Valedictory Service, Portora Royal School, June 24th 2009
Valedictory Service, Portora Royal School, June 24th 2009
Address given by Michael Jackson OP (1967-1975), bishop of Clogher
My opening remarks come from the Sunday Times of a few weeks back:
The location is Luton, a familiar Easy Jet destination for many of us. The
occasion is the return of British troops who had served in Iraq. It is
a day of sober reflection - tailor-made, as things turn out, for disaster.
A young white man, wearing an England shirt, sees the Mayor of Luton, whose
name happens to be Councillor Lakhbir Singh, crossing the square in robe
and chain of office. The young Englishman, never thinking that the mayor
might indeed also be an Englishman, presumes that he is an Asian and a
Muslim extremist; runs up to him; fly-kicks him in the back and runs off.
In fact the Mayor is Sikh by faith and in no way an extremist. Caught on
CCTV, the young Englishman is eventually apprehended some weeks later outside
Luton Town Football Club which, of course, is in the middle of the predominantly
Muslim area of Luton Town.
Whatever judgement you make of these events, all of the components of modern
Britain are there: aggressive young male; factual ignorance; the seduction
of racial caricature. But it would seem that clashes of civilization are
attractive on the streets of Belfast every bit as much, as footage of recent
weeks have shown. The Republic of Ireland – before the economic downturn – had
people of at least 150 nationalities and racism became a matter of concern
to many with civic responsibility, as you might expect. Many fewer people
came to Northern Ireland to live but Belfast quickly earned for itself the
inglorious title of: Hate Capital of Europe. I suppose that it is inevitable
in a society where insularity is the order of the day and where none of us
has proved to be all that impressive at dealing with difference. The reaction
to the Romanians in Belfast, a significant number of whom cannot now wait
to get back to Romania, in tabloid media, whether on radio or in print, speaks
all too readily of: pogrom. It is as if a few broken windows constitute another
Kristallnacht. History is, of course, more complex than that, but perspective
and subtlety do not sell enough newspapers.
Part of the reason I am saying this to you this evening is to offer you
a challenge. And the challenge is this: Is the education which you have just
recently completed a passport to the next stage of individual success or
is it an invitation to change for the better a society which is functioning
badly? Too often – in an educational culture driven by league tables,
by the completion of coursework and by the intricacies of scoring marks in
relation to pre-determined answers – issues such as this never surface
because they seem either indulgent or irrelevant or both. There just seems
to be no time available. The priority of privilege brings with it the imperative
of public service. A politically enraged or apathetic society does little
to encourage personal contribution in a world where delight in difference
can too easily be suppressed by the cowardice of uniformity.
Part of the reason I am saying this to you today is that today - June 24th
- is the day on which the Christian church remembers John the Baptizer. If
we think of John at all, we probably think of him as someone who moved in
and out of the settled society of his day, letting off verbal exocets and
offering challenges to those in power about the basis of that power and about
the ways in which they chose to exercize it. John, of course, lived many
centuries ago but, in so many respects, human nature changes very little.
People, in my experience, enjoy it least when what is being pointed out to
them is the genuinely obvious. The same people want to accept neither direction
nor encouragement, no matter how gentle or how firm, to do things in the
way which gives other people a chance to have their point of view heard or
their own way explored. The same people resist any application of authority
which upsets their own sense of their own authority. In diminishing others,
we are simply hastening our own downfall, and are too thoughtless and careless
to notice it.
Why, we might well ask, did John make life so difficult for himself and
what did he really achieve? The desert, we are told, was his domain. It is
all too easy for the religiously sensitive to idealize the desert, as we
contemplate a vast emptiness in our mind’s eye from the perspective
of our patio-decking or our fireside remote-control. The Judaean Desert,
let alone Sinai, is a most uninviting place – betimes scorching and
betimes freezing, but always exposed and dangerous. For those who can handle
extremes with honest creativity and with personal discipline, the desert
is a place and an experience where you feel within you the strength and the
surge of what you will voice when you are reunited with other people. And
so, the desert functions rather like a bellows or an accordion. You fill
up with air and then you give utterance when you find yourself in the wrong
situation at the right time. That, in my understanding, is where God called
John repeatedly and incessantly to be - in the wrong place at the right time;
and he had no fear about telling the people of that place that they were
very wrong indeed.
As the Christian Church developed as an institution, it decided that the
witness of John the Baptizer was best not forgotten. This is for a whole
host of reasons but I would like you, once again, to notice the pivotal place
which John holds in the Christian Calendar. The Feast Day of his Birth stands
at the season of the longest day and it mirrors the Feast of the Birth of
Jesus Christ six months later at the season of the longest night. Not only
in St John’s Gospel, but more generally in a religion of revelation,
the battle is between darkness and light. Christians claimed the territory
of both the longest nights and the longest days to make this very point that
the salvation afforded by Jesus in the spirit of John is to be our earthly
guide to heaven. Institutions have taken very hard knocks in the past number
of weeks in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. Our deepest
thoughts and strongest emotions must, and always must, stand with those who
are abused, violated, degraded and deprived of the dignity of human persons.
Parliament, church, judiciary, education, medicine, fellow-citizens all stand
Institutions and those who people them have let others and themselves down.
The temptation is to twist the knife and to keep twisting the knife. There
is no possible turning of the clock back but we must find a way to turn it
forward. We need to discover afresh the charism of love – love of others
and love of ourselves. Without credible, coherent, compassionate institutions
in all walks of life, we are not so much in the desert but in the jungle.
None of us is entitled to swing into a cycle of sectarianism – again
- or into a spiral of racism. Within this framework, the Feast Day of the
Birth of John the Baptizer is timely. He feared nobody in positions of power.
He was willing to do what had to be done because it had to be done – for
the sake of righteousness, or perhaps better: rightness. And as you prepare
to leave this School this evening, such a motivation is worth remembering
and worth working at.
A History of Portora has recently been published and it was launched here
is School earlier this month. It is an attractive volume, the work of a number
of generous and grateful Old Portorans. It has the air of being written by
boys at School, in that wonderful phrase of Portoran understatement – understatement
itself being a rare event in the ways of Portora much of the time, I am sure
you will agree! Portora – the school on the hill is an excellent read
and, in the best Portoran tradition, unfussy. In light both of Luton 2009
and the Judaean Desert and Jerusalem two thousand years ago, I leave with
you what to me is an arresting and probing sentence from the Foreword. It
is written by Walton Empey, a member of Connaught House, of the 1st XV and
captain of shooting, and now retired archbishop of Dublin – yes, some
clergy once were able to do interesting and exciting things! And the sentence
is this: ‘School life is not simply made up of study and sport but
the interaction of individuals with one another and indeed the system itself
when it is disregarded.’ Disregarding the system – we need to
be most careful in playing with danger.
My own further suggestion to each of you rookie Old Portorans this evening
is that you interact and engage with the system of society wherever you next
find yourselves from the moment you drive away tonight from the Terrace of
this honourable school - ancient and modern all at once. Many of your predecessors
have done great things – spectacular and unspectacular. So can you!
Merciful Lord, whose prophet John the Baptist proclaimed your Son as
the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world: Grant that we who …have
known your forgiveness and your life-giving love, may ever tell of your mercy
and your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Date: June 09