One of the two churches I serve, St. Mary’s Eversley, has the author of the ‘Water Babies’ buried in it’s churchyard; hardly surprising given Charles Kingsley was the Rector in this quiet corner of Hampshire for over 30 years! He also founded the local school that bears his name, and of which I happen to be a governor.
The school are very good and every year they celebrate their Founders Day, laying flowers at his grave and remembering to root themselves in Kingsley’s work as a social reformer, natural scientist, and author. But this year, in fact last week, was the bicentenary of his birth, which meant some of the locals had also thought it worth celebrating Kingsley’s gifts, so they put on a ‘thing’ – a mini literary festival if you like.
Yes, I fully expected to attend particularly to support the school, but the little matter of my colleagues over-enthusiastic Pentecost children’s talk last Sunday (which landed him in plaster) meant that I was a busier than I had anticipated. This had downsides; I missed a talk by Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser I really wanted to hear. But also upsides; like the school children I met Charles Kingsley his very self – or more accurately Peter Duncan who I remember as a Blue Peter presenter in my teens! I also got to relive my Greenbelt visits in the Tiny Tea Tent, but that’s another story…
It also meant I had to preach this morning, and link the life of Charles Kingsley with the fact it is Trinity Sunday – giving me a chance to reflect on what I’d seen and heard in the previous couple of days. So here, for what little a fear it’s worth, is my stab at doing that… and no, I didn’t forget it was also Father’s Day – at the end of the service each gentleman attending got both chocolate and a sequoia cone! Read on, to find out why:
Readings: Psalm 8 (NIV rendering) and John 16:12-15
On Friday afternoon I shared in the joy of witnessing Charles Kingsley get very excited about the cones and seeds of a certain conifer, the sequoia. Our sequoia. No, his sequoia. Sorry, God’s sequoia, a tree that I humbly suggest like the moon and the stars, shows the majesty of God.
As he was with Tim (the churchwarden) and I, sharing a quiet cuppa after school ‘out of role’, Peter Duncan (who has been playing Charles Kingsley) read the display about Kingsley on the hall wall. He suddenly became very animated. It appears that a couple of years ago, Peter had visited the very same sequoia forests of western America that Kingsley visited. Like Kingsley, he had brought home a cone to dry. Like Rose Kingsley went on to do, he sowed the seeds, of which some germinated and one survives. Peter now has it growing in his garden. The producer Denise and I now have photos of Peter, or should that be Kingsley, excitedly scavenging for more cones under the sequoia here, so that he could take them home to keep alive the personal connection he’s made with Kingsley.
This weekend has been all about keeping connections alive, and specifically the connection between Charles Kingsley, this village and our school, between Kingsley, social reform and science. I was busy here, but Giles Fraser hopefully made some connection between Kingsley as a man of faith, called by God to serve this place and community and Kingsley as a polemicist, someone not averse to pushing the boundaries of what we as Christians believe, and therefore having to be comfortable with controversy.
Questions and controversies exist within the Christian community, because our faith is a living thing. Just as much as the sequoia outside, our Christian faith is a living thing because God has been revealed to and has a relationship with us in ways so complex that we struggle to find terminology, or a name, that does God full justice. The closest we’ve so far come is the name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the term Trinity. Yet, those in themselves still leave us with age-old controversies over which ‘person’ of the Trinity proceeds from which, and more modern questions over whether we should apply gender-specific identities to any element of our creator, redeemer and sanctifier in whose image each and everyone one of us is made.
Our Gospel today, makes it as clear as it’s ever going to be why such questions and controversies exist. Jesus was never meant to reveal to us during his earthly ministry, everything about God’s character and will for his people, because quite simply, we wouldn’t be able to bear it (John 16v12). They are only revealed to us on a need to know basis, through the power of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit or sanctifier, that at all times will point us back to Jesus the redeemer, and thence to his creator, and ours. Individuals will only grow in faith, and communities will only grow in service to each other if they share a living faith that constantly turns over different questions and ideas in seeking a way forward that glorifies Jesus and his example.
For the same purpose, Psalm 8 (by far and away my favourite Psalm) reminds us that we have been made by God as creatures capable of awe, wonder, and humility before God. Awe, wonder and humility that is often proclaimed best by our young people, but they are not possible without questions, and children are always full of questions. Questions also by their very nature create controversy, because the answers and explanations are not always simple; and yes, questions and controversy create change, because change is life – if we are not changing and growing, we are not alive.
I have one sadness about this weekend, as I have experienced it. My sadness is that we have not adequately heard the voices of our children and our young people, the very people that Kingsley worked so hard to offer a future to. Yes, our children have been dressed up and paraded across a field to be photographed re-enacting the past. Yes they have created written reflections on elements of Kingsley’s story and ours, that their exhausted teachers have used for wonderful displays which only a few visiting dignitaries and parents will see – unless we can find a way to change that. But have we let the children speak? And have we listened?
The example of Greta Thunburg and Malala Yousafzai are surely showing the world, that as humanity struggles to combat the climate change it has inflicted on God’s creation, and in the area of human rights, God is using the children and young people of the world to silence the selfishness of humanity toward God’s creation, and establish a stronghold of justice, mercy and humility between and within communities. They may or may not be Christians but surely they are a living testimony to the God-given ability of young people to protect us from the enemy within ourselves (as Psalm 8 suggests), and create change; the sort of change that is in keeping with the Spirit of truth that is Jesus. And it’s just possible that we might be harbouring a Greta or Malala in Eversley, if we could build on the education principles Kingsley and others started, and hear our children speak for their future, rather than dwell on our past.
In Kingsley’s era, this community and society at large, needed to know that children of all sectors of society should be educated, that they shouldn’t be enslaved up chimneys, in fields or anywhere else for that matter, and that it is perfectly possible to be both a scientist that believes in evolution, and a Christian who believes God created the world. No, he wasn’t a child, but much of Kingsley’s attention was on children, and since he died at 56 he was younger than me when he did most of that work, indeed younger than many of us when he made his voice heard in the world.
We are reminded today by both our belief in a Trinitarian God, and by Charles Kingsley, that ours is a living faith, precisely because there is stuff we still don’t know and can’t explain about God and about the world around us. Recognising that should help us to be humble before God. But awe and wonder at what we see, isn’t always a positive emotion, it can be one of horror, as we are reminded of the things in society that need changing because of the mess we’ve made of them up to now.
Like a sequoia tree, we need to be allowed to grow, and we need space to grow, however old we are. If we are to understand the purposes and nature of God better, we need to listen to our children, for in them God’s Spirit of Truth is revealed, and they might just have some answers that will change the world.