Sunday Worship: Visionary Storytellers

On Sunday 19 November, Sunday Worship on Radio 4 was led by Lucy, Ayla, Toks, David and the preacher is Dr Rowan Williams. The service marked the 60th anniversary of 22nd November 1963, the day when CS Lewis, John F Kennedy and Aldous Huxley all died. The service reflected on the ideas they offered and the stories they told, and includes prayers for the world today.

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Sunday Worship 19/11/2023

The Sound of Silence – Simon and Garfunkel

Rev Lucy Winkett

Good morning and welcome to Sunday Worship. I’m Lucy Winkett and I’m the Rector of St James’s Piccadilly in central London. Today we  mark the contributions of three extraordinary public figures of the 20th century who all died on the same day in 1963, 60 years ago this week.  This coming Wednesday, 22nd November, is the anniversary of the death of the writer and theologian CS Lewis, the American President John F Kennedy and the writer of the seminal novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley.

We pray today, remembering the stories they told, the ideas they formed, the visions they put before us. And in the name of God who is the Living Word, we acknowledge the power of language to inspire, provoke and cajole us to a better world, And in this Remembrance season of November, with so much violence and distress in the Middle East, Ukraine, Sudan and around the world, that vision and hope for a better world is no more needed than now.

Fanfare for the Common Man  – Aaron Copland.  The London Symphony Orchestra.

God of time and eternity; we pray in thanksgiving for the gift of life in the world, and for the gifts offered in public service by writers, activists, artists and scientists. We give thanks for the gift of human imagination and ask for the strength to align our vision with your will. Amen.

Give us the wings of faith by Ernest Bullock – The Choir of York Minster

Politicians operate in a world of practicality and compromise, politics being often called the art of the possible.  And, to use the phrase of the New York Governor Mario Cuomo, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.  But for JFK, not so long after the horrors of the Second World War, the language and vision of, for example, the moonshot, gave humanity something to aim for and hope that things didn’t have to be as they were.  And the principles of his political programme sprung from a sense that there was a wider context and a deeper vision that embraced all human activity. From his inaugural address of January 1961 ….

We Shall Overcome (Joan Baez – Live at Woodstock)

Archive: John F Kennedy – Inaugural Address 20/01/1961 (BBC Archive)

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Our two Bible readings today are read by members of the congregation here at St James’s: Toks Mumuney, and later, David Hamilton Peters.

The hope for a better world ahead is a key theme of Scripture and nowhere more evocatively described than in the Book of Revelation.

READING read by Toks Mumuney
Revelation 21

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

For Aldous Huxley, the technological advances of the early 60s provoked deep reflection on what it means to be human.  Wanting to retain humanity’s agency in a world where the growing power of technology seemed threatening as much as enlivening,  Huxley’s method was that of a prophet: to warn and advise by way of presenting the bleak dystopian future ahead if things went the wrong way.

Huxley Archive (BBC Archive)

In Conversation With John Morgan. Broadcast 30 July, 1961.

After all it was stated in the Gospel that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, and in exactly the same way technology was made for man, not man for technology but unfortunately the development of recent social and scientific history has created a world in which man seems to be made for technology rather than the other way around, and we need to be starting to take this problem very seriously and seeing how we can re-stablish control over our own inventions…”

Teach me my God and King George Herbert – The Choir of St Chad’s Birmingham

Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of thinkers, scientists, philosophers and novelists. Help us to listen to your word expressed in the human imagination, and give us the will to discern your way, and to follow it with all our heart. Amen.

For CS Lewis, the most overtly Christian thinker, of our three, and profound influence on the Christian imagination, his conversion to Christianity was in 1931. He wrote influential reflections on, for example, the Problem of Pain, his reflections on dying and death are especially poignant in his  book written following the death of his wife, Joy.  In ‘A Grief Observed’ he confessed that his whole life and faith had been turned upside down by both love and grief, themes that he’d visited in his previous academic writings about God – one of which, Mere Christianity, we hear an excerpt of C.S. Lewis reading from now:

Aslan’s Theme BBC Philharmonic

C.S. Lewis (BBC Archive) Beyond Personality BBC Radio: 04.04.1944

“That principle runs all through life from the top to the bottom: Give up yourself and you’ll find your real self. Lose your life and you’ll save it. Submit to death, submit with every fibre of your Being and you’ll find eternal life. Look for Christ and you’ll get Him, and with Him, everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you’ll get only hatred, loneliness, despair, and ruin.”

In 1962, a year before he died, in a paper delivered at Oxford University, C.S. Lewis  set out his own faith that encompassed all living and dying, with characteristic clarity of expression and purpose:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else’

My Spirit Sang All Day (Gerald Finzi) – St Martin’s Voices

For each of our three we remember today, it was their energy for living and their lively spirit of enquiry that drove them to ever deeper reflection and imaginative action. No human life is lived perfectly, and none of these three of course was perfect. But life can be lived with this sort of energy. In the gospels Jesus urges his followers to live life with something of this spirit of enquiry: open-hearted, open minded, ready to be surprised by new truth and committed to searching for lasting peace. And always looking to the fundamentals of mutual human relationships  when thinking through how to build society: do to others as you would have them do to  you, as we hear in Chapter 7 of Matthew’s Gospel.

READING read by David Hamilton Peters Matthew 7.7-10

7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets,

Our preacher today is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

Sermon – Rowan Williams

Part of what it is to be human is to want to reinvent ourselves and our world. If we were always happy with the way we were, content to be no more than we are at this particular moment, we’d have no real history – and certainly no art or science. There’s a proper restlessness about our imagination, a sense that reality is more than we can get hold of all at once.

At worst, this can collapse into a frantic scramble to rewrite history and manage our reputations at the expense of honest questioning and truthfulness. When we talk of people – or indeed political parties – ‘reinventing themselves’, we don’t often mean it as a compliment.  But it doesn’t have to be all about this kind of desperate attempt to tidy up an untidy story. We can genuinely recognize the need to put our experience in a larger framework, see new and different patterns of connection or continuity, change and enlarge our hopes.  And we can do it in a remarkable variety of ways. A political programme can challenge what we thought was obvious and prompt us to see that what might have looked like a natural state of affairs could be altered by our choices.  And in recent weeks we’ve all been deeply longing for the kind of reframing of deeply engrained hatreds and fears, that might change the nightmare landscape of the conflict in the Middle East.  Part of this reframing happens as we tell stories about a world that is not like ours, a world in which what is only implicit or obscure in our routine experience becomes clearer.  We can even do it by creating imaginary worlds in which we learn to see our own failings in hugely exaggerated forms, and so come to recognize what risks our culture lives with and how –

The three men who died on Nov.22nd 1963 were all of them storytellers of genius.  John F. Kennedy was a politician, not a novelist, but his impact as a politician had a great deal to do with his ability to fire people with a new story, with the sense that they were living in a fresh and more hopeful world.  Not for nothing did so many talk of the Kennedy White House as a new ‘Camelot’, the centre of a kingdom strong and visionary enough to guarantee lasting peace and universal justice. Kennedy and those around him caught a moment in American – and perhaps world – history, a mood in which it seemed that the story could shift from tragedy and conflict, from the exhausted scepticism of an older generation, to a hopeful confidence in the democratic future. As we look back now from the other side of the terrible act of violence that took Kennedy’s life, his achievement and his personality seem far more shadowed than people recognized at the time; and yet it is impossible not to think back with some wistfulness to that era as a time when it was still possible to believe that the world’s politics might be different

Aldous Huxley first made his name as a chronicler of the feverish and superficial glamour of the years after the First World War; but he was increasingly drawn to the contemplative traditions of East Asian religion and increasingly aware of the dangers in Western culture of a kind of ‘soft’ totalitarianism, where comfort and entertainment could distract people from the fact that their freedom was steadily being taken away.  In his famous fantasy, Brave New World, he imagines a society in which everyone is in effect controlled by a combination of drug-induced euphoria and long-term genetic manipulation: most people are simply managed by these means, leaving the long-term decisions to a tiny intellectual elite.  Much later in life, Huxley tried to balance this bleak picture by a more positive fiction, Island, in which he created an imaginary isolated culture with a minimum of socially responsible science, traditional Eastern religious wisdom, and the disciplined use of mind-altering drugs – an idiosyncratic mixture of modern and traditional, Eastern and Western elements.  Yet even this more positive picture ends with the defeat and colonization of the ‘island’ by violent foreign interests bent on economic exploitation.

And C.S. Lewis of course invented Narnia: the parallel world in which a group of 1940’s schoolchildren come to see their own world freshly by encountering the stories – and the reality – of creation and redemption as they might appear in a completely different setting; just as, in his adult works of science fiction, Lewis took his characters away from the ‘silent planet’, the earth that had been cut off from the mainstream of cosmic life by the corruption of humanity, so as to see that corruption for what it was.  In Narnia, famously, it’s ‘always winter and never Christmas’; in the science fiction stories, humans are trapped and doomed by the fantastic ambitions they have for the complete control not only of earth and humanity but of all the known universe. Lewis created both exhilarating pictures of how things might be different and nightmares of the ignorant destruction humans inflict on themselves and their world when they forget their involvement in this material and interwoven life that is lived on earth.

Three kinds of story-telling, all of them powerful and potentially lifechanging: a new kind of politics, a new fusion of science and mysticism – and how should we describe Lewis’s perspective? A new and transforming action that releases us from the traps we set for ourselves, an action that comes – and has to come – from outside us; a story of absurd self-sacrifice, of terrible and almost annihilating conflicts, of demands for honesty and courage that we instinctively shrink from. All of it made possible only by the clear truth that what is at work in it all is a love that will not let us go and demands everything from us only so that we are set free to receive more than we knew was possible.

Ever since the Jews first told the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the story of how they had been brought into being as a community by  God telling them to imagine themselves not as slaves but as free and creative persons, capable of building up a society of just, loving, merciful, truthful relations – ever since that first moment of liberated imagination, there has been a tradition of telling the story of our world as one that is always slipping towards corruption and disintegration, but one that is always held and brought back by the consistent and unconditional commitment of God. That’s the story C.S. Lewis wants to tell – and the story that our worship still tells today.  It’s not that we don’t need stories of political hope (now more than ever, perhaps).  It’s not that we don’t need warnings about our fantasies of managing and controlling everything and everyone; look at the fearful cost of ignoring this in our environmental crisis.  But Lewis reminds us that we also need the story of the God who holds on to us and eternally wills our joy and fulfilment. Perhaps, as those three extraordinary souls stood together at the gates of the Kingdom of God on the 22nd of November in 1963, they found themselves together in recognizing that vision as what they all most deeply longed for.

O love that wilt not let me go (St Margaret) – Sheffield Celebration Choir feat. The Salvation Army Citadel Band

Our prayers are written and read by Revd Dr Ayla Lepine, the Associate Rector here at St James.

As we pray, we once more bring before God those situations in the world where despair is overtaking whole societies and nations: in the Middle East and Ukraine, but also in the over 30 countries in the world where millions suffer and are displaced by the inhumanity of war.

Revd Dr Ayla Lepine:

With hearts and minds open to God’s love, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of wisdom, we give you thanks for the power of literature and imagination, past and present. Help us to build a better world, through participation in public life, striving for change and being alive to the energy and potential within ourselves and within humanity.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of courage, we pray that you will be with us in times of hardship, bringing the gifts of endurance and persistence, so that by your grace we may speak out for justice in times of need, supporting the vulnerable and marginalised in this and every land.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of hope, as we offer ourselves to you, support us by your grace so that we may be filled with the spirit of truth. May we give the best of ourselves in every endeavour, so that we dare greatly, lead boldly, and unite our will with yours.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of salvation, free us from our fears, so that we may flourish as your children. Grant us the faith to discern your voice within us, so that we may be peace-builders and advocates for all in need. Provide inspiration for all who seek a way of life founded on your Spirit at work within us.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of pilgrimage, we thank you for the astonishing gift of life itself and for the stories of humanity woven within it across every generation. As we seek justice, mercy, and truth, open us to the stories and storytellers who surround us, renewing our commitment to deepen empathy and seek the common good.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of truth, as we call to mind the lives and work of John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis today, we give thanks for these men who in the 20th century did so much to shape our world. Trusting in your resurrection hope, we pray that they may live on as examples through whom your word and its essence has been proclaimed throughout the world, as we pray:

The Lord’s Prayer (Bob Chilcott) – The Daily Service Singers

May the God of heaven and earth, who gathers all creation living and departed to live in eternity, bless you and all those for whom you pray. Now and always. Amen

Who would true valour see (Monks Gate) – Rugby School Choir