Friday, 28 November 2014

Wonky Vaulting, Swans, Geese, and Monty Python - S. Hugh of Lincoln

Notes from a homily to the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Monday, 17th of November, 2014, 8.30 a.m.

Saint Hugh of Lincoln

[after finding that the Sisters were not in fact keeping this particular feast]

Oh dear! It's such a good idea to check first - I was SO sure you'd be keeping Saint Hugh of Lincoln today. The main reason for this is that for once he is a saint I know something about. I've often come down the hill knowing nothing about about the saint of the day - or rather, nothing until receiving the invitation to come to celebrate on their day, and then swotting up at home - but I trained for the priesthood at Lincoln Theological College, of late and blessed memory, in the shadow of that magnificent cathedral, whose choir is attributed to Saint Hugh's efforts, in the re-building necessitated by an earthquake (and we complain about floods). It's even said that Saint Hugh worked manually on the cathedral - a saint not afraid to get his hands dirty, or to hammer, or break, a nail.

We were shown round the cathedral by one of our tutors who had such an enthusiasm for the place that she wrote a book about it. When we got to the choir, she told us to look up at the vaulting. Fan vaulting is a marvel of symmetry, starting off at the wall, fanning out as it climbs across, then meeting in the middle of the ceiling. Not in S. Hugh's choir. It's wonky. Why might this be?, our tutor asked, and we said the usual sort of nonsense: perhaps it was a very early effort and they hadn't got it right yet? But she pointed out that anyone who can build a wall so high and straight that it doesn't fall over, can easily make vaulting meet. Instead, she suggested, it is deliberate. Look at it, and you will find no pattern - even as you gaze up during the longest and dullest of sermons. "Do not expect to find perfection in man-made things", she said.

It fell to my lot to lead morning prayer at the college on S. Hugh's Day. Normally, anywhere else in the world, this is no big deal, but every service at theological college is an occasion of great earnestness and brouhaha, because each ordinand only gets a go once every few months, and must milk it for all it's worth, and I must have done more research for that 15-minute office than I've done for far more significant things since. During it, I discovered the significance of the swan, which in our chapel window winds itself round Saint Hugh's leg - it was his pet, from a diocesan estate far to the south (in those days, and until 1542 and the creation of the new diocese, Oxford was in the bishop of Lincoln's domain). But one - just one - writer suggested it might actually have been a goose. Now, when someone says that sort of thing in revisionist history, or re-interpretation of the New Testament, our natural response is to say "oh, someone's got to go and spoil it". But it didn't spoil it for me. I like geese. I used to keep them as a teenager - my parents bought me seven goslings when they saw me going mad with boredom, revising for my O-levels (imagine such a thing happening to today's hot-housed little generation!). They thought I was their mother, and followed me in a little line round our nursery and back to their paddock. So for me, that Saint Hugh's swan might have been a goose, added to the story, it didn't take away from it. One thing I can tell you though, swan or goose, it wasn't a male - come spring time, there's no taming them!

Whilst these poultry thoughts were on my mind, I happened across an interesting television programme by accident. These days I tend only to watch television by accident - there are so many channels, and everything is repeated endlessly, that nothing is special any more. This was a film, a performance, not a documentary, about the famous interview of two members of the Monty Python team with Malcolm Muggeridge, and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, just after their film "The Life of Brian" was released 35 years ago. I've seen footage of that interview, and the film was true to my memory of that. The plot revealed - which seems to have been true - that the two old curmudgeons had actually missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which would have made it abundantly clear that it was not a parody of the life of Jesus. How times have changed since then! John Cleese has gone on to become quite possibly the angriest man in the world (that's what forty years of therapy does for you), and Michael Palin, the nicest man in Britain, and a National Treasure. At the time, they seemed young, naive, earnest, rather innocent. The two old curmudgeons seemed lofty, patronising, dismissive, and are of course now dead.

The only bit of "The Life of Brian" that does actually portray Jesus includes my favourite line from it. Far in the distance, Jesus is on the top of a hill, preaching, and in the foreground, a tall person with better hearing, is relaying to those around him what he can catch. This in itself reveals a historico-critical analysis of the New Testament, asking the question "how do we know what they heard, how do we know they heard right, how was it passed on? He repeats to them, "Blessed are the cheesemakers". Says another, "Cheesemakers? What's so special about them?" A third responds, "Oh, I think it can be reasonably inferred to include the makers of ALL dairy produce". In that throwaway line, we have, in a nutshell, 20th century Biblical theology, indeed, theology right now. When our divines look at the question of what marriage might be, aren't they asking whether it's only the cheesemakers who are blessed, or perhaps the butter and yoghurt makers too? I have no idea if anyone involved in the film studied theology at university, but I strongly suspect someone had a very good divinity teacher in the sixth form.

This has been rather a ramble, from swans in Lincoln, to geese in Sussex, from the sermon on the mount, to Fairacres chapel, to the makers of dairy produce. My hope is that, swans or geese, cheese-makers or butter-makers, the kingdom of heaven is big enough for us all, and we shall find Saint Hugh there waiting for us, and pointing up, towards a wonky vaulting, that turns out to be perfect after all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014


  1. Never been to Lincoln Cathedral, but this sermon gives me an incentive. We live in a house with wonky ceilings, which look OK, but on close examination are not level. We could of course address it by taking them down and redoing them, but why? If they've been like that the the last 1020 years, why change now?

    We've checked that they're safe, and the surveyor said that it was quite common that when houses were built in a hurry in Victorian England for workers (ours were built for new workers coming to work in the expanding Erith Dockyard and oildworks in the 1890's, they were often built by rule of thumb, or even line of sight, so being exactly straight often went by the board. The fact that they've survived intact speaks volumes for the quality of build at that time.

    I've never kept Geese, although I have been chased by them, crossing fields on army treks in the dim and distant past, but keeping cats is a bit like keeping geese. When they want something, they follow you in procession to and from the kitchen until they get their treat or extra food or whatever.

    When five cats sit around, staring you out, you know that somethings up.

    As God created us to be human, he also created cats to be our masters or mistresses. :)

  2. Cinema audiences at the time loved the line about the dairy industry. For two decades TV and radio theologians, not to mention young clergy straight out of college, had been annoying the public with their dismissive views about the Bible.
    The first time I heard it it got a better laugh than 'If it's not a personal question.'