News: Bishop's Address at Golden Jubilee Service

Below is the text of the address given by the Bishop of Kensington, The Rt Revd Paul Williams, at the College's Golden Jubilee Service on Monday 21st June 2010. Paul is an Alumnus of Grey College.

It is an immense privilege to be invited to speak at this celebration of fifty years of Grey College. Since that first Michaelmas term 1959 nearly 10,000 students have lived and studied and laughed and cried, made friendships, created memories and been filled with aspirations for a bright future and even a few dreams of making a better world.

I am sure you will know that the College coat of arms features a scaling ladder (the badge of the Grey family) and the motto reads, ‘ascending by degrees’. But most people with any common sense know that it would be best not to ascend a ladder unless you are certain that it’s resting on a firm foundation. If the base of your ladder is not steady then no matter where you think it may take you it would better not even to begin climbing!

Over 50 years our college has hosted many great parties, the Phoenix Balls and special feasts, but it’s also played host to something far more significant – the making of foundations for life. Those foundations are made as we do our learning and our living together in community, as we shape our goals for life and manage our disappointments and overcome our fears and deal with our regrets and make a life.

And in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells one of the most famous of all his parables – a story about foundations. It comes at the end of what is widely held to be the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount.

And in this story Jesus challenges his audience to think very hard about one question: what foundations are you building you life on?

Now before we take a closer look I want briefly to test your knowledge of English literature, because there’s another quite famous story in the history of English literature that’s very similar.

In this other story, there are three main characters, and each one is a builder. They each construct a house. And there is a contrast between wise and foolish building. Then along comes someone who puts each house to a test. If the house was built wisely, it stands. If it were built foolishly, it falls.

Anybody recognize this other story? ‘The Three Little Pigs’

I knew Grey College would get it! Every little pig builds a house, and every house faces the big bad wolf. One day the big bad wolf comes, and says, ‘Little pig, little pig, let me come in.’

And the little pig says, ‘Not by on my chinny-chin-chin’ [I wanted to see if I could get you all to say that in this great cathedral.] Two of the pigs build their houses out of stuff that looked good, maybe because it was easier or cheaper, but they never stopped to ask the question, ‘Will it stand up to the wolf test?’ But one little pig builds his house wisely, and it lasts.

There’s something about construction as a metaphor for our lives that runs very deep in the Bible. And in Matthew 7 the story’s about house-building.

And it’s one of those parables where it’s really two stories side by side. Two people who both build a house – one builds it on rock and the other on sand.

And of course Jesus message is simply this that if you’ve only got one chance to build a life why would you ever take a risk on the foundations.

In this story both houses face a storm. And the storm that comes to the house on the rock and the one that comes to the house on the sand are absolutely identical, word for word – because Jesus wants to make it clear, this isn’t a story about how to build a house where there’ll be no storms.

And that may be rather inconvenient; because that’s the story we would much rather hear. We’d prefer a story about two climates, two places with different kinds of weather — Saint Tropez in the summer or Durham in the bleak mid-winter. The wise man may be educated in Durham yet he would probably build his house in Saint Tropez.

But Jesus doesn’t tell the kind of story that we’d like Him to tell. This isn’t a story about how to find a place where the storms never come. We all know that when it comes to life itself there are some people who think, ‘I’m smart enough, or I’m rich enough, or I’m successful enough, or even I’m religious enough to engineer a storm-free life.’

Jesus says you can’t do that. Storms come to every life – and none of us knows when they will suddenly hit. They may be relational storms, financial storms, health storms, or dark storms of the soul.

But what Jesus is saying here is that the wise person builds to withstand any storm. They don’t expect to live a storm-free life but they can be confident that they will stand secure whatever storms life may send – even the ultimate storm of death.

Through this parable Jesus is inviting people to consider very carefully their foundations for life.

It’s worth noting that the ladder of aspiration on the college coat of arms stands between two St Cuthbert’s crosses – the symbol of City of Durham and ancient sign of Christ, who himself endured the greatest of all storms on a rough and ready hill outside Jerusalem. Christians down the ages have made this claim: that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a new way has been opened into the presence of God – so that people of every culture and background and education might be free to ascend the ladder first spied by Jacob 3500 years ago – a ladder into heaven itself.

This is why Jesus invites people to choose him as their foundation for life – not so that life will be storm-free but so that every day life can be filled with the light of God’s loving presence even when skies are grey, skies are grey, skies are grey.

There’s a story told of a little boy who would look across the sprawling meadows outside his house every morning, and he would see in the distance a house with golden windows. He would stare and revel in the radiant beams coming from far away.

One day he asked his father if they could visit that house, to see the golden windows. The father obliged, and they walked and walked until finally they approached the house. The young lad stood perplexed. He saw no windows of gold. But a little girl inside saw them staring at her home and came out to ask if they were looking for something. The boy explained, ‘I wanted to see the house with the golden windows – the house I see every morning.’

As a quick as a flash the girl replied, ‘Oh, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you wait here a little while until sunset, I will show you the house with the golden windows that I see every evening. She then pointed to a house in the distance – the home of the little boy.

And how true this story is of life itself. We go through life looking out of the windows of own experience, dreaming of a golden window somewhere in the past – perhaps when we were at Grey – or we look way off into the future, and keep climbing our ladder hoping for something better. But when we stop long enough to look through the windows of our soul, we realise that in every single moment of life God’s light catches our earthly experience and his presence is able to turn it from grey into gold.

This simple act of celebration today can be one of those moments, as we celebrate the very good legacy we share as Grey men and women. May God’s light guide our every step upwards and onwards, through each storm and past every shadow, may we aspire for what is right and good, and may our college prosper in all the days to come. Amen

Added Monday 21st June 2010