Sermon by Kenneth Padley
in St Albans Cathedral 22nd September 2019
during the Presentation of St Albans Study Centre certificates
Psalm 128, Ezra 1; John 7.14-36
Faith and learning
The children’s author AA Milne was an acute observer of human nature. In this extract from the House at Pooh Corner, Piglet meets the curmudgeonly donkey Eeyore who is keen to share his opinions about Learning.
Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them.
‘Do you know what this is?’ said Eeyore.
‘No’, said Piglet.
‘It’s an A’
‘Oh,’ said Piglet.
‘Not O – A’, said Eeyore severely. ‘Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin? … Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is – until somebody treads on it. Do you know what A means, little Piglet?’
‘No, Eeyore, I don’t.’
‘It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got.’
Rabbit came up importantly, nodded to Piglet, and said, ‘Ah, Eeyore,’ in the voice of one who would be saying ‘Good-bye’ in about two more minutes.
‘There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, Eeyore. What happens to Christopher Robin in the mornings nowadays?’…
‘What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings?’ Eeyore replied. ‘He learns. He becomes Educated. He instigorates – I think that is the word he mentioned… – he instigorates Knowledge. In my small way I also, if I have the word right, am – am doing what he does. That, for instance, is…’
‘An A,’ said Rabbit, ‘but not a very good one. Well, I must get back and tell the others.’
Eeyore looked at his sticks and then he looked at Piglet.
‘What did Rabbit say it was?’ he asked.
‘An A,’ said Piglet.
… ‘You mean this A thing is a thing Rabbit knew?’
‘Yes, Eeyore. He’s clever, Rabbit is.’
‘Clever!’ said Eeyore scornfully, putting a foot heavily on his three sticks. ‘Education!’ said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. ‘What is Learning?’ asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks into the air. ‘A thing Rabbit knows!’
‘I think…’ began Piglet nervously.
‘Don’t,’ said Eeyore.
Down the centuries many Christians have approached education like Eeyore. Some have emphasised that they have direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit and so do not need what might be taught in the classroom. Other Christians have been so world-denying that they see books and learning as a corrupt distraction from the journey to heaven. And yet others are afraid of doing any critical reflection lest it challenge their passionately held beliefs.
Teaching and learning, however, are of vital importance to Jesus. Tonight’s second reading from the gospel of John, opens with Jesus teaching. Indeed, teaching about God and godly living makes up half of his public ministry. His is an integrated ministry of care and education, which he summarises in the concept of the Kingdom of God. What does the Kingdom look like? It is the place where women and men are healed in body and mind. What it is the meaning of the Kingdom? It is the place where people are restored to right relationships with God and one another. Education and care are the twin pillars on which the ministry of Jesus rests.
In addition, the nature of God as Truth is a fundamental theme to which John’s gospel keeps returning. We heard Jesus proclaim that the One who sent him is true. And in the next chapter he announces that ‘the truth will set you free’. John 8.32: these words have become the motto of the Anglican Communion, engraved in marble on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.
Thus, down the ages, the mainstream Christian approach to education has been strongly affirmative. St Anselm, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that ‘faith seeks understanding’. Thus,
Theology in the Middle Ages was known as the ‘Queen of Sciences’. It was the discipline from which all other intellectual pursuits were logically and historically derived. Medieval abbeys and cathedrals such as this became powerhouses of learning in and for their communities. And, after the Reformation, the Church of England was the engine room which drove the expansion of primary and secondary schooling for boys and girls across the land. Down to the present, Christians continue at the forefront of the full range of academic research. As this cathedral prepares for its Space Voyage festival, did you know that the Big Bang theory was developed in the 1920s by a Belgian priest?
Despite this great heritage of learning, there are pressures to weaken the Church’s involvement with education. Siren voices fail to appreciate the added value which parents seek and children receive from Church Schools. Within the Church itself, there are those who say our focus should be so centred on evangelisation or social action that we risk ignoring the complementary role of teaching new disciples as the second mark of mission. Underlying this is (I think) a fear among some Christians that what the Church proclaims is so weird that it just has to be accepted or rejected, but cannot be argued. Here we see a slippery inheritance of the Enlightenment divorce of faith and learning, a claim that because Christianity cannot be entirely deduced by reason it must be inconsistent with reason.
Friends, this is not a conclusion we should accept. The contemporary Catholic priest and academic, Brian Davies shows in his book Thinking about God, that although the objects of faith are unknowable and unprovable, this is not the same as saying that they are unreasonable. As intelligent occupants of the twenty-first century we must approach our Bible and tradition with faith and reason. We do not pluck our ideas from thin air: we believe what we believe for good reasons. And when we read the Bible at home and in church we do not abandon our critical faculties. We approach the text as intelligent men and women of faith, aware that Scripture is not a dusty document from a bygone age but the living Word of God speaking to our hearts as well as our heads.
I am advised that an ancient manuscript of John chapter 7 was discovered in the recent archaeological works here at the Cathedral. In this manuscript the crowd ponders the question ‘How does this man have such learning?’ And the Dean translates Jesus’ answer to read ‘I Googled St Albans Cathedral Study Centre before phoning Caroline Godden to sign up for their talks, study days and courses.’
My friends, the Study Centre is a wonderful antidote to those anti-educational prejudices I have just described, so tonight I want to offer heartfelt congratulations to all those who are celebrating the completion of courses; to commend the programme of the Study Centre to you all; to encourage you to spread the word about how it can help take us deeper into God; and to pray for the continued flourishing of the Study Centre within this diocese and beyond, part of the wider purposes of the One whose Truth is setting us free.
As St Augustine prayed
O thou who art light of the minds that know thee,
life of the souls that love thee,
and strength of the hearts that serve thee;
help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee;
so to love thee that we may fully serve thee,
whom to serve is perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.