Sermon for the Life and Work of the Revd Prof CFD Moule
Saturday 9th February 2008Thanksgiving Service at Great St Mary's, Cambridge.
It's sometime said that in the Church of England a person's spiritual seriousness can be calculated in inverse proportion to the length of their entry in Crockford's Clerical Directory; it's something to do with the degree to which someone has been able to put down roots and to overcome that restlessness which is part of the curse of Adam's fallen children. And although Charlie Moule's entry in Crockford's is extended somewhat by academic and incidental honours, the bare bones of a biography are very soon related; and we might well think of his life as making the point pretty sharply. Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven, the kind of greatness spelled out in that luminous passage from Ecclesiasticus which is so unmistakeable a portrait of our beloved friend, is at least, at least as much to do with patience, the devoting of the soul to a definite place and task and group of people as it is to do with the volume of business (and, it's tempting to say, the busyness of volumes) or the variegated powers and distinctions achieved in a life.
Charlie's roots lay in Dorset, in a family deeply anchored in the life of the Church of England, a family which had befriended and encouraged the young Thomas Hardy, and which produced several churchmen of distinction, including a deeply-loved Bishop of Durham. But Charlie's direct origins were, of course, in China, where his parents were missionaries; if anyone is tempted to think of him as having had a narrow or parochial existence, it's essential to remember that this was a central part of his inheritance. And readers of what is perhaps his greatest work, The Origins of Christology, will pick up the echoes of that universal perspective in the reflections, typically both bold and painstaking, on the capacity of Christ to speak to and transform lives in other faiths and cultures that do not name him.
After his first studies at Emmanuel and his immediate post-ordination posting, Charlie left Cambridge only for a brief curacy in Rugby. When he returned in 1936 to Ridley Hall, where he had already both trained for ordination and taught for a couple of years, it was the beginning of a long and unbroken residence. Humphrey Carpenter wrote, in his biography of Tolkien that after Tolkien's appointment to the Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925, 'you could say, nothing else really happened'. It would be tempting to say that, especially after Charlie's election as Dean of Clare in 1944, nothing else happened. But that would, of course, be to accept another standard than the 'Crockford's test' with which I began.
What happened in those long Cambridge years – and beyond too, in retirement in Sussex and Dorset – was the shaping of countless lives not only in scholarship but in discipleship. It is impossible to guess how many people's assumptions about the relation of scholarship to discipleship were turned upside down by Charlie – by his quiet insistence on prayer at the beginning of lecture courses, by the utterly engaged and constructive tone of so much of his writing, but above all by his personal example. There was the apparently limitless generosity with his time and attention for students: I am only one of scores who found their way to his rooms in Clare on Tuesday evenings to discuss the sort of issues in New Testament studies that preoccupied us and to discover that so much of what we were struggling and arguing about could be held within a calm and prayerful perspective, within the hugely bigger intellectual and spiritual world that Charlie lived in. And there was the sheer manner of the man: the unforced humility, the shy warmth – and sometimes, at the most unintentionally comic level, the way in which he would make it perfectly clear to you that someone or other's book wasn't really worth bothering with: 'Of course, it's a monument of careful work by a first class scholar, with all kinds of suggestive aspects, and I so wish I could persuade myself that it was true'...
Because the gentleness did conceal a toughness of theological and exegetical principle that could take you aback on occasion; it appears, classically, in one of the footnotes to the Christology book where Charlie reiterates his allegiance to his particular interpretation of the much contested expression 'Son of Man': 'the fact that I am still in a small minority makes me wonder what is wrong with it. But I can, so far, not find the flaw'. So much of him is in those words: the candid admission that his argument has not carried the day, the real readiness to think he is wrong, but also the equally candid assertion that he can't see that he is, failing better arguments against. And he could be no less firm about aspects of liturgy of which he disapproved: his theology was never angular or sectarian (remember his generous support of the liturgical experiments of his successor as Dean of Clare, John Robinson), but there was a clear, eirenic but firm foundation in Protestant principle that made him very uneasy with what he regarded as the drip-feed of some sorts of Catholicising devotion into Anglican practice. He always insisted (as he did in his beautiful brief work on the Holy Spirit, published not long after his retirement) that you blessed people not things; he was always uncomfortable with the spirituality of the Three Hours on Good Friday, insisting that this was the day above all days when a spirituality of the imitation of Christ was inappropriate, since you were celebrating what Christ alone and unrepeatably had done.
And that takes us back to what happened in those long and apparently quiet years in Clare, in the Margaret Chair, in wonderfully active retirement in Ridley once again. What happened was Christ. Everything Charlie wrote about the New Testament began from the uncompromising and unqualified insistence that we could understand nothing about the text unless we understood that it was rooted in contact with Jesus; not memory or inspiration but contact. Paul, he writes, 'speaks of Christian life as lived in an area which is Christ' (Origin of Christology, 95): what the Spirit does (and he was always cautious about any theology that threatened to define the Spirit in abstraction from Christ) is to 'make manifold' the reality of Christ (104), so that Christ is both the territory Christians inhabit and the one who inhabits it in and with us, still personal yet never just individual, realising his infinite self in the finite soul and body, in the shared life of believers, 'growing' himself, you could say, towards the infinite and so never surpassed scope of his eternal relation with the Father.
This is what Charlie taught, consistently and vividly; he taught, more, he communicated, a way of reading the New Testament whole in this perspective – which was why those lectures on New Testament Theology were crowded, even (unthinkable now) on Saturday mornings. But it was also what was going on in him. As in every holy person, living in the Spirit, Christ was happening in him. And Christ can happen in his disciples and lovers because he is risen, with utter literalness in the sense that there is no dead body to mark the memory of someone who has gone into the past, only the unqualified and limitless life that now 'contacts' us in the Spirit. No writer in the New Testament speaks of Jesus otherwise than as living; none of them can think of him except as one who is in the fullest sense contemporary. We can't get behind that, Charlie insisted: Jesus belongs in the present and, just as significant, in the future, in the place where God's purposes for creation are consummated. So he belongs wherever any Christian lives in the faith, hope and love that the Spirit gives: what happens where there is faith, hope and love is Jesus.
'Nothing else happened'; nothing but Christ alive and at large (to use the Masefield phrase he loved) in Clare and Ridley and so many other places through the medium of Charlie's discipleship; alive and at large in the brief but luminous books, and in countless sermons and lectures and addresses. He maintained that, in effect, you couldn't understand what the gospel of either the incarnation or the resurrection claimed unless you had been touched by the life of the one who is always and everywhere 'available and accessible' (121). And part of that touch is always going to be in the lives of others who have been touched in the same way. We live because Christ lives, says St John; and so one of the many ways in which we know Christ lives is to see his disciples and friends living. And that was why Charlie preached the resurrection so consistently, by being Charlie.
He could preach it verbally in some surprising ways. Again and again in his writing, he will turn to the poets and other imaginative geniuses for help; but not many would have the audacity to take one of Housman's most poignant agnostic poems and turn it on its head. As he concludes his chapter on 'The scope of the death of Christ' in Origins (pp.125-6), he writes: 'Those in every generation from then till now who know [Jesus] alive are able to turn A.E.Housman's bitterly ironical 'Easter Hymn' into a genuine invocation:
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.'
Charlie goes on: 'If we ask what are the doctrinal implications of this understanding of Christ as making himself available, through his death, to all men, the answer is that they constitute one more factor in a Christology which finds in Christ not just an example but the Mediator between God and Man. It means, if it is justified by the evidence, more than that Jesus Christ indicates how a man may become rightly related to other men in an ideal society. It means that Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from among the dead, actually is, or constitutes that ideal society.'
Well, here we are today as very unideal members of that same ideal society; but because we are just that, Christ happens here. And in his happening here, we stand alongside Charlie and all the faithful departed, united in one prayer, one act of turning towards the Father, living 'in an area which is Christ'. And we thank God for the happening of Jesus crucified and risen in the life of our dear friend – in that outwardly even and uneventful life, in which so much happened for the enrichment, the conversion and the joy of all of us, in which the risen Lord made living contact with us. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ.
© Rowan Williams 2008