There is such a profound and hidden power in sacred words, as I have learned by trial, that to one thinking upon things divine and earnestly and diligently pondering them, the most suitable of all musical measures occur (I know not how) as of themselves and suggest themselves spontaneously to the mind that is not indolent and inert.
So wrote William Byrd in the preface to a volume of his music, the Gradualia, in 1605. He had learned the profound and hidden power of sacred words by trial. Musical trials perhaps – he was criticised at times for his music being too ornamented. But surely also the trials of his Christian life. Although born in a Protestant family, Byrd was following Catholic practices by the early 1570s. This was risky in Elizabethan England, where not to go to Protestant worship was called recusancy, and led to court appearances and fines. Indeed Catholics were increasingly suspected of sedition, which, if proved, led to execution. Byrd himself was often in court, paid numerous fines, was suspended from his post at the Chapel Royal, and was suspected of associating with those who would plot the overthrow of the Protestant Sovereign.
And yet, despite these trials, or perhaps because of them, he found the most suitable of musical measures occurring to him, when he contemplated the texts of the Mass in Latin. It was surely part of his Catholic understanding that he wrote three settings of the Mass. And it was surely part of his conviction as a Catholic that he publish them, in 1594-5 a couple of years after composing them. Both concise and ornamented, these settings are clearly among the highest achievements of English choral music.
It takes a certain imagination to understand the fervour of Byrd and others in the 16th Century over being Catholic or Protestant. It was a matter of utmost significance, of life and death to some, and of the prospect of life eternal for many. Outside our own Chapel, the PH in the cobble-stones marks where Patrick Hamilton was put to death for his Lutheran convictions in 1528, just a decade or so before the birth of William Byrd. The opera at the Younger Hall this afternoon Donizetti’s Mary, Queen of Scots, makes little of the religious differences between Elizabeth and Mary, but the opera’s favour for Mary over Elizabeth reflects Catholic Italy’s view of the conflict. Although Elizabeth was considerably more moderate as a Protestant monarch than others would have liked, it was still a matter of supreme courage to be Catholic, to attend private masses, and to write music for such occasions.
Today, thankfully, the PH has become important only insofar as a superstition that if you tread on it you will not graduate, although taking part in the May Dip can atone for that sin. Catholics and Protestants co-exist in a harmony almost unimaginable in Tudor times. Outside certain parts of the West of Scotland, and of course Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants see themselves much more as fellow-Christians than as fierce opponents.
Sometimes people think that religious opposition has moved to a conflict between Christianity and other faiths, in particular Islam. And it suits people, from different perspectives, to portray many of today’s wars as a clash of civilisations, between the modern Christian West and a medieval Islamic fanaticism. That analysis is simplistic, mistaken and almost always put forward as part of a polemic whose aim is to foment hatred and conflict.
By contrast, people of different faiths continue to co-exist across the world, and indeed, often make common cause, for example in campaigning for justice, for peace, for effective action against climate change, and in delivering humanitarian aid. In this University, our Interfaith Steering Group and Co-Existence Initiative bring students of Christianity, Islam and other faiths together to celebrate what we hold in common, to explore our distinctions in a respectful way, and to debate and discuss the problems of our age.
If we still want to identify religious conflict, there is always Richard Dawkins on hand, persistently banging the drum for the perniciousness of religion. Yes, of course, there is antagonism between a bone-headed anti-science religious approach and a hard-headed secularism convinced that there is no place for faith in public decision-making. But most people – atheists and believers – find themselves saying a plague on both your houses, on Dawkins and his curiously similar fundamentalist opponents.
It seems to me that Byrd’s courage of his convictions are not easily translated into contemporary conflict. By contrast, it is the absence of conviction which is so apparent today, conviction either for or against faith, or a particular version thereof. Instead, there is a mild openness, occasional curiosity, a marketplace of pleasant spiritual experiences, from choral festivals to yoga retreats, from mindfulness to wild swimming, from candle-lighting to detox diets. And most of it will do us good. I wonder though what William Byrd would make of people being spiritual but not religious?
What would the Apostle Paul make of them? Perhaps his words to Timothy would be re-used:
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
Perhaps in every generation preachers bemoan that people, even those at worship, don’t take things seriously enough, are not doctrinally pure.
The thing is that my ears itch too. My doctrine is no longer seen as sound by all Christians. My undergraduate self believed different things about sexuality or the relationship between Christianity and other religions.
Sometimes, I wonder about the very basic stuff. How can God really be united fully with humankind in a single human being? How can God be found fully and equally in three persons? How can we really believe in the resurrection of the body? How does God actually work in, with and through explicable material processes? What does God mean? Is God real?
Sometimes sound doctrine sounds far from sound to me, but rather an extraordinary, elaborate, ornamented speculation. My ears itch too, and the old truth sounds so implausible compared to a vaguer hope in something.
And yet, somehow I can’t quite break free. For all the faults of faith, the misplaced convictions, usually over whom we go to bed with, or even whom we’re willing to eat and drink bread and wine with, the Christian faith again and again shows that it engages with reality in a painfully honest way. A courageously honest way. The Christian faith attempts to depict the reality of life from the creation of the universe to the nature of the human being. The Christian faith attempts to analyse that reality, discerning meaning and purpose, the good and the right. The Christian faith offers an explanation for how shockingly and appallingly things can go wrong, and suggests reasons to live, to work together for a better world, and to hope for life beyond death – whether our own or that of the universe itself. It dares to point at truth and say, what would it mean if one human being really did reveal the nature of the divine?
Today’s readings offer hints as to why I and a few people still risk being Christians. In Jeremiah, for example, we are offered an account of human responsibility. It’s a riposte to Larkin’s famous lines about what our parents do to us. Instead, Jeremiah says, we are responsible for our lives, we are our own mixture of brilliance and disaster. But this is no counsel of despair – for there is the comfort, not of myth but of covenant, of God’s loving relationship with us, healing and forgiving.
Then in the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul says,
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… and in view of his appearing and his kingdom.
In other words, God hasn’t given up on this wayward world, but inhabits it, and breaks into it with signs of God’s community. Traditionally that was identified with the church, but today, my itching ears discern God’s work in some other places:
in peace and reconciliation, between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland as much as anywhere;in acceptance and inclusion of people identifying as L or G or B or T or the plusses which follow;
in the new groundswell of action over the climate crisis.
And in Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, we have a final invitation to have and to hold convictions. God, Jesus teaches, is no cynical bureaucrat who maintains a hostile environment to all who beg for fair treatment. Rather, when we cry to God, we can make mistakes in our application. For he will hear us, he will help us, he will be just in his loving. And so we can trust him.
William Byrd, throughout his long life, held on to his convictions, and seems even to have strengthened in his resolve. He trusted in God and did not sway from sound doctrine as he saw it. He was as persistent as the widow in trusting in divine justice. And how marvellous for us that he did so. His music, including his Mass for Five Voices, has inspired faith in generations, perhaps especially over the past hundred years, among Catholics, Protestants and others with ears itching for beauty, goodness and truth. Such music may not be enough in itself to make one a Christian, but when we hear towards the end of this service the final cadences of the Agnus Dei, you may agree with me that few people have captured the essence of faith quite as sincerely, in its profound and hidden power.
Agnes Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.