The best thing I’ve read this Christmas was a note from the great John Rutter to Tim Noon, congratulating him on our Christmas music here in Exeter, and especially the online Grandisson Service, still available here. What a fantastic tribute – I thought it must be a bit like me receiving an email from Sir Lewis Hamilton complimenting me on my cornering: certainly something I’d want to trumpet far and wide, though hardly likely, if you are to judge from the repairs currently needed to our hub caps.
It was a much needed boost at the end of this very difficult year. The music department have pulled out all the stops to get us through Advent and Christmas, and it is really good to have that recognised by “the most celebrated and successful composer of carols alive today” (Sue Lawley).
While the music department is high profile and public-facing, and therefore attracts many well-deserved plaudits, I want to pay equal tribute to all our staff and volunteers who have worked so hard and so quickly to make the most of 2020, many in less visible, but similarly important ways. With no time to plan, of course. Our doors have nevertheless been open as much as possible, we have been agile in adapting our building and our working practices to keep everyone safe, and we have been successful in attracting generous donations from both individuals and grant-giving bodies to make up the huge deficit in our commercial income. This year, we’ve also secured our first-round Lottery Grant, and have undertaken plenty of preparatory work for the second round application due in the middle of 2021. We’ve made considerable progress in our online presence, including daily worship, we’ve improved our communications, and we’ve started work on the Chapter House, and the East End windows. This is not to deny that we could have done some things better, but given the huge challenges of 2020, I am relieved and pleased at what has been achieved, and deeply grateful to so many people from the cathedral community and across Devon who have pulled together to make all this happen. Our prayers have truly been answered in so many and unexpected ways.
Personally I’ve been too busy this year to experience much isolation, Pamela and I have kept mercifully healthy, my job has been secure, and we have no close friends or family members who have suffered from Coronavirus. I am very aware of course that has not been the case for many, even most, other people. For too many, this year has been unbearably sad and stressful. And daily news bulletins have been relentlessly depressing. It’s why I’ve been reading a little book by the Swiss Author Rolf Dobelli: ‘Stop Reading the News.’ Sub-titled ‘A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life’, the book tells us that ‘Digitalisation has turned news from a harmless form of entertainment into a weapon of mass destruction, and it’s aimed straight at our mental health.’ Dobelli’s argument is logical, well-written and pretty persuasive. And yet…
My hesitation of course is that Christians cannot opt out of reality, however gloomy or painful. We cannot choose to seek just what’s comfortable and bury ourselves within it. After all, as the old aphorism puts it neatly, the Gospel is given to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. It’s also given to bring hope where there is despair, and light wherever there is darkness.
As we’ve all discovered this year, having a Christian faith does not spare us from uncertainty and suffering. However, as I argued in my sermon on Sunday morning, a fundamental truth of the Gospel is that it is precisely in uncertainty and suffering that God is to be found, that our hope is to be rediscovered. This year has not necessarily felt full of hope, but, like love, hope is not just a feeling. It can also be the product of theological reflection. And our reflection on the Gospels reveals that uncertainty and suffering are the soil in which hope flourishes. So just when God seems most distant, on the cross, that is the moment when the curtain in the temple is torn in two, when our separation from God is brought to a dramatic end, when the world is filled with hope.
So while we, like many around the world, may be glad to see the end of this annus horribilis, we don’t end 2020 devoid of hope; rather we are reassured of God’s presence in our midst. I often recount the story the African bishop’s wife, attending one of the Lambeth Conferences. I heard her on the radio. “I’m amazed,” she said, “that anyone in this country has faith in God. You have so much more than you need. Why do you need God too?” This year we have not been able to rely on our own resources, our worldly possessions have not been sufficient to get us through. We’ve had no choice but to put our trust in God, and in our neighbour. Here at the Cathedral we’ve discovered how many blessings that can bring, and I hope the same has been true for many of you as well.
Although the immediate future has plenty of challenges, not least for our health service, and for the entertainment industry, we can now look forward to 2021, to widespread vaccination, and to a gradual return to normality. Praise God for scientists, and the speed of their success. But let’s not shake the dust of 2020 too vigorously from our feet. For this has been a year of rebalancing priorities, of growth in knowledge of ourselves, of deepening our trust in God, of learning to appreciate the extraordinary blessings of daily life that we so often take for granted. My hope and prayer is that those are things we can take with us, and build on, in the New Year that lies ahead. May it be peaceful, healthy, and joyful for us all.
The Very Revd Jonathan Greener, Dean of Exeter