Patronal Festival 2015 ~ Magdalene

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Patronal Festival 2015 ~ Magdalene

As you may know, I am a Magdalene Man. Not an hairy man, or a smooth man, as Alan Bennett might put it, but a Magdalene Man. By that I mean that I studied – philosophy and then theology – since you ask – at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Magdalene College, Cambridge is, of course a far better College than Magdalen College, Oxford, because even though it has far less money – and the choir is not so good, Magdalene Cambridge is blessed with the vital ‘e’ which ensures that that we can say with certainty that in Cambridge they are better at spelling than in Oxford. They’re probably better at sums too. Although in both cases you might have some qualms about pronunciation. You’ll be pleased to know that I have not – to date – insisted on the proper pronunciation of our patron saint – Magdalene – as opposed to Magdalene, which I have spent the last twelve years or so getting used to. Yet if we were to style ourselves St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, we would at least spare ourselves the despicable truncation occasionally heard around the deanery: St Mary Mags. Yuk.

If however, you have Oxford connections, well then I make no apology. You’ve had 800 years or so to get used to the fact that Cambridge is simply the better university, boat race notwithstanding. And we have the extra ‘e’ in Magdalene, which, as they say, seals the deal and delivers the coup de grace.

And yet, victory having been declared in the Varsity Magdalene stakes, the two colleges can bask in shared glory and tradition. Fans of the immortal ‘Yes Minister’ series – and I say immortal, because it seems to be even more pertinent today than in the 1980’s when it was made, will recall that Sir Humphrey Appleby, so lovingly played by Nigel Hawthorne, often sneered at his Minister, Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington, because rather than having gone to one of the two universities (‘are there others?’, he asks on one occasion), Hacker had attended the London School of Economics. It’s a long running joke through the whole set of series, and it connects to a scenario in which the name of Wolfson comes up. Wolfson, a twentieth century benefactor of both Oxford and Cambridge, has colleges named after him in both cities. This is an honour which he shares with only one other man.

“Who’s that” asks Jim Hacker.
“Jesus”, says Sir Humphrey.
“Jesus who?” asks Jim.
“Jesus Christ”, says Sir Humphrey.

Actually there’s a fair bit of Biblical reference and informed religious humour in Yes Minister. Nevertheless, the fact is that not only is that true, but there is only one woman after whom colleges of both Oxford and Cambridge are named, and that is, of course, our own dear Mary Magdalene, whom we celebrate today. And now you’ll now know that I have a longstanding relationship with our patron saint – not only of this parish, but of my alma mater.

So it was with academic research – this very sermon even – in mind that I schlepped up to the old place a couple of weeks ago to attend a conversation at, yes, Magdalene College, Cambridge. Notwithstanding a rather amusing and annoying encounter I had with a railway ticket machine en route – ask me about it later – notwithstanding that, I had signed up to attend a ‘Conversation’ between three leading academics on the topic:

“From Mary Magdalene to Women Bishops”.

One of the speakers was of course The Right Honourable and Most Reverend Professor Lord Rowan Williams, who is as you may know, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Small world, eh? And it means I, and a bunch of clever teenagers, get to call him simply, ‘Master’. He rather relishes this, he told me. Anyway, he is having a ball to himself running a Cambridge College and having the great Roman Catholic church historian Eamon Duffy at High Table with him, is a great joy. Eamon was my tutor in Theology, so it was lovely to catch up with them both, and hear what I hoped would be inspirational conversation about Mary Magdalene, the bits of which I might have been able to understand, could have furnished me with some rare roast beef for this very sermon. However, I was much mistaken in my expectations, which is why you are getting this anecdotal beef burger of an offering, laced as it is with melted cheese from the archives of Yes Minister.

Yes indeed, minister Master Rowan, for the talk, fascinating as it was, was not about Mary Magdalene or even Mary Magdalene, at all. It was about women bishops. And although it was a beautifully crafted, amicable and pertinent discussion among the former Archbishop of Canterbury, a Roman Catholic historian and a radical feminist catholic female professor – called Janet Martin Soskice – who also taught me – there was a sense of it being a very civilized attempt to quietly close the barn door after the horse – who must not be disturbed – had bolted into the sunset. And the main thing that emerged for me out of this discussion was that there is absolutely no tradition of opposition to women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. That’s because there is absolutely no tradition of even thinking about it, let alone being against it. So that was helpful.

Which reminds me, and permits me to make a gratuitous digression –we have a new bishop of Edmonton appointed – and a new Archdeacon too. Exciting times. Rob Wickham, currently Rector of Hackney – is our new bishop, and he will be consecrated in Canterbury Cathedral on September 23rd. We trained together – yes, in Cambridge in fact - and I have known him for twenty odd years. He has served in this Area, down at St Pancras, and I must say I think it is a splendid decision. He will surely be a good friend to this parish, not leastly because he is a supporter of women’s ordination, and will no doubt ordain the female curates as well as the male ones. There may be some male ones who will be reluctant to be ordained by him, but that remains to be seen, and this appointment is a major step in a new direction. He has a young family, and they will move into Bishop Peter’s former pad in Hampstead. Similar to Hackney then….

The new Archdeacon is not really new at all: when Luke Miller was acting archdeacon, John Hawkins was the other one, and now Luke is moving to the City of London, John will take over, leaving his parish in Hendon. So he is no stranger, and this bodes well. I hope, like me, you welcome these appointments.

Obviously though, no senior women for us. That is inevitable I suppose, but on this festival of Mary Magdalene, whose name has so often been allied to the ordination of women cause, there is advancement in that direction to note. Which returns us to Cambridge for a moment, for although the title of the discussion I attended was “From Mary Magdalene to Women Bishops”, there was little if any discussion about her, and the question which I wanted to ask – but didn’t dare – was the very simple one:

“Was Mary Magdalene an apostle?”

Many people like to say that she was – as the unauthorized, later, gnostic gospels describe her – a ‘companion’ of Christ. But was she an apostle? One of the Twelve? A companion is someone with whom you eat bread- that’s what com-panion means. But an apostle? One of the twelve? She was, as we reminded ourselves this morning, the first to meet the risen Christ, and the first to tell the disciples of the resurrection. This makes her rather special – and a woman too! That adds authenticity to the story – no-one making it up would have a woman in pole position for breaking the good news. Which is, of course, why it has taken 2000 years to have women bishops. But even if she was, as the new hymn we shall sing puts it:

First to meet the risen Jesus, Fallen woman, loved then healed’, was she an apostle – that is one of the chosen disciples?

The hymn I have written for the new edition of the New English Hymnal, but of course, primarily as a gift to ourselves, had as its original first verse these lines:

First to meet the risen Jesus
Ranked among the chosen twelve.
Sainted woman, now remembered
For her faith and love revealed.
Sing we now in celebration
Magdalene in memory sealed.

Maybe you prefer it – let me know. But it is controversial to suggest that she is ranked with the chosen twelve. Because, no matter how much we revere her, she is not named by the gospel writers when Jesus calls Andrew and Peter and James and John et al. Which means they either deliberately don’t mention it, or she wasn’t. That is that she joined in with them, but was not part of the inner circle as it were. Dan Brown and others have had their field days on whether or not she was at the Last Supper. Fact is we don’t know. But we do know she was at the cross:

At the cross she kept her station,
With the mother of her Lord,
Watched him bleed and thirst and suffer
While the others hid or fled.
Then as darkness veiled her sorrow,
She knew then that he was dead.

And this is why perhaps, it doesn’t really matter whether she was one of the holy twelve men or not. She wins her place at the table of the Lord by keeping vigil at the cross and is rewarded with the first revelation on Easter morn:

Three days later, Sabbath over,
She approached his new, sealed grave.
Early morning first light's promise
Not yet dawned to brighten day:
Then she saw with panic stricken
That the stone was rolled away.

I continued the story in the hymn:

Mary wept to see her saviour
Missing from the empty tomb.
Then a stranger taking pity
Sought her there and spoke her name:
Mary's sudden recognition
Knew him then to be the same.

Whether we want to argue about whether she was an apostle or not, or even fall back on the old chestnut that because she told the disciples the good news, she was the ‘apostle to the apostles’, as it were – however you like it, she certainly became an apostle. St Paul, who only saw the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, describes himself as an apostle several times. So if seeing and believing in the risen Christ is a mark of apostleship, then Mary qualifies. She qualifies first. Which makes her an apostle. And she is a disciple too, the first of the disciples. I’m distinguishing between disciple and apostle in the classical sense of the word – an apostle is one of the followers of Jesus who knew him and was called by him. In a sense it applies to us all, but it applies in particular to those named in the gospels. Mary is not named as such, but like St Paul, qualifies through seeing the risen Christ. A disciple is a follower – a follower of Jesus Christ. And that means that she, who follows his first instruction to ‘go and tell the others’ is the foremost of the disciples. The foremost in a long line which extends right to the here and now, to you and me. For we are all followers – disciples – of Christ, and our line of discipleship is headed by none other than St Mary Magdalene – the first apostle to be sought out by Jesus, and therefore the first to follow him after his resurrection.

History has not dealt Mary Magdalene the glory she might have deserved – she is the Cinderella of the gospels – but she is our hero – and our patron here, and my Maria is named after her. In so many ways she trumps every other saint you might think of. Because, in following her example, we are all disciples of the risen Christ. Which means that actually, in fact, whether we are Magdalene men or not, we are all, in fact, all Magdalene men and women.

May we therefore like this Mary
Come to see our risen Lord,
And like her become disciples,
Living, loving, come what may.
Mary Magdalene most holy,
We remember on this day.


The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/11/17