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King's College London Opening Service, 2014

by Gerry Lynch last modified 07 Oct, 2014 04:37 PM

An address by the Bishop of Salisbury at the King's College London Opening of Year Service at which Professor Edward Byrne was installed as Principal, and Professor Edward Adams was installed to the Chair of New Testament Studies, 24 September 2014.

Readings: Job 28.12-13, 20 and 23-28; 1 Cor 2.1-7, 12-13

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth;
From the laziness that is content with half truth;
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
O God of Truth deliver us. Amen. 

When I was the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, I took the memorial service for a former Principal, General Sir John Hackett.  I am therefore very pleased to be at the other end of a Principal’s life installing Professor Byrne on this occasion.  

At Morning Prayer in Salisbury Cathedral, I sit near a stone commemorating Sydney Evans, Dean of this College who went on to be Dean of Salisbury when I was a student here. I think Sydney would have been surprised by my representing the Archbishop at the installation of the new Principal, as in truth am I.  It would be odd if all of us, especially new students, staff and even the new Principal, were not a bit surprised as well as greatly pleased to be here in one of the world’s leading universities at the heart of one of its greatest cities. This service to mark the opening of the new academic year roots the College in its Anglican tradition. 

At the founding of this College, In contrast to what was known ‘that Godless institution in Gower Street’, where our Principal was once Deputy Provost for Health, King’s had a Christian identity and Church of England character reflected in the College motto, Sancte et Sapienter, ‘with holiness and wisdom’.  This is a place that knows our dependence on God – “The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is” (Psalm 24.1) - the distinction between information, with which we are overloaded, knowledge, which is expanding rapidly, and wisdom, which is so hard won and precious. Today’s Bible readings, parts of which are inscribed on the chapel walls - Job from the Old Testament on the north side, 1 Corinthians from the New Testament on the south side.  Here is the foundation of King’s Anglican identity that welcomes and learns with and from members who have diverse beliefs and backgrounds.

In some personal reflections circulated earlier this week about ‘Why great universities matter’, Professor Byrne set out something of his vision of a great university, showing a strong commitment to the intellectual disciplines that create a wonderful learning environment. He went on to say that universities are a repository for the history and cultural traditions of Nations and disciplines, and contribute to the broad range of ongoing intellectual debate that defines the great issues of the time and defines what it is to be human at the highest level.

The changing nature of our world creates intellectual and organisational challenges in which King’s is riding high, even though some of the challenges are to many people overwhelming. The same can’t be said of the Church, especially in this country which has experienced prolonged secularisation. Church matters a great deal less than when the College was founded and in some of the conflicts of what feels to be an increasingly fractious world, religion is lethal. In some circles it is a commonplace that Christianity and religion have nothing to offer. The talk is of Britain being a post-Christian society that is both secular and pluralist.

And yet, in the 2011 Census 60% of the British population identified themselves as Christian and the world’s religions are all alive and creatively present in this world city.  Christianity continues to be creative. Churches, indeed all the faith communities, represent much of the country’s social capital.

In Wiltshire and Dorset, the Diocese of Salisbury, the Church is the major provider of youth and children’s work and is much of the social capital populates much of the voluntary sector. At St Martin-in the-Fields where I was the Vicar, London’s first free lending library was founded and the tradition of innovative social commitment continues to the present day. In the 20th century St Martin’s was where Amnesty International, Shelter and Crisis were founded and that church also developed a thriving cultural programme and developed religious broadcasting as well as caring for some of the most disadvantaged in our society. It is a shared tradition shared.

When I was a student here, Theology at King’s courageously supported the training of Black leaders in South Africa both for the years of struggle against Apartheid but also for the building of the new nation of South Africa. Theology and the Church still matter. In this country the Church gave birth to many of our universities, colleges and schools, our hospitals and to much that is still robust in the voluntary sector but our secular and pluralist age wants the values without the beliefs.

The world is not secular. Only about 1.1 billion, 15%,  of the world do not identify with any religious group. About 2.2 billion in our world identify themselves as Christians and 1.6 billion are Muslims. There are a billion Hindus, 480 million Buddhists, 400 million adherents of Chinese traditional religion, 100 million adherents of African traditional religion, 100 million Shinto adherents, 28 million Sikhs, 15 million Jews... and about 1.1 billion with no religious identity. We can’t afford to ignore religion as if it has had its day but the British experience of secularism and pluralism means that many of us have lost our critical ability to handle faith and religion with confidence.

When our children were small and we lived in East London, they went to a brilliant Primary School in which over half the children were Bengali and therefore Muslim. One day our daughter brought a book home which was bilingual Bengali and English. As her father and the Vicar, I was pleased and slightly surprised that it was a Bible story. We settled down to read it: “This is the story of the Prophet Jonah, Blessed be he...” This was the story of Jonah from the Qu’ran. And of course there is quite a bit that the People of the Book, Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Children of Abraham, have in common, and there is quite a bit that is distinctive.

Just as we need great scientists, linguists, the humanities and arts, we urgently need people who are literate and confident in matters of religion because that which bedevils our world threatens and divides us whereas that which is of God deepens and unites us.

With a chapel at the symbolic heart of the College, to have, as King’s had last year, over 1500 students from across all the disciplines of the College signed up for a lecture course about Theology, with 800 of them sitting an exam to get their AKC is simply amazing. The AKC programme at King’s is a unique tradition that equips our students for the real world. This term’s lectures about the Bible, ‘Lost in Translation’, will be taught by among others like the Dean and Dr Megan Warner and Prof Eddie Adams installed as New Testament Professor today.  It is a sign of the university taking the trouble to deepen the conversation between the disciplines so that we find wisdom among us and is in marked contrast to the lazy intellectualism that does not take the different disciplines seriously. In well known review of ‘The God Delusion’, Terry Eagleton said that asking Richard Dawkins about God was like someone who wanted to know about ornithology consulting The Ladybird Book of Birds.

Last weekend there were over 2,000 climate marches across the world drawing attention to the urgency of environmental action ahead of this week’s UN summit in New York. The Bishop of London said we should not forget that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. A sign at one of the Lodnon stations said, If you don’t believe the environment matters more than the economy try holding your breath whilst counting your money. A placard on the march said, “There is no Planet B’.

We have a problem which is going to take our best intellectual and organisational efforts to address. Above all the repair of the earth needs us to find our place with God and one another on the earth. We will need a renewed sense of the sacred if we are walk more lightly on the earth and sustain the creation which is ours only briefly and to steward for others as well as ourselves.

Christianity gives this College its character:  a broad, generous and engaged Christianity which seeks truth in the belief that the truth will set us free. It is an intellectually ambitious task, as exciting an enterprise as there can be. Thank God that here at King’s it is rooted in an account of what it is to be human with holiness and wisdom.

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