It was a joy to welcome members of other Pearson churches and visiting singers to our Choral Evensong to give thanks for the life and work of John Loughborough Pearson.
Pearson designed our church as well as two others in the Diocese - St John, Upper Norwood and St Peter, Vauxhall.
It was a particular pleasure to welcome Fr Roger Bush, Dean of Truro, who preached. We're especially grateful because he made the journey from Truro to London and back in one day in order to be with us! He has kindly allowed us to share the text of his sermon, which is produced below.
After Evensong and Benediction we enjoyed a glass of Pimm's in the church hall and courtyard.
Thanks to Andy Scott, Jamie Rogers (our visiting organist) and the singers for some wonderful music.
Pearson Festival: St Michael’s, Croydon: 6 July 2019
Fr Roger Bush, Dean of Truro
About 280 million years ago upsurges of molten lava burst through the rocks of what is now the south-west of the United Kingdom in a series of what is called the Cornubian batholiths. Gradually these outpourings cooled, leaving vast oceans of granite that make parts of the Cornish and Devonian landscapes the things of wilderness and beauty that they are. As the cooling went on minerals were crystallised out in rich veins and lodes that would prove to be of great interest later on.
Just under 280 million years later people began digging at the surface of these great extrusions and noticed two things: firstly that the granite was immensely hard and would be pretty difficult to knock down. Secondly, the mineral and ore deposits embedded in the granite seemed to be of value to other people. So began the indelible association between the geology and the people of Cornwall: granite has been used for building purposes since Neolithic times, and, as Stonehenge was being constructed, tin was being extracted from this ground for trading purposes with the Mediterranean. So, there you have it: Cornubia: the first global economy of these Isles!
And a little further forward in history than this, 141 years ago in fact, a great block of granite was placed on the ground, providing the foundation stone to what would eventually become Truro Cathedral. From the underworld, through natural processes of fire and pressure, came the wherewithal for human beings to place their creative stamp upon the environment, and this building is just one of many examples of such an expression.
Creativity lies at the heart of who we are and what we are. The Bible begins with God creating the world, giving order to chaos and breathing life into the natural world. And that creativity is still going on. There isn’t one thing called theCreation, a machine that was set in motion once upon a time, but there is a thing called Creationthat is an endlessly dynamic outpouring of God’s desire to create. And this is something we all share in, from biological reproduction to statements in stone or paint, in music or language. We all have an innate desire to be creative; it is one of the gifts that God has endowed us with.
And, of course, the catalyst for that creativity, the driving force of the first bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, and the soaring imagination of the architect, John Loughborough Pearson, has left its mark on the Cornish landscape. You cannot approach Truro by rail or sea without noticing its iconic, three-spired presence rising to the heavens. And rising to the heavens was Pearson’s trademark. Not for him the heavy, ostentatious Gothic of a George Gilbert Scott. Pearson had loftier ambitions, emphasising the height of his buildings, so that the eye is guided upwards, and is not distracted by different levels of horizontal detail, thus allowing a particular feature of Pearson’s building to shine through, which is the sheer amount of natural light they let in. Not for him the heavy gloom of an intimidating interior, but rather a celebration of the glory of God in elevated stone
But, of course, Truro Cathedral, just like this church, is more than stone. It is much more than the genius of the architect. A Pearson church has an obvious symbolic status because of its architectural magnificence. But this only prompts further creativity, made known in wonderful liturgy, soul-searching music, and, of course, a constant stream of thought-provoking sermons. The building of a Pearson church is not just a creative act, it provokes a creative impulse as well. God doesn’t rest on his creative laurels, and neither should we.
And we are helped in our creative sharing because God has endowed us with another gift that directs our creative energies, the gift of curiosity. We don’t or shouldn’t participate in God’s creativity out of a sense of duty, although sometimes that helps, but because we are curious; we want to find out what’s out there, what God has in store for us. After all, what prompted our forbears to stick candles around their heads thousands of years ago and start digging at the earth? The prospect of wealth? Possibly. But I wouldn’t mind betting that initially they did this because they were curious. And this has been a feature of the human imagination ever since. We have this indelible desire to ask questions, to seek answers, to understand more about the world in which we live.
I can think of no better summary of this attitude than these words:
“Ever since the dawn of civilisation people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. Why it is as it is, and why it exists at all. But, even if we do find a complete theory of everything, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations, and makes a universe for them to describe? Look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
Words said by Stephen Hawking. For someone who recently said that you don’t need God to light the blue touch-paper, I find that a curiously theological statement. And it is one with which I find it impossible to disagree. You see, no matter how hard we try, God keeps insinuating himself into our general consciousness; it seems you can’t keep a good God down.
This means that a large part of what we should do is to manifest God’s presence in the wider world, so that we are defined, not so much by what happens within these and other hallowed portals, but how we articulate and reveal God, by word and deed, as the underlying principle of the world. And this will involve us asking questions like what difference does God make? What is the nature and purpose of the Christian mission? What is he asking of you and me?
Of course, answering these questions involves leaping into the unknown; we can’t rely on past experiences to satisfy all our curiosities. And that can be intimidating. Fortunately, we have something of enormous value to help us venture forth. Just as the molten lava crystallised out precious metals that have been mined from within the heart of the rock, so God has bequeathed to us a precious vein that runs through the rock of human history: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is a precious lode shining in the heart of the world’s darkness, and we mine it for its wisdom and its hope. We are challenged by its openness, its inclusiveness and its universality. But it’s important to realise what Jesus doesn’t do in the Gospel, he doesn’t provide us with a ten point plan for salvation by which we can all live our lives happily and purely. Instead, in teaching, he stimulates our curiosity again and again: what do you think about this? Who was neighbour to the man robbed on the way to Jericho? Who do people say I am?
And people responded to Jesus because they were curious: from the first disciples like Peter and Andrew, James and John, to little Zacchaeus climbing a tree to see Jesus as he passed by, all wanted to know what Jesus was like. What they got were no guarantees as to where their journey would take them. And Peter, to my mind, the patron saint of Christian discipleship, always responds, always forsaking the peace and security of a familiar life to follow this enigmatic but compelling preacher and prophet. And that, if we have the courage of our faith, should be the path that we take; we should all be led by the gentle, disturbing, probing nature of Christ’s call, and that, of course, takes commitment.
Creativity and curiosity. What unites these characteristics is their forward-looking nature. They all lead us on from where we are now to where we will be; what we have experienced and what we have contributed to only prepares us for what is to come. And if we believe in the creative wonder of God then we will surely be numbered with Nathanael when he was confronted by Jesus: ‘do you believe this because I told you something about yourself? You will see greater things than this.’ And so will all of us.
From the first stirrings of primeval chaos to the culmination of all our hopes and dreams, God infuses the fabric of the created order. He breathes life into the equations that determine the way the universe is and beckons us to discover them, and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond. We must not underestimate the power of buildings like this to inspire and awe. Some of the most gratifying and humbling things that take place in Truro Cathedral are not the great liturgical events, but the quiet quester, who comes into the building (it is free to come in!), and lights a candle, and sits quietly, conversing with God knows whom. These places serve these people as much as any other, and we must not forget that.
But we must not stop there. That same inspiration and awe leads us to explore, as Hamlet says, the ‘undiscovered country’, to which the soaring loftiness of our Pearson churches point. It is in the interface between the beauty we can see, and the beauty we have yet to behold, that true growth in faith comes. It is our duty, our privilege and our joy to journey confidently and well, to see the glory of God beyond the horizon of our experience, where the truth and beauty of God are one.