Read by Very Revd Canon Dr Robin Gibbons on Sunday 6 March 2022
at Pusey House, St Giles, Oxford OX1 3LZ for Lent 1
The first Sunday in Lent is a solemn occasion in the Church Calendar. One of its traditions is the singing or reading of a Penitential Psalm. That’s why we our reading today is one of the greatest Penitential Psalms, Psalm 130, often known as the De Profundis or “Out of the Depths” Psalm. Looking across the world from the War in Ukraine to academic and clerical scandals here in Oxford there does seem to be rather a lot to be gloomy about. But before we sink into too much despondency at the start of lugubrious Lent let me try to lighten our darkness with a humorous story, which perhaps illustrates the hope and the scope of Psalm 130.
This story dates back to a time when I was in the depths, coming to the end of serving an 18-month prison sentence for perjury. Unexpectedly my prison chaplain said to me: “As it’s your last Sunday in here, would you like to give the sermon at our evening service?” Unaccustomed though I had become to public speaking, the old trooper in me made me reply:
“All right, I’ll give it a go – but what should I preach about?”
And the Chaplain replied: “Well you always bang on about how much Psalm 130 means to you, why don’t you preach about that?”
So, in due course notices went up in all the wings of the prison: “Sunday Evening 6.30pm in The Chapel – Jonathan Aitken CB9298 will give a talk on Psalm 130”.
This advertising had the effect of enlarging the attendance far beyond the usual Christian suspects. By the time I got there the chapel was as crowded as Tube at rush hour. And the congregation, which consisted mainly of muscular gentlemen who P.G Wodehouse might have described as “distinctly tough eggs” were in a noisy ribald mood, so much so that I almost felt like I was at “Prime Minister’s Question Time.’
But then all of a sudden, the entire chapel fell into a pin drop silence. This was because of the arrival of a prisoner
known as The Big Face. Now every prison has a Big Face. The name goes back to the days when big criminals had their faces printed on huge ‘WANTED’ posters. And this particular Big Face was a notorious gangland boss. So, when he and his burly minders barrelled into the front row of the chapel everyone respectfully shut up. The presence of The Big Face greatly increased my nervousness as a novice preacher.
So, to improve my street credibility as an interpreter of scripture I began by saying that Psalm 130 was not just my favourite Psalm but was also the favourite Psalm of Augustine, Luther and Bunyan. The Big Face nodded gravely at this information, so I got going. Far from giving any trouble, he seemed to be visibly moved.
For when the sermon was over, he came up to me and, with a little moisture in his eyes, gave me a bone-cracking handshake:
“Oh Jonno, that was beautiful that there Psalm of yours…”
I think he thought I had written it! And he went on:
“Now I have a favour to ask you. I’ve got a couple of my best mates who couldn’t be here tonight. I know you’re going out on Thursday. But before you go, would you come over to my Peter on B Wing and say your piece all over again. Because I know you’d get my mates’ hearts just as you got my heart tonight”.
Now there may have been something in my body language, which signalled that I felt a little uneasy at the prospect of spending an evening in the company of the best mates of a gangland boss. But being an intuitive guy, The Big Face picked this up at once and sought to reassure me. So, he said:
“And to make yourself feel at home, why don’t you bring a couple of your best mates from A Wing. How about bringing those geezers you said liked the Psalm so much: Augustus and Looter and wots his name…?”
Well, I did go over to B Wing and of course I could not bring Augustine, Luther and Bunyan with me.
Despite their absence, we did manage to have a deep spiritual conversation about Psalm 130 with different verses speaking to different villains.
As for The Big Face, well he’s now a law-abiding citizen holding down a steady respectable job and even an occasional churchgoer. His experience only reinforces the view that this great penitential Psalm can reach and change hearts in all sorts and conditions of men from different angles.
Why? Perhaps the 19th century Baptist Preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, got it right when he said: “Psalm 130 contains the essence of all Scripture”.
Indeed, it does.
Verses 1 and 2 emphasise the importance of praying. Cries from the depths may be in tears, but they should also mean prayers. For the first step in a spiritual journey out of the depths is opening up a channel of communication to God by crying or praying to him.
But how should we pray? The Psalm in the next two verses highlights the importance of repentance and forgiveness in a journey out of the depths.
We next come to the third most haunting stanza of this Psalm, verses 5 and6, which are all about patience – a much underestimated Christian virtue.
“I wait for The Lord, my soul waits, And in his word I put my hope”
“My soul waits for The Lord More than watchmen wait for the morning
More than watchmen wait for the morning”.
The message, reinforced by the familiar device of Hebrew poets, known as parallelism or double repetition is that penitence is not a quick fix. It may take time. It may be a slow and painful process.
How long, O Lord? How long? is one of the most frequent refrains through the Book of Psalms. For God’s timetable is not our timetable. How we wait, how we react to an ‘in-the-depths’ experience- is profoundly important – from two angles. First, how do we go through the depths ourselves? Secondly, how do we help others when we see a friend, relative, neighbour going through the depths?
A verse from the Scottish poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, may be helpful here:
‘Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.’
Let’s take the last line first: ‘Courage in your own troubles.’ Being in the depths is a near universal experience. Sometimes it is our own fault. It can be our own failings and mistakes that took us into the depths. Painfully true in my own case as I crashed from Cabinet Minister to convicted prisoner.
Sometimes it is not our fault at all. We can be taken into the depths by mental or physical illness, bereavement, broken relationships, bullying, persecution, or by the horrors of war of the kind we now see day after day on our television screens in the Ukraine.
It takes courage to cope with such depths, which are best endured, as Verse 1 of the Psalm suggest, by prayerful crying out to God. But there is a second challenge implied in this Psalm, perhaps particularly to those who profess the Christian faith and who should be obedient to its second great Commandment: ‘Love thy neighbour’.
How well do we honour that Commandment when we see our neighbour struggling in the depths?
Now I am going to dare to be controversial here.
I want to pose this question close to home right here in Oxford.
As I ask, “How well did some prominent Oxford Christians obey the ‘Love thy neighbour’ Commandment during the longest, costliest, nastiest, and worst reputation destroying scandal in living memory to stain the honour of this University and its most celebrated College?
I’m referring here to the four-year Civil War at Christ Church so unsuccessfully, so expensively and so self-destructively waged for the purpose of destroying the Dean of Christ Church, Martyn Percy. He survived with honour upheld thanks to his own prayerful courage. But what did the most prominent Christians in the Cathedral or in the Diocese of Oxford do to help him survive this epic war? Did they pass the: ‘Love thy neighbour’ tests when their Dean was going through the depths?
I am sorry to say that they failed miserably.
The Church Times, in an editorial on 11 February on Christ Church Civil War said this:
“The Church too must review its conduct, for there were long stretches of inaction during the dispute, which were as harmful as some of its actions. Church communities may feel complacent because they are not as openly hostile as academics can be, but there is a culpability beneath the failure to support, intervene and challenge.”
Now, by the restrained standards of the Church Times this editorial probably rates as a savagely critical indictment of the Church of England hierarchy in Oxford. But I am afraid it is an understatement. The Christ Church civil war was a horror story with many villains. But what about the part played in it by Oxford’s Christian leaders? Surely, they must expect to be measured by higher standards.
Let us leave aside to the devices and desires of their own hearts the secular anti-Dean plotters on the Governing Body of Christ Church. Especially those who are now mightily embarrassed by the publication of their repulsive emails and by their recklessly irresponsible extravagance in blowing £20 million of charitable funds on fees to lawyers, PR companies and lost donations. Let’s leave those dead to bury their dead or more likely to be buried by surcharges and suspensions ordered by the Charity Commission. But the Christian community needs to recognise that there was spiritual warfare in these depths. That’s why searching questions need to be asked of the Bishop of Oxford and of some Cathedral Canons. Have any of them, in the spirit of Psalm 130 expressed a single cheep of contrition, a single phrase of penitence for what The Church Times rightly calls their “failures and culpabilities” in this saga? Their silence so far is deafening. It wasn’t just a matter of passing by on the other side in the manner of the Priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan – although there was plenty of that.
Just read former Canon Angela Tilby’s devastating article in The Tablet of February 5 to get the inside story of how badly some of her fellow Canons behaved – with the honourable and courageous exception of Canon Professor Nigel Biggar. When I read that article, the thought came to my mind that T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral deserves a Christ Church sequel: “Reputational Murder in the Cathedral”. For what some Canons attempted to do was to weaponize a sexual harassment scandal that never happened – and which they well knew never happened. They attempted to bar the Dean from his own Cathedral, into using a fraudulently authored risk assessment to blacken his name and to demand for a second 1 million Tribunal; All with the objective of destroying the Dean – which failed.
By the way, don’t take my word for it that the so-called sexual assault never happened.
The definitive judgement on this matter, after three investigations, was handed down by the President of Tribunals, the senior High Court Judge Dame Sarah Asplin. She ruled, when dismissing the CDM against the Dean, which had been initiated by Canon Graham Ward, that it would not be proportionate to refer this “extremely short” incident to a Tribunal because “the language and the conduct as a whole was not overtly sexual” and “because the complainant had accepted that she was not upset or in any way perturbed”.
End of non-story you might think. But the weaponizers of this incident thought differently. They actually pressed on with their demand for another tribunal costing another 1m of the charity funds to attempt a prosecution of the Dean until they were finally halted in their tracks by strong advice from their own lawyers and by a powerful intervention by the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. But then on the day when the settlement with the Dean was announced the Censors put out a statement on the College website which misleadingly implied that the Dean had settled the allegation of sexual harassment. Completely untrue. So that was a low blow. So was the refusal to publish, as is the normal custom, the Dean’s own dignified and magnanimous statement after the settlement.
Yet another low blow has been the Chapter’s refusal to allow the Dean back into his Cathedral or to permit the traditional leaving service for a departing Dean. Such hostile acts are surely the antithesis of the ‘Love thy neighbour’ command of the Christian Gospel. So where does this leave my once distinguished old College? Where does it leave those senior Governing Body members who are also Canons of the Cathedral Chapter? Answer: Sinking in the depths, and alas showing no signs of wanting to get out of the depths. For hunkering down in their bunkers, or rather in their palatial Canonical residences in Tom Quad, staying in silent denial about their
obvious failures and hoping that the storm will blow over simply will not do.
Now that the civil war has ended with the vindication of the Dean, the public interest priority must be to clean up the Augean Stables of the College and the Cathedral. This can only be done by outside forces, of an independently chaired and administered inquiry and an independent chaired and administered governance review. In the meantime, given the horror story I have surmised at least three Canons should resign. I need not name them today in this service for everyone will know where the caps fit.
But this service began with the obvious reminder on the first Sunday of Lent we are in the season of penitence. If
Oxford’s Christian leaders who have made such a disastrous mess of their part in this four-year civil war at Christ Church show no signs of penitence yet say that they want reconciliation, as they now claim, then they will have to learn. First: there can be no reconciliation without truth, just as there can be no penitence without pain. That is also the message of Psalm 130. If there is no clean up and clear out of those who should be held accountable for their actions, which caused and prolonged the Christ Church Civil War, then that “full redemption” promised in the final verse of the Psalm will be agonisingly and noisily delayed as those “watchmen” wait longer and longer for the morning.