Visitor’s Address at the Annual Archbishop’s Dinner
Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 14 September 2022
Thank you, Ms Hastings. It’s a pleasure to be back with you for this feast, both liturgical and culinary!
This week our nation, the Commonwealth of nations, and the world beyond are mourning the greatest woman leader of modern times. Whatever our views of monarchy and democracy, of the past or present role of Britain and its children in the world, of colonisation and its good and evil effects, of various royal personalities past and present, we can all appreciate that this woman did her best and her best was very good indeed. You members of a (largely) women’s college will appreciate that Queen Elizabeth was head of state of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and a good many other realms and territories. She was queen of most of these countries for seven decades, and of some others that later became republics.
Inspired to some extent by her own example, many other women aspired to leadership and by the time of her death she had a woman Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, a woman Prime Minister in New Zealand, a woman First Minister in Scotland, and women leading in many of her beloved Commonwealth countries or former British territories, as President or Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Barbados, Namibia, Samoa, Singapore, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. Though her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria could give her a run for her money, there was probably no woman in history with more political influence over more people, no woman more admired for her sense of duty, generosity and charm in carrying out her duties as a leader, and no woman to exercise such authority so effectively amidst such relentless public scrutiny and such precarious world security.
How do we account for that? Fate, personality, breeding? A crucial part of the picture is surely that Elizabeth was a woman of faith. She worshipped Christ as the true King of kings and prayed to Him. She understood her accession to the throne as God’s will for her and for her people, and her coronation oath and ritual as consecration to a life-long Christian vocation. She preached Christ as Saviour, Inspiration, Consolation and Prince of Peace in her annual Christmas messages. And said she took from him the sense of being there to serve, not to be served. This type of Christ-centred service lay at the heart of her approach to leadership and endures as a powerful witness to all those in positions of authority, women or men, and makes her an example to each of you women who in one way or another we can expect to lead in the years ahead.
What will best prepare you to lead and serve well in the years ahead? In my homily earlier this evening I spoke about the nature of mystery and its ability to speak to all of us. I noted that in the case of the mysteries of faith:
- they are divulged by God rather than puzzled out by us;
- they are received rather than achieved by us;
- they are inexhaustible in their significance; and
- they are experienced as much as rationally understood.
I’d like to reflect a little more on this with the help of Gabriel-Honoré Marcel (1889-1973), the twentieth-century French existentialist philosopher, playwright and musician. He wrote quite a bit on the distinctions between problem and mystery. In his eyes, one of the symptoms of a broken world is the inability to distinguish and properly understand mystery. Modernity attempts to understand of all reality through the “technical”, and is undoubtedly very successful at solving many problems by “the scientific method”, through observation and technique. But Marcel believed that there are many other, deeper questions about reality that are more properly understood as ‘mystery’.
The key distinction Marcel makes rests upon the relationship of the questioner to the question. In the case of technical problems, like an unsolved crime or undiagnosed illness, the problem is ‘neutral’, can be explored objectively, often by reducing it to a series of smaller problems, and is potentially soluble by any observant and right thinking person. So, at any given moment, a substitute scientist or detective might step in and reveal that the butler did it or that the patient has heart disease.
Mystery, on the other hand, is something much deeper. It is tied to the very identity of the questioner, who is involved in the question being asked, cannot be ‘neutral’ about it in the scientific sense, and is not interchangeable with anyone else. Nor will empirical experimentation, observation and measurement get to the bottom of some questions, experiences or emotions. But they are no less real than scientific or forensic questions. Marcel observes that I cannot question Being as if my being were not at issue in the very question. I cannot deal with ‘the problem of evil’ —how to think about evil, how to reconcile it with an all-powerful and all-good God—without it impinging on the existential question of how evil touches my own life and how I respond to it. Other examples Marcel offers are the experiences of freedom and love. We can speak of them with others, recognise a shared experience, spark new insights in each other, but in the end we cannot truly communicate all they mean to us or understand all they mean to others. We certainly cannot ‘solve’ them like a crossword: there is always more to be said and some things that cannot be said.
Now before your eyes glaze over completely at our Archbishop Visitor getting all mystical on us after a long day and a good meal, let me suggest all this bears very immediately upon your own present project of tertiary education. To many in modernity, education is simply a technical endeavour, of filling the computer that is your mind with all the apps and information needed, the knowledge, skills and expertise to work in some profession and earn a living. On this view education itself is purely instrumental, like everything it teaches: it’s about results. When people ask what you want to do when you grow up, they are probably thinking jobs and income. When our political masters press schools and universities to produce “job-ready” graduates, they just want the wheels of industry to keep turning.
Problem is: even the nerdiest computer nerd is more than a device for solving technical problems and achieving technical results. Human beings, we Christians insist, are living, breathing images of God. Our rationality, freedom and affections are gifts that reflect something of the very mystery of the divine. So while we value technical knowledge highly, we also seek a deeper wisdom, that reflects upon being, freedom, love, beauty and goodness. Your education in Sancta Sophia—Holy Wisdom—must be about that also. Education in the great mysteries of God, the universe and ourselves is precisely what will give your technical and professional lives their contours, purpose, ethics and give you a life that is more than mechanical but relational, fully human, fulfilling, even transcendent. Such Holy Wisdom enables you to experience reality in a richer way, opening new horizons to you.
None of which is to denigrate the technical skills and knowledge you may be acquiring. Rather it is to challenge you to keep asking what all this education is for, what goods it will serve, how it will make you and others flourish, how it will make our community better, how it will make the world your world, somewhere where your experience and energy are worthily invested? I charge you tonight, even as you do whatever it takes to get your degrees and research completed, to remain open to the mystery of Holy Wisdom, and to work towards being the Images of God you all called to be!
 The United Kingdom: Prime Minister Liz Truss. Scotland: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. New Zealand: : Prime Minister Jacinta Adern. Bangladesh: : Prime Minister Sheikh Masina. Barbados: President Sandra Mason and Prime Minister Mia Mottlet. Namibia: Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila. Samoa: Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa. Singapore: President Halimah Yacob. Tanzania: President Samia Suluhu Hassan. Togo: Prime Minister Victoire Tomegah Dogbé. Ugand: Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja.
 See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marcel/#PrimLiteWorkMarc and the bibliography therein.
 His key texts on these matters are: The Mystery of Being, vol.1: Reflection and Mystery (1951) and vol.2: Faith and Reality (1951). He also touches on these themes in Being and Having 1949) and Creative Fidelity (1964).