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Commemoration of Benefactors - 7 February 2016

Archdeacon of CambridgeTrinity Hall Commemoration of Benefactors

7 February 2016

Address given by Venerable Dr Alex Hughes, Archdeacon of Cambridge

Exodus 3:1-16; John 12:27-36a

From this evening’s Gospel reading: “Believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (Jn 12 36a)

As every GCSE physics student knows, light, white light, is actually made up of a range of different colours. “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – that’s how I learned them.

In our culture, deeply rooted in the Bible and the Classics, “light” also functions as a metaphor for human understanding and wisdom; and the analogy of a spectrum works here too to describe the many sources of our enlightenment. This evening, in accordance the wisdom of College tradition, the spotlight is on benefaction. What kind of illumination might we find here, that we may become children of light?

Those who have responsibility or care for budgets – and who doesn’t these days – might see in this celebration of historic gift-giving an opportunity to inspire the same munificence in the present generation. And why not? Though you would not guess from the modern church’s obsession with sex, Jesus had far more to say about money and possessions, and how to dispose of them: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”, he said (Acts 20.35). Likewise, among the more famous “justice”, “temperance”, “prudence” and “fortitude”, we also find “liberality” listed among the Classical virtues. So if the education on offer at Trinity Hall is about more than just turning out a more profitable workforce, then it could do a lot worse than encourage its members to convert their profit into gift. There is a light of wisdom here, of which your benefactors are a shining example: a beacon of virtue in our prosperous, but acquisitive, age. So, as we give thanks for our benefactors, let us follow their example of liberality, of beneficence.

That’s all very well and good. It is laudable aim, to imitate men and women of generous spirit. But it is surprisingly hard to follow someone’s example, even a paragon of virtue, especially in an age of suspicion, which loves to deconstruct our heroes and saints. In fact, in my experience it is quite hard to be a better person at all, with or without a model of excellence.

Of course there is nothing new in my saying this: the ancient world developed a subtle understanding of the way in which people may grow in virtue and good character. It doesn’t happen automatically: it takes practice. Which brings me back to our celebration today, and what I see as its deeper significance. For in commemorating our benefactors we recognise that we are in receipt of things not earned by our own striving … and so we are thankful. This, I think, is one of ways in which we are drawn into the light and develop a virtuous character.

It may seem rather commonplace to say that we have all been given things which we did not earn for ourselves. Yet so immersed are we in a culture of striving that the foremost question in our minds is much more likely to be about what we can make of whatever has been put into our hands, rather than where it has come from. Of course in a sense this is an entirely appropriate way to honour our benefactors, to put their gifts to good use; for to waste them is to scorn them. But, as the story of Moses and the Burning Bush reminds us, sometimes the illumination that we need only comes when we “turn aside” – turn aside from what we are doing and attend to what has been generated not by us but for us. This is not something I’m very good at, I have to confess: I am too preoccupied with my work, my plans, my goals. It takes some determination and discipline to acknowledge a gift, as anyone who has ever had to supervise children writing their Christmas thank-you letters will know. And it takes even more time and patience to go beyond the conventional terms of gratitude and to be truly thankful. Perhaps somewhere at the back of our minds we do know how much we have been given; but life is just too busy for us to dwell on it. It’s not that we are ungrateful: it’s just more expedient to take things for granted – though it is surprisingly easy to go from taking things for granted to developing a sense of entitlement. In my experience as a pastor it is often only in the face of loss, and most especially of death, that people suddenly start to count their blessings. But today we do count them through this ritual thanksgiving, the commemoration of our benefactors. Here and now we have made some space and time for gratitude.

We tend to invest our rituals with our highest hopes and aspirations, knowing that we often fail to live up to them in everyday life, but all the same wishing to valorise them publicly as a statement of common intent. So your corporate thanksgiving is an important part in the formation of your life together. It says something about the kind of community you want to be: a community in which you try to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. Ritual practice is just that – practice: a rehearsal for living; learning what it means to be human in the fullest possible way … which, among other things, means having a thankful heart.

At the head of your long and illustrious list of benefactors stands Bishop William Bateman. As you will know better than I, Bateman’s motive in founding Trinity Hall was to replenish the stock of clergy and lawyers - often one and the same - which had been decimated by the Black Death. So Bateman’s gift had a significant material end, so to speak. But I venture to suggest that it also had a significant origin, which may be found in its dedication to the Holy Trinity.

Don’t worry, I’m not planning to subject you to an exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity at this hour - I’ve nearly finished! Suffice it to say that deep in the Christian theology of God is the idea of an inner divine life of mutual giving, from which flows the gift of existence to all created things. In other words, Christians believe that giving is part of God’s nature and that the world is God’s gift. So it is that the church’s central ritual is the eucharist, which means thanksgiving. The Christian vision is of a constant flow of divine gifts inspiring human gratitude, issuing in acts of charity. So I believe your founder saw his benefaction as a reflection and expression of God, the Holy Trinity. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Mt.5.16).

Bishop Bateman worked from his God to his giving. Some people make the journey in reverse: their sense of gratitude leads them to the religious sense that – ultimately - everything is a gift. Perhaps we will not all make it so far today. But it is a good start indeed to commemorate our benefactors, to cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving in our midst, that we may learn to give as we have received.

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