Reflection ~ Iestyn Henson
46:9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
This morning’s reflection is something of an illustrated talk [Note: all photographs are in the public domain, and I’m grateful for the way in which they capture the artwork]. I want to take you on a day trip to the University Campus of my youth, and to the chapel where I worshipped as a student, under the pastoral care of one of the more influential ministers of my life, Rev Colin P Thompson, University Chaplain, URC minister, a fine tenor voice, Hispanic studies academic and in particular an authority on the writings of 16th Century Spanish mystic St Theresa of Avila. Colin was the translator/author of the hymn that we have just sung and even before Rejoice and Sing had been published in 1991, the Sussex Chapel choir had used some of Colin’s hymns in the 1980s.
We have here an image of the Meeting House at the University of Sussex, in Falmer, just outside Brighton.
I wonder if anyone here knows who designed this Chapel and multi-faith centre back in the 1960s? I’ll give you a clue, and it’s one which I’ll expand upon in this talk: it was designed by the same architect who was responsible for the post-war rebuild of Coventry Cathedral.
The answer is Basil Spence, whose team designed all of the original buildings at Sussex, and whose red-brick campus in the sun was – and still is – very close to my heart.
Originally, and controversially, Sussex was going to have no place of worship on the campus. A modern, liberal, radical institution from the very outset, I think there was an element of turning backs on some of the perceived archaic traditions of the United Kingdom’s Higher Education system, Oxbridge chapel culture and all. But the objection didn’t last long at all, and the Meeting House – positioned front and centre of the campus, is one of the most iconic 1960s buildings on the whole of the South Coast of England – at least for those who know it’s there! It was designed ‘in the round’ rather than in the shape of a cross; it was called the Meeting House very much after the Quaker tradition.
On the ground floor there are the Chaplains offices, a kitchen and coffee stop, a reading lounge and a quiet room which was a silent retreat during day time. The quiet room also served as a worship and prayer room for the Muslim Community from time to time. Above, was the chapel itself, a Christian but non-denominational space, used daily for reflection and prayer, and weekly for services, which themselves were as ecumenical as the chaplaincy was allowed to make them. The Sunday Ecumenical Eucharist Service rotated between the different chaplains, who used whatever form was familiar to them and sometimes no form at all. Those of us who attached ourselves to the chaplaincy rather than a local congregation in Brighton shared all of the duties – music, readings, prayers, serving each other ‘in the round’ at communion itself, and then cooking lunch for each other. On the Sunday closest to a national Saint’s day, for example, the hymns might be chosen by someone from the country in question who might also cook a nationally inspired meal afterwards – the first Sunday in March was ‘Welsh Sunday’ – Welsh hymns or hymn tunes and for lunch we would have cawl, leek and potato pie, welsh cakes for pudding – and once I even managed to get hold of laver bread.
I digress, but not very much; the chaplaincy was a lovely community at Sussex, open and inclusive before we even knew what inclusive was.
Here are various images of the chapel inside and upstairs and you’ll be struck immediately by colour and light.
I mentioned Basil Spence and Coventry Cathedral for good reason. The buildings are of exactly the same decade – Coventry reconsecrated in 1962, and Benjamin Brittan’s War Requiem was written for the occasion. But they also bear comparison in other important ways.
First is the way in which light and glass are fundamental to the design. I’ll show you Coventry in a second, but at Sussex, because of the building being in the round, and because of our changing seasons, times and the passage of the sun, the light is hardly ever the same. Morning and evening were very, very different – green in the morning from the eastern side as we look north towards the dais, and red/orange in the evening. Neither exclusive colours, but dominant for sure. Despite being quite a wide open space, and despite the use of textured concrete as the principal material, the colours and light gave the building a sense of warmth always. And, just by way of passing, here’s a photo of the Meeting House at night from without its walls – the colours worked the other way after dusk – it always looked a warm place and inviting place at night – ‘there’s something on here, come and take a look’.
Basil Spence’s design at Coventry, though more traditionally Anglican in its outlook is the ‘big Sister’ of the Meeting House at Sussex. Here are some images of Coventry:
Outside to start with and the dominant red brick, which is so much a feature of the Sussex campus and most of the 1960s crop of universities. But see there on the right on the modern façade, the external view of the stained glass, on the same chequered or honeycomb pattern, inlaid to brick here rather than concrete.
And when we look at this stain glass from inside, this is what we get at Coventry
And further forward we have this wonderful kaleidoscope
You can see why I love these spaces of light and colour so much, I hope. They are majestic in every way shape and form,
The link between Coventry and Sussex however doesn’t start and end with Basil Spence, because whilst he and his team were architects, the Coventry stained glass windows were designed by the artist John Piper. And there is one view of the Sussex Meeting House I’ve not shown you yet which is this:
Facing the dais at the Meeting House, at the back of the sanctuary as it were, we have the organ loft and below the choir stalls and vestry. ‘My seat’ for the best part of five years was just to the right of the doorway, as you look at the image. But what should really take your attention is the art work – and I’ve gone on enough about the art of the stain glass enough already – what you have here is tapestry, tapestry by who? Well, also by John Piper – and quite possibly my favourite piece of artwork of them all.
Let me use one more slide to put this tapestry alongside the stain glass at Coventry, for you to get the full effect of what I mean by all this comparison:
And let me add to that another tapestry also by John Piper from the 1960s, this one above the high altar at Chichester Cathedral. This tapestry depicts the Trinity: God the first person a bright disk, Jesus is depicted as cross and spirit as flame all three on the triangle of the trinity
These three are all the artist’s workings of the same material, the same artistic ideas and impetuses…
If by now you’re wondering where I’m taking this illustrated talk, let me put you out of your misery straight away, by telling you that the University of Sussex motto is ‘Be Still and Know’ and that John Piper’s tapestry at the Meeting House is based entirely on our Old Testament Psalm this morning, Psalm 46 let’s put the image back up there:
On the left as you look, we have the mountains falling into the stormy sea, and alongside river motifs; on the near right, an image of a face, breaking up, depicting nations and on the far right you have broken bows and shields being burned in the fire.
And in the centre of all, bright as the sun, is God – and the same depiction of God the first person of the trinity as used at Chichester and I believe the central use of bright colours in the stain glass of Coventry Cathedral.
God is in the midst of all things. I’m going to leave that image there, as we reflect for just a few more minutes on these things.
I once heard a powerful sermon on the first verse and a half of psalm 46 “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble”. And indeed the dominant theme of the psalm is one of comfort and support – it doesn’t matter what happens, God is with us. God is in that holy place, in the middle of all things, and for that reason alone, there is safety and security. John Piper captures this beautifully in the tapestry, all sorts going on around, but right at the centre, there is a solidity, essentially one colour and a bright and beautiful one at that. This brightness of light is, again, a comfort at this darkest time of year.
But I’ve always been moved equally by the second half of our psalm this morning, perhaps more so, and it may be that this is because it sits even more comfortably with our Christian faith. More comfortably than…..well, what exactly?
In this, Psalm 46 bears some comparison with Psalm 18
Psalm 18 also starts with words of refuge and strength. In one translation “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer”… So far, so good – Eine Feste Burg and all that.
At verse 7 of Psalm 18 however, things take a bit of a turn. Psalm 18 continues “The earth trembled and quaked and the foundations of the mountains shook”….headline images which also appear in Psalm 46 and reflected in this tapestry. But the psalmist in 18 says “they trembled because God was angry”.
We need to understand this right: in Psalm 18 God is the cause of earthquake and disaster; in Psalm 46 God is the refuge from earthquake and disaster. It’s the latter which resonates with me.
There is more. Psalm 18 may start with refuge and strength, but when it comes to conflict, it proceeds to be almost gloating in its tone, as the psalmist boasts about having been armed with arrows and having crushed his enemies.
This is not the experience of Psalm 46 however, ‘Come and see the works of the Lord….he makes wars to cease…he breaks the bow and shatters the spear…’. Again, this chimes far more with me and my understanding of God in Christ who comes to us as the Prince of Peace.
And then….’Be still and know that I am God’
Blessed are the peacemakers says Jesus, for they will be called children of God.
You can, if you wish, accuse me here of picking and choosing scripture to fit in with a point of view. An extreme accusation would be that I would wish to dismiss Psalm 18 altogether and rely solely on Psalm 46 in the context of refuge, strength and approaches to conflict. Well, I stand accused and plead guilty to the charge. I’m not one of those Christians who says that all of our Bible has the same importance, the same message, the same weight; nor am I someone who can accept or repeat the claim that there are no inconsistencies. For me, the test of an Old Testament position is with New Testament theology, and in particular the teachings of Jesus himself. And if something doesn’t fit, I believe we should say so.
Rainbows and Peace are God’s message affirmed in Jesus, not floods and destruction.
One more thought before we turn again to prayer, and one which was inspired by the use of much of this material on Remembrance Sunday. We’ve already had significant points of peace, calm and silence in this service, and our prayers to come will have some more. Silence is sometimes uncomfortable – I think the trend towards acknowledging the death of someone by applauding their life and contribution say at a rugby match, rather than standing in silence, is a reflection of this; some people find silence difficult. For people of faith however, and this is shared not just by Christians, silence and quietness have always been an invaluable tool for reflection. We should not be embarrassed by it or shy away.
Going back to the chapel at Sussex University – to close the circle so to speak – I’m reminded again that its design as well as its naming as the Meeting House owes most to the practices of worship of the Quaker movement, whose meetings are characterised by quiet atmospheres, and long periods of silence. I doubt that it’s coincidental that this space at Sussex is used as frequently for quiet, meditative worship as it is for the large-group public worship. In our churches, chapels and congregations, we shouldn’t forget the part which stillness, quietness and peacefulness can play in balancing our otherwise hectic lives. Peace is a fundamental of the Gospel message; peace as personal quietness and for reflection; peace-making as part of our call to discipleship. Not that conflict will always be avoided, but rather as an expression of commitment to God’s New World, brought about through Jesus, the Prince of Peace.