The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury

Sunday 29 January 2023, Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Genesis 28: 10-end; Philemon 1-16

Prior to his installation in 1577 as the forty-ninth Dean of Salisbury, John Bridges had been for more than two decades a fellow of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. Ten years on from his arrival in Salisbury he wrote what has been described as a well-meant but ponderous tome, A Defence of the Government Established in the Church of England for Ecclesiastical Matters. It was plainly so unputdownable that not even the Cathedral library has retained a copy. It ran to 1400 pages and provoked the first of the Martin Marprelate tracts from its Puritan opponents.  Bridges evidently felt huge affection for the University which had formed and nurtured him, for his book was in part a defence of the governance of the Colleges and Halls of Cambridge. Contemporary Puritan opinion held that the heads of Cambridge houses were but drones in the hive. Bridges responded that not all heads were drones – but that a drone might in fact do less harm in a hive than an angry wasp.

The concern of Dean Bridges, and the concern of his Puritan opponent, was with what we might today characterize as ‘impact’. Puritan opinion was that all heads of houses should be eloquent divines, zealous for the Reformed faith, whose impact on their colleagues’ and pupils’ piety would be profound. Bridges contended that not only might heads be lawyers or physicians rather than theologians, but that an excess of zealotry might upset the balance of college life and be detrimental to the very impact that his opponent sought.

I share my distinguished predecessor’s huge affection for the University, the College, and the Chapel which formed and nurtured me, but it is not for the eighty-first Dean of Salisbury to comment on the desirable attributes of heads of houses 450 years after he did.  However this concern with impact remains a concern for the Church. The impact of faith – the difference that faith makes - is a live question, living as we do in an era of violence, authoritarianism, and despair; an era, furthermore, characterized by the disclosure of the Census that fewer than half of the citizens of the UK self-identify as Christian.

Both Jacob, in tonight’s first reading, and Paul, in the second, offer accounts of the impact of faith. Jacob’s dream has consequences for his people’s relationship with the earth, with their resources, and with God (‘his people’s’ relationship because the scholarly consensus is that these verses from Genesis are written after the establishment of the ancient shrine at Bethel and in order to justify the cult’s existence and explain its practice).

The people’s relationship with the earth has been changed because a portion of it has been given over in perpetuity to the celebration of one moment in time. A stone stands in testament to God’s promise to the patriarch. The stretch of ground where it stands is no longer available for habitation, for cultivation, or for profit. It is the house of God.

The people’s relationship with their resources has been changed because one-tenth of these is now offered to God. Of everything that the people receive a tithe is handed back; it is not to be disposed of at the pleasure of those who have earned it or received it.

And the people’s relationship with God has been changed. God has kept them, and fed them, and clothed them. God is their God, the sole object of their loyalty and of their worship.

Paul’s encounter with the slave Onesimus has consequences for his relationship with his fellow human beings. Paul has met Onesimus during a spell in prison. Much ink and much energy has been expended on determining when the meeting happened and where it happened; even more has been expended on determining the circumstances in which it happened.

Of significance for us are the sibling relationships which Paul signals throughout his text. Timothy is his co-author, and is described as his brother; and Philemon, to whom he writes, is described as his dear friend, his co-worker, and his brother.  During his time with Paul Onesimus, the slave whose name means ‘useful’ has become truly useful, or ‘euchriston’. Paul’s wordplay indicates that the usefulness of Onesimus is due to his Baptism. And so he too is described as Paul’s brother. Slave and Roman citizen are one in Christ.

These weeks of Epiphany climax at the feast of Candlemas this Thursday. These are weeks in which we celebrate the revelation of the light to lighten the Gentiles, as the Choir have sung – in the coming of the Magi, in the Baptism by John at the Jordan, and in the water made wine at Cana. But tonight the Scriptural focus is on those who follow Christ – on their revelation of the light that will lighten the whole world.

What impact has faith had on you and me, and what impact will we have in the world? To use the analogy that Bridges refutes, are we drones in the hive, contributing nothing, inessential to the effective functioning of the community? Are we angry wasps, noisy and venomous, inflicting ourselves and everything we believe on those around us?

Or might we be one of that other sort of bee – the worker? The worker’s task is to bring nourishment to the hive, and she will cross-pollinate a thousand other flowers as she does so. Absorbing our reflections on Jacob at Bethel and on Paul’s correspondence with Philemon, we might seek to live in a new relationship with the earth, with our resources, with one another, and with God: jealously protective of the first; lavishly generous with the second; radically inclusive of the third; and humbly and lovingly growing in the fourth. That is the impact of neither a drone nor a wasp: worker-like, it sustains the whole community and seeds growth in a myriad of different places.  In its patience, in its steadfastness, in its authenticity such an impact, such a witness, may just offer a challenge to the violence, authoritarianism and despair that we see all around us.

Those who knew Dean Bridges in his Cambridge days remembered him as “a patch and a dunce”. Better a patch than a drone – better a dunce than a wasp. Up the workers. Amen.