The Alice Sermon 2015

Preached at Sandford Church on Pentecost by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington.

On this day in 1864 a certain Charles Dodgson, known to many of us as the author Lewis Carroll, walked out from Oxford to Sandford church to preach at Evensong.  I wonder what the then congregation made of this 32 year old Lecturer in Mathematics from Christ Church who had defied all the rules and retained his post at the college despite refusing to be priested.  No one really knows why he chose not to go down the usual route or even why Dean Liddell gave him such a dispensation.  Suggestions in diaries point to an overriding sense of sinfulness and unworthiness to be ordained or maybe it was just his love of theatre which the then Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, was known to disapprove of.  It has been thought that a stammer may have inhibited his ability to formally read or pray in church but it doesn’t seem to have affected his reputation as a preacher in later life.


We have no record of the sermon Carroll preached on that feast of Pentecost.  But it is tantalising to think that at the same time he stood in the pulpit of Sandford church he was also writing down a certain story for a little girl which he had made up on a rowing trip down to Nuneham Courtney not two years previous. Alice’s Adventures Underground, was presented to Alice Liddell in the November of the same year, 1864.  In the poem with recounts the events of that original rowing trip, Secunda, often associated with Alice herself, hopes that ‘there will be nonsense in it’.  As we know, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, has plenty of nonsense in it.  From Mad hatters, to mock turtle’s, talking cards and white rabbits, the characters which people Alice’s curious dream are strange and fantastical.  Alice even describes some of the events which happen to her in terms of nonsense: sentencing before the verdict at her own trial, the race where no one wins, and the non-advice of the caterpillar.


The world which Lewis Carroll creates for Alice to explore is full of nonsense but is it nonsensical?  Commentators of Carroll’s work have often seen, lying behind and within the absurd creatures and events, a basis in the real world of the child.  On the surface Alice’s world is full of bizarre chaos, but look a little deeper and a contextual logic emerges.  For example, the people who made up that first rowing trip appear in Chapter 3, in the ‘A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale’.  Charles Dodgson caricatures himself as Dodo, the Duck is Canon Duckworth and the Lory and Eaglet, Alice’s sisters Lorina and Edith.  Each person referred to in the imaginative derivatives which a child would give to the people she knows.  In many instances the poems and words of Wonderland are based in a child’s experience of the world and of course the school room.  There are memorable forms of familiar nursery rhymes like Twinkle, twinkle little bat and the Queen of Hearts along with misremembering of poems Alice has had to learn.  In chapter 2 Alice even rehearses her brother’s Latin grammar to find the correct way to address a mouse.


But Lewis has not only re-visioned Alice’s world but also his own.  Those of you who go on a tour of Christ Church will be shown the back stairs leading from the main hall into the SCR common room which has often been associated with the ‘rabbit hole’.  As well as historic places and features, mathematical and logical concepts have also been identified within the text.  Nowhere is this more clearly apparent than in the absurd tea party that Alice is invited to by the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse in chapter 7.  Their conversation is peppered with statements that on the surface appear nonsensical, and yet adhere closely to mathematical theorem giving them an internal logic which is not always clearly apparent.  So despite the Mad Hatter’s statement that ‘you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!“, makes no sense, it still adheres to the logical and mathematic notion of inverse relationships.  Similarly, Alice is utterly confused by the constant changing of the seating around the circular table that simply brings her back to where she first started and yet she is simply acting out the classic circular combinatoric problem which dated from antiquity.  It is something remarkable about human language that even from the age of 7 months a child can grasp the laws of grammar even though a sentence may make no sense whatsoever.  In language as in mathematics there is a law and order which lies behind and within what on the surface appears to be nonsensical chaos.


It is this deeper understanding and order that bubbles to the surface of the chaotic and at times nonsensical events of the day of Pentecost.  It begins with the disciples hidden away and terrified for their lives and ends with Peter confidently and eloquently preaching the gospel of Christ, unfolding to the crowds that sense and meaning which lies behind and within the seemingly nonsensical events of Jesus’ death.  The disciples themselves become icons of this revelation, as the people of the many nations of the world cannot comprehend how simple fishermen from Galilee can be speaking in their own tongues.  To them this is nonsense and yet in their lucid and understandable proclamation of the gospel, the power of God is revealed in the work of the Spirit.  The babbling people of Babel have been re-visioned into the messengers of God’s gospel of reconciliation.  It is not for nothing that central to this transformation is the power of language as the grammar of God spills out bringing divine order and sense to the words and lives of all peoples through his disciples.


On this feast of Pentecost, when the grammar of God is revealed once more, let us pray that our hearts may be renewed once again that we may be given the confidence to speak the words which the Advocate gives us and to proclaim the gospel which lies behind and within this seemingly nonsensical wonderland of our own time.  Amen.