Faith through the eyes of a poet

img_7814On Thursday I went to the first performance in England of what was called a ‘fantasia’ by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who can clearly add playwright to his incredible list of talents. ‘Shakeshafte’ is a play imagining William Shakespeare’s lost years between school and stage. There has been much speculation about where he went but in this new play Rowan Williams imagines him travelling to Lancashire to teach in the household of a wealthy Roman Catholic family. During his stay Williams brings him into contact with the clandestine Jesuit priest Edmund Campion who visits the house in great secrecy. The play was all the more special for being performed in Shakespeare’s own Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried in the chancel. It also happens to be where I was baptized and was a chorister.

The imaginings are not completely wild. They draw on known events, John Shakespeare, his father, being prosecuted for not attending the parish church, his own links with recusant families and the speculation over whether he held Catholic sympathies himself. Many have wondered. And so Rowan Williams gives us a young man clearly influenced by a Catholic sympathizing schoolmaster and as a bright young man being encouraged to pursue the cause. The drama explores these possibilities.

Two scenes in the play stood out for me. The first half presented us with a young William struggling with how you understand people deeply, by ‘entering them’.   He exclaims how he wants to be inside them. How can we know another from their inside out and discover why they see the world so differently? He feels that the Jesuit Campion, whom he has met, as a skilled spiritual director has understood him in a way very few others have. There are echoes here of how the gospels portray Jesus knowing people deeply and seeing them in a way others do not. The woman whom Jesus met at the well – depicted in the window by the font – goes with great excitement to tell her fellow villagers, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29). That level of perception and deep listening, deep seeing, leaves an impression. For a budding playwright, studying people so that they are understood from the inside is a sign of Shakespeare’s genius and certainly a quality many admire in his plays.

In the second half there was a scene with Shakespeare talking with the priest. The discourse presents us with a joust between dogma and poetry, and the poetic seems to win, at least for Shakespeare and I suspect Rowan Williams too. The young Shakespeare is struggling with how truth can be known when there are so many competing voices, when people see things so differently. It is a modern question too and certainly one for any child of the Reformation, which of course Shakespeare was. To Edmund Campion the dogma is held by Holy Church, which can be trusted, and by the lives of the saints, observance of whose days keeps us tuned in. Yes, there are many voices, but not all of them produce harmony. Listen for the harmonies and filter out the discordant noises, Will is told. This will not do for William, nor I suspect for Williams. The different voices hint at truth being harder to grasp, much bigger than we can grasp or narrow down, but possible to be glimpsed in the poetry of the different voices. I watched this on the day the Church of England remembered Richard Hooker, Shakespeare’s contemporary whose gift to us was the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as our tools to assess truth. Scripture is the story of faith, tradition is how we have got to where we are and the journey of faith, reason is the use of our intellect to understand – perhaps the dogmatic and the poetic need one another more than is often realized.

Our first reading gave us an appeal for an iron pen with which to write words in rock (Job 19:23-24). Words set in stone have an appeal because they look solid and stable, secure and sure. But there is an illusion about this. We saw in Italy last week that stone is not as sure as we tend to think. It can be shaken by tremors deep in the ground; it can be split open. Anyone visiting an old graveyard knows that the carved letters erode over time and what seemed clear becomes harder to make out. It can need the light to be in the right direction for the shadows to make the letters easier to see, or even wetting to help the words stand out.

The language of faith is closer to the light and shade of poetry than to dogmas set in stone. We glimpse through a glass dimly, as St Paul put it in his famous hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13). But poetry must play with what adds up and not float free. There is a rooting which comes from time honoured wisdom, the light of all we understand and all that has shaped us. How do we listen deeply so that in that listening we may be better understood and know we are? And there is the struggle when things do not make sense and we have to find our way through, but persist in the hope and trust that it is worth persisting with. That is a theme of this period from All Saints to Christ the King – the struggle to see in the light of hope.

The most charitable explanation of the Sadducees question to Jesus, in the gospel (Luke 20:27-38), about the unfortunate woman with seven dead husbands is that they were struggling to make sense of what to them was a different idea when their tradition seemed to say something else. How could they be sure it was based in anything? So they devise this conundrum. The story doesn’t come from nowhere, but can be found in the Apocryphal book of Tobit (Chapters 3-7). This tells the story of Tobias, who plans to marry a young woman called Sarah. Sarah has had seven husbands previously and they all died on their wedding night. This becomes suspicious and word begins to go round that she is responsible for their deaths. While Tobias is in the chamber with her, her father digs a grave fully expecting number eight to end the same way, but to his and everyone else’s surprise Tobias lives and they go on to have seven sons. The two of them are given to each other forever and it would seem the production of children is seen as the seal of their union forever. So the Sadducees question of to whom the woman belongs would seem to be settled by childbirth. The Law (Deuteronomy 25:5,6) stated that the woman should be handed on to the next son in the event of the first or previous one dying childless. Tobias broke the cycle. So one answer to the Sadducees question would be that she is the wife at the resurrection of the one to whom she bore children and at the stage of number seven that is none of them, so it’s not really a question about the resurrection at all, but about her status.

Jesus’ reply takes this question from a completely different angle, disputing the basis of the question, that is how they see resurrection. He refused to be locked into their logical puzzle. The dead have died and so any new life is just that, something that comes after being in the state of being dead. It is not a continuation of the state of being now. Death disrupts this and so we need to look at this differently. The new life of resurrection is life beyond the state of being dead, not just after death or beyond it. So the woman’s status is not found in the limits of social structures now. Likewise God is bigger and faith needs to be open to this.  The poetic mind is more able to see this than the one carving letters in stone. That is why I think Rowan Williams’ Shakespeare is not satisfied with Campion’s dogma alone.

Our readings this morning offer us an opportunity to look deeply into the nature of faith. It needs to be based in the reality of what we see but also allow us, through the eyes of the poet, to glimpse a future we don’t fully see which is bigger than what we alone can see. There are many voices, which need assessing, and it is in the balancing of Scripture, Tradition and Reason that we find truth comes more into focus. Poets help us expand our vision to see greater possibilities than we had previously imagined.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 6th November 2016


About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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1 Response to Faith through the eyes of a poet

  1. Pingback: Cryogenics and the Victory of Christ | Ian Black

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