Ambassador Matthew Barzun
St Paul’s cathedral
London, United Kingdom
28 September 2103
(As prepared for delivery)
Ambassador Barzun: This is my first Thanksgiving service here, but not my first time at this pulpit.
Last month, I stood up here as part of a walk-through. The wonderful team here at St. Paul’s had explained who would sit where, what order we’d process — how it all worked.
At the end, the leader of the team walked me up these steps. I looked out at the hundreds of tourists – in large groups and small — crisscrossing in all directions. “You should say something,” he said.
“Yes, I plan to” I answered, “I look forward to it” wondering if he thought I forgot that I had a speaking part. I turned to walk down.
“No…Now,” he said. “Say something now. You need to get used to it because your voice takes six seconds to travel back to you.”
“Oh, dear” I thought. “What do I say?” I hadn’t written anything yet.
There was a sheet of paper up here with bible verses on it.
“Just start reading,” he said. So I did.
I launched in right at the middle of the page – I don’t remember which passage, but it was one of the preachier ones — a list of things one ought not to do.
As my words travelled around the cathedral, I watched as the visitors stopped, looked around for the source of the sound, and listened to see if the words contained any relevant information for them. Sensing none – they returned to their self-guided tours.
It struck me on the way home afterward — as I thought about what words I did want to say today — that I should start by avoidingeverything I’d just done:
Jumping in at the middle… Assuming that listeners already know the context… And telling people what to not do.
I am sure we can all think of times we were on the receiving end of such a sermon or lecture, or, certainly for those of us who are parents, on the giving end of one. It’s a good reminder for me as ambassador – as I talk about transatlantic trade deals and multilateral treaties.
That reminded me of a great quotation from the British writer and devout Anglican, Dorothy Sayers, (whose writings influenced my own decision to get baptized 7 years ago and become a Christian).
Writing 70 years ago here in London, Sayers expressed frustration at what she’d been hearing from the pulpits on Sundays.
She wrote of a young carpenter sitting in the front pew while the vicar told him, “Don’t forget to come to church on Sundays”, “Don’t drink so much, “Don’t, don’t, don’t…..”
She said, and I quote, “What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life & occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry?”
She wrote that in the middle of Second World War.
Around the same time — in fact, exactly 70 Thanksgivings ago — another kind of good table was made.
President Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Gil Winant, were in Cairo for a war-planning summit. Roosevelt invited Churchill and Winant and their staff for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
The president carved the turkey himself and gave the following toast:
“Larger families are usually more closely united than small ones and so this year, with the people of the United Kingdom in our family, we are a large family and more united than before. I propose a toast to unity and may it long continue.”
That unity does continue.
I see it every day. You see it every day. And we all see it writ large today – here — with such an iconic British Cathedral hosting such a distinctly American holiday.
And I think Roosevelt’s right. I have my extended family here today, including my mother who’s celebrating her 70th birthday. And all of us here are part of the larger family of Americans and Brits in London.
So, as we give thanks today,
let us remember to make good tables in both senses:
First, like Sayers’ carpenter, let us do whatever it is we do every day and do it well as a way of giving thanks…
Second, – as Roosevelt did, let us expand our community by welcoming others to our table.
As the President says in this year’s Proclamation:
“When we gather round the table…this Thanksgiving Day, let us forge deeper connections with our loved ones. Let us extend our gratitude and our compassion. And let us lift each other up and recognize, in the oldest spirit of this tradition, that we rise or fall as one Nation, under God.”
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.