On Wednesday 22 July we had our annual Candlelight Chapel service & combined induction of our new Principal, Alastair Drayton. It was a fantastic evening of musical performances and readings by our students. Below is the Reflection by The Right Revd Dr David Coles, MA(hons), BD,MTh,PhD, Warden of College House 1990-2008, which was extremely thought provoking and resonated with the College House community.

chapel david colesRight Revd David Coles (Former College House Warden)Stephen Hawking is now 73. Born in Oxford and raised in England, he speaks now with a voice assisted American accent as his normal speech is permanently compromised by the motor neurone disease which has been gradually paralysing him for decades.  Yet, when others might give up in despair, this Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and now Director of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge University, continues to think and speak about some of the mos6t difficult topics which have baffled human beings for millennia. Questions like ‘Where did we come from?’ and ‘How big is the universe?’ and ‘How did we come to BE?’

It is little wonder, then, that he responded with enthusiasm last week when the American spacecraft  ‘New Horizons”, after hurtling through space for nine years at speeds up to 36,000 MPH, has finally got close to its goal – the planet Pluto (now considered by some to be too small to be a ‘grown up’ planet).  This little spacecraft, about as big as a piano, was launched in January 2006 when probably most of you here tonight were still at primary school.  It is now too far away from the sun to rely on solar power, so it has a nuclear battery, made, of course, from Plutonium!

(The element was discovered in 1941, just 11 years after the planet was discovered in 1930, so this new element was called ‘Plutonium’ (cf Uranium and Neptunium, other elements also named after planets).

So Pluto was LAST week. THIS week, Stephen Hawking is again on the news announcing the launch of the biggest ever search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, with a fund valued at over a billion dollars (US$135 million) donated by Russian Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner.  Stephen Hawking spoke about the launch of this ten year project at the Royal Society Science Academy in London:

“In an infinite universe, there must be occurrences of life.  Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life may be watching.  Either way, there is no bigger question.  It is time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth. We must know.”

On the same occasion, Yuri Milner said:

“We are launching the most comprehensive search programme ever. ‘Breakthrough Listen’ takes the search for intelligent life in the universe to a completely new level”.  Mr Milner said the scan would collect more data in one day than a year of any previous search, tracking the million closest stars, the centre of the Milky Way and the 100 closest galaxies.

So here we are, at our Candlelight Service tonight, clutching candles with flickering lights. Wax candles or oil lamps are still the main form of lighting for countless people in places without electricity or technology. (Like this reproduction of a first Century Palestinian oil lamp from the time of Jesus).

And I often hear it said that there is nothing quite so warming and comforting as an open fire, or a log fire on a cold night, even though we know we can’t go on polluting the atmosphere by burning these things.

My wife Joy and I have just come back from a  Chaplaincy appointment for the Anglican Church in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, in the long dark winters, everyone seems to light candles to generate a sense of warmth and hospitality. You see them burning on front porches, in offices as well as in restaurants and hotels – not just one, but often hundreds.  There is a Danish word “hygge” (from which our word ‘hug’ is derived).  It is used not only to describe a warm room or a welcoming meeting place, but also to describe people. So you might be described as a ‘hygge’ person, meaning you have a warm personality and people enjoy your company.

So, tonight,  we use this service as an opportunity to welcome our new BM, Alastair Drayton (and his wife, Andrea and children, Abbey and Nick) as the seventeenth Principal of College House in over 150 years.  A few moments ago, I asked Alastair a formal question at the start of the service:
“Alastair, you have been called to the office of Principal of College House.  Will you, as long as you hold this office, perform it with diligence, integrity and righteousness for the benefit if this House?”

He replied “I will”.  And we all applauded his affirmation as we welcomed him here.

The words “benefit of this House” form an interesting phrase. ‘Benefit’,  related to that other word in English, ‘benevolent’ which means ‘wishing to do good, to be actively friendly and helpful’, according to the Oxford Dictionary.  So, if our BM is such a person – actively friendly and helpful and wishing to do good in this place, and among the students who call this place a home away from home – Alastair, if that description becomes a mark of your leadership here, then you will indeed be doing well.  But it can only happen, if that is mutual. If each of the students and staff also have such a goal in sight, then this place will become a community of friendship and will provide an environment where academic learning and research will flourish.

Last November, we were in Sweden in the old city of Stockholm for a few days. We spent a fascinating morning at the Nobel Museum where you can discover everything you want to know about the 800 Nobel prize winners since 1901 when the prizes were first awarded for peace or literature or science. There is a theatre there, showing short movies, and one in particular caught my eye. It was a movie about Kings College, Cambridge,  which can boast of no less than twelve Nobel Prize winners amongst its Alumni and its Faculty.  The movie explores the importance of community life and leisure in the pursuit of creative thinking and academic excellence. They conclude that where students and researchers spend significant time together outside the research labs or the library, that in itself is a major factor in helping to generate creative solutions to solving problems or to developing team relationships which assist in new discoveries and insights.

So tonight, as we light candles and sing some songs, and say some prayers, we are engaging in building a community – in developing new friendships and lifelong associations.  One of the prayers in this service says “May God’s name be praised beyond the furthest star – glorified and exalted forever.”

In that first reading tonight from the very first chapter of the Bible, the Book of Genesis we read a section that scholars refer to as a ‘creation myth’ – not intended to be a scientific textbook, but a poetic description of the way ancient semitic peoples made sense of the world without the benefit of powerful telescopes or space research:  “And God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. And God called the light day and the darkness he called night…”

And then, leaping ahead several centuries to the very first chapter of St  John’s Gospel in the New Testament – the Christian Era, we read what is called the ‘Prologue of John’:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God….All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being – what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Tonight I have spoken of Stephen Hawking’s  longing to find intelligent life out there in that great black hole in the universe. The Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner saying: “we will be tracking the million closest stars, the centre of the Milky Way and the 100 closest galaxies…”

Searching, searching – is there anybody out there?

It seems like a lonely search. And yet, in this community and in the community we call Planet Earth, there are so many opportunities, so many possibilities yet to be discovered – so much good to be done, and so much hope to be shared.  Yes, by all means, thank God for the cosmologists who search the heavens for intelligent life.   But thanks be to God also, that we live in a beautiful and awesome world  where peace is possible, where love and justice can be realities, and where you and I can be part of that.

One of the creeds in our NZ Anglican Prayer Book says:  “You, O God, are supreme and holy. You create our world and give us life. You have always been with us. You are God.” We are not alone.

The Gospel we read tonight, concludes   “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

God bless you all.                                                                                                                  

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