Manners maketh man

I shudder to think how badly I cope with instructions – both written and spoken. I must be wired in some way so as not to understand?  Some people would call that type of wiring ‘rebellion’ but I assure you it is not. For example, attending a mid week meeting, the facilitator instructed the group to speak about one one good thing that had happened that day. I was last to respond thinking that my colleagues were simply relaying a significant happening, nothing about ‘something good!’ My time came and I recalled that I had been to the motor mechanic and been presented with a car bill of £750. Agitated, the facilitator said, “But that’s not a good thing!” I was quick to understand the error of my ways and retorted, “No, the good thing is that it didn’t cost £1000. I think I got away with it?

Instructions are important if we are to live well together and in safety. It was always thus. In the late 1920s and early 1930s when airliners were beginning to become established, transporting cargos of people to far away destinations, the following set of instructions for the stewards and stewardesses was actually applied:

  1. Keep the clock and the altimeter wound up.
  2. Carry a train timetable in case the plane is grounded.
  3. Warn the passengers against throwing their cigars and cigarettes out the windows.
  4. Keep an eye on passengers when they go to the lavatory to be sure they don’t mistakenly go out the emergency exit.

We are all subject to rules and regulations, whatever we do and wherever we find ourselves. It is no different in church, although we hope that these rules and regulations are for our spiritual, emotional and physical benefit. I think it is fair to say that church life is less ‘rules fixated’ than it once was. However, it is probably true to say that in terms of social etiquette we are less regulated than we once were. In particular the landscape of rules and regulations which apply to children have changed in a generation. I remember the dictums which were popular in my childhood: “Speak when spoken to” and “be seen but not heard.” And, yet, there is one principle of formation which continues to stand out: “Manners maketh man.” This is an instruction which reportedly comes from the pen of William of Wykeham (1324 – 1404), founder of Winchester College and New College, Oxford.

Sonmans, Wilhelm; d.1708; William of Wykeham (1324-1404); Bodlean Libraries.
Sonmans, Wilhelm; d.1708; William of Wykeham (1324-1404); Bodleian Libraries.

Manners maketh man is a phrase which has a significant impact upon the way we live and the respect that we show one another.  Manners in this context means kindness, a form of respect or regard for those whom we are living with and those who are strangers in our midst. It is a neat, pithy way of saying that by regarding one another highly, the potential of the human condition is becoming realised. Manners maketh man is more than mere chivalry or social etiquette, the phrase goes to the heart of another instruction or commandment laid down by Jesus. This ‘new’ commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) is the central focus of Christian living. The Christ life is a constant challenge, the realisation of our human dignity because we can see the face of Christ in the other.

Instructions, commandments, rules and regulations are necessary for the smooth running of all things human. Perhaps we won’t experience rule books in heaven? Rules are a central tenet in any discipline, particular that  of the spiritual quest. Many years ago, long before William of Wykeham, a man called Benedict draw up a book of instructions for his community to live by. This is a book of precepts intended for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. It is probably the wisest, most informative document about the art of living together that has been written since the Beatitudes. The Rule of St Benedict has been studied widely and lived commonly for over 1500 hundred years. I wonder if there is one thing which we could take from it and bottle? What would that one rule or instruction be which would make better men and women of us? It’s an impossible task but the overarching tone and structure of Benedict’s work is about seeking purpose and fulfilment – to become truly human.

The last word, though, comes from a school – it might have been the music room – in which a very special teacher had worked out her scheme, her rule book. There was just one instruction in her room, ‘Be kind.’ Her philosophy – kindness covers all things, (manners maketh man) there is no need apply any more instructions.

We welcome the new bishop of Oxford, the Right Revd Steven Croft, to St Michael & All Angels, Summertown this Sunday 16th October at the 10am Eucharist. Make this a good excuse to come and meet bishop Steven, you will be most welcome.

Author: Gavin Knight

The Revd Gavin Knight has been the Vicar of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown in the Oxford Diocese since September 2011. After serving his title at St Alphege, Solihull, Gavin became parish priest of St Andrew's Fulham Fields in London. He moved to Wales in 2005 becoming Chaplain to Monmouth School. He is married to Jo, a clinical psychologist, and they have three sons.