The news of the death of Nelson Mandela was in one sense, of course, not a shock. We had braced ourselves at many times for what we knew was inevitable. But on each occasion the great man seemed to pull himself back from the brink. However, even though we knew that it would happen, when the news was announced that he had died, there was a clear sense of shock. I was just sitting down after having hosted a pre-Christmas drinks evening in the Deanery for some generous supporters of the Cathedral when the news came through.
Very quickly we organised a memorial act at the Cathedral – but not in the church itself but instead in the north porch of the Millennium Buildings – what we call the Mandela Porch. The flag stones there are inscribed with the name of Nelson Mandela who opened the buildings in 2001. That was a great day. We were meant to be joined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu but he was unwell and so we were joined by Dr Mandela. The former Dean, Colin Slee, beamed from the beginning to the end of the visit to the moment when we waved the President goodbye. I had the enormous and unforgettable privilege of sitting alongside Mandela and guiding him through the service. It was clear that we were in the presence of one of the greatest people in human history, not simply an iconic figure, but someone who was teaching us a better way of being.
What was so moving for me was to meet this man who had suffered so much during his imprisonment and who had so courageously campaigned and worked for the freedom of his people against an evil regime based on racial prejudice and yet showed no sign of bitterness and was not driven by the instinct and desire for revenge. It was as though he understood the teaching of Jesus in a way that I simply had not taken on board. As I was putting together the short liturgy for Friday morning I chose a reading from St Matthew (Matthew 5.38-48) in which Jesus says to us
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’
It speaks of the way Nelson Mandela lived.
Nelson Mandela was the father of his nation and he has been a father to each one of us; he created a rainbow nation in which, at its best, all have a home. As we enter the Cathedral through the Mandela Porch I hope that we are entering a place that lives by his values of inclusion and Christian reconciliation and love. Nelson Mandela did not just change South Africa, he changed the world and he did it from the basis of his faith in Jesus Christ and his deep love for all humanity.
One of the beginnings of the past week was the first of the Advent Course sessions. This week we welcomed the Revd Alistair McCulloch, the Lead Chaplain at the Royal Marsden Hospital. He spoke about ‘God comes…in darkness.’ By all accounts it was a fantastic evening enjoyed by a good crowd of people (sadly I couldn’t be there) as Alistair talked about the issues surrounding death and dying. This is what some of those present said afterwards.
“It was the first still point in my day and a welcome chance at the threshold of a new church and secular year to ask in a warm and supportive atmosphere the big and important question of how, in dying, we should be living.”
“Being here this evening was a great relief. It’s been… a wonderful opportunity to really address central issues… To have people taking time out to address something that’s usually avoided has been fantastic.”
“I think this was something I really needed to explore and hadn’t done … I’m still discovering what I need to do in my spiritual journey…but this was really useful.”
“I think, for me, it was about having the permission to think differently about Advent… to have the freedom to think that it’s not all about the approach of Christmas… to be able to share in what others feel as well has been a huge privilege.”
“I think this evening has been really positive and constructive in terms of bringing people together and creating an opportunity to talk about the sorts of things that we need and want to talk about, but actually find quite difficult to vocalise and to explore. This has been really helpful in terms of enabling us to do that.”
On Wednesday we will welcome the Dean of Monmouth, the Very Revd Lister Tonge, to talk about ‘God comes…in silence’. Do come along at 7.00pm.
The other new beginning happened this weekend with the Dedication of the new Church of St Hugh which is part of the Cathedral parish. Those who saw the recent documentary about the Cathedral will have seen Canon Bruce Saunders talking about the new St Hugh’s. The short version of a long story is that St Hugh’s, part of a settlement established by Charterhouse School, had to move from its old building whilst that was being redeveloped. The congregation has been meeting at St Georges’, Southwark for almost two years and this weekend we moved back in.
On Saturday evening we were joined by Bishop Christopher Chessun, who dedicated the church in the presence of a huge crowd of people. One of the most moving moments was when, as well as marking the walls and the pillars of the building with the Oil of Chrism, he anointed the foreheads of many of the ‘living stones’, the people of God, the real church.
This morning the Bishop of Woolwich, Michael Ipgrave, joined us for the first Eucharist in the new church. Again there was a great crowd of people. One of the features of the church are its huge windows at street level. It means that we can see out whilst we worship and people can see in. Bishop Michael told the congregation that as people look in they will ‘see the face of God in all gathered here’. It was a powerful message – people living the Living God.
It is so exciting to have this wonderful new place of worship in the Cathedral parish and such a wonderfully vibrant, diverse and inclusive congregation – just the vision of how things should be that Nelson Mandela lived for and the spirit in which he died. It was significant that the new church was dedicated in the days following his death. May we be as courageous as he was.
This is the prayer we are praying in the Cathedral in the days leading up to Mandela’s funeral.
Father in heaven, we praise your name
for all who have finished this life loving and trusting you,
for the example of their lives,
the life and grace you gave them,
and the peace in which they rest.
We praise you today for your servant Nelson Mandela
and for all that you did through him.
Meet us in our remembering
give us thankful hearts
and fill our lives with praise and thanksgiving,
for the sake of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.