An Address given at A Service of blessing for the Benedictine Torch
2 March 2011 at 12:00 pm
The Right Reverend Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield and Chairman of Governors, The Anglican Centre in Rome
‘The brother who is guilty of a very serious fault is to be suspended from sharing in meals and also from the oratory. None of the brethren may associate with him in companionship or conversation… He is to be left alone… to reflect on the terrible sentence of the apostle: “This kind of man is handed over to bodily death.”’
Not an auspicious start you might say for the blessing of the Benedictine torch which recalls Christ the light of the world and a city set on a hill! Why start there then? Simply because it is that portion of Benedict’s rule set to be read on this very day 2nd March. In one way it is utterly uncharacteristic of Benedict and his rule; for his is a rule marked by its moderation ‘a little rule written for beginners’ as he says himself, with nothing laid down ‘that is harsh or hard to bear.’ Even so, presumably the edge to this short chapter reminds every member of the community of his or her true task - set out perfectly in that reading from Paul: ‘For what we preach is not ourselves but Christ Jesus our Lord with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.’
When I was Dean of Norwich, I persuaded the clergy there that we should hear a modest portion of the rule daily. For Norwich was founded as a Benedictine priory just as this noble foundation was; similarly an Abbey living the blessed rule. But in listening to the master’s generally gentle words we were ourselves responding to a rhythm which takes us to the very heart of Christian Europe and the rich pattern of Godly humanism which we all inherit. When Pope Paul VI declared Benedict the Patron of Europe in 1964 he was expressing one element of a deeply acknowledged truth within the sensus fidelium, about the nature and extent of Europe.
Let me reflect a little further. If you travel towards Scotland on the ancient highway from London, the Great North Road, now rather inelegantly called the A1, you will be preceded for at least two hundred miles by signs pointing to The North. Other towns will be mentioned alongside this, but The North is always there, until it isn’t… Where do the signs stop saying it? Where precisely is the North? For many the problem is similar with Europe. How does one decide where it begins and ends?
Over twenty years ago, before the Iron Curtain was drawn back on Europe we travelled well into Eastern Hungary. There in the land of Bull’s Blood vineyards with the surviving sprinkling of Ottoman minarets, we stumbled on the great church at Balapatfalva. Nestling in the foothills of the Trans-Carpathian range it is a stunning Cistercian basilica - the abbey has gone. Who would have imagined that Benedict’s rule had crept that far east so long ago. But, in its various forms that rule took Europe by storm. In 1134 there were but 11 Benedictine houses in England. By the turn of the next century there were three hundred.
It is this inheritance that our torch blessing today recalls. Europe is perhaps best defined not just geographically but by that Benedictine inheritance. It has formed us in ways we can barely imagine - in education, in industry, in agriculture but most profoundly in Christ: ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.’ As this celebration reminds us almost sacramentally with the presence of the torch, it is a shared inheritance. Even the generous and capacious vicarages and rectories of Victorian England sought to continue that Benedictine tradition of hospitality in the Church of England.
This year marks the beginning of ARCIC III the third phase of the Anglican-Roman-Catholic International Commission. As a former member of ARCIC II, the second phase, my heart is quickened and affirmed by this next stage. Looking at the relationship between the local and the universal Church it will face the difficulties which all our traditions know, but it looks forward in hope to continue a pilgrimage enriched as early as the fifth century in Nursia, in Subiaco and in Montecassino in the life of Benedict.
Next year, a very different torch will burst onto the scene in this great city. Let our torch now illumine hearts with the light of Christ which Benedict’s disciples lit over Europe reminding all of the spiritual foundations which shaped Europe and still define its bounds.