Commemoration of Benefactors
On the first Sunday of February, we invite all donors who have given over £10,000 or are in their 10th consecutive year of giving back to College for a service of thanks in the Chapel followed by a dinner in Hall.
“Let us thankfully commemorate our pious Founder and those our Benefactors by whose munificence our College has been adorned with buildings and sustained with liberal endowments, that it may be a place of education, religion, learning and research.”
For 2020, we enjoyed a Chapel address given by The Venerable Jenny Tomlinson, Archdeacon of Birmingham and Trinity Hall alumna. You can read her address below.
Commemoration of Benefactors address 2019 by The Revd Canon Dr Anthony Phillips, Trinity Hall's Dean from 1969-1974
‘Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom; the Church it was that came’
Thus Alfred Loisy, a French Roman Catholic theologian expressed, with some regret, the dissonance which many have identified between the life -giving preaching of Jesus, and what can be perceived as the rule-bound institution of the Church.
I must admit to a personal interest here, because Archdeacons are deeply embedded in the structures of the church. Yet we dare to believe that the liberating message of Jesus Christ is conveyed by, with and through that institution. On the occasion when we give thanks for the benefactors of this college, I suspect that our minds don’t immediately turn to those who have drawn up and developed the statutes over the centuries, who have given their attention to matters of governance and financial regulation. The gifts of buildings and bursaries are far more visible, and we are indeed hugely indebted to those who first had the vision to establish Trinity Hall and whose generosity has sustained it down the generations.
And it has changed! I was last here in September for the Trinity Hall Association dinner, as many of us marked 40 years on from our matriculation in 1979, when we concluded the process of admitting women undergraduates. It was all so familiar, of course, yet we were delighted to see what is new, and thankful to those, many of you here, whose donations have made possible the developments that have taken place. The integration of continuity and change is arguably the mark of a healthy, flourishing institution.
After forty years of wandering the people of God prepared to enter the Promised Land, to move from nomadic to a more settled status, to develop as a nation. In the book of Deuteronomy, they are given statutes and ordinances to observe as they enter this new chapter. Those who live in this very good land, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, must ‘diligently observe’ God’s entire commandment. The law has a vital place, but its image is often rather negative. You may have seen Matt’s cartoon in Friday’s Daily Telegraph, which showed a motorist in conversation with a police officer: ‘I thought the 30 mph limit was one of those meddling EU laws we’d left behind’.
We’ve all encountered irritating rules and constraining regulation from time to time. Churches, colleges, universities, institutions of all kinds can succumb to the worst aspects of bureaucracy, and struggle in a heavy-handed, slow-moving, stultifying environment. But going back to Deuteronomy, those who
are soon to enjoy the goodness of the land will discover that living in harmony with God, with one another and with their environment, is not always easy or obvious. As human beings we often fail to live up to our own standards, let alone God’s ideal. At its best, God’s Law given to the people of Israel is to be a framework within which they flourish, honouring God and one another, and with boundaries in place so that the community can guard itself against destructive and unhelpful behaviour.
St Paul’s relationship with the Christians in Corinth was not always easy. As he saw it, there was plenty of destructive and unhelpful behaviour within that community, with quarrels and rivalry damaging the work of Christ among them. In the passage we heard, Paul points to two things which will ensure that the work being done is of eternal value. One is to build only on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the other to build with materials that will last. Excellence matters. When testing times come, when a fire rages, then wood, hay or straw will disappear in a moment – but gold or silver are refined in fire.
We are therefore profoundly thankful to those who laid solid foundations for this college, and for the benefactors who have enabled the physical and intellectual building to be of such quality, that it can withstand testing times. In this year in particular we look ahead with a greater than usual level of uncertainty, yet with gratitude for the statutes and ordinances, the laws and commandments, if you like, on which the life of Trinity Hall, and indeed our common national life is based. At its best, the institution provides a framework within which we flourish, where values are held and passed on.
For Christians, there is ‘one foundation’: the person of Jesus Christ. We seek to be disciples, followers, being changed by the power of the Holy Spirit to become more like Jesus. But how can that very particular foundation be ground on which others can also stand with integrity? Christians working in the field of medical ethics, and with church schools can testify to the careful, detailed work that is required to identify and express shared values and priorities. Then, people of goodwill can gather and make common cause so that this place, every place might be ‘a good land, with flowing streams…where you will lack nothing’.
So what might those shared values be? One example is that of humility. For St Paul, it’s vitally important to state that his role as a ‘skilled master builder’ – the word is actually closer to ‘architect’ – is because of God’s grace. Christians see in the life and person of Jesus the humility of one who knelt to wash his
disciples’ feet, the night before he faced the ultimate humiliation of the Cross. The virtue of humility is accessible, I would suggest, to those of all faiths and none. The experience of forty years in the wilderness was to teach Israel to rely on God for all that they needed, to be grateful for the daily manna that went rotten after the first day, and to discover in those barren places that ‘every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ was as essential for real life as food itself.
Humility and thankfulness sit close together – the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist, represents Jesus giving thanks as he took bread and wine. Gratitude for those who have gone before can inculcate a proper sense of perspective. Remembering and understanding the circumstances in which Trinity Hall was founded, the various eras through which it has remained and flourished is humbling to us in our generation. And it helps us to focus on the generation who will be the master builders, the architects of the future. They inherit bricks and mortar, high academic standards, a wonderful range of literary, artistic, sporting and scientific interests, and a diverse community with a deserved reputation for friendship and mutual support.
All that is held together by the institution of Trinity Hall, the legal identity of the college with its place in the university and beyond. We therefore appreciate the mechanism by which the work of one generation succeeds to another; the way in which the foundation of Bishop Bateman of Norwich has grown and developed in a way quite unimaginable at the beginning. A proper humility, such as that acquired by God’s people in the wilderness and seen in St Paul, will help to ensure that this continues. Being conscious of the beauty of this place, and the physical blessings which it offers, will help to deepen our thankfulness, and our resolve to use all that we have received in service of our neighbour.
Humility, thankfulness, a commitment to build on good foundations.
‘Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us on.’
It is appropriate that once a year we should stop and give thanks for our benefactors who have enhanced, indeed made possible, the work of this College through the centuries since our foundation by Bishop Bateman. As a result men and latterly women have been so educated as to enrich the life of this nation in church and state, law and medicine, arts and sciences, as they continue to do.
Whereas until recently benefactions were almost a matter of chance, as a particular alumni remembered with affection this Hidden Hall, to-day fund raising has become a significant arm of College administration and benefactors are encouraged to become members of particular associations, the Bateman Benefactors, the Master’s Circle and the Nathaniel Lloyd Society. To-night we especially salute you who by virtue of your generosity have been invited to our Commemoration of Benefactors Dinner.
And remembering our second lesson we must not forget the vast number of individual donors who through their smaller contributions have shown their love for their College and their belief in its future. They too have a worthy place in our gratitude for the College depends far more than it ever did on the devotion and loyalty of former members.
As the Master has properly pointed out, the financial future of the Colleges and the University is by no means assured. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the College is enabled to continue to subsidize undergraduate education as well as ensure the funding of research which otherwise would not be undertaken. No one knows what the future holds, but the more the College can become self-sufficient, the more it can guarantee that that excellence of learning in all academic disciplines as at present experienced shall continue to be enjoyed in the years ahead.
But as this is properly a College occasion which should embrace all to whom we owe gratitude, it is to our first lesson that I want to turn. ‘And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived’. Recently I have had to preach in Canterbury in quick succession at the funerals of my predecessor’s secretary and my own. In the Assembly Hall at the School there is a portrait of my predecessor and a bronze head of myself. We have our memorials.
But where are the memorials to the two secretaries? I can tell you. In the end they are in the lives of the men and women educated at the school for without them, the school would never have run as it did run. Through their work for two Headmasters, they enabled the proper functioning of the community to the wellbeing of all.
And so it is and has been here at the Hall. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a benefactor firstly as ‘one who renders aid to others or to a cause or institution’, and secondly as ‘a well doer’. And to the credit of the Editor of that splendid publication, The Hidden Hall, a whole chapter is devoted to some of those people who in recent times through their service dedicated themselves to the welfare of the College and all within it, fellows, graduates, undergraduates and visitors, enhancing their lives.
I cannot mention all who are included in that chapter but who can forget Head Porter Ken Golding, a severe exterior hiding a heart of gold – forgive the pun. He was an archetypal Grandfather to many who needed support, knowing when to turn a blind eye and knowing when more professional help was needed, but mostly just being there to listen.
And then presiding over Common Room that apparently austere figure of Don Tarrant, College Butler, – a wonderful guide to new fellows and a constant reassuring presence. When the exiled king of Greece came to dine no one quite knew how to address him. Don Tarrant never hesitated: ‘Your Majesty, Master, dinner is served’.
Thanks to the oversight of Professor Calne, the kitchens at Trinity Hall are legendry for their excellence, something I can confidently predict for this evening. In my day they were the responsibility of Mr Sloots. I never knew his fist name until I read The Hidden Hall and certainly would never have had the temerity to call him by it. Mr Sloots organized our wedding reception here in Trinity Hall. The cake was three tiers supported by pillars and drowned in alcohol. By the time we came to cut it, it had dangerously sunk on one side making it a pretty accurate representation of the leaning tower of Pisa.
And finally and by no means least, ensuring that everything worked well for everyone’s daily comfort was Clerk of Works, Ged Pilsworth with his splendid team affectionately known as Dad’s Army. Nothing was too much trouble for them: no crisis insuperable.
While there are many others I could mention there is in my view one character missing from that chapter, Mohammed Abdo. How that South Arabian Arab who virtually could only write his own name ended up at the Hall is the stuff of novels and due to the good sense of Bursar Abbott, but the affection in which he was held was universal. I have never quite understood why I got married considering the service he gave me when I arrived as a bachelor don – running my bath, lighting my coal fire, bringing up my cooked breakfast with the newspaper neatly folded, making the bed, returning later with the post. We kept in touch until his death. Indeed after I had retired to Cornwall, he came and visited us dressed like a perfect English gent.
All these and all those I have not had time to mention and all before and after my time are what the Dictionary calls ‘well doers’ and deserve to be remembered this evening among our benefactors. And as we shall witness later, this dedicated service continues to-day. So it is as a College community that we rightly celebrate, a community in which generosity of spirit predominates. It is fitting that we do so in this place for as the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran says ‘kindness is the shadow of God in man’. And whatever category of benefactor we think of, it is kindness that unites them.
And that we do this at the conclusion of the Christmas season which ended yesterday with the celebration of Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the temple, is peculiarly fitting. For what Christians celebrate at Christmas is the sheer extravagance of God in sending us his Son to reveal the essence of his being, the unending abundance of his love, his generosity towards all whom he has created in his image and wills eternally to embrace. May His shadow long fall on this College dedicated to that mystery that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
In over 25 years listening to the Address at the Commemoration of Benefactors service, I cannot disassociate the well-fed, robed, bewigged and enthroned portrait of Sir Nathanael Lloyd hanging in its golden glory behind High Table as the archetypal image of the college benefactors we remember to-day. Nathanael Lloyd spent his money beautifying the modest medieval brick facade of Dr Eden’s ‘poor college’. In return, he ordered that his portrait and the largest memorial in this chapel be put up in his honour. In these terms benefaction was a tradition of transactional self-aggrandisement.
Making gifts to the College is a deeply personal issue that reveals much about the donor, as the example of Nathanael Lloyd shows. Others such as Dennis Avery, one of our most significant benefactors in modern times was motivated by his own experience as a student here for one year. His benefactions were full of altruism and empathy. He was motivated by a desire to give back and to encourage. Dennis and Dr Eden, 350 years earlier, both shared a desire to help sustain the College finances and improve the lives of its students, both gave generously and modestly; no self-aggrandisement here. I remember that when the old South Court was changed to Avery Court, Dennis was emotionally overcome because, as he put it, ‘the name of a simple label maker from California would be incorporated into the fabric of this ancient college’. Today, we can give thanks especially for Dennis Avery’s generosity towards worship in this Chapel. His gift of the outstanding Carsten Lund organ, with funds for organ scholarships and our outstanding Director of Music continues to inspire members of the College and students from elsewhere to give their time and singing skills to the choir, adding so much to the quality of our worship in this place.
The motivation for these benefactions remains clear. But, what of other forms of giving where no material exchange is involved yet the College is clearly a substantial beneficiary? I would like to suggest that Henry Fawcett and his wife Millicent Garrett Fawcett are a powerful story of ‘benefaction by example’. Their moving double portrait by Ford Maddox Brown, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Consider our own striking portrait of Henry ‘Blind’ Fawcett which hangs adjacent to Nathaniel Lloyd in the Hall. Gone is the self-congratulatory image of power and wealth, and in its place a representation of heroic achievement in spite of the disability of total blindness. Fawcett was distinguished both as the leading academic in his field of Political Economy but also as a Member of Parliament and senior member of Gladstone’s reforming governments. He supported the Trade Union movement legalised in 1872, and as Post-Master-General, introduced a national savings scheme which provided working families with the means to save for when they could no longer work through age, illness or injury.
Henry Fawcett was a brilliant mathematician who achieved distinction as the 7thWrangler in the finals of 1856. This was followed immediately by the offer of a fellowship at Trinity Hall in the same year; he was 23. But, his life changed irrevocable when he was totally blinded in a shooting accident two years later in 1858. Notwithstanding this disaster, he became a leader in the philosophy of political economy, which the University recognised with a chair in 1863 at the age of thirty. Beyond academia, Fawcett had a driving desire for social reform and was determined to have a political career notwithstanding his disability. In Victorian terms, what he needed was a wife who would run two homes, one in Cambridge and one in London; a wife who would be his domestic manager, secretary, nurse, and mother to his children. What he found, was a woman of fierce independent spirit with a passionate cause equally absorbing as his own, who would also perform all the above. The story of the Fawcett’s and their significance as benefactors was as examples of individual commitment to a moral crusade of human rights no less powerful than their commitment to each other.
For his part, Fawcett had been a supporter of the suffragist movement from its earliest beginnings. Friendship with the political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the MP for Westminster, encouraged him into a career in Parliament. He was elected as MP for Brighton in 1865 and subsequently for Hackney in 1874. Through Mill he was introduced to the remarkable sisters, Elizabeth and Millicent Garrett. He fell in love, and proposed to the eldest, Elizabeth. Fawcett was clearly a charismatic man. His imposing figure, over 6ft 3in with angular features dominated by sightless eyes behind dark glasses that produced a dramatic and romantic appearance; some might say ‘cool’ in today’s idiom. He was an impressive figure when he rose to speak in the House of Commons, with his commanding voice and his stature augmented by a tall, black top hat (it was then the custom for MPs to wear top hats in the Chamber). You will find Fawcett towering over the other Trinity Hall Fellows in Robert Farren’s picture of Degree Morning (1863) which hangs in the Porters’ Lodge. For her part, Elizabeth Garrett was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage but she was also a passionate student of medical science and practice. After an agonising deliberation, Elizabeth rejected Fawcett’s offer of marriage in order to concentrate her time and energy to be the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor, which she did in 1865.
Perhaps no-one other than Elizabeth’s younger sister was more aware of the pain attached to the decision to refuse Henry Fawcett. Perhaps no-one other than Elizabeth’s younger sister was more aware of the pain attached to the decision to refuse Henry Fawcett. But, it was this shared experience that brought Millicent and Henry together into a deep and lasting relationship; their individual achievements were always the result of mutual support and interaction. They never lost sight of each other’s ambitions. Their daughter Philippa was born in 1868.
Brilliant as his academic and reforming record is, Fawcett’s outstanding contribution to the emancipation of women which we celebrate in this centenary year, is of national and international significance. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave most men and six million women the vote. He gains this accolade through partnership with his wife and their shared beliefs.
Having joined the women’s suffragist movement in 1866 as its secretary at the age of 19, Millicent went on to become President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1898 and remained its national leader until after the achievement of qualified women’s suffrage in 1918.
The Fawcett’s had two homes, one in Cambridge which was the centre of their academic work together. Millicent shared her husband’s enthusiasm for Political Economy and together they published two works on the subject. In 1875, Millicent became the joint founder of Newnham College with the political economist Henry Sidgwick, a close colleague of Henry’s at Cambridge. The couple’s second home was in London from where they worked on Henry’s constituency business, first in Brighton and then in the London Borough of Hackney. It was also the centre of Fawcett’s parliamentary activity at Westminster where he used his powerful oratory and political influence to promote women’s suffrage and social reform. In turn, Millicent spoke persuasively on social issues in his constituencies. It was their joint decision to gain support for the suffragist movement through parliamentary and political processes, carefully avoiding the public’s mixed reactions to Emmeline Pankhurst’s street warrior ‘suffragettes’. Their marriage lasted from 1867 until Fawcett became ill and died from pleurisy in November 1884. Doubtless, Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was close by giving advice on his treatment, and as a support to her sister and brother-in-law. Millicent was inconsolable when Henry died. She retired from all public work for a year, before returning to the cause which she and Henry had jointly championed. She became President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and was its leader when, almost one hundred years ago to the day, on 6th February 1918, the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent, giving most men and six million women the vote. Henry and Millicent Fawcett were a true partnership of reforming minds. Together they are an early example of how professional men and women can successfully combine their public lives within a domestic framework. They joined their unshakeable wills to succeed in spite of physical disability and social prejudice. They are buried together in the cemetery at Trumpington.
In commemorating Trinity Hall’s Benefactors it is hard to find any whose achievements come close to the national significance of women’s suffrage. Clearly, Henry Fawcett is entitled to a substantial share of Millicent Fawcett’s fame as the national suffragist leader. This address suggests that it is the example of mutual love and support between two extraordinary people that informs the ethos of this ‘very friendly’ College and qualifies the Fawcetts as benefactors who gave by example. Tonight we give thanks for all Trinity Hall’s benefactors but especially for the lives and achievements of Henry and Millicent Fawcett.
Giving, Receiving, and Giving Thanks
We have just heard two very different biblical texts. The first, from 1 Samuel, seems to fit the theme of commemorating benefactors very well, with its description of Hannah’s pious dedication of her young son to God’s service. A generous benefaction indeed! And in contrast to the terrors of child sacrifice that mark the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Isaac or Jephthah and his unnamed daughter, the story of Hannah’s gift exudes nothing but cosy, familial warmth. Indeed, if we were to read on a little further, we’d hear how each year Hannah would make for Samuel ‘a little robe and take it to him’ when ‘she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice’, and how each year, in what we might see as an ancient equivalent to this commemoration service ‘Eli would bless Elkanah and Hannah’, praying that the Lord would repay them both for the gift they had made (2:19-20). It’s a restful story of devout giving and grateful receiving, in which God seems to smile on everyone concerned, and all is well with the world.
By contrast, our lesson from Hebrews has a somewhat harried quality: things seem much more on edge. As the lesson opens God has definitely not been smiling. On the contrary, the verses just before those we’ve heard tell how because of God’s anger at the Israelites’ disobedience after their exodus from Egypt, their ‘bodies fell in the wilderness’ (3:17) instead of finding rest in the promised land. And with this frightening example in mind, the writer urges us to gird up our loins and ‘make every effort to enter [God’s] rest’, lest we, too, fall ‘through such disobedience as theirs’. And just in case we’re tempted to think that it might be possible to sneak in by dissembling or deception, the writer warns us that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow’, judging ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’, so that ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare’. Here all is evidently not well with the world, and our destiny seems poised precariously on a knife-edge.
Now, one way to handle the tension between these two very different readings would be simply to link them as promise and threat: a message that acts of true generosity will be rewarded (as described in 1 Samuel), while disobedience will lead to sure and swift destruction (following Hebrews). Do well and you will prosper; do wickedly, and you will suffer the consequences. But although this way of putting things may seem at first glance to give us a clear and obvious choice, on a little reflection it’s not evident that the options presented are especially helpful, for when faced with a God who so ‘judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ as to leave nothing hidden, can any of us really be confident that any of our efforts are as selfless, and thus as worthy of reward, as Hannah’s? And when applied to the dynamics of benefaction, this worry touches those who receive gifts as much as the benefactors themselves, since the motives of the receiver in such exchanges seem likely to be even less pure than those of the giver.
In this way, the words of Hebrews raise in a disturbing fashion the question of what exactly we’re doing on days of commemoration such as this. Is it the case, perhaps, that solemn expressions of thanks for persons long dead, with little if any attention to the source of their riches or the circumstances surrounding their gifts, serves as rather tenuous and uncertain cover for consciences that should be far more uneasy about the sources of institutional wealth. And when we move to the living, to what extent is it all just a matter of toadying up to the donors of the present day, in the hope of eliciting further gifts? Seen from this perspective, the whole exercise of commemorating benefactors seems a colossal moral hazard on both sides: donors and recipients alike faced with questions of mixed motives and self-seeking in the pursuit of one another’s good will. Do any of us really want to contemplate what it all looks like in the eyes of a God before whom ‘all are naked and laid bare’?
To see how serious the problem is, consider that even the warm glow of Hannah’s benefaction loses much of its lustre upon further investigation. It seems pretty clear from the reading that Elkanah, at least, is initially uneasy about the whole affair – and why shouldn’t he be? For it turns out that Hannah’s ‘offering’ of Samuel isn’t a spontaneous act of generosity after all, but a simple case of tit for tat. For she had been barren and desperate for a child, so wearied by the taunts thrown at her by Peninah, Elkanah’s other wife, over her childlessness that she made a bargain with God: ‘if only,’ she promised, ‘you will…not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death’ (v. 11). So the offering of Samuel is no benefaction at all, really – just a payment for services rendered.
And what about the priest Eli, the recipient of Hannah’s ‘benefaction’? Well, it turns out that he’s anything but the saintly soul we might imagine from the portion of the narrative that we’ve heard. We first meet him just a little earlier in the chapter, when Hannah, having finally had enough of years of her rival’s insults, flees to the sanctuary to pray. She is so choked with emotion that ‘only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard’. Eli, seeing her ‘thought she was drunk’ and, in an exquisite example of pastoral insensitivity (ordinands take note!), said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine’ (v 14). And it gets worse. For we soon discover that Eli is not only a self-righteous twit, but also that his ministry is thoroughly corrupt and stands condemned by God, who solemnly declares: ‘I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever’ (3:13-14).
Now, if even Hannah’s offering turns out to be so badly compromised, what hope is there for us in our institutional practices of giving and receiving? ‘Benefaction’ means ‘doing good’, but if even Hannah’s gift is tainted, there would seem ample reason to be doubtful how much good is really to be found in any benefaction, if you scratch a little beneath the surface. Perhaps it would be better quietly to abandon the whole enterprise of commemorating benefactors, to let the dead bury their dead (as someone once suggested), and move on to other matters.
Now, you’ll be relieved to hear that I don’t think this is how we should proceed – and not just because Mrs McFarland didn’t raise any children so impolite as to come as a guest to someone else’s college and trash their Commemoration of Benefactors service. For in addition to considerations of basic civility, there are good evangelical reasons why the rather dismal picture I’ve presented thus far cannot be allowed to be the last word on the commemoration of benefactors.
This isn’t to say that the moral hazards I’ve identified are illusory or inconsequential: there’s plenty of room for frank and honest discussion about the ‘politics’, for lack of a better word, of fundraising on the one hand and charitable giving on the other. Yet such discussion, however important, can’t be the last word, any more than frank and honest acknowledgement of human beings’ propensity for dishonesty should cause us to dismiss the possibility of speaking the truth. Because in a world where national newspapers advocate the elimination of foreign aid, a world in which nations turn their backs on refugees, a world where many of the richest spend fortunes to establish fortified redoubts to protect their wealth in fear of imminent apocalypse, the grateful acknowledgement of those who give away their wealth to benefit others is needed now more than ever.
To be sure, it’s true that the word of God judges ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ so as to leave nothing hidden. And for that reason we dare not trust to our own goodness of heart when giving gifts or receiving them. When ‘all are naked and laid bare’, there is none of us who will be able to give an adequate account of his stewardship, not Hannah, not Eli, not Lady Margaret Beaufort or William Bateman, and not you or I. But our lesson from Hebrews doesn’t end with this stark reminder of our own inabilities and shortcomings, but with the good news of Jesus. For although it’s true that God’s sharp, piercing, living and active word judges until it lays everything bare, it is also true that we have a great high priest who intercedes on our behalf, who, because he has been ‘in every respect tested as we are’, is able ‘to sympathise with our weaknesses’, knowing our faults and forgiving them.
With our mixed and flawed motives, our self-interest, our vanity and our fears, we have no basis for presumption before the throne of God. Quite the contrary. But we are not for that reason to give up, to despair of doing good, to resign ourselves to an existence that is incapable of advancing beyond the narrow confines of calculated self-interest. Far from making us timid or despondent, our neediness, the writer of Hebrews tells us, should inspire us to ‘approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’. Our giving and our receiving are undoubtedly flawed, but we are nevertheless to give and receive boldly, for it is God and not ourselves who ensures the goodness of our giving and receiving; and although it’s not in our power to ensure that what we do will be to the good, it is in God’s power to do so, and it’s in that power that we should trust.
With that in mind, let’s turn back one last time to the story of Hannah’s gift. As I’ve already noted, it’s a much more ambiguous affair, in terms of the motivations and merits of those giving and receiving, than appears to be the case at first glance. Yet consider that whatever Hannah thought she was giving or Eli thought he was receiving, the gift remained, and its significance turned out to be far greater than either Hannah or Eli could have imagined. For we read that as ‘Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord’ (3:19-20), so much so, in fact, that it was through Samuel that God called and anointed kings for Israel, first Saul, and then David, the great king, from whose line would come that same high priest through whom we now are called to be bold to do what good we can, not in the presumption that our motives are pure or that we can see the outcome of what we venture, but in faith that the goodness of the gift does not lie with the virtue of the giver or of the receiver, but with the one who is able to ensure beyond the capacity of either that what is given and received both can and will work for the good.
So let us give thanks, before God and this assembly, for all those, present and absent, living and dead, who have been benefactors to this college. Not because either their giving or the institution’s receiving has been perfect, but because all giving is a stepping out on faith, a recognition that one is not in control, that what is given, in the very act of being given, finally eludes the giver’s capacity to know or ensure its outcome. To give is to seek to benefit a recipient, but in the final analysis no one can see at the moment of giving what that benefit will look like: which scholars will be supported by an endowment, how a building will serve the community, what sort of student will on the strength of a gift be sustained in a time of crisis. Against that background, a gift, however small or large, is an act of courage and of hope, whatever else it may also be. And that there are and, by God’s grace, may continue to be persons who, amid the ever-present temptations to selfishness and fear that mark life in this world, are willing to make such gifts, to surrender some portion of their own security to help to secure the well-being of others, is something for which we may and ought to be truly thankful. Amen.
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.