Sermon for TRINITY 15 – HIGH MASS Sunday 13 September 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
‘Who do you say I am?’ ‘Those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’
James Barry was born in 1792. Graduating as a doctor at 13 he joined the army and was appointed assistant surgeon at 15. His first posting was soon after that to Cape Town, where he became personal physician to the Governor. In 1826 he became famous as the first British doctor to perform a caesarian section. Slightly built and just above 5 feet tall, James was also famous for his sharp tongue and quick temper, challenging several men to duels (though he never killed anyone). After tours of duty in Mauritius and Jamaica he was posted to St Helena as resident surgeon; here his argumentative streak led to a court-martial for ‘conduct-unbecoming’ and, although exonerated, he was sent home. In 1851 he was appointed deputy inspector-general of hospitals in Corfu, where his innovations in hygiene and diet set new standards that were to inspire Florence Nightingale. Considered too senior to serve in the Crimea, he visited Nightingale, giving her the worst dressing down of her life. She wrote in her diary, ‘he was the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army’. After many more medical reforms and other successes James was retired, against his wishes, settling in in this parish where he died on 25 July 1865, at 14 Margaret Street, just across Great Titchfield Street from here. He must surely, therefore, have visited Butterfield’s amazing new church building in its early years.
James left strict instructions that on his death he was to be left in his clothes and sewn into a sheet before burial. The doctor complied, but a female attendant, helping to lay out the corpse, discovered that the body was that of a woman, and one who had at some point borne a child. This was such a scandal at the time that it was concealed and denied; the funeral in St Paul’s and burial in Kensal Green went ahead. It was not until the 1950s that the history was properly established: our fellow-parishioner James Barry was born Margaret Bulkly, the daughter of a grocer in Cork. Her mother fell on hard times and smuggled the girl into medical school as a boy in 1805. James was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain. She bore a child as the result of an affair in her late teens with the Governor of Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, who was prepared to collude with her sufficiently to tolerate rumours of a homosexual affair at the time. We don’t know what happened to the child, which was born in Mauritius. James, or Margaret, was surely one of the most successful impostors of all time. Few can hide their true identity to this extent. Nor, we would say, should they have to. But the most interesting thing about this imposture was that it was not undertaken to defraud anyone, and indeed greatly benefited many people – even saved many lives. Incidentally James/Margaret had an uncle, James Barry, who was a painter and Royal Academician.
How do we rightly express the self as Christians? Self-expression is right and good, but it is not the self-indulgence affirmed by the world. When we hear today’s gospel, ‘denying the self, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus’, do we truly aspire to that? If so, how is it healthy? How does it differ from the desperate concealment of the self which James Barry lived out?
Denying ourselves as Jesus tells it means fulfilling our greater created potential by refusing to act on purely momentary and self-centred motives. He teaches us to seek God’s guidance and final word on how we live, that our life might have the more truly self-fulfilling quality of eternity, be more than just finite and material. Jesus emphatically does not teach the sort of masochistic self-hatred that some Christians have seemed to promote. On the contrary he invites a truer fulfilment of the God-created self: as with so much of Jesus’ teaching, it is the opposite of what first seems to which we must attend.
I have a good friend who is a priest, who was my assistant priest in Sydney. His special talent was annoying churchpeople, in a charming Irish sort of way. He really, really annoyed some people; often, it seemed, for fun. He often, it must be said, annoyed me: he was rarely present by the beginning of morning prayer, and invariably arrived wearing an obvious hangover as well as odd socks and a less than genial morning manner. But I observed about him something that few other people were allowed to see. When I caught him unawares dealing with a poor, homeless, lonely, or mentally ill person, and especially if he thought no one was watching, he was utterly kind, generous and gentle, actually Christlike.
I can use that word because there are elements of similarly perverse-seeming refusal to be recognised throughout Jesus’ ministry. St Mark, especially, tells us how often Jesus refused to allow his true identity to be proclaimed. This is strange because the gospels are all about this very question of identity, about who Jesus really is. We can understand why James Barry concealed his true identity as Margaret, and probably, therefore, why he was such a cantankerous and charm-free individual; the concealment must have been excruciating. My former colleague, I think, preferred attention to approval: he took the view that if churchpeople were going to like him they’d better like him at his most outrageous, not a version of himself moderated for respectable social consumption. But when he met real vulnerability and need, rather than groupies, he showed a different, kinder side. It takes a strong character to pull that off. And it isn’t too far from Jesus’ own, quite fierce, personality: he was always unafraid to speak the truth to power, and refused to be lionised, though he did preserve and display his gentler side for those who were not valued by the world.
The central question and challenge of the gospel – ‘who do you say I am’ – requires us to look at who we are. Are we self-aware and honest? How does our presentation of our self (which we all act out to a greater or lesser extent) relate to what we truly know about ourselves? How does that cohere with our faith, with who we aspire to be? Are we integrated people? Wholeness of the self is a proper Christian aspiration.
The woman who was James Barry reminds me that we can seem utterly different from who we really are and still live extraodinarily useful and productive lives, though at great cost to conventional relationships and self-fulfillment. Well, Jesus says there’s always a cost – a cross. Is there a sense in which Barry, in the compromises of life, was truer to his best self than she would have been as Margaret? Possibly, and the social (and religious) pressures which confined Barry are not too different in character from some of what Jesus confronted: a lot of his good news was about seeing God’s truth straight, rather than refracted through human convention, prejudice and fear.
But there’s also a vital difference. Jesus never pretends to be other than he is; he just resists full self-disclosure, except fleetingly and secretly, with close friends, at least until the resurrection. He wants people to get what we might call an organic and relational understanding of who he is, which grows and matures as they grow and mature in faith. His parables often teach hidden and incremental growth; he avoids showmanship.
So if we recognise Jesus for who he truly is, we need to have a constant and searching conversation with ourselves about who we are. This isn’t new. It’s called self-examination, confession, reconciliation: we do it at the beginning of every Eucharist, though rather quickly. A few of us do it in spiritual direction or confession. Without it, we never get much deeper into God. The tools are all here.
Recognition of Jesus as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, is the only basis on which the story of our faith is more than just another story. And what makes it more than just another story is if our answer makes a difference: if it changes who we are, what we think and how we behave.