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Address at the Commemoration of Benefactors

1 February 2009

Given by The Revd Canon John Nurser

1 February 2009 

[It is a precious thing to be given an occasion that brings together faces from conversations I’ve had over nearly half a century. Undergraduates here may think I am so old that I saw Bishop Bateman in the flesh (though I have seen the excellent brewery run under the Bateman name at Wainfleet, across the Wash from the Bishop’s diocese). Mrs Poulton asked whether I’d like to see texts from past years, but I said ‘no’; I would feel inadequate and get confused. So I propose to talk about a benefaction I have experienced (and those I wish I had experienced).]

First of all, I’d like to point out how resonating the annual practice of commemorating our benefactors in this Chapel is. The constituting ritual of Christian worship is to give thanks – a ‘eucharist’ – for a benefaction received (in a favourite collect’s words) of a  ‘sacrifice for [all humanity’s] sin’ and of Jesus’s ‘example of godly living’. That benefaction is oriented to an open-ended and mutual future, as was that of the good Bishop Bateman.

Before we get too dewy-eyed in our esteem of benefacting, I think we need to discriminate. An old witticism remarks that the Quakers came to Philadelphia to do good, and – my goodness – didn’t they do well? In Hawaii, an implausibly laid-back state of the Union to grow a President, it is worth remembering the Dole family, who went as missionaries, and stayed as a pineapple empire. Which exactly of the benefactions the members of this college have received are we grateful for in a way that cries out to be celebrated in Chapel? Is it the family-size welcome of Front Court? Is it our fleet of boats equipped to trounce river-rivals? Is it the rich silverware that sits witness to our feastings? We can cherish all such.

My own reply has to go back to December 1945. I arrived at Peterhouse to sit the exam in history for the award of college scholarships and exhibitions. Loving parents were good to have; I was grateful that Allied troops had just won the war. But I experienced a very personal benefaction in receiving that scholarship, and a likeness of the Bishop of Ely who founded Domus Petri in 1284 still hangs on my study wall. A Bishop of Norwich, some sixty years later, founded this college. Many of us have had reason to be grateful, and as Dr Eden put it – in words that have remained in my memory – we ‘pray God to preserve and prosper this poor Society’. The Edens were 17th century Parliament men from Sudbury, where I live. Training moral and competent civil and canon lawyers still remained a project for the benefit of a Christian commonwealth. Nothing fancy then in the project we are celebrating.

Thinking back to the Cambridge which I entered, it is not so much its career opportunities that I am grateful for. Rather it is entry into membership-rights in a trans-generational community that lives in what used to be called ‘champain country’, an open landscape of many disciplines and nations. I am still struck by the surprisingness of its happening. Perhaps that is paradigmatic of benefactions. It was beyond the range of my family’s – and certainly Rugeley Grammar School’s – grid of possibilities. I think of the song Amazing grace: ‘I once was blind, but now I see’. The pattern of college life rusted social chains – the interior chains I’d brought with me too – and chipped away at frontiers.

Any liberty is the greatest of benefactions.

After I left the Hall in 1968, I had quite a bit to do with staff of the National Library of Australia in Canberra. A friend there left his archiving to become a White Father. Zooming around the outback parishes of Burkina Faso on a motor-bike, he was marvellously happy: until he skidded on a dirt track, broke his elbow in a week when the one national X-ray machine wasn’t working, and found himself invalided to Rome twenty years ago. In his Christmas letter this year he reflected on his farewell visit to his old patch in Africa before retirement in Australia: ‘The local clergy do things differently from the missionaries: much as I might like to stay with them, they do not need people like me any more’.

This is a hard question to hear from those you have benefacted (though it can be spoken embedded in heartfelt gratitude). If the past is another country, am I and the pre-1950 colleges I recall now ‘foreign’, ‘not wanted on voyage’? But we were founded to serve successive ‘foreign’ generations. We are fortunate that the bearers of this college’s own charitable tradition in each generation can also be its interpreters and decision-makers.

In the last few weeks, two distinguished members of the current Fellowship have each proposed a significant re-shaping of tradition. Professor Mike Kelly advanced the urgent argument (from his own recent experience) that Cambridge’s overall mass and internal structure needs to approximate more closely to the great American universities, and specifically to MIT. The Dean has written that the religious institutions of England are in danger from the virtually total absence of significant research on the issues that are important to their present working in society (which is not the same field as academic study of theologies). Cambridge colleges have traditionally included ‘religion’ as one of their responsibilities along with ‘education’, ‘learning’ and ‘research’. They might quite properly extend the scope of that ‘religion’ to include ‘civil society’, ‘national values’, and ‘social cohesion’. It is prudent that they should; for our post-recession future may depend on it.

I hope you will forgive me if I speak of the benefactions I wish I’d experienced. On two occasions I have played the energy-draining role of drumming up benefactions to finance an instrument to serve a fresh need, a need that was wider than existing identities. In the end, I and my associates had to make do with a survival-level trickle. Those who saw the point had little money. The first was in Australia - to establish a continent-wide 'collegiate library and institute of theology' as a resource for what had in effect become a new nation – its civil society, its geographical self-image, and (this painfully slowly) its Christian ministry. Forty odd years down the road­ - fragile though it may be - that is beginning to thrive. The second was here in England. In the late 1980s the churches were day-dreaming - out of step even with the other home nations of the UK - as first western, and then suddenly eastern, European countries joined in setting up powerful trans-national institutions. This new reality would impact on our daily life (not least on the Common Law and on the Crown’s title of Defender of the Faith). Other countries might be expected to welcome our particular experience into a common task. Surely it was worth reflecting on such new perspectives? But no. Not many in England saw the point. Twenty years on, I think it’s now (perhaps) ‘maybe’.

So I put it you squarely that a benefaction should be as big and as non-bureaucratic and as personal as possible. The penalties of small, or tightly-drawn, or easily-corruptible benefactions are obvious. Clergy can spend stressful hours in disbursing a £5 token for Christmas coal to native-born old ladies of good reputation – which of them are not? Graduates of this college (especially groups of friends) are well placed to discern new public needs.

To conclude - with my only reference to President Obama. His campaign speeches often used the saying of Martin Luther King that ‘Love without power is sentimentality. But if you add power to love, you can have justice’. A benefaction is one way of adding power to love. It can also become – for both parties - an experience of liberation. For like a eucharist it is open-ended and mutual. Thanks be to God.

John Nurser                                                                                    

2 Feb 2009

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