A Good Man but a Bad King.
With Wykeham, there is evidence to be heard in both directions. Perhaps
some tedious debating society has already made a pompous pass at the
question: William of Wykeham, Saint or Sinner? (I hope not at Win Coll—
Wykehamists are far too intellectually stylish for that sort of thing.)
One the one hand, there is his unusual emphasis on a practical theological
education, designed to produce useful working priests,
not to oil the machinery of Church and State with canon lawyers.
Add to that his fairly remarkable attention to his duties as diocesan bishop:
actually turning up to celebrate at ordinations instead of leaving it to a
On the other side of the scoreboard, there are the ‘financial irregularities’,
to use a contemporary euphemism, that led to his disgrace in 1376.
Perhaps worse, the hypocrisy of making political capital out of the downfall
of rivals, denouncing them for sharp practices of which he himself was a
past (& future) master.
And what about the elephant in the room? A fact that sits as uncomfortably
in our post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment world as – well, as an
elephant in a room.
Wykeham’s two colleges, when it came down to it, were Good Works, and
set up to speed his passage through purgatory.
We were, we are, chantries.
Indeed at New College, Wykeham specified that in case of its financial
collapse, the last men standing would be the 10 chaplains, 3 clerks & 16
choristers: those who were to make intercession for his soul on its journey to
To a 21stC. cast of mind, this seems a bit fishy to say the least.
We can certainly approve of the piety, the charity, & the promotion of
‘godliness & the studies of good learning’.
But if the real purpose was to endow a bespoke programme of special
pleading to God on the Founder’s behalf, isn’t the whole thing rather
Was he, to coin a phrase we hear too much nowadays,
Only In It For Himself?
There is no satisfactory answer to this question,
& we have to get out of this bind – this binary – somehow.
Otherwise this sermon might never end.
Well, let’s remind ourselves that we moderns simply cannot understand the
pre-modern world.
Try as we might, we cannot think as Wykeham thought.
But we can take what George Smiley called ‘backbearings’, by examining
the evidence of 14thC. belief.
For people of Wykeham’s time and for some time thereafter, the present
world was joined to, surrounded by, the world to come.
Even for Wykeham, who benefitted from a steeper rise & greater longevity
than most of his contemporaries,
it was what was to come that mattered;
what remained once the wealth & power had vanished.
This was not an abstract concept; it was the reality.
For one thing, the bare fact of mortality couldn’t be ignored; not in the
century of the Black Death.
My days are gone like a shadow: and I am withered like grass (Ps 102.11)
The psalmist is evoking the close of day, when the shades lengthen;
he must be looking West, his shadow lengthening behind him and the light
fading before.
The end of the day:
a good time for thinking about things beyond the present.
Here & now, we can’t understand the pre-modern worldview;
but we have a remnant of it,
a remnant that speaks powerfully to our secular, narcissistic times.
That remnant is the liturgy of the Church.
&, more particularly, the very thing we were doing just a few minutes ago, &
will be again once I shut up.
Singing the divine office.
The liturgy tells us how to say it, play it, sing it, hear it.
We can wrap all those up into one word, in fact:
The liturgy itself tells us how to pray it.
Again, there’s a clue in the title:
the fact that we sing more than we say in Evensong is significant. &, with
apologies to any clergy who don’t like the sound of this, it is this
characteristic that may account for the resurgent popularity of orderly, wellsung,
not-much-spoken choral liturgies in recent years.
Not because those who attend evensong want to hear a free concert:
access to ‘classical’ music is more plentiful, & cheaper, than ever before.
Nor, I think, is evensong a sort of ecclesiastical bliss-out space where we can
switch our brains off.
No: it’s because the musical recitation of scripture – specifically OT psalms
& NT canticles – connects us to things:
to our deep past, to the very roots of our culture and society.
The pre-modern world,
of which we can have little or no rational knowledge.
But we may, nevertheless, understand.
By Wykeham’s time, the rule of St Benedict had been the normative
influence on Western religious life for 800 years.
It was from the great monastic houses that Wykeham took inspiration for
the layout of his foundations, which in turn set the pattern for all similar
institutions for centuries. (Though it must be said that, in the case of New
College at least, he wasn’t sure what to do with a cloister.)
It would take longer than I have now to tell a detailed story of the twists &
turns & contingencies that delivered Anglican choral evensong to us today.
But, in short:
Choirs like New College’s were probably not singing the monastic offices.
They were instead most likely used for votive masses, typically those of Our
Lady. Meanwhile, similar choirs, modelled on those in Wykeham’s
foundations and their successors at Magdalen, Eton and King’s, were
springing up in monastic foundations like Winchester.
They, too, sang votive Ladymasses, in the Lady Chapels that had recently
been added to their buildings.
Come the English Reformation, these choirs were standing ready to replace
the deprived monks.
So, right at the start of the Church of England, hardwired into its liturgical
practice, was professional singing of the office.
This was an innovation – especially innovative if you were a monk – but one
rooted in centuries of monastic and related pre-Reformation practice.
In George Herbert’s final years, when he was Rector of Bemerton in
Wiltshire, it was his habit twice a week to journey to Salibury Cathedral to
attend Choral Evensong, then to play consort music with his friends in the
city. Prayer and music intertwine in Herbert’s poetry.
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
A reality not congenial to rational explanation,
but something understood.
This something – whatever it is in reality –
can connect us with Wykeham,
& with his worldview.
His was a world in which a wealthy man had no option
but to endow prayers for his soul.
Because in Wykeham’s bible, as in ours, a rich man wanting to enter the
kingdom of heaven has his work cut out, camel-style.
Wykeham could never have forseen it, but he bequeathed something rather
special to us—and not just two fine places of education.
In the liturgy we find a means of combatting the Orpheus curse:
the evanescence of music.
It’s the repetition, the near-mindlessness of it:
the music goes in and comes out so many times that, really,
it’s going round and round,
a feedback loop of prayer.
And because the music of the liturgy does not exist for itself,
as the music of the post-Enlightenment age does,
it has a purpose beyond its own expressivity.
So while music still refuses to be caught,
it makes an impression,
more than just the sensory pleasure
that made even Reinhard Heydrich a faithful music-lover.
It edifies us, builds us up within and beyond ourselves.
We, as a society that is so rich and yet so poor;
so mean in its care for the poor;
so mean-spirited in its tribalism,
by which we prefer to remain ignorant of those not like ourselves:
we need these glimpses of what is to come.
And the good news is that, thanks to Wykeham
and a few others like him,
we’re still here, glimpsing it.
Thanks be to God.