Good morning, gentlemen, and a warm welcome to the 2018-19 academic year.
It is a privilege to stand before you as the new headmaster of St. Albans. And I have to say, it is difficult not to feel inspired—and deeply blessed—as I look out at all of you on this beautiful morning, as we gather together in this magnificent space, as so many St. Albans boys before you have done—to renew this great tradition and the sense of community we derive each year by coming together for this ritual, one that connects us to the generations of St. Albans men who have come before us and to the sustaining ideals that have always defined our school. That our school is located beside the National Cathedral—that we are able to gather in this sacred space for important ceremonies such as this—reminds us of the rare and precious gift we enjoy as members of this community. It grounds us in something real, something permanent, something of lasting value and meaning. It connects the life of our school to the enduring questions at the heart of our humanity. And it calls us to be the best versions of ourselves, compelling us to look upwards and outwards, reminding us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.
On this beautiful morning, with a full heart and a deep sense of excitement about the year ahead of us, I want to extend a special welcome to all students who are new to St. Albans, whether you are a proud—and perhaps somewhat anxious—C Former or a student coming to St. Albans for the first time at another form level. I too am new this year so feel a special connection with all of you. We’ll be travelling this journey together—experiencing the magic of St. Albans for the first time together—and I have every confidence that if we stick together and support one another, the experience is going to be wonderful.
To our returning students, please go out of your way to be warm and welcoming to the boys who are new to the community. One of the greatest of all St. Albans traditions is the ritual we just observed this morning, where our senior boys—our Sixth Formers—take the hands of our youngest boys—our C Formers—and walk them into the Cathedral for our opening service. Seniors, you carry the hopes and dreams of these little ones in your hands. They are looking up to you—we are all looking to you—to teach our younger boys what it means to be a St. Albans man—to welcome them into a lifelong brotherhood—but a brotherhood of a very special kind—a brotherhood of care, conscience, and civility—dedicated to the dignity and self-worth of every member of the community. Seniors, the tone you set—the choices you make—the character you display—these will determine the character of our community and the experience of each and every boy in our school. We are all counting on you and looking to you for leadership. Never doubt the impact and influence you can have on each other and on the many younger students who look up to you.
Seniors, if I ever had any doubt about whether you were up to the challenge, those doubts were all erased after sharing Rocklands BBQ with two groups of you in the past week. A special thank you to Head Prefect Harry Grigorian for organizing these lunches and to all the seniors who have gone out of their way to make me feel so welcome.
We have so much going for us as we begin the new school year. We’re blessed to be part of a truly amazing school with an inspiring mission, a proud history, an incredibly talented faculty, and I truly believe we have the brightest of futures ahead of us.
But we live in complicated and confusing times.
Part of being a St. Albans man is learning how to “choose the hard right over the easy wrong.” This has been a touchstone of ethical behavior and the defining aspiration of our school since its founding: the ability to discern right from wrong—the courage to choose the right, especially when it is difficult—and the special pride shared by the men who, having learned these truths at St. Albans, have made it the very core of their life and values—the very essence of the brotherhood that they remember so fondly for the rest of their days.
This has always been a complicated undertaking—but never more so than today. Values and virtues we long took for granted sometimes seem to be in question. Community. Civility. Humility. Integrity. Humanity. Empathy. It is hard to imagine a St. Albans without these values. And yet they are the values that are increasingly hardest to find in the outside world. As these values become less certain—their meaning more contested—it affects us. As much as St. Albans tries, in T.S. Eliot’s inspired phrase, to be a “still point” in a “turning world” —a moral center in a world where the center often seems unable to hold—the convulsive forces in the larger world can find their way into our halls and our hearts, corrupting our mission and causing us to lose our way.
But only if we allow it to happen. Only if we allow it to happen. Great schools like St. Albans have always been countercultural. We have remained faithful to certain core values and to an aspirational understanding of the type of community we strive to be. At our best, we have created something here that is rare and precious—a moral community, a moral brotherhood—but of a very special kind.
And that, gentlemen, is the question I want to urge upon you as you go forth and begin the year: What kind of brotherhood do we want to create here?
The wonderful scriptural passage from Philippians read earlier in this service by senior Warden Ben Burgess helps us think about this question in an especially resonant way. This was Paul’s prayer to the early Christian Church at Philippi, and it is my prayer for you today:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
As we begin the year, I want you to keep these things at the center of your lives—and at the center of the way we think about community and brotherhood: that we be a brotherhood abounding with love, one that values excellence in all that we do—especially in how we treat one another—and that we aspire each day to grow in a very special quality that Paul in his letter describes as “discernment.”
Discernment begins with a belief that there is a good and a truth to be known—and that the quest to know this truth and this good is the most sacred and important goal of your education.
But discernment is not just about knowing the good and the true. Discernment is about having the courage and the character to choose the good—to live one’s life within the light and grace of the highest truths—to choose the hard right over the easy wrong.
This is the work of a lifetime. We are all works in progress. Try as we might, our flawed humanity means that we “see through a glass, darkly,” to quote Paul from the Book of Corinthians. Even when we can see clearly, we often struggle to do what we know is right.
But I have seen so much good in you all, even in the short time we have known one another: your instinctive decency; the bright, respectful way you have welcomed me to the community; the love you have for this school, your teachers, and one another; the joy and humor that fills our hallways. And today—in this magnificent space—as our seniors walked our C Formers in by hand, you have created and modeled before our very eyes the ennobling brotherhood of which we are capable—one filled with the light of a community that knows what is good and is right—and has committed to living in the grace of those redemptive and inspiring truths.
Soon, we will all become busy. The memory of this opening service may soon fade, as we begin writing essays, completing math problems, competing in athletic contests, and tending to the business of each day. It is sometimes easy to forget in the ordinary flow of our daily lives that the type of community we become—the type of brotherhood we create—is always at stake, even in the smallest moments.
I had the privilege of being in the National Cathedral this past Saturday for the funeral of Senator John McCain. One of the individuals who spoke during the service talked about one of Senator McCain’s favorite quotations from his favorite book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a quotation worth remembering as we leave the Cathedral this morning to begin our year:
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
Never forget that the choices you make, even in the smallest moments, can make all the difference in the world. You matter. Our choices matter. Let us make the most of them. As the Book of Hebrews teaches us:
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
This is your time and your moment, gentlemen. This is St. Albans School. God be with you.