Monday, 02 September 2019 11:15

Stephen Hance's farewell message to Derby Cathedral

The full text of Dean Stephen Hance's farewell sermon at Derby Cathedral

So, we have come to my farewell service, the last chance I have to preach from this pulpit, and I want to thank you for being here to share in this act of worship as we say our goodbyes to one another today. It’s good to see you.

Cathedrals have been in the news again this summer. First of all, it was Rochester Cathedral with their mini golf course. Then it was Norwich with the helter skelter in the nave. And both of these had the predictable response from the usual people. This was, apparently, a desecration of holy ground, further proof that the Church of England, which for hundreds of years had thought that worship and prayer and pastoral ministry was sufficient, had now entirely lost the plot and was obsessed with gimmickry to get people in.

I of course had a lot of sympathy with both these cathedrals, having been on the receiving end of just the same kind of criticism from many of the same people when we opened this cathedral to a series of film screenings with our friends at Quad a year ago. And in fact the critics had entirely missed the point.

The Rochester golf course was a way of engaging with the theme of bridges, looking at the role of bridges in their community, and asking people to think about the bridges that might exist to enable them to connect with God. Not only has Rochester been full with people playing mini golf this summer, but their attendance at worship has increased by more than 100%.

Meanwhile, the Norwich helter skelter was about giving people the opportunity to see the cathedral in a different way – close up views of the roof bosses which would otherwise be impossible, for example – and then asking them to consider the possibility of seeing God differently and seeing their lives differently too. People at Norwich talked about seeing many folk praying and engaging with day chaplains as well as having enormous fun.

I’m not going to mount another defence of our film screenings, although it wasn’t a surprise that when I was invited on to the BBC locally to talk about Rochester those films came up yet again.

What I do want to say is that I am convinced that these are exactly the kinds of things cathedrals should be doing. Partly, yes, this may be for reasons of finance – although I am not sure either Norwich or Rochester are making money out of these things. But it is true that cathedrals, and especially smaller, poorer cathedrals like ours, have to be increasingly creative about where their revenue is coming from. But it is also for reasons of mission. The sad fact is that many people, especially younger people, would not feel comfortable walking through the doors of this cathedral, nor know what they could expect when they came in. We have to invite them and make it easy for them to accept.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, says that we are to invite not just those who are our friends, those who are like us, those who would fit. We are to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. We are to invite those who are different, those who are marginalised, those who are considered peripheral by our society.

That’s hard for some cathedral people to come to terms with. Cathedrals often attract those who like things the way they used to be, those who don’t warm to the modern church but want to protect the traditions of the past. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but it is not a recipe to ensure the vibrant ongoing sustainable life of the cathedral into the future.

I have tried, in my time as Dean, to bring a missional, entrepreneurial focus. Not everyone loves that, and I understand. But one of the things I would say in departing is, please, don’t let that focus go. Derby Cathedral can have a great future, but only if it can continue to develop a culture which is outward-facing, risk-taking, which engages new people, which is willing to be creative and to make mistakes from time to time. I hope and pray that you will do this, and that your next Dean will continue to lead and enable that movement.

The second thing I want to talk about as I finish is about getting the foundations right as a Christian community, and those foundations are prayer and worship, mutual love and hospitality. We heard about these in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews.

One of the gifts of cathedrals to the wider church is that we remain places where Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer or Evensong are offered every day, day after day, regardless of how many people may attend. This is not common in the church of today and it is a great blessing and strength. I wonder if more members of our community could benefit from making these daily offices part of your own life on at least a semi-regular basis.

In those services we pray every day for our Queen and her Government. I confess to you as someone who joined a political party before I was old enough to vote and who was politically active for many years, I have never felt more frustrated, more anxious, more angry about our political life than I do right now. Whether you voted to leave or remain, I don’t believe many of us wanted a No Deal Brexit which could only be delivered by suspending the House of Commons at the very time that we need our elected representatives to be offering maximum scrutiny of the Executive. I am fearful that a chaotic No Deal Brexit will hit the poor and vulnerable of this nation hardest and will lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. Whether you share my concerns or not, these are days that people should be gathering to pray, and you have an opportunity to do that here every single day of the year.

But then the writer to the Hebrews talks about mutual love and hospitality. When I arrived here I discovered that there were deep chasms of mistrust and bitterness across this congregation because of some very specific recent events. I have worked very hard to try to move this community forward on that, and I am glad that we have made some progress. I know that some people feel that there is yet more to be done – and I am sorry that I am speaking quite cryptically so that some of you who are listening to me don’t know what I’m talking about, although many of you do.

I want to use my last moments in this pulpit to make a plea to all of you as my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is time to draw a line and to move on. I am reminded of the quote that says holding on to bitterness, to unforgiveness, is like drinking poison and hoping that your enemy dies. There is no perfect solution to the events of the past, one that everyone will agree on. I will tell you frankly that walking into the legacy of that situation caused me a great deal of pain and unhappiness in my first year as your Dean. If you want my successor to flourish here, make sure that doesn’t happen to them. The past needs now to be left in the past and this community needs to move on. Practice mutual love and hospitality.

OK, third and final thing I want to talk about. I want to talk about the real and faithful presence of God.

“Church of God, elect and glorious” we sang at the start of our service. It’s a hymn about the Church except it turns out to be a hymn all about God, and what God has done in creating the Church. The Church has been called, brought to life, brought to the light, brought home in mercy, not by our own efforts, but by God. Later on we will sing – because I wanted us to sing it – “Great is thy faithfulness, there is no shadow of turning with thee.”

Ultimately it’s all about God. We are God’s, not our own. The Church is God’s, not ours. Derby Cathedral belongs to God, not to the Dean or the Chapter or the Bishop or the congregation. It’s about God, the God who is everlasting, the God who is faithful.

God is faithful. This Cathedral is about to undergo a period of transition, sooner than any of us expected. Jacqui and I are also about to undergo a period of transition, with new work and new home and new responsibilities and lots of uncertainty. If we focus too much on those uncertainties we will become anxious and afraid. But if we focus on God, on the faithfulness and steadfastness of God, we will find the security to navigate turbulent waters with faith and hope and courage.

It has been a privilege to serve as Dean of Derby over these two years. During those years we have experienced much to be thankful for. Derby Cathedral School, the opening of The Sanctuary at Derby Cathedral, and the new ministry of Libby as Bishop of Derby are some of the highlights for me. And there is still much more to be done.

So thank you for all you have contributed through your prayers and your service and your giving. Please continue to pray and serve and give as much as you can. Please pray for us as we will pray for you. And remember that it all comes down to God, the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus, the servant King, the God who is faithful, yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.

Stephen Hance

Sermon Trinity 11, (01.09.19) 10.45 Eucharist, Derby Cathedral

Ecclesiasticus 10:12-18 / Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 / Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Last modified on Monday, 02 September 2019 11:21