Sermon: Sunday 11 May 2014
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Porosity: John 10:1-10, Acts 2:42-47
The disruption caused by the creation of Cathedral Gardens has made all of us very aware of exits and entrances. There are 6 doors into and out of the Cathedral. This is my moment to become cabin crew! We’ve all watched those with children and buggies or those who use wheelchairs struggle to get in and out, not to mention the number of times I instinctively go towards the Great South Door and Vaughan Porch to walk into the glass doors!
John uses imagery of a sheepfold which in Middle Eastern tradition was often a stone or wooden pen built by nomadic shepherds to be used by the whole community as needs be and as pasture afforded. These pens had no wooden gate or physical barrier so the shepherd typically formed the doorway, keeping the sheep inside the pen safe and keeping out wild animals. The animals trusted the shepherd and recognised her or his voice. Jesus contrasts this good shepherd with those who trick others, bringing them into an apparent place of safety only then to steal or kill and destroy. There are good and safe exits and entrances and there are others which are tricky, even destructive or dangerous.
Doors are often highly contested space – think about the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem where because all the different Christian denominations cannot find a way of agreeing together, the keys for the doors of the church are held by a local Muslim family. Or think about the little door from St Katharine’s Chapel out onto Guildhall Lane. We have uncovered stories from our medieval history when women following child birth but prior to a service of purification were formally not allowed into the building but somehow managed to use that little door to slip in and out. Doors which are highly contested can also sometimes be subverted – as we gather this afternoon in celebration for 20 years since the Church of England began to ordain women, think about all those cathedrals that were inviting women priests from Hong Kong or America long before the doors were properly open to them.
This is an especially interesting thought in a cathedral which has doors which are open throughout the week, and as a place we try to be especially open to the whole community with no charges for entrance. This past week has seen the usual round of 21 services plus a funeral, a visit from a peer of the realm, the installation of a piece of modern art and a reception to welcome it, as well as an organ recital. People have come in and out all week to these events and to explore this place, to find peace or to pray. The word which I have found myself using to describe this is that it is a ‘porous’ place.
I think of a cathedral being like a piece of filter paper which is used in a Petri dish or lab which lets things in and out, but such an image indicates that it is not just a filter but it changes as it is used. Put a purple liquid through filter paper and the paper becomes purple. Open your doors and people not only come in and out but they change the place. Christ according to John opens and closes the door, allowing for movement yet safeguarding the flock in terms of protection and care but also ensuring that whatever passes in and out still results in a place of abundant life.
And like that image of Jesus being the gate, here in this porous place with increased numbers of visitors and increased engagement with other faiths and other Christian communities, it not only matters that the doors are open but that they are very often given a human character through a welcomer or guide. A human doorway is very different. The feedback which we get especially notes the important of human interaction because historic fabric of itself doesn’t seem to be enough.
I recently listened to a talk given by Professor Simon Oliver to the Church of England Deans when he was describing how the Roman Catholic thinker Charles Taylor in his sprawling book A secular age describes modern human beings as being characterised as being ‘a buffered self’. A bit like India today, our forebears in the West used to inhabit a universe that was much more open to the things of God. The whole ancient world maybe right up until the last century was in many ways seen to be enchanted. Awe and wonder were not just categories for primary school but were deeply part of what it meant to be alive. Taylor talks about the medieval self as being a ‘porous self’ – a self who was open to the meanings and powers which are inherent in all created things, self obvious in everything from a daisy in a summer lawn to sacred texts, objects and places. Religious buildings and cathedrals in particular are alive to powers beyond themselves – to grace, forgiveness and powers of good and bad. Our modern ‘buffered self’ has a strong sense of separation between ‘me’ and the world.
So Simon Oliver gave us the example of someone who is worried they have depression. They go to the doctor and are told that it’s just a hormone imbalance or a problem with neural receptors. So they think, ‘That’s good. It’s not really me; it’s the hormones or the neurons. Somehow there is an ‘I’ who is different from my depression or my body. I can distinguish it, then I can buffer it, even from my own body.’ All that may sound perfectly normal to you but it is not the way we’ve always thought about being a person. These buffers can be quite significant and mean that it becomes quite hard for us to connect with anything to do with awe and wonder or allow for any possibility of the unknown, the unexpected, the miracle. What if it’s possible to be part of a new community, that it is possible to find ways into adventurous travelling in the company of other flock and along the paths of a shepherd whose vision seems to resonate with other values and aspirations?
Christianity presupposes a degree of porosity – a bit of openness which allows us to be welcomed and seized by something which is not really of our making or in our control. Our buffered vision of faith thinks about Christianity quite differently. Buffers we have made include turning Christian faith into a set of propositions to logically adhere to or a lifestyle you choose as you do a gym or a hairdresser. Instead it is more to do with allowing some doors to open and something or rather someone to get under our skin.
Sheep pens built as cathedrals perhaps have a special ability even in a world of buffered self to crack open the carapace. They symbolise the Good Shepherd’s care and generous welcome, loving leadership which literally offers salvation. They maybe still hint at a world bound up in a cosmic drama and a story which we don’t make up but rather which we inhabit and live. Time and time again here we find people on the hunt for Richard III, lighting candles and leaving prayers because history or culture or tourism wasn’t really the whole reason for their visit. This porous place which allows people easy ways to come in and out and which allows them to contribute has the capacity to undo a bit of the buffered modern self allowing a more porous self to emerge. When that happens invariably Christ is there and abundant life awaits us.
© David Monteith, Dean of Leicester