Tuesday, 22 November 2016

What Hugh did

For more than twenty-five years, I’ve got to know the stories of St Hugh.  The first parish in which I worked in the diocese of Lincoln had a St Hugh’s Parish Church; last week I was again at the annual College of Canons’ St Hugh’s Days celebration in the Cathedral.  So I’ve heard the stories again and again.  

I’m glad once to have bothered reading the short Magna Vita (‘Great Life’) written by Adam of Eynsham (who was Hugh’s Chaplain) which is the source of them all.  I’m slightly ashamed once to have exchanged a glance and a shrug with the Cathedral’s Librarian in the middle of a Bishop’s sermon which named the wrong King in re-telling one of the stories we both knew well.

But this year it strikes me more forcefully than ever that these twelfth century stories are contemporary guidance over 800 years later: not just the criteria WWJD? (‘What would Jesus do?’) but also WDHD? (‘What did Hugh do?’).  No growing chorus ridiculing points of view as liberal, left-wing or politically correct can drown out the stories of what Hugh did.

Hugh was head-hunted from being the Novice Master at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the Alps to rescue and lead the royal foundation which was the failing new Carthusian Priory at Witham in Somerset.  He quickly identified the manner of its foundation as the root of the problem: peasants had been dispossessed of their land to make way for it; other monasteries had been pressurised into handing over some of their treasurers to resource it.  He went back to the King who had founded it and insisted that this all be put right before he could stand any chance of getting the place on track.

It is a story I want to tell when the Oxford English Dictionary selects ‘post-truth’ (first recorded in 1992) as its ‘word of the year’ for 2016 having noticed a huge spike in its usage.  To say to those with power and authority that we court disaster by making our choices and building our institutions based on what dispossesses, exploits or simply misleads is not to be part of a whining liberal elite; it is to be a Christian asking ‘WDHD?’.

In turn, Hugh was head-hunted from being the Prior of Witham to become Bishop of Lincoln.  Adam of Eynsham records the sometimes wearisome frequency with which the progress of the episcopal household’s baggage train was delayed as the Bishop stopped to have an abandoned body by the roadside properly buried.  Adam reflects on his own revulsion and unwillingness to touch the lepers whose sores Hugh was willing to wash.

It is a story to tell when emergency loans to cover funeral expenses become unavailable and send the bereaved into the hands of loan sharks or when the widening of health or social care funding for the poorest comes under threat.  To say that a society is judged by how far the wealth generated by the strongest is used to support the weakest at their times of most extreme need  is not to champion some naive left-wing redistributive ideal; it is to be a Christian asking ‘WDHD?’.

When Hugh’s body was brought back from London where he had died to Lincoln where he was to be buried, the Jewish community gathered at the gate of the city to welcome it home.  The community could not, of course, enter the Cathedral or take any part in the funeral, but it recognised that this Christian Bishop had been its protector; it was right to be fearful as the following century was to see its persecution and expulsion.   

It is a story to tell when rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia become a feature of extreme right-wing reconfidence and resurgence, among other things, with women who chose to dress in what they consider a modest manner being forced to undress on beaches or being taunted in streets.  To champion the rights of minority and immigrant communities around us (as happened most notably when our local mosque arranged an evening to thank local churches for their support when an isolated disaffected individual tried to fire-bomb it in 2013) is not to fall unthinkingly in line with some vague notion of political correctness for its own sake; it is to be a Christian asking ‘WDHD?’.

The picture is the early morning light catching the top of the weeping ash at the entrance to St Michael’s churchyard.

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