The Very Revd David Hoyle

Dean of Westminster Abbey

19th February 2023

Matthew 17:1-9


On 9th July 1917, HMS Vanguard, a dreadnought battleship, was docked in Scapa Flow, a bay in the Orkneys, and then it wasn’t.  Vanguard had fought at the Battle of Jutland, but needed repair.  Miles from the guns of the western front, a summer evening ended slowly and quietly.  Then, at twenty-past eleven there was a massive explosion.  A second explosion followed, powerful enough to light up the entire fleet and showering the north shore beach with bits of metal.  As it went dark again searchlights swept the waves, but there was nothing to be seen, HMS Vanguard had gone.  Details of exactly what happened are still debated.  Quite possibly, it was a problem with explosives stored on board, a supply of deteriorating cordite may have triggered the explosions.  Possibly, it was an act of sabotage. Whatever it was, it was cruel.  Vanguard was one of the largest ships in the fleet and there were, they say, 845 men aboard.  Just two survived.  The following day there was terrible work to be done.  Midshipmen, boys, not men, were sent out onto the shore, with buckets, to clear the beaches of body parts. 

After the war, the Navy recognised that those same midshipmen had lost a good deal of their education because they had been whisked into war at fifteen.  So, they were invited to Cambridge and some of them came to Caius.  I know, for example, that a man who rejoiced under the name of Henry Lockhart St John Fancourt was here.  He was in that battle at Jutland and at the end of the war was still only eighteen. 

He, and others like him, came here, did this, came to Chapel, cycled these streets, went to lectures, having seen and done terrible things.  Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called The Scholars about midshipmen made into students.  He wondered what they had learned and the different learning here

Their books were rain and sleet and fog – the dry gale and the snow.

Now, Rudyard Kipling is an awkward man to have around, there is a lot to dislike and, honestly, The Scholars is not a particularly good poem but, years ago, when I first read it there were lines in it that gave me pause. 

They have touched a knowledge outreaching speech – as when the cutters were sent
To harvest the dreadful mile of beach after the Vanguard went

‘They have touched a knowledge outreaching speech’.   There are, says Kipling, some things you cannot describe, will never describe, words will always fail you. 

‘They have touched a knowledge outreaching speech’, I was up the road, the Dean of Magdalene, when I first read that.  I wrote the words down.  I liked the idea of a knowledge outreaching speech.  I was interested in the whole business of there being things too deep, too strong to be easily described.  I perhaps need to explain that.  This was a while ago; the ‘Eighties, early ‘Nineties and just then theologians were sitting on the floor looking anxious.  It had all got really difficult.  If we knew anything  it was a knowledge outreaching speech.  We were quick to tell you that there was a lot we did not know.  A man called Don Cupitt at Emmanuel was writing books called things like ‘Taking Leave of God’.  One of the Professors of Divinity had just published a book called Theology on Dover Beach.  That is a reference to Matthew Arnold writing about the tide going out.  Matthew Arnold was worried that all the old certainties were shot, done for.

we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

That is where we were in the Eighties, doing theology on Dover Beach, not knowing, touching a ‘knowledge outreaching speech’.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, because we listened to St Matthew describe the Transfiguration,

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun               Matthew 17:1-2  

Preaching on the Transfiguration before, I have quoted Kipling.  I have talked about ‘knowledge outreaching speech’.  You see, we met Peter, the apostle, the man who once rushed around with a sword, the one who leapt out a boat in a storm.  There he was, briefly thrilling with excitement, wanting to build altars.  He wanted to do something, wanted to make it real.   Then he was floored.

a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.       Matthew 17:5-6  

This story is told in three different gospels.  They all agree fairly closely about what happened.  Even so, the little differences matter.  In Mark’s gospel the disciples were terrified when they saw Jesus shining in blazing white.  In Luke’s gospel they were scared stiff by the cloud.  Only in Matthew’s gospel are the disciples frightened by the voice of God.

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground

Not frightened by the unfamiliar and unusual – bright lights, strange clouds, frightened by God.  Matthew is on to something.  The ‘fear’ of the Lord is a constant in the Old Testament.  Even mighty Moses who spoke to God as you might speak to a friend cloud not look on the face of God and hope to live.  God is not like us.  God is actually unlike anything we know, a holiness we cannot imagine, a presence we cannot describe – outreaching speech.  There is something there of which we cannot speak.

So, in passing, here is some advice.  If the person next door knocks and tells you, with shining eyes, that God has just spoken and told them that you should take in their washing, give them all your money, or marry them, shut the door very firmly in their face.  It does not work like that.  If God really had just spoken to them, they would not be confidently issuing instructions, they would be afraid.

So, those words of Kipling that I wrote down years ago - that knowledge outreaching speech – those words have some power, some value.  God the Father is beyond words.  Remember poor Job when God speaks out of the whirlwind,

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…  Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?"          Job 38:4-31  

All these years later though, coming back to this poem I wonder a little.  It is partially that we read Kipling differently these days, we are not really likely to take his word for it.  But it is more than that.  The poem makes the slightly queasy assertion that if you have experienced great trauma you are not going to be able to talk about it.  Those midshipman, Kipling thought, would never speak of what they saw, going up and down the beach with those grisly buckets.  That’s not an idea we would applaud any more.  I had grandparents who fought in the First War it was not discussed, it was not described.  That did not help them or us.

What fusses me even more however, is the business of how much I have to say as a priest.  Thirty years ago, I was a bit too quick to gaze off into the middle distance and tell you that it is all very beautiful and mysterious and it is all a knowledge outreaching speech.  When you are older. no longer given to gazing at horizons, and you are the Dean of Westminster that no longer serves.  Frankly State Funerals and Coronations, Abbey memorials (including Kipling by the way), Black Lives Matter, Brexit and Bregret, the woke and anti-woke wars and our polarised politics might feel impossible sometimes, but I have to try to find some words.  I have to hammer out some narrative for the Abbey that clings to the hope we might still gather in one space and find something to say to one another.  A knowledge outreaching speech does not really serve.

Coming back to Cambridge summons up my ghosts.  I remember the debates of those days.  I know I thought differently.  That happens.  It is not just that we change our minds, there are big shifts in culture that shift the questions we ask.  Historians will tell you that when this College was founded theologians thought their job was to seek for understanding.  They thought themselves in the dark, on the edges of what could be known, it was, for them, all outreaching speech.  They just hoped to understand a bit better.  Later, hundreds of years later theologian began looking for explanations and that is a very different game.  Explanations if successful, comes to an end, the search for understanding never does. I have probably always been a bit keener on understanding than explanations.  I will never explain God.

In my job at Westminster, however, it seems to me that I need to spend longer looking for the words.  We need words to describe just how bad things have become, words for a fundamental broken-ness in our shared life and we need words for a better hope.  That is a big job, real work, a lot of truth telling, a lot of hard conversation.  The religious task just now is not setting my experience of Jesus against your and it is not mystery either.  It is truth telling and hope.  You have to keep looking for the words

You see when Jesus was transfigured on that hilltop he did not speak of mysteries nor did he share the experience.  He did not invite us to turn our gaze inward nor stare moodily at the horizon.  He went down the hill and, immediately confronted by a sick child he healed him.  Faith is more than words, it must propel us into engagement, mysteries yes, but hope, life, healing.  As Peter lay terrified on the ground, Jesus was there saying,

"Get up and do not be afraid." Matthew 17:7

That is the gospel surely, to see Christ and be dazzled to hear things of which we cannot speak and then to pick ourselves up and start looking for the words.