Saturday, 2 July 2011

Graduation 2011

The following is an Address I gave in Queens' College (Cambridge) Chapel at the Graduation Service, 30th June 2011:

It’s a very great honour and a privilege to address you today, especially on the eve of what will be the first step along the road of adulthood and responsibility for many of us. It’s very hard to look back over the past three years without a fair share of happiness, regret, yes, and amusement. All of us have changed a good deal from the somewhat naïve and childish selves that entered Queens’ not that long ago; we are not fully formed – of course – but Queens’ has, and will always, leave a mark on us – one, I believe, that has shaped us for the better.
We are deeply lucky here to have that sense of community that a college brings. Even if it does mean everybody knowing everyone else’s business, it also means that there are always people there to pick you up if you are down; always people there who are, in a funny kind of way, just like you; and there are always people there to crib off. Relationship is, or at least should be, at the very heart of what it means to be human. Love, compassion, kindness, understanding – none of these are terribly popular when it comes to the cut-throat world of business (or, as I have found out, applying for research placements) – but without them, the very fabric of our society begins to fall apart. We are deeply lucky to have been here – and the question we must ask, at the end of it all, is – being given this great privilege of learning, what should we do with it? What was it for?
It’s perhaps difficult for me to stand here as a Christian and attempt to think this through with you. The church has managed, over its long and chequered history, to be cast as an engine of division and hurt as much as a force for social good. The bible and church tradition has been used to prop up slavery, to justify the burning of human beings because of their differing theology, and in more recent times, some groups still use it to prevent women from serving at the altar, and tell gays they are inherently sinful for showing love.
Let me tell you a story. In 1920s Harvard, it was decided that the sin of homosexuality was causing a, and I quote, ‘stain’, on the reputation of the place. Student after student was expelled. A mother wrote to the Dean of Harvard: "You could have done much good," she wrote, "had you perhaps had a little less sense of justice and a little more of the spirit of Jesus in your heart." Perhaps in today’s times, we could learn a little from that mother.
So what is that spirit of Jesus – and why is it relevant to this great period of transition in our lives? Well, that spirit of Jesus is love, and it is that love, so much stronger than anything else in our broken and sad world, which holds the key to our really bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. How many times have we passed people living in the street by Kings and rather than loving, simply judged them? How many times have we told ourselves – I’m not going to give them money, but I will give it to charity to help them – and then never bothered to do so. I, for one, looking back at the number of times I got it wrong, am ashamed.
Christ, of course, doesn’t mince his words. ‘The gate is narrow, and the road hard’ we are told. Too often we opt for the easy way out – the turning of a blind eye to an obvious injustice (take our recent alliances with China to support trade, whilst some human beings are being rounded up and executed for disagreeing with the authorities by the very same Chinese leadership; or our continued purchase of cheap clothes whilst human beings a quarter of our age are working in sweat shops in what can only be called slavery). But it’s not happening in our consciousness – so we don’t care. Talk of a global village is, of course, political claptrap. But it shouldn’t be – and it is for our generation, and for people who have benefitted from the amazing opportunities of Cambridge, to change that.
But will we? The world we live in, and are about to work in, is not designed for those who care – the easy road is very much in the ascendency. It is hard not to be totally swept up in the pointless acquisition of wealth or material goods that we are constantly sold by commercial after commercial, celebrity after celebrity. ‘Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ And we are given a solution: ‘Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find’. If we spent a little more time asking and searching, rather than judging and taking, how much more fulfilled and rich our lives would become.
But no, we are told that modern life is only worthwhile if you have the greatest possible material happiness; happiness is that perfect house, or those perfect designer sunglasses, or that perfect and illicit sexual encounter. John Terry, and I believe I can say that without being lifted off by the police, is just the last in a long line of celebrities who promote the lifestyle of take, take, take, and who cares about the consequences. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. Just how many of us follow that, truly? Who cares about the consequences? Well Christ quite clearly tells us – ‘I do’. ‘Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father’. In the words of David Brent, we can talk the talk, but if we don’t walk the walk, or at least attempt to, then there’s not really much point.
Christ tells us: ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. So, as we come to the end of our three or four years here at Queens’, I suppose what the real question should be is – where are we going to store up our treasure? What will we do with all the learning and opportunities we have been deeply privileged to share in? Will we continue to sacrifice it on the altar of consumerism – where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal – or will be try to look a bit higher, and try to become more like the lamp that gives light to all in the house? Jesus tells all those who try to follow him that we are to be the light of the world – but the more that we turn towards ourselves, and selfishness, greed and ignorance, and away from asking, searching, loving, then the more that light becomes hidden. Life, and love, are deeply intermingled, and the more the latter influences the former, the more fulfilled it will be. Because, at the end of it all, we will all die; and if we haven’t shown love to those we leave behind, then our legacy is as nothing.
We have the chance to make the difference, we have the chance to be radical, but will we grasp it, and go through the narrow gate, or will we fall by the wayside and take the easy road? God give us strength to follow him as pilgrims on the route to the cross, working for the good of all, and not just for ourselves.

I will finish with a Pilgrims’ Prayer by St Gildas:

In health may I and all of my companions

Safely arrive with no harm or injury –

May my boat be safe in the waves of the ocean,

My horses safe on the highways of the earth,

Our money safe as we carry it with us

To pay due heed to our poor necessities.

May our enemies fail to do harm to us,

However evil the counsels which inspire them.

In the eternal name of Christ our Master,

May my roads all lie plain before me,

Whether I climb the rugged heights of mountains,

Or descend the hollow depths of valleys,

Or trudge the lengthy roads on open country,

Or struggle through the thickets of dense forest.

May I walk always in straight ways and shining

To longed-for places . . .

1 comment:

  1. Confusingly, the Assitant Dean of Harvard at the time was named Edward R Gay and he was one of the invesitgators on the "Secret Court". I wish the Cambridge establishment would do more to uphold the moral framework of its student body rather than attempting to subvert it at every possible opportunity.