Hereford Cathedral has seen great upheavals during its 1300 year history. In 1055, when the Welsh invaded Hereford, the cathedral was sacked and burned and the cathedral clergy killed. Later, in 1349, Hereford City was gravely hit by the Black Death and here and across the diocese, over one quarter of all clergy died of the plague. The Reformation dealt a great blow to cathedral worship and although many of our treasures were spared, there was seismic change in the community and in our forms of worship…
In the next century, the Commonwealth – the cathedral choir disbanded for fourteen years, only to be reinstated in 1661. The list continues – a huge disruption in the 1860s, when the cathedral, in a parlous state of repair, was closed for five years while restoration work took place, and the cathedral congregation worshipped at All Saints. The cathedral has seen more recent upheavals – the Mappa Mundi crisis of 1988-9 and in between all these major matters, the constant round of ‘ups and downs’ of life, as in any community.
And our story can be re-told in the parishes of the diocese. Like the Mother Church, parishes have seen major upheavals in their lives through the centuries and have been borne through them by faithful clergy and congregations.
Like you, we have been weathering the storm of COVID 19. It has brought huge challenges to us all – challenges to our worship and way of living and worshipping – nearly all our events planned for the celebrations surrounding the 700th anniversary of the canonisation of St Thomas of Hereford, have had to be cancelled. There have been challenges to our pastoral care; challenges to our finances. In the cathedral, we have had little or no visitor income for months and our commercial operations have been dormant, with several staff made redundant.
What we all find difficult is the uncertainty – what will Christmas look like? How will we ever return to ‘normal’? You know what the 19th century Danish philosopher, Schopenhauer said? We live life forwards but understand it backwards. That’s why a sense of history is so important, whether it be in a cathedral or parish – we look back to previous times of upheaval, and when we look, quietly and prayerfully, we so often find that God was there, supporting us, with His ‘everlasting arms’.
Do you know that song from the musical ‘Salad Days’?
And If I start looking behind me and begin retracing my track, I'll remind you to remind me we said we wouldn't back.
I can’t tell you how much I disagree with the sentiments of that song – ‘We said we’d never look back’. Nonsense! Surely looking back is one of the very things that marks us off from many areas of the animal world. We cherish history, not only for its ability to create a picture of where we’ve come from but - vain hope you may say - to help us prevent making similar mistakes in the future.
I’m a great ‘looker-back’ – always have been, and I guess I always will be – it’s in my nature. I’ve kept a diary since 1972 when I was in the sixth form and I’ve kept it pretty much every day since then. It is fascinating to look back and see what you were doing – what you were thinking - on such and such a day – it’s settled lots of family arguments over the years! I should say that a hallmark of my diary is that I tend to see the quirky, the odd and the hilarious –increasingly, I’m not so good at remembering what I had for breakfast…
Here’s one from when I was a curate:
23 March 1984. Funeral of Bertha Dawkins. A dear old soul who lived at Downhurst, one of our nursing homes. They say that until a few years ago, she used to wheel her old mum around Ealing in a wheelchair – and that when Bertha got tired, her mum would get out of the wheelchair and push Bertha....
But, more seriously……We’re doing a lot of looking back and remembering at the moment, aren’t we? And it’s not always very comfortable. We remember the cathedral on different days - the choir, the music, the flowers, the busy-ness of our life here – the tours, the café buzzing with chatter, the concerts, the organ recitals, jazz in the garden, the exhibitions.
Remembering all that is painful – and who can tell how/when all that may return. But somehow, we still need to do that looking back – because, so often, that leads to thanksgiving. And however a shadow of our cathedral life we may be experiencing now, nobody can take away from us the experiences we’ve had – good and bad. We learn from them all, we revisit them, to re-focus them, to relive them.
And of course, at the very heart of our faith – is a looking back – the Eucharist –‘do this in remembrance of me’. We look back to the Last Supper – to remember – to recall – and then, crucially, to re-member – to re-fashion that memory in the present. Yet, the Eucharist is not only about looking back – but recalling that Real Presence in our midst now – so that we may be given strength for the future. And we re-member, not only to look back and to remember the present, but also to gaze into the future and to the heavenly banquet which awaits us, of which our Eucharist is but a hazy fore-shadowing.
People sometimes ask me what my favourite book of the Bible is. My answer is immediate – the Epistle to the Hebrews. Not only because it has some of the finest and noblest writing within it but because it gives wonderful pictures of the humanity of Jesus – his being alongside us, ibn the highs and lows of life. And of my favourite book, my favourite verse? It’s from chapter 13 verse 8
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
May these words of Scripture sustain and encourage us as we look back, remember and, under God, look to all that the future holds.