Search This Blog

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Britain’s myriad voices call?


Readings:        1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30
                        Psalm 84
1 Corinthians 3:10-17
                        Matthew 7:13-14, 24-25
Firstly, I make no apology for the fact that in the next several minutes we may work quite hard. I believe the vision that drove your forebears in faith to give life to this building is a vision worth reclaiming, worth renewing, worth spending a few moments hard work to repossess and reinvigorate. I do however apologize that you have a mere cathedral dean, not our bishop, leading this part of today’s journey!
On the 28th June 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, along with his wife Sophie, by a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. Like all moments in history it has a degree of random to it – news of the assassination took two days to filter through to New Zealand newspapers – but it is a useful moment on which to pin the Death of Certainty. Paul Auster writes “… lifelong certainties about the world can be demolished in a single second,”[1] and as the archduke died they were. In that moment, we can say speaking symbolically, the certainty of being a European Christian, and therefore of owning “truth,” crumbled. Even as late as October 1915 a New Zealand academic was approving citing poetry that extolled the romanticism of Britannia’s call:
Britain’s myriad voices call,
Sons, be wedded, one and all
Into one Imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul[2]
The would-be academic was unable to cite an authentic New Zealand voice extolling the values of Mother Country or of war, though no doubt there were many in the school and university magazines of the time. Why would he? Britishness was the voice of authority and security, and Tennyson was, after all, a Lord.
As it happens the voice of certainty was beginning to tremble a little before 1915. Erstwhile Hawkes Bay (albeit Ormondville) resident poet Blanche Baughan was beginning to lament the harshness of the land, “Well I’m leaving the poor old place, and it cuts as keen as a knife; / The place that’s broken my heart – the place where I’ve lived my life,”[3] but she was beginning to find an authentic New Zealand voice, writing of “paddocks” not “fields”, and experimenting with snippets of te reo.[4] She sees herself however as “Standing, small and alone,” and as such was probably echoing the colonial pain that was still dominant when King and country summonsed the Empire’s men homeward following Britain’s declaration of war on August 5th, 1914. As it happened, though Baughan went on to be a great and feisty New Zealand woman activist and mystic, she lost her poetic voice, at least in part because she could not find poetic idioms by which to express the cataclysms that rocked the world from 1914 onwards.
I had no tape-recorder set up in St Matthew’s, Hastings, in February 1915, but it is likely that a sermon of the time was full of patriotic fervour. Mr Brocklehurst, later Dean of the Cathedral, was vicar, and a little bit of detective work soon indicates that he was a man who would not only understand suffering and restoration, but a man who understood the priorities of the gospel. Brocklehurst is clearly a fine priest, for he was born in England and served in Australia before coming to Waiapu! More seriously he was a man who understood narratives of suffering and hope. Ill health dogged him long before he was so badly injured in the collapse of the Waiapu Cathedral, including during his time in Hastings. For his funeral in 1957 Brocklehurst stipulated that he not be the centre of attention, but that the focus should be on “eternal life.” I suggest that this perspective at the very least focussed his vision as he worked to the establishment (or re-establishment) of this building in 1915. 
Brocklehurst of course did not preach on the day this building was dedicated:  the Bishop, Dr Sedgwick made a plea for the continuation of the faith of the Church of England, and there is little in his sermon at that service 100 years ago that suggests that he, any more than the colonial poets, was recognizing the extent to which the certainties of Empire were collapsing. Sedgwick was a child of the vicarage, a fin de siècle naval chaplain, an Earl’s chaplain and an erstwhile priest of Bloemfontein and Botswana, suggesting that he was not well-poised to recognised the collapse of theological and sociological certainty that was going on around the world as he addressed the people gathered in the new yet gothic edifice in which we now stand. Certainly, unlike his contemporary the mystic poet Blanche Baughan, Sedgwick is not showing any awareness that the old Euro-Israelite interpretations, the establishment of little outpost temples of brick, needed to give way to new traditions rooted in the whakapapa of new peoples and new lands, or in the Māori values of manāki, mana-a-ki, radical hospitality, radical “telling” of new story.
Sedgwick pronounced boldly a century ago that no new theology would be taught in this place: how surprised he might have been to read a subsequent curate of this parish, Numia Tomoana, who would one day write eloquently of tupuna wahine, strong ancestral women whose story melds creatively with the often forgotten story of the tupuna wahine of Hebrew and Christian narratives.[5] How surprised he might be to find not Matua Joseph Brocklehurst, but Wahine Helen Wilderspin keeping alive the fires of faith in and from the building he consecrated.
Perhaps Sedgwick knew that the newly built St Matthew’s was a radical metaphor. For here the ancient lines of gothic architecture were re-clad in the latest science of ferro-concrete which was slowly dominating creative architecture. The ancient Gothic dream was here recreated in state of the art modern reinforced cement, and the fact that it stands post-1931 Hawkes Bay and post-2011 Canterbury earthquakes and subsequent legislation suggests that something was strangely right here.
Yet something was confused too: the brick constructions that Sedgwick strangely lauded in his sermon this day a century ago, applauding the dismantling of flimsy if romantic wooden edifices, those structures have largely turned to dust or bureaucratic disarray in these shaky post-modern isles. They have mostly crumbled, just as the Temple of Solomon and its successor, beloved in Sedgwick’s sermons and beloved by masonic rites and beloved by British Israelites, were torn stone from stone and utterly destroyed, adding poignant meaning to Paul’s warning that the faithful believer, not the building, is the Temple. 
The new world that was struggling to be born as the certainties of the old Eurocentric universe collapsed was very different, and slowly it would learn to listen to the ancient voices, the tupuna wahine and tupuna matua of this and other ancient colonised lands, and to know that wisdom was not the sole prerogative of the Britannia whose rule over the waves was ephemeral at best. It would learn too to listen to the authentic voice of Paul of Tarsus, who saw that “fire will test what sort of work each has done” and who knew that personal faith integrity, not monolithic structures, would bear witness to the risen Christ.
Brocklehurst I sense began to listen out of his own suffering and heard those voices earlier than his erstwhile boss did, though in the end I sense even the one time Earl’s Chaplain Dr Sedgwick began to hear echoes of ancient and non-European voices. There are hints that Aotearoa sung its redemption songs even to this anglophile bishop: after retiring and returning “home” to England, Sedgwick subsequently made his way back to Aotearoa. He took part in the consecration of that remarkably complex bishop Lesser, and then stayed here to die and to be buried, receiving at last the radical hospitality of Ngati Whatua, buried in the soil of their lands at Purewa. On the other hand he would later be joined there by Sir Robert Muldoon, so maybe not so Māori friendly or progressive a neighbourhood! But in the mysteries of apostolic succession Sedgwick’s legacy was handed on to remarkable visionaries: Lesser, Reeves, Mills and others have filled his sacred shoes and continued to whisper a narrative greater than any of our flaws.
Ultimately the collapse of the old certainties that was in full force a hundred years today was the collapse amongst other things of a distorted Christian narrative. The gospel of a crucified God, of love in a cruciform shape, had given way to a series of nationalistic gospels in which the god of germanness or spanishness or frenchness or dutchness or englishness, of colonialness, reigned supreme. On this day a century ago, New Zealand was just learning that, three days previously, Private William Ham had become New Zealand’s first Great War casualty.  On this day one hundred years ago Able Seaman William Edward Knowles became New Zealand’s first naval casualty. The old certainties were dying with Ham and Knowles, and Sedgwick’s secure world was crumbling as he stood here a hundred years ago.
World War One would give way to World War Two, and the ability of men and women to be the very opposite of civilised, would dominate. The old certainties passed away. Sedgwick’s world of bricks and mortar, of muscular Christianity, God and emperor, of pulled up socks and cleanliness that was next to godliness, these had no answer to the horrors of the 1914-18 war, or the subsequent horrors of Hitler’s and Stalin’s pogroms. They have no answers either to the very post-colonial questions of a young Jordanian pilot immolated by Daesh terrorists, or to the knowledge that we live on a warming planet with rising sea-levels, dwindling resources, and an ever-growing chasm between the richest and the poorest of humanity.
But the scriptures that have been read and broken open in this place since that day 100 years ago do have answers. We throw out the crucified, died and was buried form, and the rose again on the third day form of God, at great peril, for that is what the churches of Europe had done, and their usurper nationalistic gods died with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. We throw out the scriptures of our faith at great peril, for they speak of the radical, compassionate manāki of God, the one who stretches out arms in Christ, who welcomes the broken and the dispossessed, the hungry and the hunted, the hung-out, strung out ones and worse. The scriptures speak of a God who enters into a crucified death for Jordanian pilots and Hawkes Bay cancer sufferers, for starving refugees and road accident and drowning victims, and strangely for perpetrators and victims of injustice alike, for all of us are capable of giving and receiving toxic evil. 
But it is not the British Voice of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Days of Empire that calls us on, as we sing several times today, on into a Promised Future, when we shall with Jordanian pilots and Japanese journalists tread the verge of Jordan. It is a different voice. More like the faint echo of Aotearoa that brought Bishop Sedgwick back to an unforeseen place he never expected to call home, more like the whispers of ancestral voices that have inspired ancient peoples since we clambered out of the primeval swamp, more like the feisty wairua that turned the slowly stilled poetic voice of a Blanche Baughan into radical activism, the voice that will beckon us and our mokopuna is the mysterious voice that whispered despite the Cross and despite the Tomb, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29) and who then added “haere.”(John 21:19). Haere, haere indeed, says the Spirit who beckoned our forebears and who beckons us and those who follow us.
“Blessed are the dead for they die in the Lord henceforth.” Blessed are our ancestors in faith who midwifed this place, and blessed may our mokopuna in faith be too, for they will midwife a very different place. And blessed may we be, if we hold fast to the Taonga of faith in the God of the Cross.

[1] Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger, 279.
[2] From “Poetry and Patriotism”, Victoria University College Review, October 1915, p. 17. The author is designated only as “C”. The poem so quoted and approved is Tennyson’s “The Making of Man.”
[3] From B.E. Baughan, “The Old Place”, in An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry, 4.
[4] See B.E. Baughan, “A Bush Section.” Ibid., 4-6.
[5] See Numia Tomoana, “Te Karanga o te Atua”, in E. Fairbrother and J. te Paa (eds), Our Place, Our Voice, 33-51.
Post a Comment