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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Farewell to the Bishop of Durham

We have said farewell to Justin Welby. This time next week he will be Archbishop of Canterbury, exchanging the see of Cuthbert for the see of Augustine. Bishop of Durham for 14 months, he has lived up to his name of being only ‘just in’ as some of us have been quipping at the risk of lèse majesté.  It was a wonderful service; the conventional media epithet of bidding ‘an emotional farewell’ doesn’t begin to do justice to it. Words, music, silence, ceremony, humour and communitas melded into a rather special parting of friends. The full Cathedral was a tribute to the respect and affection he has earned here in the North East after only a year.  

Today, the day after, some choristers have come to the Deanery for tea. I meet each of the year groups annually to help them think about Christian faith and what their involvement in the Cathedral means to them. Over chocolate cakes, I asked them what they had made of the service.  ‘Brilliant!’ they said, which pleased me. Everyone I’d spoken to after the service had said the same, but choristers don’t always enthuse about liturgy. ‘What did you enjoy about it?’ I asked.  ‘The Bishop has a great sense of humour.’ ‘It was funny when he couldn’t unwrap the leaving gifts.’  ‘All the cameras were looking straight at us.’ And then, less whimsically, ‘Love the Kenneth Leighton Magnificat’. 

Then someone said: ‘But I was sad too.’ Another added, ‘Yes, there was a point in the service when I found I was feeling something.’  Some others nodded, recognising that these two lads spoke for them.  I asked what had touched them. ‘When you and the Bishop walked alone up to the high altar with the big gold stick, and disappeared behind the screen, and when you both came out again, it had gone’.  I have to say that the youngsters’ grasp of the power of well-crafted ritual pleased me even more than their enthusiasm had done.

In case you don’t grasp the significance of this action let me explain. It’s about the symbolism of laying down office and leaving behind the responsibilities that go with it. The ‘big gold stick’ is the Bishop’s staff or crozier. Some say that it is a sign of the Bishop’s authority and jurisdiction in his diocese; others that it represents his pastoral care of his people. Either way, he lays it down when he stops being Bishop of his diocese. In Durham, by long tradition, the ‘spiritualities’, as they are called, are ‘guarded’ by the Cathedral Chapter because the Cathedral is the Bishop’s church and houses his ‘cathedra’ or seat.

The slow walk the Bishop and I were making was to Cuthbert’s shrine, the Cathedral’s emotional and spiritual heart.  In the privacy of this hidden, holy place behind the high altar, the Bishop handed the crozier back to me as Dean.  In the name of the Cathedral Chapter (its governing body), I received the crozier and laid it on the shrine, the great black slab that marks the place of his burial. It was a pledge to take good care of it (meaning the office as well as the object) until the next Bishop comes into the shrine to take it up again during his enthronement that marks the beginning of new chapter for us all.

We stayed there silently for a while, each of us alone with our thoughts and prayers. I’m not sure I can put into words the profound significance of that moment. Then we emerged and walked back down the quire to the crossing where he knelt before the Bishop of Jarrow and me.  Bishop Mark Bryant commissioned him to go out to his new work in the spirit of our northern saints; and I blessed him in the name of the people of the diocese. Then Justin blessed all of us, and soon after that it was over.

Too soon, some of us were thinking.  As he said, his farewell sermon should have been ten years in the preparation, not just one. And yet we're proud here in Durham to be sending this good man to Canterbury. And the affection, the thank-yous, the prayers, and the memories will linger for a long time to come. If there had to be a parting, it could not have been better marked than this. And the choristers knew it.  




  1. It was a lovely service, and as the Bishop spoke the jewels in his cope were dancing like stars. Wonderful humerous speeches and beautiful music and singing made it a service to remember. Praying for you, Bishop Mark and all the others as you take on extra responsibility and the huge decision of choosing the next Bishop of Durham this year.

  2. I am so glad to have found this site, and also that of Stephen Cherry. You both write so clearly and thoughtfully. I almost feel I'm in Durham.