2008 Portora Sermon Jan 08

Sermon at Quatercentenary Celebrations of Royal Schools in Ireland

Sermon preached by the bishop of Clogher, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson, at a Service held in Portora Royal School to mark the Quatercentenary Celebrations of Royal Schools in Ireland, on The Feast of the Conversion of St Paul January 25th 2008

Readings from Scripture: Jeremiah 1.4-10; St Matthew 19:27-30

Jeremiah 1.2 Then I said, Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy. But the Lord said to me, Do not say, I am only a boy; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you…

The crest of Portora Royal School lays on everyone associated with the life of the School an imperative which is well-known to all gathered here today for this Service of Thanksgiving and Celebration. We gather as a school community in the presence of members of the community of Enniskillen who are our friends and with whom we share and live our heritage. In rejoicing at four hundred years of Royal Schools in Ireland, our first concern is to record four hundred years in the life of our own school, Portora, in particular. The imperative is to hold in honour all people: Omnes honorate. What is both challenging and disarming about this motto is that it includes every one of us in honouring others and at the same time does not exclude anyone from among the number of those whom we, in turn, should hold in honour. We ourselves have to make the running. The agenda is open and the work of Portorans is never finished.

The word: honour itself has two basic meanings. The first is the repute or esteem in which a person or thing is held and the second, deriving from this, is a public honour, official dignity or post which someone holds by virtue of the repute or esteem in which she or he is held. A further meaning is, of course, anything which is given as a gift, mark of honour or acknowledgement of such repute or esteem, whether during life itself or subsequently after death, in recognition of a life well lived for others. The point which stands out for us Portorans is that it is from respect for others, however different from them we might be or they from us, that there flows whatever office or dignity now or in the future any of us might hold. The same goes for whatever reward any of us might reap. And our holding of any such office or dignity or our gaining any such reward is always to be tested against our motto: Omnes honorate.

In the world of today, the expectation that people might, as a matter of priority, honour one another probably cuts no ice and sounds like little more than a recipe for losers. The majority of people nowadays see themselves as having economic potential, transferable skills and career goals which, given the correct opportunities and education, they have the capacity to turn into cash. To talk of honour and of honouring all people sounds quaint and outmoded. It is exactly the sort of thing it is nice to know other people are doing because we know well that it is hard work. What is more, deep down, we sense that it will all too often get in the way of what we have set ourselves to do and to achieve. I say this because it is often difficult for a generation – and when I am talking about school life I think of a generation as consisting not in thirty but in seven years – to appreciate the changes which have taken place already in our own generation and to begin to assess what has been lost and what has been gained. With change comes the irreversible recognition of difference. Difference itself shapes the change and shapes also the value we place on the past which has preceded it. But difference and change are complicated concepts. They themselves change our own pace and force us to accept the pace of others. Often we feel cornered and turn to insult, subterfuge or politicking. Very quickly, what begins by being shocking becomes every-day and, somehow, normal. Our generation, like its immediate predecessor, is completely porous to advertising and its capacity to manipulate our senses, our values, our relationships, our dissatisfaction with our lot and our plastic card or that of our parents.

I offer you but one example of what has changed radically in our own time: information. To all of us, the communications revolution is here to stay and it is an integral part of our lives. It brings us tremendous advantages, new intellectual possibilities and consumer conveniences from personal ipod to genetic mapping. From the perspective of a pupil or a teacher, it is perhaps one of the most glorious tools of the trade anyone could ever have wished for, in terms of accessing publicly available information, in presenting one’s own use of such information and in making it available and attractive to others. Yet, viewed from a different perspective, it is as dangerous as it is convenient. I say this because no matter how we try to police it, it is intrinsically devoid of morality and therefore it can credibly be argued that, as well as being informative and liberating, it is every bit as much corrupt and corrupting. Virtual reality carries no responsibilities. Not only does your appropriation of the net it depend on your perspective. It also depends on what you want to make it do for you and for other people. Nothing corrupts like corruption itself!

It is for this reason, therefore, that I want to ask all of you - pupils, staff and teaching staff alike - to think about content and communication in the context of your belonging to Portora. Both are relevant to education and to the tradition which Portorans hold dear. Both also need one another in the sort of world which I have described, where information, or what the Americans call infotainment, is seem to hold the key to unlocking every door. Both content and communication are relevant also to the Scriptures which are prescribed for today, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Our attention is drawn in the First Reading to the smallness of Jeremiah who sees himself as no more than a boy in the face of the task before him and to God’s free and loving gift of communication to him. It is drawn in the Second Reading to the demand for clarification and further information on the part of Peter, the companion and fellow-martyr of Paul, when Jesus has just told the disciples how difficult it is for anyone to presume to enter the Kingdom of God. Again, I freely admit, these are perspectives which probably seem nonsensical in the world of today where we have convinced ourselves that we are what we make ourselves in our most recent makeover. But both, finally, are relevant to the twin purposes for which Portora was established: religion and learning. Try as we might, this we cannot escape however modern we might have become.

I myself have had the privilege of being a pupil at Portora, now of being a Member of its Board of Governors and currently its chairperson. From time to time, as I sit at Board Meetings in the Seale Room, I recollect vividly that the last time I sat in that room as a pupil before returning to Portora in my present capacity was on the last Friday in June 1975 when I was the only person left in Portora sitting an exam. So much of a ‘left-over’ was I then that nobody even bothered to invigilate me except the Headmaster’s Secretary who popped her head sporadically round to door to make sure I knew how much time I had left for the particular Examination Paper which had me scratching my head so feverishly. The whole exercise was not assisted by the fact that demob-happy rowing eights were packing up on the Terrace to go off to a sun-drenched regatta. But, sad to say, the unseen translation with which I was grappling had nothing to do with rowing eights or triremes or even the phaselus, the single-scull shaped like a kidney-bean, immortalized by the Latin poet Catullus. On a sun-drenched afternoon I was deep in the fog of guesswork.

Portora taught me a number of things for which I remain grateful to this day. The first is that you learn best what you teach yourself. By this I do not mean that you disregard or disrespect your teachers or the syllabus. Untutored genii are few and far between! But what I do mean is that you remain inquisitive about what you are taught, that you do not bow down before the finality of information but recognize its limitations. Information is, after all, no more than a slip-road to comprehension. Much of it, in any case, is quickly superseded by new and more exciting discovery and interpretation. Otherwise we’d be eating stale micro-waved cabbage for lunch for the rest of our days! The second is never to fear being stuck for something to say. This may sound trite or twittish but I can guarantee that for every boy here, as life progresses for you, there will be many opportunities for you to say something or to shy away from saying anything. My advice is: Don’t shy away! Too many people assume that tolerance and respect are simply part of the air we breathe and, therefore, feel that there is no need to do anything about developing them. This I simply do not accept. The forces of intolerance, extremism and unthinking conservatism are indeed out there and a potent force for perversion and distortion in the air we breathe. They have a large following and are the very mirror-opposite of the instruction: Honour all people which is laid on Portorans today as yesterday. One never knows how quickly or how slowly a seed of goodness will blossom and flourish. The third is that education is never hammered out in the abstract. It never ‘comes out of nowhere’ as they say. There is always a context from which education emerges and in which it is delivered. The pupils, mercifully, are largely unaware of this but education is almost always the shop-window of an ideology. And ideologies are ephemeral and fickle.

So, it is important for teachers and pupils alike to have a clear grasp of that seemingly wispy word: ethos. The primary meaning of the word: ethos is a place where animals or humans regularly and instinctively go, for example the haunt of animals, as Homer uses it: the haunts and pasturage of horses … (Iliad 6.511). From this physical meaning there develops the human usage of customs and characteristics, even to the point of facial expression. And again from this derives the moral dimension of what we refer to as: ethics, the philosophy of human character and conduct. I have laboured this because place, people and values all together make up the ethos of a school such as Portora. It has a glorious location. It has the commitment and dedication of wonderful people. It stands, like a well-ordered rugby scrum, for the values of respect and honour of other people. Like Homer’s horses, it has to be somewhere that boys feel safe and are fed. Like its secondary meaning of human characteristics, it has to have something to do with the way people are and are shaped and moulded by the place in terms of character and attitude. Like its philosophical development in terms of ethics, it has to stand for something of value in the living out of human behaviour. And this brings me back to my request that you all, together and individually, continue to explore the word: honour with which I began. This one word is the legacy of four hundred years of Portora. It is the value-added for every boy who passes through the Gates, whatever he subsequently decides to do with it, invest, squander, share or enhance.

St Paul, whose Conversion we celebrate today, spent all of his Christian theological life hammering out practical ideas about the relationship between law and grace. Most of us know what law is but few of us probably know how to define grace – and yet we are dependent on it every day of our lives. Grace is an instinct which gives before it stops to calculate return for our investment of love in others. St Paul, before his conversion, knew more or less everything about the Law that anyone could know but, in a real sense, the fruit of his conversion was that he was instructed by God in no uncertain terms to look for what is good in people whom he formerly despised and whose murders he orchestrated, Christians and Gentiles. Saul moved from a position of honouring one tradition at the cost of another to honouring one tradition in the context of another. In the Ireland of today we all need people who can make this leap of understanding, who can put it into practice and who can hold the line when it still remains fashionable to rubbish and dis-honour the tradition of others, their customs, values and culture – in short their ethos. Ireland, indeed to be more specific Northern Ireland, will not really improve significantly until people like you make and sustain the effort to enable it to improve. Dis-honouring cannot be the way of Portorans. Whatever our conviction or persuasion, we have to do our utmost to honour all people. That is what we were founded to do. That is what we are still asked to do four hundred years later: Omnes honorate.

Acts 9.5 and 6: Tell me, Sir, who are you? The voice answered, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do.

Date: 25 Jan 08