Commemoration of Benefactors 2011
6 February 2011
Preacher: Leslie Griffiths
Sunday 6th February, Trinity Hall Chapel
Readings: Amos 2: 6-16
Mark 1: 29-39
I’m delighted to be here alongside my old friend Stephen Plant beginning his life as Dean of Chapel at this college. I wish him and the college well.
The Chapel is full to overflowing, the second time I’ve had that experience this very day. Wesley’s Chapel this morning enjoyed a large and bustling congregation. If Methodists had a Cathedral, this would be it. It was built by Wesley in 1778 and is a fine Georgian building designed by a leading London architect – George Dance the Younger, builder of the Mansion House and other buildings in the City. Yet this imposing building hides an impressive tale.
For the forty years prior to the building of the Chapel, Wesley did his work at the nearby Foundery – an old ruin that he licked into some kind of shape and which housed the remarkable work he did there. A ragged school for boys and girls in the neighbourhood, a revolving loan club to help people with their daily needs, a basic health service free at the point of access, a publishing house, and so much else. The roof leaked and the building crumbled but the work was simply wonderful. But the government wanted the building back (government cuts savaged voluntary work even then) and Wesley was obliged to build. The Victorian era, with its impedimenta and memorial tablets and stained glass, has robbed his building of the neat and clean look it had on its opening day. Indeed, Wesley’s Chapel is a good piece of evidence of the tendency of so many institutions which, born in an outburst of rough and ready energy, become bourgeois over time. You can trace the slipping of Methodism into its “mahogany phase” simply by looking at some of the developments at Wesley’s Chapel.
The conceptual leap from an opening burst of activity towards controlled and measured institutions can be seen in the origins of this college too. Bishop Bateman was, arguably, the titular head of the richest diocese in the Church of England. In the 14th century, the wool trade brought immense wealth to England in general but East Anglia in particular. So when the Black Death robbed his parishes of numberless priests, he knew he had to act decisively. Part of his response to the crisis was the foundation of this college. Not only did the pastoral needs of diocese need to be given urgent attention. The intellectual leadership needed servicing too. So the college was set up to form men in “the Canon and Civil laws”. Bateman is rightly acknowledged as the genius behind the creation of this college. Sir Nathaniel Lloyd was also a great benefactor of the college 300 years later. His work consisted in tidying up the medieval buildings he found and to move Trinity Hall gently towards the neo-classicism that reigned in the Augustan age. Once again, as with Wesley, the inevitable tendency, once an institution is set up and running reasonably well, to make it respectable and beautiful has got underway.
The readings from scripture throw a little light on this process too. The prophet Amos berates his contemporaries for selling the poor short, for oppressing them and making fat profits at their expense. People who had experienced a grim past and been rescued from it were now subjecting some of their fellow citizens to misery and servitude. The personal comfort of the few was at the expense of the poor.
The verses about Jesus’s ministry are startling. He seems to be available to everyone who needs him. John Wesley (that man again!) had a word for it. “We must go,” he said “not to those who need us but those who need us most”. And he was drawing his inspiration for that maxim from the example of Jesus himself. I wanted the reading to go on just a few more verses. The real radical nature of Jesus’s concern for the poor is shown in what follows in the passage we heard. Jesus met (and touched) a leper. This is a truly remarkable encounter. It shows Jesus’s readiness to stand alongside the person who’s at the very bottom of the heap. Lepers were outcasts. They were not to be consorted with. And they certain weren’t to be touched.
I think of the Christian religion down the ages and see how often the followers of Jesus have sanitised their religion. They’re always good for a bob or two. It doesn’t take much effort to sign a cheque. But on the whole, we haven’t always been brilliant at getting close to the poor and wretched.
Everything I’ve said thus far points to what seems an inevitable tendency in all institutions to move from the frenetic outbursts of energy which accompanies their origins towards something altogether safer and more respectable. I’m aware, on an occasion like this, of the generosity of those who have wanted to support the work of this college and to make its programmes and courses more generally available through scholarships and bursaries offered across a range of subject areas. That is to be commended and simply must go on. I’m also aware of the efforts of admissions tutors who build bridges with those parts of our society which don’t traditionally send students to posh places like this. And that work must continue too. Yet none of that, it seems to me, comes near to solving the greatest problem of them all. How do we reach those young people who would never think that Oxford or Cambridge was for them? How do we devise mechanisms and modalities that will bring such people into the frame? In my daily work, I’m aware of the vast pools of extraordinary talent that seem destined to remain locked away from an Oxbridge education forever. Yet places like this could benefit so much from these wonderful children who are lost to view. I could give many an example of young people who would have contributed so much to any college in Oxford or Cambridge but who’ll never bee seen near the place. That’s the challenge. How do we touch the untouchable? How do we bring those who linger on the margins of our consciousness onto the centre stage?
It was here at Trinity Hall, some time in the late 1960’s, that I remember seeing an open-air performance in May Week of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I remember that wonderful speech towards the end of the play where Shakespeare speaks of the role of Imagination in our daily lives. Imagination, he said, generally the gift of three kinds of people – the lover, the madman and the poet. It’s imagination that we need as we seek to solve the problems of enlarging our catchment. And we need benefactors ready to commit to action beyond the well worn and customary ones we’re celebrating today. It can’t be beyond the wit of intelligent human beings to find some way of radicalising our approach to this recurring problem. Are we madmen for thinking this way? Or just lovers of humanity wanting to do the right thing today as our forefathers have done in the past?
The jury’s out. God bless us all as we wrestle with the problem. Amen.