Sermon given at a service to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Reverend Nathaniel Woodard

24 November 2011 at 12:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Come with me if you will on a little journey. We shall travel back in time – not two hundred years to the birth of Nathaniel Woodard, but 44 years in my own experience. I was 18 and about to embark on an eight months’ gap before university. It was 6th January 1968 and I was to board a BOAC VC10 from London Airport. We didn’t yet know about British Airways or Heathrow. And I certainly hadn’t imagined a 747.This was exciting enough. I was to fly through the night to Kenya’s capital city Nairobi, where I would be joining the staff of a remarkable school. You may imagine that it is all powerfully etched on my memory. We landed for refuelling at Khartoum as the sun was rising. The heat even of an African dawn hit me along with the sound of the cicadas. But this is no travelogue and I must not indulge myself.

The school, known as Starehe Boys’ Centre, had been founded ten years earlier in 1958 by three remarkably practical visionaries. One of them, Geoffrey Griffin, I came to know quite well. They had been concerned about the number of orphans living rough on the streets of Nairobi and determined to provide a rescue centre, a place of safety and a school. By 1968 there were a thousand resident pupils. I was to teach in the primary and secondary schools.

Fast forward to ten years ago. I had gone to visit my nephew teaching on his gap year at a large under-funded primary school in Gilgil, not far from the secondary school Woodard is sponsoring this year and that is being built as we sit here. I took my nephew and his colleague to Starehe and we met Geoffrey Griffin, still there as Director. He had invited me to preach at a service on the Sunday morning. It was 25th March 2001, the feast of the Annunciation, when the Church celebrates the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary with the request that she become the mother of God’s Son. I spoke of vocation, of Mary’s Yes that made possible the salvation of the world. I spoke of the way God gives people particular vocations. Sometimes God’s call is clear; sometimes we perceive little of what God is wanting to do through us. But our Yes to God unlocks a future, and makes possible a true work of God. I chanced my arm and referred to God’s call to Geoffrey Griffin and his companions, Geoffrey Geturo and Joseph Gikubu, who had responded with their own Yes, and had founded what had become in 40 years the best secondary school in Kenya. I glanced at Geoffrey Griffin seated in the front row of the chapel and saw the tears rolling down his cheeks.

That is the nearest I can come to understanding what it must have been for Nathaniel Woodard towards the end of his life to know that he had started a great programme and a great movement. Personally to have founded one school and seen it flourish beyond his wildest dreams was obviously for Geoffrey Griffin an extraordinary personal achievement. He had a sense of God having worked through him. To have founded eleven schools and to see them begin to bear fruit must have been remarkable.

Despite David Gibbs’ excellent book published for this year’s bicentenary celebrations, I feel I know little of Woodard himself, a man it seems of some mystery, of some surprises. What is clear is his single-minded devotion – you might say his pig headedness – his absolute commitment once he had set his hand to the plough not to turn back. And his commitment gave him power, almost to require people to support him. And of course he got some things wrong. That is not surprising. His glorious chapel at Lancing drained his Society of needed energies and resources. The chapel is still to be finished. Thank God we can contribute to that amazing venture. But the strength of the man comes ringing through the words of the Preamble his great grand-son read earlier. It reminds me that the saints of history were not always easy people to live with. They are no canonised milk-sops. To follow the path of our Lord Jesus Christ demands courage and determination.

Those are remarkable words, unequivocal in their meaning: all pupils in Woodard Schools should be

taught, together with sound grammar learning, the fear and honour of almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, according to the doctrines of the catholic faith … of the Church of England.

The 45 Woodard Schools represented here are together heirs of that remarkable man’s vision and achievement. And each of us is subject to his charge

to use [our] utmost influence to defend and protect those his wishes and intentions, for the glory of God, the exaltation of the faith, and the blessedness of their fellow subjects.

And we shall answer for it at the dreadful Day of Judgement. There should be no need for us to fear.

We come to give thanks to almighty God that he called and empowered Nathaniel Woodard to open to those who would not otherwise have received it the benefit of an education founded and built on the Christian gospel and Christian values. And with some degree of confidence we celebrate the fact that the Woodard vision is being driven forward to give the benefit of a catholic Christian education to many more young people who would otherwise be in desperate straits.

Are our Woodard celebrations this year simply an exercise in nostalgia, a chance to look back with some embarrassment and nervousness at a phenomenon that could never happen now? Is the commitment Woodard sternly evokes from us all who are Fellows, Heads, staff, pupils something that we can simply slough off saying comfortably that the world has changed, that in our era no such commitment is required? I say not. If we have put our hand to the plough there must be no turning back. We can never be satisfied with what we have achieved. The requirement on us continues to be clear and so must the commitment be. The civil government has not seized our property; our conscience is still free. These are not evil days, but days that call us to increased vigilance and to increased loyalty to the catholic Christian faith that has nurtured us and in which we are called to live.

As we give thanks to God for Nathaniel Woodard’s life and achievements, let us together renew our collective vocation, our commitment to his vision and ask the blessing and grace of almighty God that we might be faithful in living up to his example.

That is our collective response. Many would respond to Woodard’s vision, as we do today. But we must never forget that it was his own commitment, his personal vision under God, that counted. His energy, his conviction, won the crown. So I charge those of you soon to embark on your adult life to ask what might be your own personal vocation. What is God calling you to do, something perhaps no one else can see, can do, something to his glory and to the advancement of his kingdom? May the example of Nathaniel Woodard inspire you to persistence in asking the question and to a faithful response when you hear the answer!

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