Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it, the lines form St John’s gospel may not appear to have found a ready home in the community gathering on a sombre and wind-chilled Romsey for our service of lessons and carols on Thursday but there was more afoot than you might think.
Thursday’s service comprised seven lessons from the Christian Bible which took the community through the Christmas story from the beginning to the moment of revelation. The community joined together to sing carols which Reverend Thomas Wharton, the Vicar of Romsey Abbey, touched on in his address as so much part of the tradition of Christmas in England. So many of our students he recalled will have participated in nativity plays at primary school and he suggested they might like to think back to the roles they had. As a father of three girls who each had their moment of nativity magic, I can well recall the stitching together of bits of material, drafting in tea towels and there are still several dressing gowns my nephews will never see again.
The most memorable moment from nativity past was the bright idea of some planner to introduce a real donkey, yes reader you have it right, a real donkey to the church service. It looked good on paper and passed the committee stage, but a more recalcitrant beast would have been hard to find and long after his moment had passed, he stood resolute and unmoving as we left for mince pies in the Hall. And no, it wasn’t my idea…
Let’s just pause to think about one of the readings from the service, the first 14 verses of St John’s gospel. St John is credited with authorship of the Fourth gospel, though it is in fact much more likely that his name was the one given to a compendium of works collected by a community (κοινωνία) of faith understanding itself in the context of turmoil. A brief thumbnail of early Christian history informs us that the early church continued to closely associate with the Jewish tradition from which it had begun. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem created a hiatus and the identification of followers of Jesus as separate from the Jewish tradition put them beyond the pale of imperial protection or at least tolerance. John’s community was then one struggling in the darkness of identity crisis and its members conceptualising or trying to understand their faith in a world of change.
Εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Ἰωάννην or the Gospel according to John, was the ‘good news’ for this community. Much is made of John’s use of light against darkness and in his historical context you can understand why. Surrounded by a world largely hostile to their views and their way of life, they sought some comfort.
In the context of our school as a member of the United Church School Trust, our foundations are in the 19-century desire to bring education to those who did not have it, in particular to bring education to girls in industrial Britain. The array of girls High Schools we recognise today had their origin in this charitable exercise. Our school participates through our aims in exactly the same purpose of bringing education to the minds of the young and in so doing enlightening the eyes of their minds.
John’s gospel goes on to comment on the refusal of those outside the community to see the light, the rejection of the message of tolerance and understanding they sought to set out. In recent weeks it certainly seems to me that there is no better time to shine that light of tolerance and understanding. Events in the world might incline us to see more darkly than we need; it is all too easy to be tempted to take some examples from the news and to project the notion of a world going to ruin in a hand cart. But it is not so.
This is the first time our Senior School has gathered at Romsey Abbey as a community of students, parents, staff and family. To be fair, the Prep School are well used to Christingle and to gathering as a community, less so the Senior School. I followed the line of our mini buses to Christingle and marvelled at how many heads turned to see what was going on. Consider over 300 students in immaculate uniforms moving through Romsey on their way to the Senior School service? We stopped traffic, in fact we stopped Romsey as shoppers looked on at bright optimistic young people walking purposefully and politely to the service. As I looked down at a packed Nave, at a packed Abbey, one can only brim with confidence. Their optimism, joy and openness to the world and each other, their understanding of difference and their acceptance of others for themselves (notwithstanding their navigation of the choppy seas of adolescence) make them a delight to behold and they are for me a shining light in the darkness: lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)