For the Conwy County Civic Service 2016.
Around ten years ago I was in Liverpool for Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday. We visited the Anglican Cathedral, took the tour, climbed the tower and looked back towards Wales. I remember a conversation after lunch with a good friend, John, a priest working in Liverpool. We were discussing where to go for the afternoon. Some wanted to look into the Catholic Cathedral, others wanted the inevitable shopping spree, a few wanted a trip on the ferry. John suggested, however, that we go over to Crosby to see the ‘Gormley Men’ (Properly titled “Another Place”) Having visited that beach in later years I rather wish we had gone that Maundy Thursday afternoon instead of the inevitable and predictable sights and sounds of the city, however much fun it was taking the ferry across the mersey.
There is something distinctly troubling about 100 bronze men standing on a beach looking out to sea. What are they doing there? You might well ask! Well, what are we doing here? I might ask. For it is a similar question, and depending on your opinion of Anthony Gormley’s work has a similar answer. In some ways they are pointless, but that is the point. 100 bronze men standing gazing out towards the Burbo Bank windfarm over the endless stream of ships coming in and out of the docks.
Depending on the tide, some are up to their necks, some waist deep, some look as if they are walking on water. Another Place harnesses the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature. Anthony Gormley explains: The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes the body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet…
I’d like to suggest that this building too is a similar space. Let me put that another way. This is a place where there is a very loose agenda. I mean that in all sincerity whatever you might choose to believe about religion, or churchgoing in particular, hymn singing, praying and so forth. This place is, like the beach at Crosby, is a place with a little agenda. It is simply here for reflection. What it reflects, if we let it, much like that beach at Crosby, is life itself. Yes, in its beauty, but also in its pain. The beauty is in its simplicity. The pain through our experience. In our life we may be standing up to our necks in water. Or are we seemingly striding over the waves, or high up on the beach away from the ebb and flow of the tide? It reflects our nature, who we are and where we are in life. Perhaps that is why I find such places troubling for they reflect back to us the deep divisions and difficulties that we face in life. Those who suggest in the comments book at the back of this church that they find here a sense of peace are, I think reflecting that lack of agenda.
The world puts so many pressures upon us, that this, like that beach where those figures stand, is one place that is different. A place that has no desire to sell us anything in particular or make us think in any particular way or expect us to behave in any way other than to reflect our true self. Here then is a reflection of what life could be. Here, everyone is welcome, here, there is no distinction between rich and poor, between nationality, sexuality, political or religious affiliation.
But you might say, and I would find it strange if you didn’t articulate this in some way, hang on, this is a church, what about God, what about Jesus and what about Christianity?
I’ll explain that best by telling you another story. There is a great anticipation in our house for the DVD release next week of the latest Hunger Games film. And may the odds be ever in your favour – of getting a copy. For those of you blissfully unaware of this latest teenage fiction and film blockbuster, it is one of the latest ‘world gone wrong’, ‘Rising from the ashes of apocalypse into a new world order’ type of story. The capitol city lives an overtly extravagant lifestyle whilst the districts surrounding it live to serve the every need of the capitol. They live in poverty and malnutrition, in hunger and slavery. The ‘Hunger Games’ are an annual pageant where 24 contestants battle for survival where there is only one winner, all for the amusement of the capitol and to keep the districts in order. It is suggested that the annual games serve as a warning against rebellion and they are supposedly for the healing of the nation. Suzanne Collins tells a good story and it is one which reflects upon our world. Now it is very tempting for me to suggest which parts of this world ‘The Districts’ might reflect, and which the Capitol reflects upon. Before you too are tempted, let me suggest that there is an every increasing divide between what is seen as rich and poor. The rich world is the one where there is access to resources. To water, food and energy. True poverty is where there is limited or no access to those things. Most of us are offered ever increasing choices. Freedom to choose what we eat, what we wear, how we travel. Where we shop, how we live, whether we choose organic or free range or Fairtrade or the opposite of those. Whether to holiday at home or abroad. Such is the rich world. Real poverty is where there is no choice, where food and water is scarce and where simply surviving is a daily struggle. The gap is getting wider. This is our reality. It is what is reflected in this place through the stories that are told here which still do not loose their significance today for we are still seeking the healing of our nation and the world. This is what is caricatured in the Hunger Games. It is also why, I think, the story ends the way it does. I’ll not spoil it for those who have not read the book or seen the film. But it is also why we are here. For our world too is in need of healing. And we have a choice. Which world are we willing to live for? The world of the districts and the capitol or a different world.
Let me put this in musical terms: We are at a Coda. The coda being the part at the end of a piece of music which reflects on the rest. How we get to the coda is often a circuitous route, probably difficult to follow and full of signs and directions we may not notice or understand, but the coda always stands at the end and reflects back on what has been before. Therefore as I stand and reflect, with you this day on the life of our County, I wonder what it is that we can do to challenge this growing gulf between the rich with access to resources and the poor without? For I believe we all want to see a future in which all are respected as equal and individual.
There is one thing which we have in common with everyone and with all things, perhaps that might be a good place to begin, but perhaps it is the one thing which we often overlook, for it is the earth. The earth is our common home. It sustains us and provides for us everything we need, though we seldom acknowledge it. It is to the earth that we are returned when our lives come to an end. Just as the Capitol neglects the people of the districts in the Hunger games, we have neglected the earth in seeking to use more and more of the earth’s resources. As well as its musical meaning Coda or Coda yn Gymraeg is a word which means get up, or rise up. For a real healing of the nations to take place it requires us to rise up. As in the hunger games, it is those who reflect on the whole picture who are able to rise up. But if our common task is to care for our common home, we are all called to use a responsible and sustainable amount of resources to ensure that all have equal access.
Part of that is about letting go of one life and looking to another. It is painful, it is a story of death and resurrection. But it can be a story of love, of reconciliation and of healing. Our common task is urgent that we do it now and that we do it together. For the healing of our nation and of the whole earth can only be achieved through humility. Love compels us to see things differently. We need the courage to love our home, see the earth for what it is, and let it be. I’ll finish with the words of Alexei Leonov, Cosmonaut.
“The earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone; our home that must be defended like a holy relic.”