About Me

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

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: April

There is a heady rush of green all over the Peninsula. In March it seemed as if winter would never end. Now it is April and Eastertide, and the trees are outdoing one another to dress for summer. The silver birch outside the bathroom window is back in the role of modesty screen, its foliage concealing us bashful bathers from our neighbours across the College. The magnolia by the Chorister School, harbinger of exams, cricket and speech day, is in glorious flower. The dandelions are out for St George's Day. Even the beech hedge, always the last to respond, is casting off last year's dowdy autumn brown as fresh shoots push through. The wind has lost its biting edge, the sun is shining daily and winter woollies are stowed away till the equinox. The time for singing has come. All's right with the world.

T. S. Eliot famously said that April was the cruellest month, but perhaps he wasn't thinking very theologically. Even when Easter is late, April always seems shot through with resurrection. Maybe I'm biased - my birthday falls on the Ides (the 13th - about which see a recent blog On Reaching a Certain Age). When I was a boy, the sun always used to shine on that day. I know this because I always used to read my birthday books lying on the carpet in front of the south-facing open front door through which the sun's warmth and light streamed in with such generosity that even in my irreligion, I felt grateful to be alive. Now that I am 65, and well into my last Durham spring, that feeling has returned forcefully. Easter has felt like a precious gift to savour this year. We shall not be here to see this generation of green leaves drop off their trees in the autumn.

This year, April began in Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday morning, the diocesan clergy come to the Cathedral in large numbers to the annual service at which we renew our vows of ministry with the Bishop. We don't speak of Durham Cathedral as the 'mother-church' of the diocese because historically it isn't - that honour belongs to the older foundations at Chester-Le-Street or Lindisfarne. But on Maundy Thursday as the diocese gathers under this sacred canopy, it feels motherly. Clergy who have not seen one another for a year greet friends. For some, it is their first Maundy Thursday in Durham - they may have been ordained here last year, or have moved into the diocese from somewhere else. For others, this will be their last before moving away or retiring. I make this point in my welcome, and point out that I am speaking about myself. I'm conscious that today, as we worship, The Queen is visiting my former Cathedral in Sheffield to deliver the Royal Maundy. We held it in Coventry while I was Precentor there, and it was unforgettable. Mandatum novum, the 'new commandment' of the upper room that we should love one another lies at the heart of Christianity.

At the Maundy eucharist that evening, I preside. At the foot of the mighty prince-bishops' throne, once 'the highest throne in Christendom', I wash the feet of the youngest choristers. I like the juxtaposition of smallness and vulnerability right next to this huge symbol of jurisdiction and power. After communion, I lead a ceremony unique to Durham known as the 'Judas Cup' where the members of the Chapter pass round a mazer of wine and we ask ourselves the dreadful question of the upper room when Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him: 'Lord, is it I?' Then the lights are put out, the choir sings the Lamentation, we strip the altars and leave for the vigil in the dark Galilee Chapel. The transition from joyful thanksgiving to darkness and dereliction is extraordinarily powerful. It's one of those occasions where a well-developed sense of drama serves the liturgy so well. You would have to be hard-hearted not to be moved by it.

For me, Good Friday is the most moving day of the Christian year. Late in life, I am wondering why this is so. Maybe it just is. Our preacher in Holy Week this year is Bishop Martin Wharton, lately retired from our neighbouring diocese of Newcastle, and living among us in the College this year. He delivers a magnificent sermon on St John's great final word from the cross, 'It is finished'. I once wrote a little book about the sayings of Jesus in St John's passion narrative, but as I listened to this sermon I felt I wanted to tear it up and begin again. I came to faith through singing Bach's St John Passion as a boy. Somehow this beautiful sermon on the holiest day of this final year of mine in public ministry seems to bring things to a kind of completion: a personal tetelestai! indeed, if you'll allow me to put it that way. ('Is there a text?' I ask afterwards. 'No, just a few notes scribbled on the back of a fag-packet' he replies with typical modesty). Then the great cross is processed in and as the choir sing the Sanders Reproaches, we go forward to venerate it. Some simply kneel in front of it, but at a distance; others go right up to it to touch and kiss it. There are tears in the love and devotion of that simple action. They include mine. 'It is a thing most wonderful....'

Easter Eve is the day of emptiness and waiting. I've blogged about that too, and about the significance of Easter dawn breaking into it. Not every cathedral can muster a full choir at 5.15am, but we have always believed we should invest everything into this the central liturgy of the year. The Bishop presides and preaches, and parishes bring their baptism and confirmation candidates to join ours. Everyone is asked to bring something noisy to blow or bang as we shout the first alleluias after the long silence of Lent. This year, the Sunday school has furnished the clergy with rattles that glow in bright colours as you wave them about. This replaces the Buddhist prayer wheel I used to bring to this ceremony until the head flew off dangerously a few years ago during my moment of Easter excitement. Afterwards, there are bacon butties and coffee in the undercroft restaurant, while those of us whose liturgical day is only just beginning go home to turn round before choral matins, the sung eucharist and evensong.

'Can there be any day as this?' asks George Herbert. After the exhilaration of Easter Day, it all goes quiet for a while. Maybe it shouldn't, but it's a relief after the long liturgies and intense spirituality of Holy Week. The joy does not dissipate as the Great 50 Days begin, but it's in a more restful mode for a few days while the choir is on holiday and clergy take a break. After Easter Week, Jenny and I go to Bristol and Gloucester for the annual Deans' Conference, one last opportunity to see colleagues many of whom have become friends during the couple of decades I have been deaning (in two cathedrals - which makes me one of the few who are known as duo-deanal).

Back in Durham, the Cathedral is full again for the funeral of our friend and colleague Joe Cassidy, the Principal of St Chad's College across the Bailey. After his sudden death at the very end of March, I blogged about this inspiring, generous man to whom, as I now realise, I have owed a great deal during these Durham years. Some funerals are unbearably poignant, especially when someone has died tragically or prematurely, or when the liturgical season lends a particular colour. What makes this unforgettable for me is the tribute paid by Joe's daughter (you can find it on her Face Book page - Emmeline Skinner-Cassidy). It is filled with radiant memories of faith and love, a profound sense of gratitude and an unassailable sense of terrible loss. At the end, with the family standing round, I can barely get round the coffin to cense it: it is such an intimate act, the last thing I can do for someone I have come to care deeply for. I say the words of commendation with difficulty. A few minutes later we are at the cemetery. The air is soft and clean, and there are daffodils all round. We lay Joe to rest and in turn throw earth on to the coffin. And I call to mind the words of the Russian kontakion: 'even at the grave we sing alleluia!' Take him, earth, for cherishing.

If Easter doesn't make a difference to the way we think about mortality, what can it possibly mean? What can life itself mean? Yes, for Joe's family and for so many others in the world, April has been the cruellest month. Yet faith insists on seeing in it the brightest and best of hopes - even if it sometimes means holding on as best we can, and like Abraham, hoping against hope.


  1. I was sorry to hear that there were a number of people who had to be turned away from the Durham Hustings because the Town Hall simply wasn't big enough to accommodate them all. Would it not have been better if the meeting had been held in the cathedral which has a much larger seating capacity? Our own Hustings with the General Election candidates here in Bexhill was held at the Baptist church and all who came (in large numbers) were able to gain admittance to a first rate meeting ably chaired by the Lay Chairman of the Deanery Synod

  2. This is worth bearing in mind for the next time. Thank you.

  3. Delighted to read on Twitter that there is to be a volume of Sadgrove Durham and North East Sermons in the offing. When is the date of publication please? I do hope that Sanctuary Press include your sermon "Thomas, Our Twin"