More than books? Victoria Johnson

Sermon Preached by the Revd Canon Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor, York Minster on 23rd October, 2022

From the Book Ecclesiastes, Chapter 12:

‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh’.

I think I’m qualified to comment on the wearisome nature of study and academia: with two undergraduate degrees, a PhD from Leicester, a Post-graduate certificate from Anglia Ruskin, transcripts from Yale -and a ‘free’ MA from this august University (which obviously supersedes them all!). However, I want to reveal to you that despite these laudable academic achievements, my mum, who left school when she was 16 with few qualifications, maintains that I have no common sense and haven’t done a hard days work in my life! It’s a long-running family joke! I was the first person in my family to go to University and though I actually cherish study and have taught for much of my career, I know from my family that there is much that books cannot teach.

It was my dad who taught me how to ride a bike, it was my mum who taught me determination, it was my gran who taught me not to take myself too seriously, and my grandad taught me the comfort that could be drawn from a pint of beer and a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Reading books could not teach me how to play the violin. It was my family and friends who taught me good humour, how to be fair, how to argue and forgive, how to love, how to think, how to listen. Wisdom was also to be found during conversations around the dinner table over fish fingers and beans with my brother and sister and I guess it’s often the conversations at the coffee shop or in the bar where we really gain our qualifications at the university of life.

Though we might be feeling a little exhausted at this point in this term, it seems fitting to contrast the pressures of focussed study in this kind of environment with all the other kinds of learning we engage in: the intangible and more formational kinds of learning that are part of a well-rounded education, the kind of learning found in community and in relationship.  

And it can only be right, in this kind of environment, to balance out the joy of learning, with the joy of teaching, and consider the poor tutors and lecturers and fellows: If you ‘can’, teach, I think the saying goes, but what is the purpose of teaching? What is its true end? Learning and Teaching, Teaching and Learning, aren’t they two sides of a single endeavour?

Malala Yousefzai has said “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world” and because wisdom can come from anywhere, Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets said: “Kids don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Education is clearly more than the dissemination of information. Education has never just been about the transfer of facts or learning by rote, real education can open doors to new worlds, feeds the imagination and teaches us how to live, how to be human.  

Today, facts are at our fingertips. We can google everything, destroying the enjoyment of a pub quiz forever! It’s said that the skills needed for the 21st Century are problem solving, innovation and learning, emotional intelligence, flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and perseverance. So perhaps in the brave new world, we need to know how to find information and interpret it and use it creatively, perhaps we also need to value subjects which help form character and creativity as equally important parts of our education system.  

In the 19th century, the Church of England had vision to educate in order that the world might be changed for the better and children might reach their full potential rather than spending twelve hours a day working in factories or sweeping chimneys.  The aspiration of the Sunday school movement, was to provide those from disadvantaged backgrounds with the opportunity to open a book and open the door to a new world of possibility. This work culminated in the 1890 Education Act which made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten.  It was the beginning of education as we know it.  Nearly 800 years earlier, the first Universities were born in Europe as schools created primarily for the study of theology, places where people might come to know God as the primary focus of their learning.

Let’s go back even further, to first century Palestine to reflect on the example of a teacher and preacher, who has taught billions of people over two thousand years, and astonishingly did this without the aid of Powerpoint and not even a care for The Times Educational supplement.  I think you all know his name. He was often called ‘The Teacher’ and his teaching ministry only lasted three years, but his wisdom was there at the moment of creation and has rippled through millennia. His teaching does not result in degrees or certificates, it gives us a basis for living a life in all of its fullness, and teaches us the meaning of life itself. Those who followed him were called his disciples, or those who learn.

They were taught to love one another, and to love God.  This message of love from a man who was also called ‘the word made flesh’ has been passed on from generation to generation. Through his teaching and preaching we have come to know him as the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and it’s the vocation of every Christian to sit at his feet and learn.  

At the end of his Gospel, St John says: There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John was hinting that there was a wisdom beyond books and laws and libraries- it was an eternal wisdom, a divine wisdom, a wisdom to be sought and then lived.

The early church considered that it was the virtues that we needed to teach and learn: "temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude" said St Ambrose. St Paul suggested an even simpler curriculum: Faith, Hope and Love. So how does our education help us learn these things?

When Jesus stood up in the temple to teach, he said ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, deliverance to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind’. This wasn’t a lecture, this was an embodying of the scriptures. This was very much a ‘learn from me’ moment; a transfiguration of words into a way of life, a manifesto of faith, hope and love. Studying these words was never going to be enough - they had to be lived, this was the example for his disciples to follow, and in their turn, teach others to do the same.  If we look at how Jesus taught, we see that he conversed, he made jokes, he asked questions. He told stories, and parables, people sat at his feet and listened, he gathered people around a table for food, he went into peoples’ homes, he challenged certainly, but it’s as if he wanted his disciples to learn how to think for themselves and ask their own questions. He guided his disciples and instilled in them the desire to seek and find, to knock at the door. To have a faith seeking understanding.

In a divine irony, the virtuous cycle of seeking and studying ends and begins again in the call to teach.  For what benefit is the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom for oneself- it’s surely just a vanity of vanities? Wisdom is a gift. The purpose of study is surely to teach and the only way to teach is to be constantly committed to learning.  And so it is with the faith we have received. From the second letter to Timothy: You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. A faith seeking understanding will never stop learning - so beware of Christians who say they have nothing more to learn.

The reason that the world could not contain the books that could be written about Jesus Christ is because in him, the journey of discipleship and discovery is never ending. We will only ever have a partial understanding, like a reflection in a mirror, until the day when we shall see him face to face, then we will know in full, and will ourselves be fully known, by the one and only living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.