Sermon given at Evensong with Valediction of Choristers 2014

13 July 2014 at 15:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

‘By what authority?’ Jesus was asked by the chief priests and scribes and elders in the temple in Jerusalem. ‘By what authority do you do these things?’ It was a trick question and Jesus refused to answer. The answer of course was by God’s authority, and by his own authority as Son of God, but they would not have listened or understood.

‘By what authority?’ is a good question for us, at any time, but perhaps especially at a service when we are saying ‘God be with you’ and ‘farewell’ to five boys who have been educated in the Abbey’s own Choir School and who have been choristers here at the Abbey for the past four or five years.

During formal education there is little question that a pupil or a student is under authority. The authority of the school is necessarily accepted and respected. That is right. Through their education, children and young people grow and develop, mentally and physically, spiritually, morally, socially and culturally, and are trained to use their skills and gifts aright and to live decently and in order. This process requires the exercise of due authority. It works best altogether when authority is worthy and respected and can be exercised quietly, almost without being detected. It is thus at Westminster Abbey Choir School and in the training the choristers receive from the Master of the Choristers and his colleagues.

So a pupil or student is under authority. But there is a deeper sense in which the underlying question he or she faces is, ‘By what authority?’ Not just what we know but how we know. How do we know something is true? How do we know? How can we know?

The modern world view, the modern way of thinking, tends to be that we can only really know something to be true if we can observe it, measure it, test it and get the same results repeatedly. It follows that any idea or thought or theory that cannot be established as true by such methods must be regarded as a matter of opinion, of private or personal opinion or collective opinion, and not taken to be true in any real sense.

The modern way of thinking therefore restricts the authentication of truth claims to what can be demonstrated by scientific or mathematical or other empirical methods. Only that which can be proved can be true. By what authority? then. Only by the authority of experiment, of tested, demonstrable experience.

And naturally this modern way of thinking prevails in the British educational system as in much of the western world. And this produces a variety of undesirable effects. Now I do not in any way wish to suggest that science and mathematics and logic are unimportant: far from it. They are a vitally important part of education and vitally important for the better development of our community, our country and our world. But scientific methods do not hold a monopoly on truth. We do not need to go as far as John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn by saying ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ But there is truth in beauty, in harmony, in love, ultimate truth is in love: ‘God so loved the world…’

The dominance of scientific ways of thinking means that Christian faith or any religious faith tends to be regarded as a matter of private or personal opinion, unverifiable, unfalsifiable. Not surprisingly therefore in such a world view, religious faith and the practice of religion become increasingly irrelevant and marginal. Even then for those who are religious, who practise their religion, it tends to become a matter of marginal interest, not of decisive importance for a way of life, unable to influence key decision-making.

So we find, for example, that the contribution church leaders can make to any important matter of public debate has to be couched in non-religious terms, in secular language. This inevitably restricts the ability of Christianity to play its full part in the public sphere. The current debate in this country and elsewhere about assisted suicide, euthanasia, is conducted without recognition of the fundamental religious idea of the sanctity of human life, and its nature as a gift from a loving God, with all the implications in terms of the freedom or otherwise of the recipients of the gift to deny it or turn it aside. This radically impoverishes our public discourse.

Theologians have been addressing this issue: most prominently in recent times Pope Benedict XVI, arguing for example in a speech in Germany in 2006 for the inclusion of religion within the ‘universality of reason’, in order for there to be the much-needed proper dialogue between the cultures, meaning the cultures of Christianity and Islam, and between religious and atheist world views. He said ‘A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.’ That particular speech provoked a strong negative reaction, possibly for synthetic reasons.

More work is also needed on how the truth claims of Christianity can and should be integrated into a modern educational system in a church-based school. If as Christians we believe that the deepest truth of all, the ultimate authority, is to be found in the revelation of God in his Word, in Jesus Christ, that must do more than sit alongside the modern, secular world view as applied in the non-religious curriculum. They must be properly integrated.

The choristers who are leaving today for new schools have received a fine academic education but they have also been educated as profoundly within the faith of Christ, of this holy and historic Church, as they have been in the great music of the western tradition. Now they go on to be exposed to much more varied and diverse influences. As they grow and become adults, they will have to decide for themselves by what authority they are to live, to conduct their lives. It is our prayer and confidence that what they have received here will continue to work in them for good. The question by what authority we shall live is as important for all of us.

In a moment I shall thank each of the leaving choristers for their contribution to the work and worship of Westminster Abbey over these past years. I shall also thank their families. And I shall send them out with a blessing. They will go, but they will also have many opportunities of continuing to be part of the life of Westminster Abbey for the future. Above all, they have offered wonderful service through their gift of music, richly enhancing the worship here. To serve God and his Church and to serve others for the sake of Christ is the best way we know to happiness. May it be their way.

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