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Very Revd Keith Jones (Dean Emeritus)
Thursday 17 May 2018 – Evensong 5.15pm
For York Minster
Learning and skill, and each to a high degree, have made a right royal marriage in this restoration of the east front of the Minster. Like the whole Minster, this is a handmade masterpiece. Human hands have been cherishing the magnesian limestone and the glass and lead. Especially in these last years, men and women have been learning their craft on it and seasoned carvers have spent many hours getting intricate details perfect. Read the book! They have been as imaginative and accomplished as ever they were. Huge pinnacles have been set out and raised anew. Bowing walls have been made straight. Cracked and sometimes jumbled glass has been rendered lucid and firm. Well-meant botches in the past have been patiently corrected. The most careful balance has been made to capture the original achievement of John Thornton’s great work of 1408, but using the technology of today so that the trained eye can see how new work enhances the old. In making difficult decisions the Advisory Group for the window has weighed evidence, pondered history, and been profoundly glad of the quality of the experts at hand. And there it is. From the work of 1408 we know of hardly anyone’s name except John Thornton, our Michelangelo of glass. Today though we can name a host of people of whom we are proud. For they remind us that skills have not died, that here tradition is creative and living, and that here human handiwork has done such things as John Ruskin would rejoice in.
The programme of work on the Minster has to go on. There is always a next phase. Scaffolding is a sign that the Dean and Chapter are vigilant still in the care of this miraculous place. All the same, the completion of the east window is a special moment. For this window draws together the whole accomplishment of the Minster. York Minster is literally the most imperial of English cathedrals. For centuries its magnificence showed that the Christian Gospel was in no way diminished at the limits of the known world. This place proclaimed its meaning straight out, Yorkshire fashion. This, says the Minster, is how the truth is, even to the ends of the earth. This is the meaning of it all. Hear, and see. Shyness is not one of York Minster’s virtues.
See what they hoisted into the air here! They took as their theme the beginning and the end of all things: nothing less. To do it, they turned to the most reliable history of time that they could trust: the Old and New Testaments, the history of the works of God from the first utterance of the meaningful Word, the Logos. So at the summit of the window is the benign but majestic utterer of that Word, depicted as a bearded man, all-Wise. And the creation streams in solidifying light through the angelic hosts to the panels where we see light and darkness being divided and the world being made. Then the panels trace the earliest legends of humanity in scene after scene. Nearer to us, with startling simplicity the story moves into the painful chaos of human history. Then it breaks off abruptly, as history keeps on doing, in the miserable upset of Absalom’s rebellion. And then the window shows us the visions of finality, when the children of time and the things of time are confronted by the shattering justice and unexpected mercy of that same God as portrayed for us in that charter for dreamers and imaginers, the book of Revelation.
All this ultimate narrative our ancestors lifted to catch the light and the winds of Yorkshire. Of course, in terms of sheer information about the world the people of the 15th century suffered from a huge information deficit. But they held this right conviction: that it is God who makes sense of this life and this world. That for all our human chaos, the beginning and the end of this creation are God’s. And when you come into York Minster, and most of all when you are part of its worship, you are surrounded by a world made gracious and ordered by these perfect arcades. We are drawn into the drama of it as we walk through its spaces. And as we ascend to the heart of the building, we bring our lives into the place where God is most clearly shown to us, and the music and the incense surround us, and the bread and the wine convey God’s very self to us, in the light of that translucent wall that closes the horizon ahead. We feel ourselves transfigured.
When we are showing the Minster to others, we should not speak of the builders of the Minster as them: think of them as us, rather, even though of another time. The Minster belongs to our national civilisation, expresses the beliefs of many centuries and is sustained by the living chain of human life. The stonemasons and glaziers of today, yes and the fundraisers and interpreters and administrators of today, and all who wish to identify as the people of today’s Minster are in unbroken continuation across the years. Apart from a regrettable but short disruption in the 17th century and the odd fire or plague, no long hiatus has occurred in the Minster’s life; chapters – even deans – come and go. The skilled craftsmen work generation on generation. Human beings, forming the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church have gone on drawing inspiration from such places as this Minster and keeping it standing. As we affirm the creed day by day we of our generation turn towards that easterly wall of stone and glass; towards the rising sun, the resurrection source, from which God comes to meet us whether it’s 1408 or 2018.
Yes, the Minster says to us, be reassured. Your lives are meaningful, because here is God. York Minster will not have it that life is random, and creation accidental as is the widespread fashion these days. Believe that if you like, but put up with the fact that we won’t have it. Our world may be in all kinds of mess, and the threats to it seem never to end. But here we declare our hope. The great east window tells us we are not to waste time unduly entertaining the thought that we may be deluded. When things are bad, Jesus said “look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” (Luke 21, verse 28)
These days I find myself very often with the people of the l’Arche community which has a house only yards away from my home in Ipswich. We are people with and without learning disabilities, of various nationalities and Christian traditions. Some among us are unable to speak. David, for example, makes many unfamiliar noises while we sing and pray together. It is perhaps the opposite in splendour from York Minster, our simple holding hands and singing choruses; Rowland’s guitar rather than the Minster organ. The noise we make together is pretty fearful if you stop singing to listen. But In God’s sight we are every bit as prized and glorious, and one of David’s sounds as we pray is unmistakeably “Amen”. Amen he says. Amen.
And that is York Minster’s great word, which this window declares. In David’s Amen, that So be it, the simple daily acts of love and service by the hands of people who need one another is at one with the eastern climax of York Minster. “Amen!” say David and the east window of York. To all that has been, to all that is to come, the Alpha and the Omega: Amen.
Dean emeritus of York
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