A SERMON FOR FOUNDERS AND BENEFACTORS
Given by The Revd Dr Brian Beck in the Chapel on 12 November 2014
I Peter 2:4-10
What would our founding fathers and later benefactors say, Gutteridge and Greenhalgh and Lamplough and Rank, Finch and Newton Davies and Banks and Cyples and Kingsley Sanders and Myra Roberts and many others, not forgetting that unsung hero, George Brown, who at the Conference of 1911 when Gutteridge first aired his dream, before the Conference was over had promised £5 towards its fulfilment: what would they all say if they were able, by some time machine, to join us this evening in the flesh and not just in the communion of saints? What would they say of this chapel – no murals, no double pulpit, no tractarian-style altar against the apse wall, no communion rail? What would they say of the liturgy – no longer Cranmer adapted – or of the hymnody, or our dress? What would they say of our meeting in the midst of a building site, with no residential students? Would they be appalled and cry loss, or would they recognise continuity amid necessary change? Would they salute a vision re-born?
For that matter, what would the prophet of Second Isaiah or the psalmist have made of the use to which their words were being put in I Peter – and elsewhere in the New Testament: ‘I am laying in Zion a foundation’, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’? Would they have recognised, do we recognise, that the entire New Testament is an exercise in preserving continuity amid change? Preserving faithfulness to God’s ancient covenant amid the upheavals of the first century and the dynamic impact of the resurrection of Jesus? Do we realise that it is the story of the Christian interpretation of Scripture ever since – discerning continuity amid change?
We have listened to an Old Testament reading about God’s generous goodness and faithfulness, generation after generation, and of the response of faithful men and women, which challenges us in our day not to give up. We have listened to a gospel reading which speaks of what is entrusted to us and the challenge to be faithful stewards of it. And the epistle is from I Peter, a letter which begins with the triumphant declaration of rebirth and future hope through the resurrection of Jesus, and in our particular portion goes on to stress that real continuity consists not in buildings but in people.
So here we are this evening, giving thanks to God for founders and benefactors amid upheavals unimaginable five years ago. In fact there have been many changes over the years; some have been deliberate, others, like these most recent, imposed. Amid so much change, where is the continuity? Where should it be? What are the values we must carry over if we are to be faithful stewards of what earlier generations have bequeathed to us?
I can only answer that by scanning my own memory over nearly sixty years, a period which has seen many changes, many gains, perhaps some losses. And if it sounds like reminiscence that is the price of asking an old man to preach! I can’t pretend to offer anything the Trustees haven’t already thought of, but preaching is often a matter of rehearsing before God what we already know, so that we may know it better. So what should this place stand for?
Scholarship certainly. It’s what Michael Gutteridge and his colleagues wanted. The Wesleyan Conference already had four colleges. It was not short of spaces. What was needed was a place that could provide for the needs, especially of graduates, when so many in the existing colleges came with only basic elementary education. Notice, I said scholarship, not scholars. Wesley House has indeed produced scholars, many distinguished ones over the years, but that was the by-product not the aim. The aim was to offer scholarship, through the college and its links with the University, so that people went out intellectually equipped to offer the riches of the gospel. To ensure quality in all with the bonus of brilliance in some. And Principals and Tutors were appointed over the years with that end in view.
The curriculum was limited at first: Bible, history, systematics, preaching. Not much pastoralia at the start: it was assumed then that any intelligent person could do the minister’s job with a few tips. As for reflective practice, the words hadn’t been invented. Things have rightly moved on since the 1950s and Michael Skinner can, I think, be credited with starting it. But part of our inheritance is to equip people to draw on the treasures of the past in order to serve the present age, to address the Christian and specifically Methodist heritage with integrity and rigour.
It follows from that that second on my list of things we should stand for is ministry. Those 90-odd college photographs that lined B and C staircases and will one day rise again from their tomb up Newmarket Road were all of ministers in training. But our understanding of that ministry has changed over the years, and nothing illustrated that for me more than the letter from Charles Banks, our oldest surviving member, read out at the Commemoration Dinner in June. Ministry then, just after the second world war, meant circuit. It meant preaching and visiting and leaders’ meetings, tending the flock. It was essentially a domestic ministry to a gathered membership, with the assumption that evangelism was exercised on the young and on visitors who came in; though for those who went overseas the pattern was more varied, with more outreach, and much more administration. Some indeed broke the mould in those early days: Donald Soper, for example, hit Tower Hill and Hyde Park. In war time there was Forces Chaplaincy. It was not until the 1960s that the church began seriously to contemplate ministry in what was then called the sectors. And of course in much more recent times we have taken for granted an idea that our founders would have found very strange, that ministers include deacons and lay people.
Now the Conference has decided that initial preparation for ministry is to be done elsewhere. But our founders still say to us, we gave you this facility to prepare people for ministry. Perhaps that is one of the greater challenges for the future: to ensure that what is offered here continues to be for the service of the church, wherever in the world, and not just a career boost for aspiring academics; that it includes a focus on the nurturing of faith as well as knowledge, of worship and service as well as research.
Then thirdly, I would point to community. It’s significant, isn’t it? that what Michael Gutteridge began in 1911 by calling a hostel ended up as Wesley House, not a lodging place but a home, constituting a family. I cannot sit in this chapel without memories of those who have sat with me and those who led the worship, for the chapel has always been central. Even before this chapel was opened there was a chapel room up on the corner of C. There have always been other gathering points of course: meals in the hall, the Old Common Room, and more recently the New, converted from its original use as a lecture room with a ping-pong facility behind the wooden screens. And in the old days, when hot water was available in the bathrooms only on Fridays, there was the camaraderie of the showers at the bottom of A stairs, where hot water was available all week. They have all been gathering points for a community with its own life and traditions, into which generations of men, and more recently women too, and families, have come and gone. And nothing more poignantly signalled the end of an era than the moment at the end-of-term dinner when the student officers surrendered their symbols of office to the Principal, because there was no one to hand them on to. The real creators of Wesley House, I submit, are not the generous visionaries whose names we recall today but the 800 or so students who, along with the staff, shaped and re-shaped, generation after generation, a community and a tradition in which ministers were formed and not just educated, and central to it all the daily prayers of this chapel.
That too is a challenge. Regular prayers continue during this year of exile. When the return comes there will be a new community, or perhaps different communities, each more short-lived, and the challenge will be to ensure that it remains Wesley House, a place like a home where people are formed, and not simply a residential library.
So we come back to our Bible readings. We have been heeding Second Isaiah’s call to remember our past so that we may learn of God from it. But it is on the epistle that we especially focus. There are many uncertainties about the first epistle of Peter. It is addressed to the dispersion in various parts of what we now call Turkey. Whether that meant literally dispersed Jews or metaphorically scattered groups of Christians, it points to a people who see themselves as being in transition, looking back to a past they cannot now recover and forward to a hope yet to be realised. And the particular passage we listened to takes up echoes of the past in the words of Scripture and invests them with new meanings and new applications for the present. And it underlines for us the point that the essence of things is not buildings, neither the Jerusalem temple, utterly destroyed by the Romans, nor any other material meeting-place, but the community of the faithful, bonded together like bricks in a building, because they base their life on Jesus, whose death and resurrection is the promise of hope. And it is that set of values and that hope that will enable us to respond to the challenge of the gospel reading, not to bury what has been entrusted to us and leave it unproductive, but work with it and make it fruitful. And then perhaps, by the grace of God, it will be said of this place, to adopt another scripture, that the latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former.