Sermon preached at Rochester Cathedral
20th May 2017 (The feast of Alcuin of York)
at the Licensing of LLMs
If occasionally you still write with a pen or pencil, most of you will use what at school we used to call ‘joined-up writing’. If you do that, you can probably thank Alcuin of York who, as a teacher and trainer of teachers, is said to have invented what we more properly call cursive script in the second half of the 8th century. He did so in order to speed up the copying of manuscripts, something which was vital in spreading education.
Alcuin, who was born around the year 735, is commemorated by the church today. Having been educated at the Cathedral Church in York, he later became its master. Later he was poached by the emperor Charlemagne and relocated to Aachen as master of the palace school. While there he was responsible for establishing a primary school in every town and village and, because the clergy were the teachers, he worked to ensure higher standards of literacy and general education among clergy and ordinands. In his spare time, he revised the Latin liturgy, ensured the preservation of ancient prayers, developed plainsong, wrote nine biblical commentaries, revised the Latin Bible and engaged in doctrinal debate. And interestingly, he was not a priest. Alcuin was in fact a deacon, and at some point seems to have entered the Benedictine order. Perhaps most importantly, though, he is credited with inspiring those he taught by his own enthusiasm for learning – that was perhaps his greatest gift.
Our readings are two of those suggested for Alcuin, and I love that imagery in the Isaiah passage about righteousness and praise springing up like green shoots in a garden. Imagery of growth, of flourishing; and as we hear about Alcuin, I get a picture of a person who delighted in seeing things flourish in other people. He himself had been enthused by learning, he realised the privilege he had had, and he wanted to see that made possible for others – hence the manuscripts, the teaching, the training of others to teach, the founding of schools. In among all the frenetic activity which we sense to have been part of his life, there seems to be that focus which was around the growth and development of others, the fostering of their gifts –and all that they might flourish as human beings and as followers of Christ.
I’m sure Alcuin was an excellent teacher in terms of his practice. But the example of his life was just as important if not more so – and hence the second reading for his day. Not least for those of us called to be Christian ministers, how and who we are must sit alongside what we do. Thus Paul, writing to the Colossians, exhorts them to clothe themselves with Christ-like character and to demonstrate Christ-like behaviour. At the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul leads into this section with the words, “If then you have been raised with Christ….” and then he goes on to talk about how we should (and indeed should not) live. This is the working out of the resurrection in us, the expression of the risen life of Christ. Paul uses the imagery of clothing ourselves – imagery which is there in Isaiah 61 as well (clothed with the robe of righteousness). There are behaviours which we should put off – not part of today’s passage, but things like anger, greed, impurity, malice and the like; the old self is to be stripped off. And then we are re-clothed in Christ (and the imagery is there of being vested with a new garment after baptism) with such as kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We are to forgive, to bear with one another, to live in peace, to be thankful, and above all to be clothed with love.
All of that is for us to take on as disciples, but even more so as Christian ministers. There is no easy way round this one but, when we respond to a vocation to Christian ministry, and especially once we are publicly commissioned for that ministry, then how we ourselves live becomes part of the deal. We are called not only to be those who teach, preach, lead worship, work with the young, offer pastoral care, engage in evangelism – or whatever may be the particular shape and expression of our calling. We are called also to a demonstrably Christian way of living – hence the question I will ask you soon: ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your own life according to the way of Christ’. And, whether we be lay or ordained ministers, there is a cost to that; we are accountable – ultimately to God – not only for the ministry entrusted to us, but also for the way in which we live.
I know that sounds tough, but it is as well to be clear. But we can also look at it the other way round. For I suspect that many of you will know from your own experience that it is often what you see in somebody else’s life which becomes transformative for you. It is the person who does live out the resurrection, whose life speaks of Christ and of the possibility of change, who uses their gifts and fosters the gifts of others; it is the person in whom you see good and life-giving things springing up; it is the person like Alcuin who inspires by their own passion and example.
You are not all called to be teachers like Alcuin. One of the joys of our lay ministry programme is the variety of gifts and callings which it draws out. Among you are those who do indeed teach and preach; also those who lead worship, work with the young, engage with the wider community, evangelise, offer care to the vulnerable, express Christian life in the workplace and much more. Whatever may be the particular shape of your calling (and I hope it will grow and change), it must flow out of the person you are in Christ. Paul enjoins his hearers to ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’. And I will ask you if you will be diligent in prayer and in reading Holy Scripture, and then I will give you a bible. Root yourselves, therefore, in the soil of Scripture, enriched with the manure of prayer; that you may thereby bring forth green shoots of growth; that with Alcuin you may so show forth the life of Christ, that others may with you become new people, raised with Christ.