It’s a lovely word – sublime – and not one I often use. ‘Of very great excellence or beauty’ is what the dictionary tells me it means. So it was exciting to know that today I was going to visit ‘The Sublime House’ in Rouen. The reason I am here is that this is the first farewell occasion of this year as I prepare for my retirement from Southwark Cathedral in July. There are a number of places I want to go to outside of the Diocese of Southwark to say farewell and thank you. The first of these is the congregation at Rouen Cathedral. We have had a covenant relationship with the Cathedral of Notre Dame for over 25 years. It has been a blessing to us.

The relationship grew out of the personal friendship that my predecessor as Sub Dean, or more precisely Vice-Provost, Canon Roy White had with Pere L’Arche who was the Dean of Rouen Cathedral. Out of their fraternal bonds grew this desire to actually commit ourselves as congregations to working together to achieve, or at least move towards achieving, that unity for which Christ prayed

‘that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me’ (John 17.22-23)

It is part of that sublime – that word again – High Priestly Prayer that Jesus prays as he moved towards his Passion. At that moment his desire for us is voiced to the Father, that we may be one. And in response to that prayer we have once more kept the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I have been to Rouen many, many times. Sometimes it has been with groups of people from our congregation, sometimes with the boys or the girls of the choir, sometimes on my own. In 2014 we came with people from Bergen Cathedral, our other formal ecumenical link, to celebrate 1000 years since the baptism of King, now Saint, Olave in Rouen Cathedral and the subsequent and consequential conversion of the Norwegian people. Each time we have come we have discovered more about this wonderful and ancient city.

Part of the walls of the house

So it was lovely yesterday to be taken to a place which I have never visited before. It’s called the Sublime House because of something written in graffiti on one of the walls of the ‘house’. This building constructed in the early 12th century lies now beneath the car park of the Palais de Justice. When work was being carried out on the restoration of the Palais in 1976, the remains of this building were discovered. It is Romanesque in design and construction and a substantial part of it remains. It was set in the mediaeval Jewish Quarter still marked in street names in the immediate area. But whether this was a synagogue, a rabbinical school, or a private house for a wealthy member of the Jewish community in Rouen which was also used for other ritual and community purposes, is not known.

The street name is a reminder of the Jewish Quarter

However, there are carvings at the base of pillars which speak of verses in the psalms – ‘the lion and the adder’ of Psalm 91 – and also graffiti in Hebrew script, the most important of which says

‘This house shall be so high until the Rock shall have mercy on Zion’

Which in French is translated ‘Que cette maison soit sublime’ and hence the name, ‘La maison sublime.’

You can just make out the ‘sublime’ graffiti

We stood there in what remains of the ‘house’, walls so substantial, built to last, to hold something of the Jewish community here and remembered that the position of Jews in French society, as across much of Europe, deteriorated in the 13th century until they were expelled from France in 1306. The property held by the Jewish community was taken, as was this ‘house’.

The day before we stood in this sublime space had been Holocaust Memorial Day when we remembered once again what happened to our Jewish sisters and brothers during the Second World War and the six million who were killed. We also have to acknowledge the disturbing rise once again of anti-Semitism in so many places and the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine which is once again having devastating consequences on both communities. Our prayers for Christian unity bumped up again our prayers for a deeper understanding between Jew and Christian, and between the peoples of the Abrahamic faiths and between peoples of all faiths and none.

‘The lion and the adder shalt thou trample underfoot’

The Sublime House stands empty, a monument, but the words scratched into the stone by a scholar, or a worshipper, or someone just looking to the restoration of Jerusalem spoke to us all. As the Psalmist said in Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’ Amen.

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Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark