Beverley Festival of S John of Beverley

'The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Isaiah 35 v 1

From time to time people have thought their bishop to be too remote from them, not least as the population of a diocese grows and grows. At the same time, the duties of a bishop increase as do the expectations put upon him. No wonder then that towards the latter part of the Nineteenth Century it was thought wise to give the Archbishop of York a bishop to assist him in the huge responsibilities that he carried. The Archbishop’s assistant was duly appointed and it was decided that he should carry the title of Bishop of Beverley. The very first occupant of the position was Robert Jarratt Crosthwaite who was consecrated a bishop in the Church of God in 1889. By all accounts, Bishop Crosthwaite was an outstanding bishop who won the hearts of many in a long ministry which ended with his death after thirty four years in office in 1923. Archbishop Cosmo Lang was by then Archbishop of York and he recorded in his diary:

“The title of Beverley was abandoned … indeed, there could only, can only, be one Bishop of Beverley. No one else must bear his title.”

So it was that Archbishop Lang asked that his new assistant might not be called Bishop of Beverley but Bishop of Whitby. How very puzzled Archbishop Lang would be to learn that I preach here this evening, not the second but the third Anglican bishop to bear the title of Bishop of Beverley. Not that Archbishop Lang always found the fame of the first Bishop of Beverley something with which he was easily able to cope. During the First World War, while still in his early fifties, Archbishop Cosmo Lang lost most of his hair. He was somewhat surprised when on a visit to Sheffield, sometime after the armistice had been declared, to be mistaken for the then somewhat elderly Bishop of Beverley. It Is said that, for a while, the Archbishop even took to wearing a wig, that is until the wig became caught up in a chandelier at Bishopthorpe Palace! So, you see, there are good reasons for thinking that the goodly Archbishop might be somewhat frustrated as well as puzzled, were he to learn that there was a Bishop of Beverley preaching in this place today.

We do not come here today, though, primarily to celebrate either an Archbishop of York or a Bishop of Beverley. S John of Beverley whom you and I gather to honour tonight was neither. In S John of Beverley’s day this place had yet to acquire the fame for its name, which would one day justify giving it to a suffragan bishop as a worthy title under which he might exercise his ministry. Perhaps more surprisingly, in S John of Beverley’s day, there was as yet no Archbishop of York. S John of Beverley was among the last to be styled simply Bishop of York. And yet, there is good reason to think that S John of Beverley would be more than sympathetic to some of our more recent developments. As we know so well from the accounts of his life, S John of Beverley was, above all, a man interested in healing, whether it was a poor deaf peasant, a church at odds with itself, or a society that lacked the cohesion necessary to hold itself together. Some ten or so years ago, when the Church of England decided to admit women to the order of priesthood, it would have been so easy, as many predicted, for that Church to have torn itself apart. Instead, the Church of England came up with the idea of keeping the minority view on board by the creation of some special bishoprics to act as centres for ministering to those who in conscience could not accept the prevailing view. It is easy to criticise the arrangement for all kinds of reasons. At its heart, though, was and is the overwhelming desire to hold Christians, who take passionately different views on a subject of major importance, as closely together as possible. S John of Beverley might well have approved of such a brave attempt at reconciliation and delight that the title of Bishop of Beverley was brought back into use for those who are called to minister in this most tightrope walking form of ministry.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Our first lesson this evening is written to a group of political exiles. Their land has been conquered. Many have been killed. Others have done all kinds of deals with the occupiers. A large number have been carried off into captivity, hundreds of miles from their homeland, so that they can only exercise the minimum of influence upon it. Now, the political situation has changed and a new generation finds that it is being allowed to go back to its parents’ and grandparents’ homeland and to rebuild. Now there is going to be new life in what has, for so long, seemed to be an arid desert. A place remembered for so much pain and violence is now going to be a healing community where lame men will once more be able to leap. Deaf folk will once more be able to hear every word said to them. In simple terms, the folk who first hear this evening’s lesson from the Prophet Isaiah are led to believe that, by God’s providence, they are going to build a perfect society. Indeed, the Prophet Isaiah even goes on to say that the community that will be produced by this group of exiles returning home will be so attractive that people and nations the world over will be drawn to it and want such a way of live for themselves.

Most if not all of us think we would love to live in such a world, that is one where people live at peace with each other, where the emphasis is on increasingly improving the quality of life and providing healing in abundance. The difficulty is that, so often, we want this idyllic world without any cost to our selves. We can want a world in which everyone is required to change for the better except ourselves personally. S John of Beverley and his companions did not bring healing to that deaf peasant lad, about whom we have heard this evening, without a great deal of personal cost and effort. Those monks had to be prepared for their personal place of retreat to be open to include another. They had to share their limited resources with someone who would be adding nothing to the common purse. They had to give the peasant lad time to recover his speech and then let him practise it and practise it. If anyone has ever listened to a young child rehearsing the delights of Twinkle, twinkle, little star on a badly tuned violin, the use of which has not yet quite been mastered, will know exactly what I mean. Creating a healthy society means letting people decide things for themselves and sometimes that they take decisions we would rather they did not and then living with the consequences, for the greater good of us all. That, after all, is what we have been doing these past few weeks and days in a General Election Campaign. And now, for our society to work we have to give the necessary space to viewpoints and actions which individually many of us might never have chosen. We learn to discipline ourselves for a better good, the common good.

S John of Beverley was moved to behave as he did by his understanding of God whom he worshipped. It is God who created both this universe and ourselves within it. God wills for us a perfectly fulfilling way of life. When we spoil this world with our selfishness God risks all for us. Jesus Christ will pay whatever the cost might be for our true quality of life to be restored. S John of Beverley knew this and was determined to live out such generous reconciliation and healing within his own life and times. In similar vein, the Church of God is ever called to handle its disagreements and tensions in such a way that it points to healing and wholeness rather than embodying division and rivalry. Otherwise, we Christians have little of conviction to offer to the divided world of our day or to the many needy people and communities to be found upon our immediate doorsteps.

The great result of S John of Beverley’s holy life and witness was the rising fame of this Minster and the growth of a caring town around its walls. There is no better way in which you and I can pass on something of his great legacy to others than by being committed to the building up of increasingly healthier communities. In following S John of Beverley and, indeed, Jesus the Master whom he served so well, we will recognise that such building is a demanding enterprise. We will be determined to meet the cost of such change within ourselves.



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