Sermon by Canon Stephen Shipley on Benjamin Britten, 1st May, Univeristy Church

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford – Three Choirs Festival Service (Britten’s God) 1 May 2013


Tiny and apparently simple, but perfect.  Composed in a few hours in the sick bay during his last school term at Gresham’s, the 16 year old Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin – as you heard it just before the Gospel reading – is a jewel.  It may well have had more performances than almost any other Britten piece, but because most of these have been at church and carol services they largely escape the official tally.  As John Bridcut the filmmaker and author of an excellent companion to the composer says, ‘New Britten listeners can start here – but it still works wonders for old hands too.’


And it’s that reason that points us immediately to why we’re celebrating Britten particularly this evening in this musical feast.  It’s not only that he was born 100 years ago – there’s plenty of recognition of his centenary in concert and festival programmes throughout the year – it’s also because his creative gifts continue to intrigue, delight and inspire performers and listeners alike.  As I stand in this pulpit tonight, having heard that sequence of Britten anthems sung by our three excellent college choirs, my mind goes back to when I preached a few years ago at the Aldeburgh Festival in the parish church renowned for its John Piper memorial window to Britten and where the composer is buried.  I confessed to an extraordinary sense of marvel on that occasion – and I do so again!  ‘Marvels unfold’ declares the mysterious Traveller in the opera ‘Death in Venice’ when he first appears to Aschenbach – and they have!  The music of Britten evokes for me the huge East Anglian skies and the bleak and stony Suffolk beaches.  I live in Buxton on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District – as far from the sea as you can get.  We have our own Festival – not as old as the Aldeburgh Festival – but equally full of surprise and delight, and a few years ago we put on ‘Noye’s Fludde’ in the town’s Georgian parish church.  As I watched it, I remembered the art historian Kenneth Clark’s description of how he sat in his pew in Orford Church, dutifully awaiting some spark of divine fire.  And it happened – an overwhelming experience during one of the early performances of that Chester miracle play so brilliantly set to music by Benjamin Britten.


The extracts from Britten’s cantata ‘St Nicolas’ we’re hearing tonight remind me of the Saint (sung by Peter Pears) standing again in that Aldeburgh pulpit, and the Pickled Boys walking up the central aisle singing Alleluia.  And I remember above all a concert in that church with the Britten-Pears Chamber Choir when I felt very honoured to be asked to sing the short bass solo in ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ – ‘For H is a spirit and therefore he is God’ – those strange words of Christopher Smart which point to the mystery of the God who is all around us and also the very breath of our life.  H – huuh….


Now it would be far too easy to spend this entire sermon reminiscing – which would be very self indulgent for me and very tedious for you!  But allow me just one more memory:  the year when I was a music student working at the Aldeburgh Festival – 1976 – a long hot summer – the last Festival that Benjamin Britten was alive and the joyful garden party at the Red House we were invited to when the announcement of his Life Peerage was made public and we were able to talk to the great man sitting, smiling in his wheelchair in the bright sunshine.  During that extraordinary week the twelve students I was with thought we might put together a little concert of chamber music, songs and piano duets and present it on the stage of the Aldeburgh Cinema.   It’s now a regular feature of the Festival I gather, but it was quite a novelty then.   I was the compère and I recall my panic when I walked through the curtain and saw in the audience, sitting side by side on the front row, Peter Pears, Mstislav Rostropovich, Joyce Grenfell, Laurens van der Post the travel writer and Mary Potter the artist – all of them sadly no longer with us.  All I can say is that they were incredibly gracious………


‘I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly,’ said Jesus in our Gospel reading tonight.  And the Greek phrase for having something more abundantly means to have a surplus – a superabundance.  I certainly had that in the summer of 1976 – it took me months to come down to earth!  And for the Christian, to be a follower of Jesus – to know who he is and what he means – is to have a superabundance of life.   Whenever I’m deeply moved by a painting or a poem or particularly a piece of music – as I have been many a time when I’ve listened to something by Benjamin Britten – I know that I’m living with some immense significance surrounding me, something that points towards what is infinite and eternal and awe-inspiring – something, that in the language of faith, speaks of the glory of God, of abundant life.   But for the artist, the writer, the musician who strives to create that painting or poem or piece of music – as I heard Jude Kelly, the distinguished artistic director of London’s South Bank Centre, say at a Radio 3 gathering we had some time ago – they mustn’t be afraid to go to the heart of things in search of that creativity, maybe to hard places of doubt and darkness.  ‘Artists cannot expect to live with certainty,’ she said.  ‘That’s protecting their self interest.  If you’re going to change the world, you need to go through the darkness so you can proclaim the truth.’


In other words there’s a cost.  And that’s really the essence of what I want to say this evening – to acknowledge that cost.  Of course it’s the same for all who would call themselves Christians.  Jesus never said the way of discipleship would be easy, but what he promised at the end was abundant life, eternal life.  Meanwhile we hang onto those glimpses of what we’re promised that we’re granted by the grace of God.  Glimpses of glory, moments of transcendence – this is what makes the arts so vital to our well-being.  They’re able to lift us above the humdrum and the ordinary to the level of the sublime.  But let’s not deny that there is a cost.  I don’t just mean a financial one either: I mean the emotional, the spiritual cost.


Benjamin Britten knew that cost all too well – and he often wrestled at a deep level with doubts and depression.  Peter Pears, his partner, ascribed Britten’s strong moral sense to his evangelical upbringing – the strictly disciplined work schedule he maintained throughout his professional life.  But, as has been extensively chronicled, his identifying with Christian values fluctuated so that there were times when relationships would sour or suddenly be brought to an end.  ‘Britten’s corpses’ as they sadly became known.    He did occasionally reflect on the nature of God though – particularly with his good friend, the then Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Leslie Brown.  They talked about God the Spirit – the energising, inspiring, giving power that takes over people.  Britten said on one occasion: ‘I’m coming to feel more and more that all my music must be written to the glory of God.’  And when, as his life was drawing to a close, Bishop Brown brought Holy Communion to his bedside at the Red House in Aldeburgh, after reciting the service from the Book of Common Prayer, he asked him, ‘Is all well, Ben?’  Britten replied, ‘How could all not be well with those wonderful words ringing in my ears?’


At his funeral, Bishop Brown gave the address and said that attempting to describe Britten’s music was like ‘trying to keep sunlight in a string bag’ – what a marvellous perception!   But he also pointed out that Britten was scrupulously honest about his faith. He looked back nostalgically to the clear untroubled trust he had as a boy.  Whilst he believed deeply in a Reality which works in us and through us and is the source of goodness and beauty, joy and love, he was often uneasy because he wasn’t sure that he could give the name of God to that Reality.


But that’s the experience of so many.  ‘If you’re going to change the world,’ said Jude Kelly, ‘you need to go through the darkness so you can proclaim the truth.’   Jesus did precisely that.   Like a true shepherd, he unhesitatingly accepted the rigours of a tough life with the inevitable risk of rejection and suffering.  In that total commitment to the Cross we see the truth of God’s sacrificial love.  Jesus went through the darkness in order that we may have life, and may have it abundantly.   Pray then that each of us may know that abundance, even though sometimes it may seem far away – that each of us may discern God’s will – his plan for us in the fullness of time. And may the music of Benjamin Britten inspire us in our quest.     ‘Ben will like the sound of the trumpets,’ said Bishop Leslie Brown at the end of the funeral address, ‘though he will find it difficult to believe they’re sounding for him.’   They’ll sound for us too – be sure of that – though maybe not quite so loudly!  So let’s be ready for them.   Amen.


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