Hundreds gather for our new Dean

2 October 2018

Hundreds of people gathered in Wakefield Cathedral on Saturday for the installation of the new Dean, the Revd Canon Simon Cowling, and heard him pledge himself to the common good he knew could be found in the cathedral, city, district, diocese and beyond, and urged others to expect the unexpected and be open and changed by it.

Simon was installed as the third Dean of Wakefield supported by a congregation representing the city, the church and the region - including the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire, the Mayor of Wakefield, fellow deans, friends from his former parishes including Sheffield Cathedral where he served as precentor, the Association of English Cathedrals - and his very first Sunday School teacher, Janet Haigh, who taught him at St Barnabas’ Church, Crosland Moor in Huddersfield where he grew up.

Surrounded by prayer, Simon was first collated by Bishop Nick as incumbent of the Cathedral, inducted by the Archdeacon of Pontefract, the Ven Peter Townley and finally led and installed in the Dean’s stall by the Sub-Dean of Wakefield Cathedral, Canon Tony MacPherson.

At the start of the service Simon was welcomed by one girl and one boy chorister, Elias Vasey Saunders and Amelia Thackeray, and before being installed the new Dean, was given the key to the door, and rang the Cathedral bells for the first time to mark the beginning of his ministry in the city and diocese.

In a message in the service booklet, Simon writes: “I begin my ministry as Dean of Wakefield with immense gratitude to all whose wisdom and guidance have contributed to my (continuing) formation as a Christian and as a human being, many of whom are here today; with a sense of excitement mingled with humility about the ministry to which God has called me here; and with deep confidence in the love of God for the whole world; shown to us in Christ.”

In his sermon, Simon reflected on the common good around us.

“…. that common good does not come to us fully formed. It is a work of shared endeavour, requiring us always to be attentive to the unexpected insights of those from whom we might least expect them.

And he continued: “So ….I have one hope above all for what is to come in this next season of ministry at Wakefield Cathedral: it is that together we may eagerly expect the unexpected; and that we may be open to and changed by the unexpected people and ways in which God reveals himself.’

You can read his sermon in full here…

29 September 2018
The Feast of St Michael and All Angels
The Very Revd Simon Cowling
Readings: Genesis 28. 10-17; John 1. 43-51

Sermon preached in Wakefield Cathedral by Simon Cowling at his Installation as Dean of Wakefield.

Who would have expected to see me preaching in Wakefield church to so attentive a congregation a few years ago when all the people were as roaring lions, and my honest host did not dare to let me preach in his yard lest the mob should pull down his house. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was used to violent and unfriendly receptions whenever and wherever he preached - not least from his fellow Church of England clergy. So as that journal entry for April 1752 makes clear, Wesley’s respectful reception in this very building at the invitation of one of my predecessors, Benjamin Wilson, was an unexpected experience for him. It seems that the citizens of Wakefield had repented of their previous hostility, perhaps to demonstrate the superiority of their manners to those of their neighbours up the road in Leeds. After he had preached there, Wesley writes, ‘the mob pelted us with dirt and stones a great part of the way home’.

We have just listened in the Bible to two moreunexpected experiences - those of Jacob and Nathanael. We meet Jacob in our Old Testament reading while he is on the run. He has tricked his elderly father Isaac into giving him the rights, and the paternal blessing, due to the first-born Esau - his older brother. Esau is out for revenge and Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, urges him to flee east to relatives in Haran for his own safety. Asleep in the open, Jacob has a dream: of a ladder joining earth and heaven; of angels ascending and descending on the ladder; and of God standing alongside him. Jacob is physically vulnerable to the dangers and the cold of a desert night and morally vulnerable because of the deceitful way he has behaved towards his father and brother. Yet in Jacob’s dream God speaks words not of rebuke but of blessing: I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. Unexpected words for the fearful fugitive which prompt Jacob, when he wakes up, to describe his lonely sleeping place as none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.

In our New Testament reading, Nathanael’s unexpected experience arises out of Philip’s invitation to meet a stranger from Nazareth who has impressed him greatly. Nathanael doesn’t seem disposed to expect very much:can anything good come out of Nazareth? is his initial and rather rude reaction. But Nathaniel’s scepticism and low expectationssoon give way to a moment of awe and wonder very similar to Jacob’s as he says to Jesus: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel. And there is more unexpectedness to come. Jesus affirms Nathanael’s declaration about his divine status with a twist on the story of Jacob’s ladder which must have been very startling to his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see angels ascending and descending not on a ladder, but on ‘the Son of man’ - a title which refers to Jesus himself. So in the Galilean countryside Jesus gives Nathaniel an intimation, a preview, of the final reconciliation between God and human beings. Earth and heaven joined through the cross and resurrection.

These experiences of John Wesley, Jacob, and Nathanael are all, in one way or another, tales of the unexpected. An unexpected welcome from a Church of England minister and congregation for an itinerant and suspiciously enthusiastic preacher; an unexpected blessing at a moment of deep vulnerability for a cheat and a liar; an unexpected flash of insight from an initially rather uninterested onlooker.

The beginning of any new ministry rightly brings with it a sense of godly anticipation and a whole range of hopes and expectations. That is the case both for ministers and for the communities which they will be joining and in whose ministry they are privileged to share. It is certainly true for me as I begin my ministry in Wakefield; and I hope that it is true for all of you here this afternoon: your presence is wonderfully inspiring testament to an underlying commitment to the common good which I know is to be found in this cathedral, city, district, diocese, and beyond. But that common good does not come to us fully formed. It is a work of shared endeavour, requiring us always to be attentive to the unexpected insights of those from whom we might least expect them.So as I reflect on the scriptures we have heard this afternoon I have one hope above all for what is to come in this next season of ministry at Wakefield Cathedral: it is that together we may eagerly expect the unexpected; that we may be open to and changed by the unexpected people and ways in which God reveals himself. The God who blessed Jacob in the harsh night of a near-eastern desert and who affirmed the faith of an initially sceptical Nathaniel in Galilee is just as surely to be found among the vulnerable inmates of Wakefield Prison and Wetherby Young Offenders Institute, or the busy commerce of Trinity Leeds and Broadway Bradford; among the ruthlessly exploited sex workers on the fringes of our inner urban areas and the youngsters in our countryside exploited by county lines drug gangs. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, a parish worker in New York City puts it like this in one of her blog posts:

It is easy to see God in the hushed and majestic sanctuary, when I am kneeling and praying alone. God is indeed there—God is everywhere! However, I continue to be startled by God revealed in people that irk me. God astonishingly and often unexpectedly shows up in everyone, challenging my not-so-merciful, sometimes even hard heart to soften and open - just like Gods does for us every day.

Friends, may the ministry of this Cathedral church, of this diocese, and of all God’s people be characterised by hearts that are softened and open to God’s love shown to us in his crucified son, Jesus Christ; may that love in turn strengthen us to lead lives of service to others that are generously open to the unexpected people and places where the risen Christ is to be found; and through such service may we learn to rejoice in the continual presence among us of the ascended and glorified Christ; to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be unending praise, now and to the ages of ages. Amen.

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