Sermon: Richard Hale School Quatercentenary

Richard Hale was a Grocer. That does not mean that he kept a corner shop, open all hours. He was a successful City of London merchant and member of the prestigious Grocers’ Company. It still exists and ranks second among the 110 Livery Companies of the City of London. The word Grocer originally meant someone who deals in gross – large quantities especially of valuable spices.

So Richard Hale was a success story. He was a Hertfordshire boy and he used his wealth to buy land and establish himself and his family among the great families of the county at Kings Walden. But he did more. His main surviving legacy is in the school named after him. Schools are places where we seek to go beyond the present and incubate a better future. Over the past four hundred years Richard Hale’s school has certainly justified its promise.

In the beginning in 1617 the school was very small and the curriculum was dominated by Latin, the language which gave access to serious and international scholarship. Then from form four there was some Greek. There was a quarterly charge of 6d [about 2.5p] payable to the Master on behalf of each boy. Things are very different now and the school has a national reputation as a leading Science and Engineering Academy.

Richard Hale was over 80 when he founded the school and left his legacy. Everyone should think about their legacy even when at school and it is best not to leave it too late. We all have a chance to give something back this year by buying a brick to help finance a much needed sports hall.

We all have our personal memories of schooldays. I especially loved the school plays. I was cast as the last tempter in T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. “The last temptation is the greatest treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” It was invaluable preparation for my later job as chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. There was quite a crop of bishops produced in the nineteen fifties and sixties and although as you will see at the end of the service my colleagues, Old Hertfordians all, have worn very well, the ranks need refreshing and I hope someone here has a mitre in their knapsack.

There is much of which to be proud in our 400 year history. I suppose our most celebrated alumnus is Alfred Wallace, the 19th century scientist who in parallel with Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution. His portrait by Old Hertfordian, David Gentleman is in the school history written by Richard Gander of happy memory who gave me my first introduction to the Neolithic.

It is true alas that Wallace was forced to leave school at fourteen because of financial difficulties but Richard Hale helped lay the foundations for an astonishing career of travel and discovery. He was a very early environmentalist and as early as 1878 in his Tropical Nature and Other Essays pointed out some of the deleterious effects of human impact on the environment especially in deforestation and soil erosion.

Schools are places where we prepare to go beyond the conventional vision of today and who knows in the ranks of the students gathered in the Cathedral this morning there is a future Alfred Wallace who will transform our understanding of the world.

Wallace also had a fear, writing in the 19th century that “future ages will look back on us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations”. Our present Headmaster has stated the aims of the school in contemporary terms as equipping young people with the necessary skills as well as developing them personally as all round individuals. The school motto with the staccato concision of Latin says very much the same – doctrina cum virtute. The translation “learning with virtue” does not do justice to the resonances of these three words.

Doctrina certainly stands for acquisition of the skills necessary for an impressive cv and a successful career. It is a competitive world. It is not ignoble to want to build, create, produce and discover things. Richard Hale was a success story and beneficiaries of his legacy should have ambition.

But to be balanced and rounded people we must have the ambition not only to do good but to be good. One way of expressing the balance summed up in our motto doctrina cum virtute is “acquire skills and develop character”. The skills help land the job; your character is what people talk about at the end of your life when how you did in GCSE design and technology is of very little interest. Any school worthy of the name has to be serious about both aspects of education.

There is a proper logic of economics. Effort leads to reward. Pursue self-interest. Maximise your utility. Impress the world. But there is also a moral logic. As you give you find that you receive. As you liberate yourself from addictions you discover true freedom. As you develop wisdom you see that success can lead to arrogance and a sense of entitlement which is the seedbed of corruption. You must be able to use failure to develop humility and discover that in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

Our society is dominated by technology which has opened up new possibilities but we need to re-discover our heart. If we want to avoid moving into an ice age of humanity we must give more weight to reasons of the heart.

People have been working to develop a computer that can think and it may be that it can be done. But no one has suggested developing a computer that can love.
But the fulfilment we enjoy or the misery we suffer here on earth does not depend on what we know or do not know but rather on whether we love and on whether we are loved.

It is not difficult to see why we are so keen to widen our knowledge and why we are so little concerned to increase our capacity to love – Knowledge translates directly into power; Love translates into service

So we are commanded to go beyond ourselves to find the centre of our lives beyond the ego, in God the beyond all and in our neighbour, the beyond self. The mystery is that the more we go beyond ourselves the more we find ourselves and our true spiritual beauty is revealed.

“Of the making of many books there is no end; much study is a weariness of the flesh” but the way of Jesus Christ, the human face of God who so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in his Son on the cross – that is the way to life in all its fullness.

Doctrina cum virtute really is the prescription for an education worthy of the name. So for the past four hundred years of our school, we can be proud and give thanks and for the next four hundred, invest in a brick.