Sermon for Founders’ Day

In today’s reading from the book of Eccelsiasticus or Sirach (44: 1-15), a Palestinian sage of the 2nd century before Christ evokes his ancestors, first in general and then all the way from the legendary Enoch to a Jewish high priest, Simon, who had died only shortly before the author wrote. He evoked them, generally to praise them, sometimes to fault them, always in the hope of finding guidance for his own day.

With a not dissimilar intent, we are today remembering the founders of the College and the University. The Principal has just named several of them and appropriately made generic mention of the many others who made crucial contributions at different moments in this University’s history. You’ll perhaps understand if I privilege William Elphinstone, bishop and statesman – my predecessor as bishop (though I am no stateman!). Aside from other reasons, he was the one who did the work: for example, having salmon, trout and wool sent from here to Flanders to pay for the gunpowder needed to extract stone from the local quarries, and wagons and wheelbarrows to transport it. We are not here to reminisce, precisely, which would be a stretching exercise after 500 years, but to remember this University’s origins, to seek the man behind an institution which has survived and thrived for some 500 years and of which the city and the country can be proud. More precisely, I would like to attempt to dialogue with that man’s idea of this university. We necessarily recognise – with Lidl – that “what’s gone is gone”, but we can also add with Tennyson that “though much is taken, much abides”.

Pope Alexander VI was not the worthiest of St Peter’s successors to sit on the papal chair. But the bull issued under his seal in February 1495 establishing this university was a worthy document. Though ostensibly a papal response to a royal supplication, James IV’s, it in fact expresses the mind of Bishop Elphinstone and conveys his idea of a university in Scotland’s Northeast. Much of the bull is doubtless formulaic, but formulas, like the repeated refrains of songs, can still be sincerely meant. William Elphinstone knew what he wanted and ensured that the papal approval endorsed his vision.

A first impression on reading the Bull of Foundation may be simply of its positivity. It is not just, in a Renaissance way, elegant and eloquent, it is sunny; it is optimistic. The enterprise it is authorising is not hedged around with cautions or restrictions. It is unhesitatingly recommended; it is glowingly presented. “Among the other blessings (begins the Bull) which mortals are able to obtain by the gift of God in this fleeting life, not the least is that of attaining the pearl of knowledge by earnest study.” The word translated “blessing” is actually the humbler felicitas, happiness. So, this university is born under the sign of happiness. That sounds a most forgettable proposition – precisely why it bears repeating! An unhappy university should be a contradiction in terms. We all know what can make universities unhappy, of course; not least, something beginning with ‘m’, ending in ‘y’ and with an ‘n’ in the middle, and the lack or misuse thereof. The happiness, meanwhile, lies in what it makes possible: obtaining the pearl of knowledge. There is a treasure hidden on campus, in the field: the pearl of knowledge. There is a quarry here to be hunted down. Knowledge is not a chimera, and knowledge can be – neuralgic word, I know – true. A university is an institutional affirmation of the desirability of seeking the truth and of the possibility of finding it. St Augustine had the phrase: gaudium de veritate, joy that comes from the truth. And Cicero had already pointed out that after the calls and duties of our animal existence, there follows “the search for truth. Accordingly, as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares, we immediately desire to see, to hear and to learn; and we consider the knowledge of what is hidden or wonderful a condition of our happiness.”

And Elphinstone’s “pearl of knowledge” does indeed glow. For him, it belongs to the common good. He wanted it to be shared, and shared widely. He wanted this as a bishop solicitous for his people and clergy. He wanted it as a man whose life had led him to the Northeast, and as a statesman concerned for the good of the Scottish realm and of Europe as a whole. He knew this pearl was not a material, quantitative reality which is halved or quartered or otherwise diminished every time it is imparted, but rather – in the words of the bull – is “increased and grows” as it is communicated. He desired, therefore, a “university of general study” to exist, “as well in theology, canon and civil law, medicine, the liberal arts, as in every other lawful faculty.”  In it he wanted both qualified churchmen and laymen to be admitted to teach, and “those desirous to learn, whencesoever they may be” to be able “to study and profit” there and earn degrees which would be recognised in all European universities “without any other examination.” He envisaged a “teeming fountain…from whose fulness all the faithful in Christ may drink from wherever they may come”. All this – in a studied phrase – “for the praise of the divine Name, the exaltation of the Catholic faith, the salvation of souls and the advantage and profit of the common weal of those areas”. We know now that “men” means women too, that “catholic” can have a small “c” and that Europe has been overtaken by the world. We enjoy the variety we pass on the narrow pavements of the High St, barely imaginable in Elphinstone’s day. But this is a flowering of a five-hundred-year-old seed. How can we not sense and not still admire, the generosity of vision there already at the beginning? Here was an overflow of Christian humanism, a sense that every person was gifted with a vocation to seek the truth in matters natural, human and divine, and to adhere to it and share it when found. We, of course, consider ourselves paragons of inclusivity, but Elphinstone’s openness might still, I think, question us. One can imagine scenarios.

Neither then nor now did this University existin a neutral space, unaffected by a multiplicity of circumstances. Bishop Elphinstone was highly networked, and acutely conscious of the needs of Scottish society and government in his own day, of the needs of the Church of which he was a minister and of the situation of the Northeast. He speaks alluringly of the latter’s “temperate climate, abundance of provisions, and comfortable accommodation”. But he also makes much of the remoteness of the area – the inlets of ocean and the high mountains impeding connectivity with the rest of Scotland. And then the local inhabitants – ah! the inhabitants: trapped in their geographical isolation, “rude, ignorant of letters and all but barbarous.”

As a footnote, the barbarians, of course, are not especially lurking north of the Don beyond the Moray Firth. Nor, as Alasdair Macintyre said some 40 years ago, are they “waiting beyond the frontiers; but [rather] have already been governing us for quite some time.” In an age of freedom-threatening ideologies, Elphinstone would surely long to see his University continue its civilising role.

This was all a hard sell, of course, to fend off the Central Belt and to shore up King James’ resolve to do something good for the Northeast. But, beyond that, I feel it springs from the heart of a pastor, from a shepherd’s concern for his flock which he knew well and cared about. If truth is one foundation of a university, love is another. They are brother and sister. Love in the sense of a settled will for the good of another, of others: the students, but not them only. The love that prefers cooperation to competitiveness, that opts for dialogue rather than retreat into silos.  This too is part of Bishop Elphinstone’s idea and therefore, somehow, somewhere in this University’s DNA.

Let me end by offering three words: wonder, wisdom and worship.

There is talk in the Bull of the arcana mundi, and the desire to know them. Dr Gordon Donaldson was warranted, I think, in heightening the phrase as “the secrets of the universe”. Isn’t wonder the inner child of all learning, without which it desiccates and dies? Rather impertinently, I asked a student the other day, “And how are you penetrating the secrets of the universe?” He impressed me by replying seriously: “Yes, he replied, by the study of human anatomy”. He felt it was endless, ever to be fathomed, the human body a wonder of complexity and function. Emily Dickinson once called the water in a well, “a neighbour from another world”. That captures the paradox: the closeness of things and yet their remoteness. Above all, perhaps, it is the wonder of the human being, so near and yet so far, so irreducible, so fresh, that calls us out. And wonder needs stillness and silence.

May wonder not die in us!

Then wisdom. It can’t be a coincidence that, at the centre of his University, Bishop Elphinstone built a chapel that mirrored the dimensions of King Solomon’s Temple, Solomon, in the Hebrew understanding, the original protagonist of wisdom, as Moses of the Law, Aaron of priesthood and Elijah of prophecy. Leslie Macfarlane’s long and thorough account of the founding of this University concludes this: “[Elphinstone’s] intention, therefore was to create a University in Old Aberdeen which would be capable of producing a professional class of schoolmasters, administrators, lawyers, doctors and theologians whose task would be to serve both the secular and spiritual needs of the Northeast and of the nation itself.” So it was, and so it remains, but that was not all: “Elphinstone believed that universities were much more than institutions geared to produce professional men. Over and above this useful task, it was his firm conviction that their purpose was to enable every person who studied in them to recognise the end for which he had been created, and to pursue wisdom, ‘which especially joins man to God in friendship, and brings him to the kingdom of immortality’” (Leslie J. Macfarlane, William Elphinstone and the Kingdom of Scotland, AUP, 1985, p. 391). It’s said of Wisdom in Jewish literature that “she reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wis 8:1). Perhaps wisdom for us is a small participation in that cosmic reach; a sense, beyond the fragments that fall to us, of “all things” being somehow coherent, however elusive and labile that whole proves. The crumbs that come our way fall from a table and perhaps as we wonder and grow we become tall enough to see more of what it carries. Thus, we are saved from being slaves to the particular, the partial, the merely contemporary; not despising them, cherishing them, but able to place them in a context. Perhaps wisdom preserves us from being mere photocopies of the established tropes and allows us to be originals. We would be able to differentiate the superficial from the substantial and hierarchise things. A university education does not make us omniscient or Olympian, but it would be a shame if it left us locked in our specialisations. Just as a practical wisdom surely warns against running through life like mindless chickens picking up every latest grain of technological advance, so perhaps a still higher wisdom would urge us just to slow down, to be less driven, to ponder and consider, to clarify our motives, to measure consequences more carefully, and not least to be less reductionist in our self-understanding.

And so to a final ‘w’ – not wokery but worship. May I suggest that this aspect of Bishop Elphinstone’s idea might still stand, just as this his Solomon’s Temple does. We do not campaign for chapels or prayer-rooms in factories or supermarkets, but those are precisely what universities are not: not factories of degrees and qualifications nor a shelving system for intellectual commodities. It is a fully human enterprise; it engages the good of the whole person; it is a vital component of a civilised society. And this is why the possibility of worship is a fitting part of what a University enables. It should not be seen as a grudging concession to a psychological flaw. It seems wholesome that in a university with such a history as this one, the voice of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures can still be heard – and not just in the scholarly context of a flourishing school of divinity but within a liturgical setting also. Statistically, worship is a minority sport here, of course,  but perhaps those who engage in it  – as we are doing today – could be conceived as we conceive the members of the first XV or the rowing club or a choir – as somehow representative of us all. Without the possibility of worship, I fear that the functional and financial will overtake everything and we all be diminished. I am thankful that the birth of this University includes this church of “St Mary in her nativity”.

It is good to remember such as William Elphinstone, and may God bless this University!

King’s College Chapel, University of Aberdeen, 25 May 2023


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