Psalm 90 – Chorister Farewell, July 2021

July 20, 2021

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Stories Fit for a Lifetime

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

This isn’t a verse from the Bible but a paraphrase of Ps 90 by Isaac Watts, the ‘Godfather of English Hymnody’. His birthday was just yesterday, and his place of birth was local – Southampton – nearly 350 years ago now. Indeed, he was a pupil at King Edward VI School, which still holds its major services in our nave.

I was drawn to this hymn, as it’s cropped up not only as part of the anthem which our departing choristers have chosen, but also as the opening hymn of a funeral next Wednesday, for a member of the Mattins congregation who for twenty years would have listened to choristers like you singing. It’s as if hands are linked across the generations by this testimony of God being a sure refuge – ‘a shelter for the storm blast, and our eternal home’.

Watts wasn’t just a poet, but a distinguished logician. One of his books was used as a standard University text for a century.

Watts lived at the dawn of what we now call the Age of Enlightenment, when great store was placed on three ideals to guide society: reason, science and progress.

As a logician – someone who believe in the power of rational and ordered thought – Watts was a man of his time, but he was also a convinced Christian – a non-conformist, living outside the establishment and established Church. He himself could not go to Oxford or Cambridge; rather he ended up at a college in Stoke Newington, now in the Borough of Hackney.

I’d like us to ponder for a few minutes about how we would put together the world of reason, science and progress with the world of faith; because for many they seem to clash. Children leave God behind in their adolescence because he seems to belong to a world of kiddies’ stories rather than to a world of free thinking, which their growing powers of mind and surrounding secular culture beckon them to embrace.

I hope that the boys and girls of our Choral Foundation leaving today don’t leave behind the God whom we worship through liturgy and music. Now more than ever we need ‘believing thinkers and doers’ to help us through the stormy blasts we face in society.

Each of you who leaves here, whether you end up as prime minister or prime carer, or in any other career, trade or occupation, will have a circle of influence among your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, in which God wants to trust you with a particular calling to service.

Why do we need ‘believing thinkers and doers’ now more than ever? Because we are no longer in the Age of Enlightenment, when we trusted in the power of the human mind to save us from the superstition and bring us progress.

We’re not so sure now of progress. Take for example IT and the internet. What fantastic learning opportunities these have given! How they have helped us to connect when the virus had us all in lockdown. But what about the cyberbullying of young people or trolling in general? What about cybercrime, and the threats of global fraud, terrorism and sabotage? Top of the list of the threats to progress is climate change, which means we might run out of road quite soon.

And the scientific method behind progress has also been called into question. Take the outcry about the Government ‘following the science’ in response to the Covid crisis. Nobody really believes that science gives us the answer of what we must do, because with this and in every other situation in life, science is just one way of tackling the reality of existence. In the case of Freedom Day, as we have just discovered, the politics and economics are at least as salient.

And other ways of making progress in society are seen as just as important: ‘taking the knee’ represents a symbolic approach to tackling injustice, which has proved as controversial today as Jeremiah’s prophetic actions did 27 00 years ago. Dealing with the full scope of reality is a tricky business; it can’t be about using only one method, one way of knowing, against which all others must be judged.

As for reason, the last pillar of the Enlightenment, I’m afraid that modern philosophy has laid bare the power interests behind any claim to objectivity. People know now that there’s no argument from nowhere; everyone starts with prejudices, preconceptions and perspective which make some things seem reasonable and others not, which unfortunately has made public debate difficult: experts are dismissed for their own secret agenda and anybody’s view is seen to have ‘truth’ if expressed with sufficient force or sincerity. Through social media we can each construct our own self-validating bubble.

But this breakdown of progress, science and reason has left a void – not just a void of ideas but a void of faithful and fruitful action. What could possibly bring new life to the world? I think ‘believing thinkers and doers’, people who believe that the world does hold a mysterious moral rationality, despite its enormous complexity, because it was made by a God of constant character and purpose. People who believe in creation and a Creator

And we need people neither optimistic about progress nor prophets of destruction but those who are going to work hopefully for change, those who believe in a God who’ll get involved and transform even in the harshest conditions, and whose energies are available to our own fallible spirits. People who believe in redemption and a Redeemer.

And we need people who believe that all the different perspectives, partialities and powers will one day – maybe not in the world as it is, but in the world to come – be taken and up and orchestrated into an equal music, a symphony of praise and thanksgiving. People who believe in a final consummation of joy in the Holy Spirit.

What will sustain and inspire these clever and resilient folk as they battle with the challenges of their age? I’m afraid we must return to those child-like but God-breathed stories, which witness to God at work in our world, and which point beyond themselves to what cannot be expressed but is better held in praise and worship.

You boys have been doing far more than just singing at cathedral services. You’ve been holding open for worshippers a world in which we can all live and work hopefully, and you’ve been pointing to a beautiful and gracious God in whom we can all have faith. Please don’t leave this behind because it’s more than reason, other than science and realistic about progress. The gospel is true and trustable.

Isaac Watts could write over 750 hymns and yet also write textbooks on logic fit for places of high learning. You could do the same in your field, wherever God calls you. But take with you the stories that a child can follow but that take a lifetime to fathom, so that at the end of your days you will be able to sing with even greater conviction:

Be Thou our guard while life shall last, And our eternal home.