July 21, 2017
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Preached by The Very Rev’d. Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester, at the College of Canons Eucharist on the Feast of St Swithun, 15 July 2017
One of the great joys of becoming Dean of Winchester is to step into its history, spanning some 15 centuries. Here is a cathedral of national and international significance, deeply rooted physically and spiritually in this particular place and landscape. Rooted so that, I hope, we can serve the diocese from a place of deep stability. Connecting the past and the present in ways that are tangible, in these stones and also in the people, the living stones, who worship here day by day and seek to serve wider communities and proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation. Connecting then the past, the present and future.
This rootedness in place is a great joy to me. Shortly after I arrived here a charming lady in the congregation asked me how I was coping with ‘the ordeal’ of being Dean of Winchester (I loved her candour) and truthfully, it’s good to be here. It’s good to settle into this place and its history, its take up the task of discerning, with the body corporate, the unique charism and calling of this cathedral, in this diocese, now.
And it’s a joy to inhabit the place where St Swithun lived and died and is remembered and whose feast we celebrate today. Much of what we inherit about our patron saint is certainly legend, a construction after the fact, but still an insight and inspiration because the stories that live on show what has been of lasting value to the Christian community. As new Dean in this place, and new to St Swithun, I’d like to reflect today on an aspect of his character, though it’s rather difficult to talk about in our contemporary world: his humility.
Humility isn’t easy to talk about but it’s a virtue beautiful and true because it’s Christ-like. Jesus describes himself as ‘gentle and humble in heart.’ (Matt 11; 29). Christ is the measure of humility itself, not clinging to equality with God, but taking the form of a servant among us.
And so when Swithun asked to be buried, humbly, outside the door of the old Minster, so that people might ‘walk over him’, he shows us astonishing self-forgetfulness, the opposite of all that is self-regarding, and ironically, with no apparent desire for a monument in his memory, his humility became renowned. His remains were later moved indoors and then brought into this cathedral in 1093 to be venerated and as the source of many miraculous healings, as you know, Winchester became a significant centre of pilgrimage.
For Swithun to request burial in the earth and to be walked on is a request for anonymity, but also shows an honest embrace of the reality of life. We all return to the ground that has sustained us through life. We are earthly creatures, dependent and interdependent with one another and with all of creation. As has been said, what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. Humility is being wise to this. To be humble is to be grounded, ordinary, and self-aware.
And humility enables us to be attentive to Christ in one another. Another humble saint, St Chad, chose to walk, rather than ride a horse, so that he might see his flock eye to eye and face to face. And our own St Swithun was attentive to the needs of humble people. His statue on the Great Screen holds a symbol of the stone bridge that, as Bishop, he had built over the River Itchen. One day, as legend has it, in the jostle of city traffic across the bridge an elderly woman dropped her basket of eggs. An ordinary accident, but noticed by the saint, who picked up the eggs and restored them whole. Swithun was attentive. He noticed the lives of poor people and served them with kindness.
In these days after the shocking disaster of the Grenfell Tower fire, for a while, people who are poor and broken have been noticed and heard, by the media and so by the wider community, and noticed and heard by those in power, by those responsible for decisions about social housing. We know that the attention of the news will move on, and that in a competitive city, the poor risk being jostled out of place by louder, more powerful people and forces. But the local churches will continue to serve the poor and the broken, long term. Seeking the common good, humbly recognising that what is common is precious.
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus urges his disciples to be attentive, alert, as servants are alert for the return of their master. The humble ‘servant heart’, both self-forgetful and confident, with a deep desire and determination to serve, is ever ready to serve the master who will be so delighted with the servant that he will turn the tables and serve him. We follow a Saviour both glorious and humble.
The monastic Rule of St Benedict in which we are rooted here, says more about humility and learning humility than anything else. The Rule urges a way of life that enables love and self-forgetfulness, so that we can focus on Christ and see and hear him in one another. Famously those who came to the monastery were to be welcomed as though Christ himself. The Rule recommends that the monks prostrate themselves in front of visitors. I’m not sure how this practice would go down with tourists today (perhaps we should give it a go?) The Benedictine welcome is humility with attitude!
St Swithun and St Benedict direct us to the beauty and honesty of humility, as a virtue to be practiced and prayed for, as a means of living hopefully in the joys and ordeals of service and, perhaps most importantly in the joys and ordeal of living with oneself, one’s own vanity and anxieties (I am preaching to myself).
As we seek to be faithful to our calling here, deeply rooted in our heritage of faith, attentive at all times to the coming of Christ now and attentive to his presence in the common things of life, may we look forward with joy and hope.
I am indebted for some of the ideas in this sermon to the excellent ‘Barefoot Disciple. Walking the way of Passionate Humility’, Stephen Cherry, Continuum press…