The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
As all of you will probably know, one of the many joys of Southwark Cathedral is that it’s the final resting place of an iconic Anglican, one of the greatest and most influential scholars of that time when the true nature of the Church of England, of Anglicanism was being formed. Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop Andrewes, lies here alongside the High Altar in his rather splendidly decorated tomb – or at least we hope that he lies there because he’s been moved around the building on a number of occasions.
Each year, as we celebrate his feast day we stand as close as we can to where he was first buried and read a passage about him from something written by his pupil and friend Henry Isaacson.
'Never any man took such pains, or at least spent so much time in study, as this reverend prelate; from the hour he arose, his private devotions finished, to the time he was called to dinner, which, by his own order, was not till twelve at noon at the soonest, he kept close at his book, and would not be interrupted by any that came to speak with him, or upon any occasion, public prayer excepted. Insomuch that he would be so displeased with scholars that attempted to speak with him in a morning, that he would say 'he doubted they were no true scholars that came to speak with him before noon'.
I can never hear that reading without thinking of David, a successor of Andrewes in this place and, like him, and as we’ve been celebrating this afternoon, a scholar and teacher, a priest and a pastor, a friend and a father. As we’ve been reminded David was a prolific writer and a scholar of his age. He was a man at his studies, encouraging always the church, and by that I mean the whole church, to engage in theology, the true knowledge of God, to look at history, the story of God and his people in the world and to do both in a way that was relevant to the age.
At the end of the preface which David contributed to the 50th anniversary edition of John Robinson’s book ‘Honest to God’ he poses, after describing the publishing and theological phenomenon that caught him and SCM by surprise, a very straightforward question
‘So what will you make of it now?’
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians in the passage that we’ve heard read, speaks of our growing in knowledge of God, and that as a fundamental part of the Christian life. The writer uses a beautiful phrase to describe part of this process when they say
‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened’
A deeper understanding of the things of God, a theology that speaks to the heart and sheds light that dispels the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of not knowing. It’s that task in which the theologian plays their part, that task that the opener of the scriptures, the explainer of history, the discoverer of science, the person of reason, the philosopher of an age always seeks to do, so that enlightenment happens, so that we see and understand more in the very depth of our being, so that ‘deep calls to deep’ as the psalmist describes it, in the life of the believer.
I worry about where we place theology in the life of the church today. Is there room for a bishop like Andrewes, at his devotions and at his study for a good part of each day; is there room for a dean like David, who similarly followed a pattern of prayer and study, doing the heavy lifting of theology on behalf of the church, be that through the medium of the pulpit or of print, in church or in the Church Times?
Nowadays deans are sent off to Cambridge not to be deepened in theological skills but in leadership, in which we’re encouraged to look across the river from here not for inspiration from the many steeples and towers that extend our vision heavenwards but to the glass and steel towers and corporate headquarters that are crowding them out. It’s leadership and governance and management and financial reporting and targets that are the skill set of the church today, it’s evaluation and peer review that set the standards for what we do. There’s little space or time for theology and especially not academic theology not the kind of stuff that David gave his life to, certainly not on the bench of bishops and increasingly not amongst the deans.
So we need to ask that question that David asked of the legacy of John Robinson, what do we make of it now? What do we make of a church that seemingly turns its back on theology?
Fashions come and fashions go and that affects the church as much as anything else. Things will, I’m sure, come full circle but in the meantime that deeper enlightenment is not what we would want it to be. And that of course affects who we are in this place as much anyone else.
David was one of those who helped create what came to be known as ‘South Bank Religion’. With Mervyn Stockwood and John Robinson and others there was an engagement with radical thinking that set people talking, the man on the Clapham Omnibus as much as anyone else, and created a movement that made talking of God relevant to the age. This Cathedral stood at the heart of that movement and is still, in the imagination of some, part of it. But as we who are here today day in, day out, know that radical theological edge is more fantasy than reality and, to be honest, we’re the poorer for it.
But of that radical theology, David, in his preface says this
‘radical’ does not necessarily mean ‘revolutionary’; it may mean going back to one’s roots to see whether they are still healthy, without any prior assumption about the right answer.
If this service, this act of thanksgiving does anything beyond giving us the opportunity to pay tribute to the life of a great man, I hope that it can serve to draw us back to those roots, to that healthy rootedness and draw us back to the Jesus who we seek to know, the fruit of the root and stock of Jesse as we will be constantly reminding ourselves in the Advent and Christmas seasons that lie just around the corner. We should be praying that the spirit of ‘wisdom and revelation’ of which Ephesians speaks, rests upon the whole church, not just here in Southwark but in every place in which we seek to make Christ known.
That was why Andrewes was at his studies in Winchester House on Clink Street, that was why David was at his studies in Provost’s Lodging on Bankside, doing the theological task of wisdom and revelation for the enlightenment of the whole people of God, those who’ve heard the gospel and those who’ve yet to hear it. But whilst ever theology is subservient to leadership in the church … well, all we can do is trust in the God who out of sheer grace and goodness has seen the church through to this day and will see it through for many days yet to come. But David’s question will always echo around the church and we must take it seriously
‘So what will you make of it now?’