Sermon at a Service for Queen Anne's School, Caversham, to celebrate their 125th anniversary
We have been rooted in a good land.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist, and School Governor
Friday, 25th October 2019 at 2.30 PM
When Queen Anne’s School was founded in 1894 it was part of a modest but courageous movement to offer women and girls some of the educational opportunities that had been on offer to men and boys for centuries. Arguably, it was part of the movement that led to women winning the right to vote, only a century ago – there are fine statues to Emmeline Pankhurst and to Millicent Fawcett within yards of this building.
Whether the founders of Queen Anne’s were interested in gender equality in quite the way we understand it now, is debatable, but the seed they planted has grown, and is growing in ways that they probably couldn’t have imagined. We are not yet in a place where opportunity is completely gender-neutral – and activists like Malala reminds us that this is a global issue – but there has been change in the last 125 years, and I hope you feel that you are the beneficiaries of that change.
To borrow from the parable of the sower, so beautifully read and interpreted for us, the founders of Queen Anne’s School wanted to create good ground, rich soil, in which little seedlings could grow and flourish. Not everyone loves their School, and no-one loves their School all the time, but I hope you know that this is a community that wants the best for you – that, above all, wants you to grow, not just in body but in mind and character – to find out what you love, the passions that will give momentum to your life, and make you a blessing to others. And even if you don’t feel that now, I hope you might look back one day and realise that, for all its imperfections, Queen Anne’s really did want you to flourish – wanted you to benefit from really good ground, really rich soil.
Behind the High Altar of this Abbey lie the bodies of Kings and Queens of England, including Queen Anne – who, whatever we might take or leave from Olivia Coleman’s depiction, was politically engaged and greatly concerned for the flourishing of her people and her Church. But there is one King who is, quite literally lifted-up above the others. He is St Edward the Confessor – ‘Confessor’ not because he did lots of naughty things, but because he confessed his faith, and planted a seed here, building a Palace and a new Abbey Church (quite a big seed, you might think), which is effectively why Westminster is what it is today.
Now, we may not think that is an entirely good thing. Some people suggest that Westminster is the problem with this country, especially in all the political confusion and frustration of the last few years – and we’re not out of it yet. But whatever the outcome of Brexit, this country is extraordinarily good ground, rich soil in which to live and grow. St Edward the Confessor, and the generations since, some of them literally buried around us, have given us a good land in which to be rooted.
A good land, but not a perfect one.
There is still much to do.
There needs to be more work and vigilance to make sure that real and equal opportunity exists for people, whatever their gender-identity. And, of course, this isn’t just a national thing; this is global – ‘to loose the bonds of injustice and to let the oppressed go free’, in the words of Isaiah in our first reading.
Wherever we end up with Brexit, there will be much work to do in re-building bridges, both with our European neighbours, and with our neighbours here at home. Nationalism is a real danger, and tribalism within our nation a deeper danger still. We need a bigger vision, a ‘wider horizon’ as Cardinal Nichols put it recently – a new way of thinking about nation-hood and sovereignty. There simply has to be ever-closer co-operation between nations – if there is going be good ground not just for us but for all people. Jesus spoke constantly about the Kingdom of God – it is the theme of all his parables – lifting the minds of his hearers from the narrow concerns for their nation and their day and re-framing them within the wider vision of God’s sovereignty over all creation.
Which brings us naturally to the environment. If all people are to flourish, whoever or wherever they are, more care needs to be given to ‘our common home’, as Pope Francis calls it – this planet, this soil that we share – and I know that you at Queen Anne’s are already very active in trying to lower the carbon-footprint of the school. Greta Thunberg has her detractors who argue that she is being manipulated by people with larger political agendas, but she has brought a new clarity and urgency to the environmental debate, as a matter of inter-generational justice. This planet, this creation is so good, as God himself declares in the first chapter of Genesis, and we all have a responsibility to keep it so.
But whatever seed we sow, whether it is for gender-equality, for national and international unity, for the care of the planet, those seeds will seem very, very small. There will always be some who sneer at our efforts, or think we are being naïve.
The founders of this School would have faced opposition. They must have wondered whether their school would work, whether it would make a difference, whether it would survive 5 let alone 125 years.
Edward the Confessor died childless, in 1066, and we know where that led. There was no guarantee that the seed he planted here would yield anything.
IN the parable, the sower sows liberally, we might say wastefully – the little seeds are scattered everywhere. Someone might have come up to him, or her, and said ‘you’d be better off just planting the seed over there, where we know things grow well, not on this rocky land, this compacted path, this patch of weeds.’ But God is wiser than we are.
Yes, some of the seed may spring up and not grow for long, some of it may get snapped up by birds, some of it choked-off by weeds; but where the seed has been will be subtly changed, in ways barely noticeable or measurable. A tentative root opening a crack in dry soil; a short-lived seedling creating a tiny patch of moisture that gives the next seed a better chance; a bold young plant that defended its ground for a time against marauding weeds, which persuaded the gardener to finally get around to doing some digging.
We have been rooted in a good land – this Earth, this nation, this school - and good seeds have been placed into our hands – by teachers who aren’t always sure whether what they’ve said has taken root at all! Let us use these gifts, God’s gifts, to do whatever we can to make this a better Earth for others.