Bodies, Bugs & Blessing       

July 15, 2018

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Preached by Rt Revd Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester, using I Pet 2:1-10; John 10:22-29 at Liturgy of the Foundation on Sunday 15th July 2018, the Seventh Sunday After Trinity, St Swithuntide.

It’s wonderful to be with you again on this special day of the Liturgy of the Foundation. I hope you won’t find my opening question too strange! Did you know that less than half the cells in our body are actually human: our bugs constitute a second, larger, genome? The DNA of our bodies is one element of who we are, the DNA of our bugs is another. The role our bugs play in our health and happiness is becoming clear. Our sense of wellbeing is more to do with our gut than with our inherited genes: more about what we eat and what we’re exposed to. Yet the control of nasty bugs has put at risk the impact of the good bugs. This can be seen in the modern vulnerability to allergies. So apparently a bit of dirt is good thing. But my basic point is a bit like the nature/nurture debate: we are made up of our body and our bugs.

Now what’s all this got to do with the Cathedral and the Liturgy of the Foundation? Well, if you ask, “What is the founding vision, the DNA, of this Cathedral?” the answer is, “the Benedictine tradition”. In fact, Cardinal Newman, in his booklet on The Mission of the Benedictine Order, says that Benedict should be likened to Abraham as ‘the Father of many nations’. He is the Patriarch of the West, as Basil is of East, such was his impact on culture and Christianity. The last Pope called himself after Benedict for that reason. It was the Rule of St Benedict, for ordering the spiritual life of communities, which spread across the Western world. Our own Book of Common Prayer is inspired by the Benedictine tradition.

The Gospel: Blessing a Nation

When I was General Secretary of CMS I had the chance to visit many nations. One country I enjoyed visiting was India: it is vast and diverse, and has an extraordinary religious heritage. On one journey, to a Diocese in North India, I visited a church where my seat was placed next to a plaque on the wall that included the words from our first reading: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ The significance of this text in that context is appreciated as you realise that everyone there was Dalit, untouchable, no caste, not a holy nation. Not a people. The gospel, the good news, brought to them was of God’s loving mercy: that they are God’s people. That was the blessing the gospel brought to that nation but it’s a blessing to all nations.

When Birinus was sent to Britain, in the second wave of the Benedictine mission, he came and found that the British Christians were not sharing the gospel with their Anglo-Saxon neighbours. This was understandable, in that the Angles and Saxons had quite recently invaded and taken British lands. Nevertheless, the British Church was not reaching out and sharing the gospel with those who, though enemies, were loved by God. So when Birinus baptised Cynegils, the Saxon King, he was making it clear that even Saxons are God’s people. His mission, similar to Augustine’s, was to share God’s life in a way that connected the blessing of the gospel with the local people’s context. Birinus was effective, and inspired the building of a Church that became our Saxon Old Minister Cathedral of St Peter & St Paul.

This mission of blessing led to a Benedictine Rule being adopted in almost every Cathedral monastery. You might therefore compare this Benedictine foundation with our basic DNA, our bodily DNA. We claim a Benedictine heritage that goes back to St Birinus. Martin Biddle’s new book, on the archaeology of Winchester’s Ministers, helps us understand the foundation and development of the Cathedral buildings. But in parallel the Benedictine mission was also regularly refreshed. St Swithun was part of this ongoing renewal (after the Viking invasions) as was Aethelwold, another Bishop of Winchester. This regular refreshment and renewal is bit like having good bugs that help to keep our mission healthy and effective.

Responding: Personal Rededication

Now I hope you’re still with me. I’ve talked about history, biology and travel; but all this is leading up to the question I shall put to you in the first charge: will you rededicate yourselves anew? Last year I talked about the nation, the country and this city. This year my focus is on you personally, rededicating yourself.

So, pressing the analogy, we have a bodily DNA, but alongside that we have another DNA: our bugs. The bugs are contextual and cultural things taken into our system and converted to Christ, keeping us alive in our faith. King Alfred understood this element. His commitments, to make the scriptures available in the vernacular, to govern according to Biblical principles and to ensure that the clergy were properly educated, were good bugs. But here’s point: we can’t rest on our heritage of previous ways of refreshing the good bugs. We have to refresh way our own formation in which we practise the Benedictine DNA in our time and context. So how, in God’s mercy, do we bless the nation today through our personal lives?

The Diocesan Rule of Life is a simple framework for how to live as a Christian: of how to nurture our nature. Inspired by Benedict’s Rule, it offers a way of reflecting on our life and shaping it in a positive pattern: to develop good bugs – like eating live yoghurt! The Diocesan Rule suggests that Loving, Living & Serving are three ways of sharing God’s life: of blessing others. I commend it to you (do look at the Diocesan website) as one way of respecting St Swithun who helped keep our Benedictine heritage fresh.