We are in a period of change as a nation. Whoever is chosen by the about 200,000 members of the Conservative party will lead not only that party but by default become the next Prime Minister. Given how government seems to work, that means they will set the direction of so much of our common life in the UK. Some aspects are devolved in Wales, but not everything and for some things the Senedd relies on money passed on to it by Westminster.
When we think about what makes a good leader, the popular image is someone up front, leading the charge, and riding at the front of the parade. That was the model of Roman Generals at the time St Paul, who wrote our second reading, was writing (1 Corinthians 4:8-13). In fact, the people at the back of the procession we not only the least important in this way of thinking, they were often the prisoners or slaves dragged through the streets for humiliation. They may even have been executed for sport.
So, when St Paul refers to himself, to Apostles, as those at the back of the parade, ‘as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world’, he is drawing on a very different image. It is one of humility and not aggrandisement, one of self-abasement rather than self-advancement. And it is this tradition that we display at every service where the order of procession is reversed. At the head should be the cross and we want to bring that back when we have a cross that doesn’t fall apart as it is carried. At the back is either the president at a Eucharist, or the Dean or Bishop at other services. Sometimes Bishops’ chaplains walk behind the bishop just so there is someone beneath them! It becomes more obvious this, when you see civic processions where they are very clear the most important go first and the ones at the back just needs to make sure the door is shut.
Paul goes on to talk about us being ‘fools for the sake of Christ, weak and the dregs’. His response to this, and it is clear that he means this both literally and figuratively, is one of grace and blessing. ‘When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly’. Those are all very hard things to do. The temptation is to get back and find the perfect putdown. That is always a sign of injury and comes from hurt rather than strength. It takes a lot of spiritual grace to be able to reject the bite back and find the response of grace.
It is rooted in the humility which is acted out in the processions. It is a sign that with us it is not to be as it is with the rulers of this world, who, when James and John asked for the top jobs, Jesus told them that those who would lead must serve, those who want to be first must actually walk in last. And one of the aims here, is that we are seeking the Kingdom of God and not the kingdom of our own ego. Paul mocks the Corinthians for thinking that they have everything they want, all the riches they could need and have become kings in their own sight. No, he says, the most important things are still lost to you. They need to be hungry and thirsty for the things of God, for the Kingdom of God and it is not just about building this in the world – which can become more about making ourselves look good – but it starts in the heart.
Music is a good training ground for this. All performers know that if you are really going to pull it off, the music has to take precedence over your own ego. That goes for musicians, but also actors and other artists. It is to allow yourself to be a vehicle for something so much bigger than yourself, something which connects with something deeper. There is a word in spirituality for this, and it is quite simply ‘humility’. This is where I am not the most important element in this, but merely enabling it to have a voice. And my delight is to be in what is produced, not in me being the producer. In fact if you are to work as part of a choir, then the voices have to blend and sometimes other parts will have the lead.
Churches and cathedrals are no different in this. The common life here is also built on this ensemble approach. Different people will have the tune at different times, or the main theme, and that makes everything we do about something so much bigger than our own sense of importance or glory.
Today we give thanks for another choir year. It’s been one where what we do has opened out from being spaced in the side aisle to flourishing in the stalls again. We’ve built up the services and over the past month or so hosted quite a few special services for the diocese, the city and for others. The training in humility and being part of something bigger than ourselves is a life skill that I hope will stay with our younger singers for the rest of their lives and feed into whatever careers and roles they occupy in the future.
Some years ago I wrote a prayer for use at the beginning of concerts and to give thanks for the gift of music. It reflects some of this with uniting different voices in one song, stirring the depths of the heart in praise and longing for our lives to rejoice in God’s love. I end with that prayer*:
God, the source of life and joy,
we thank you for the gift of music,
its uniting of different voices in one song,
its stirring of the depths of the heart in praise.
Fill us with this vibrancy
that our lives may rejoice in your love
and be renewed in the Spirit’s hope,
now and always. Amen.
*From Ian Black, ‘Prayers for all occasions’, SPCK 2011, p32
Sermon for the choir valediction evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 17th July 2022