A Sermon preached at Exeter College Oxford on the 150th Anniversary of the Consecration of the
Chapel by the College Visitor, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter
18th October 2009
Readings: 1 Chron 29/13-17; 1 Cor 3/9-17
It seems almost to be built into our DNA. My children used to say it when they were small, and now it is
my grandchildren: "Don't step on the cracks" is the constant refrain whenever our walk takes us along a
path made of paving stones. "Don't step on the cracks, Grandpa - or else the bears will get you." I don't
know whether you ever played that game as a child, (or perhaps you still do as an adult now!) I suspect,
though, that there are very few of us who have not done it at some time or another. There's a kind of
universal appeal about it. As we walk along, the paving stones are regarded as secure ground, like
stepping stones in a rushing river, and the black cracks are things to be avoided as if they led to a
bottomless pit. Why is it that this kind of child's game has such an appeal to the imagination? The clue, I
think, is to be found in another's children's game. When they don't have a pavement children chalk out a
system of alternate squares within which they must hop-scotch. Step outside the lines, the magic square,
stop singing the chant and you are out. You must keep the balance within the pattern. Our name - hop-
scotch - doesn't tell us much. But in parts of Germany they call this game ‘Templehaupfen’ - temple
hopping - and that gives us a clue.
What a child is doing when he or she chalks out an area on the pavement is making a temple - an area cut
off from the surrounding world; and it's this action of marking out or cutting that this word Temple
implies. In the same way, making a temple is what we are doing when we mark out a football pitch or a
tennis court. Only while the ball is in the court does it remain in play, and only the players within the
lines are part of the game. Within the lines of our marked out pitch or court, the things with which we are
concerned in everyday life - developing our skills, working with others as part of a team, coping with
competition, self-discovery and appreciation - all these are simplified and reduced to manageable
proportions, basics with which we can really come to terms for that time that we are within the rules, the
boundaries, of the game. And so if you listen to sports teachers and coaches they will often tell you that
one of the reasons for organised games at school is so that the skills learned, the attitudes developed, the
atmosphere experienced, the recreation gained – within these marked out temples or templates - are things
which we can then carry away from the game with us and into the more complex areas of ordinary,
150 years ago this new chapel, replacing an earlier 17th century building, was dedicated as a house of
God, a temple to the Lord. But what kind of Temple is it? A place of escape, where the hungry bears of
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an unfriendly, cold and wintry world can’t get you? or a different kind of safe place within which all the
complexities of life can be not evaded but faced and wrestled with in a contained form?
It is for this second purpose that I suggest to you that this building exists.
The church of God, especially when it comes together for preaching and prayer, for fellowship and
worship as we are doing this evening, is meant to be a template - a marked out, safe environment in which
all the conflicts and struggles and difficulties of life, both of our personal lives and also of the wider
community in which we live, can really be faced and grappled with and worked through, in engagement
with the word and the spirit of God. Here in this chapel, whose dedication we are celebrating today, and
in the other chapels and churches of this university and city as well, those of us who come are meant to
find a secure place, an ordered framework into which we can bring the anxieties and frustrations, the joys
and thanksgivings, the sorrows and the despairs, the questions and the hurts, the memories, the pains, the
uncertainties, and the struggles of our ordinary, day to day life, and face them, and work them through,
together, in the presence of our Lord. That is the function of good liturgy. It is, in one sense, to be like a
great big, giant chess board with its black queens and white knights, its white pawns and its black
bishops, all locked together in conflict and unity, as in true worship the human nature of women and men
is caught up into and wrestles with that divine spark that's there within us all and which is always gently
calling us to be the sons and daughters of God.
But that’s not easy, and is so tempting to turn the church into a safe place in a different way, one where
we run away from the challenges of life out there, and create something cosy and comforting with all the
disagreeable bits of life being left firmly outside. But that is not how it is to be. Life is not like that, so
true worship is not meant to be like that, and real prayer is nothing like that. For me, the truest pictures
of prayer - of Temple worship, if you like - in the Bible, are of Jacob wrestling at Peniel, of the Psalmist
throwing his agonies and uncertainties at God while praising him and thanking him at the same time, and
of Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane as he struggles to come to term with what is God's, His Father's,
will. And of all of these, it is perhaps the Jacob story that offers perhaps the most telling illustration of
what a true Temple is all about. Jacob, you may remember (in Genesis 32) is out in the wilderness, full of
fear about meeting his brother whom he had cheated of his birthright. He first thinks of running away,
and then tries to avoid the pain of this encounter by putting a distance between himself and his brother, or
through bribery and manipulation. But it is not to be. In the night he finds himself wrestling with all of
this and with God, and (and this is where he really grows up and becomes spiritually mature) he refuses to
let go until both he and his opponent are blessed. That is the really remarkable thing in this story.
Jacob, in the midst of all his turmoil and heartache, will not let go, he will not let himself be defeated, he
will not walk away. He will not loosen his grip even though it is costly and he is deeply hurt in the
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progress; he goes on wrestling and hanging in there until there is a positive outcome and mutual blessing.
The hopping around is kept with the squares, the ball is kept in play, there is no kicking into touch –
reality must be faced and grappled with until God’s will is done and his blessing assured.
How much of that kind of godly wrestling and honest intercession is needed in our world today. I look at
the Middle East, and see how even small hopes for peace and justice are constantly dashed by the refusal
of key players to become involved except according to their rules, on a pitch of their own devising, rather
than seeking a genuine framework within which differences may be wrestled with in the hope that the
basis for a common truth may be found. Iraq/Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; resurgent community
divisions in Northern Ireland all represent a turning aside from a serious engagement with ‘the other’, and
I leave you to reflect on how this happens within our own nation, within the Church, within a local or
college community too. But walking off the pitch, no matter how great the hurt, is not the way of Jacob –
or of Jesus on the cross. Cleaving to one another, come what may, until both are blessed – as glimpsed in
that painful dialogue last week, between the Brighton bomber and the daughter of one of his victims -
that’s what life in the Temple is all about.
And so we are back to the Church, called to be a Temple, a template in which these things are faced and
wrestled with – in teaching, in prayer, in the discipleship of our daily lives. And we are to be like this
because the church is called to be a template in another sense as well: a template as a pattern, against
which the rest of life may be measured and assessed, a pattern indeed for the rest of the world.
And most especially is that the case of a Church, a chapel, set in the heart of a College and a University, -
also intended to be Temples of learning and so, both of which are meant to be places of holistic
engagement and a robust facing of the whole of reality too. Take the words themselves: the term
University etymologically points to an institution which is universus, all together, turned in one direction,
focused on a common point, having a holistic concern for life, wisdom, truth. And a similar sense infuses
the word College, from col-lego, meaning to read together within a common bond. In the same way I find
it noteworthy that a high academic aim is still for a fellowship – with, once more, the implication of
attaining a role or place in a community of learning, or the shared endeavour of the pursuit of truth. But
whatever the historic meanings of these words the harsh reality is that concepts such as universality and
collegiality can seem increasingly counter-cultural and out of date in the world of education today.
Especially is this so in a society where learning is increasingly commodified, and shaped by the language
of the market place, with knowledge as an economic product, and students as customers and consumers,
no longer supported in a common task by the public purse, but purchasing that which will bring
individual reward, even if at the cost of short term debt. Then alongside necessary specialisation comes
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the danger of fragmentation of intellectual, spiritual, moral and social life, and even of whole areas of
human experience being marginalised or even totally ignored.
In such a context this chapel, this Temple, stands as a reminder that the integrity of our intellectual life
ultimately depends upon our dedication to absolute truth which we seek to know and love. Without that
dedication, without that unity of focus, there can be no genuine university, but only a multiversity of
information and techniques with no coherence of final significance.
But such a cohesive and coherent approach to the search for wisdom and for truth means engaging not
just with the material but also with the spiritual, not only the individual but the communal, and not merely
the human but the divine.
So again, this beautiful building stands here as a sign, a reminder, a call to remembrance, a call to the
recognition of a sacred reality, a pointer to the holiness of God as encountered in the experience of
humankind. In a very fragmented culture with its very secularized institutions, a chapel like this: the
building and all that belongs to it, and all that goes in it, exists as a sacred space within which so called
secular reality is fully engaged, but within a wider compass than it, itself, will often allow. Everything
that goes on here, day by day - the faithful recitation of common prayer, the solemn commemoration of
the work of our redemption in the Eucharist, all the words and all the music of our liturgies - must be to
remind us of the holiness of God and the wholeness of humankind. Thus this chapel is by no means just
an adjunct to the rest of the College, not just a convenience for those who want to go to church. As a
temple and template, a place of holistic and prayerful wrestling and engagement it is in a very real sense
at the very heart of the whole enterprise; and what goes on here, whether it be some great ceremony, or
just a handful of people faithfully maintaining the daily offices, is of primary importance to the true
meaning of the university – seeking together Truth which is sacred, and to be sought with prayer, with an
acknowledgement of needing to engage with that which is beyond our own selves.
But all this can only begin to happen as we begin to make Temples of our personal lives too – in prayer
and stillness, facing ourselves as we really are, with a deep integrity, a continued engagement until we are
able to face the whole complex and multicoloured truth about ourselves, and bringing that to our
engagement with God, and not just the simplified black and white which is how we would often prefer
our lives to be.
When we come together we come to lay before God all that we are and to receive back from him all that
he wishes to give. We come to worship, bringing with us every aspect of our lives; we go out from
worship carrying those same aspects with us still, but, hopefully, having seen them now blessed, by our
engagement with the love and the grace and the mercy and the truth and the righteousness of God. so that
all those others areas of wrestling and engagement - our work; our homes and families; the local
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community, the world of politics and public affairs; the places where we go for our hobbies and
entertainment - the whole of life – might in turn also be touched and influenced by, and ultimately drawn
into, what - within this Temple - we have experienced as we have seriously sought to hold to God and
allow him to hold to us.
And this sense of movement - of coming and going, of bringing and taking out, is absolutely crucial.
Unless our wrestling, our engagement, our encounter with the living God, which is focused in our
worship here, then - as a result - continues and remains with us wherever we go, in the rest of College,
University, community, life - then this Temple, this building and all that goes on in it is all then in vain.
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