David & Goliath

The Revd Canon Anthony Howe - Canon of the Chapels Royal and Chaplain at Hampton Court
Sunday 27th January, 2019

With the forthcoming apocalypse (or not, depending on who you are, which day of the week it is and what twitter feeds and papers you read) that is commonly known as Brexit, I wouldn’t be surprised if the media turns its attention again to what it actually means to be British. For those of us who have recently been involved in one way or another in school education – which I assume is most of you - this may not be a new thing: schools now have a statutory obligation to teach British Values. But, apart from the universally held tenets of respect, tolerance and politeness, what actually constitutes a British Value is not entirely clear to a simple priest like me. Is it, for instance, knowing the second verse of the National Anthem, a love for warm beer and cricket, talking about the weather, or actually knowing what Auld Lang Syne actually means? Indeed, white cliffs of Dover and weather apart, it strikes me that there is nothing peculiarly British about most of decent values, nor indeed value about most British peculiarities.

Nevertheless, and without wanting to start a heated debate, there are one or two traits that do strike a chord with national psyche. One of them is the rather interesting paradox which is the love of the great and the not so great. Take, for instance, the huge medieval pile that is York Minster. It is vast: the largest gothic church north of the Alps, clearly put up by proud Yorkshire folk to show those ponsy southerners a thing or two about cathedral building. And yet, a closer examination soon reveals rather mediocre architecture, where for the sake of size, detail and proportion have been distinctly compromised. For something far better, you have to go down the road to Beverley. The place in which I live and work is another example. Hampton Court is huge, more of a small town than a palace; with so many rooms that people can not actually agree on the number – for when is a room a closet. The combination of mellow brick Tudor and English Baroque is a delight. But it is also an accident. Had William III, Wren and Hawksmor had their way, virtually all the Tudor would have been swept away for a palace even vaster; so big as to make Versailles look like a mere shed in the garden in comparison. The start was made, but the plan never materialized: the reason being that they ran out of money. There could, perhaps, be nothing more British than that.

Such great buildings with visible displays of what one might, for better words, call lovely mediocrity, do reveal the human face in the midst of great ambition. We all like to get on; but we also like to like (and indeed be liked). That could be why we tend to root for the underdog, since not only is there the small potential for success, but success procured in the face of the impersonal and unlikely. We relate to the person who, despite the odds, secures the famous victory. David is, perhaps, the most famous underdog of all, perfect for school assemblies, with the boyish hero pitched against terrifying force of the wicked old giant from Jack in the beanstalk or the like. The children love it.

But not all is as it seems. Yes, David is young, handsome and inexperienced. Yes, he goes into battle without any conventional weaponry. And yes, the champion of the Philistines is larger, stronger and better equipped. But the innocent sweet lad would not remain so for long.  With the toppling of his foe, David immediately embarked a career, wherein he would, we are told, kill tens of thousands. He would have affairs; he would make mistakes. The lauded founder of the messianic dynasty would, in fact, prove himself to be just as flawed as anyone else. The giant very much had feet of clay.

And yet, David was God’s chosen vessel. God worked through the most unlikely means to achieve his purpose. At least David’s success was measurable in a worldly sense. But the one who was to follow in and indeed fulfill that dynasty would be quite different. Christ, the Son of David, was, on the face of it, the least likely means by which God’s kingdom would break through into the world. His beginning was inauspicious; the cross utterly ignoble. But it was precisely through that unlikeliness, that flawed humanity was brought into the presence of God. The wounds of imperfection, caused by the driven nails, were, as Thomas saw, very much present in Christ’s resurrected and ascended state. It follows, then, that they are at the heart of God.

This leads us to perhaps the greatest dichotomy of all – the nature of God himself; for whilst God encompasses the eternal and perfect vastness of time and space, He is also very much present in the intimate, imperfect and – importantly – the broken. I remember as a child singing about God being so big and mighty that there was nothing He could not do. That is, of course, debatable, since one could posit that God could not be other that what HE IS, and that in itself is self-limiting at the least. But I digress. There can be a tendency to look so much at the vastness and indeed complexity of God, that there is the danger we can miss His essence. Yes, God is necessarily beyond the capacity of the human mind. But that doesn’t mean the human mind cannot perceive Him. Perhaps the fundamental question of our understanding should not be leading to complexity, but simplicity. The enquirer who, for instance, is trying to discern a great building will not see it if they are stood up close to the wall, looking at the detail of the pointing, however interesting that might be. To see it as a unity rather than in part, one has to take several steps back.

I wonder whether that this is true also with God. I suspect that many who struggle with faith find themselves becoming bogged down with intricate and admittedly interesting questions, but which could serve to divert them from the bigger picture, as it were. And whilst faith is going to generate such questions, it is also necessarily experiential. One believes, just as one falls in love, not solely because one decides to do so. It is rather that something clicks, it makes sense in the heart as well as the head. A relationship is born (and sustained) through being, doing, and knowing. In time, there is acceptance of the flaws or unknowable facets of each person, which for a couple can, and often do, become their most loveable traits.

For the Christian living in a material world, experience of the spiritual is likewise through material means: the scriptures, the sacraments, prayer and, of course, each other. That is fairly logical, since the world, with all its faults and diversions has, with humanity, also been consecrated by God’s presence amongst us. It is part of the economy of salvation. Our daily quest should be to see through that which diverts in order to discern the utter simplicity of love that is the essential nature of God and which transcends all that is made. And with that, we might then have the courage to resign own lovely mediocrity to the loving arms of God.

Anthony Howe

Hampton Court