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

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: June

Midsummer. Not that you'd feel it most of the time. The cool grey spring has slid imperceptibly into a cool grey summer. In previous Junes after evensong, we'd sit on the bench outside the Deanery front door drinking tea (or if it was a festival, G&T). Not in 2015. But whatever the hue of the sky you get to love these long northern evenings. Southern guests can't believe that the sky is still light at 11pm. There have been auroras on rare clear nights, I'm told, though the Cathedral, berthed like a great galleon a few yards outside the Deanery windows blocks out all sight of the northern sky so we haven't set eyes on them. 'Decanus Borealis' has yet to glimpse Aurora Borealis. It's on my bucket list of must-see sights before I die.

At Christmas and Easter, people jokingly say to deans, 'this is your busy time'. I never like admitting to being busy - it doesn't fit with my concept of how a priest should be, having time for God and time for people. A few Lents ago we launched a rather good project with the hash tag #NotBusy and its own website. It was meant to help us all live in a more reflective prayerful way and not be overwhelmed by activity. So I smile and say, 'well yes, there's a fair amount to do. And it's all good'. (You may recognise that last bit as the upbeat catchphrase in the brilliant TV comedy series 2012. Accentuate the positive.)

In cathedrals however, June and July are just as full as the run up to Christmas and Easter. At the tail end of the Easter season comes Pentecost, and then several weeks of end-of-year celebrations and events. Schools have prize-giving and leavers' services. In Durham, this includes several days of packed leavers' services for local authority schools in the area. The Cathedral Education Department is occupied with visits at a time of year when schools are keen to take students off-site and plan imaginative excursions and projects. The Cathedral Friends, a fine body of far-flung people who support us with great generosity hold their annual festival. There are concerts and recitals. The University has four full days of vast graduation ceremonies. Hard on the heels of all this come the summer ordinations (this year in early July so I'll come back to those next month).

And of course the visitor season is in full swing. June and September are 'Saga' months when most of our visitors are adults who have chosen vacation dates that will avoid the school holidays. It's not so much children and youngsters that our more senior guests are avoiding, I suspect, as the absurdly inflated prices many outfits charge holidaymakers the moment summer term ends. This isn't true of us of course. I'm sure you know that we don't charge a penny for admission to the Cathedral: we believe that hospitality to holy spaces should be without payment or condition for all who wish to come in. This 'public benefit' costs us around £2 million each year, and voluntary donations come nowhere near to matching it. How to make up that sum and keep Cathedral finances stable is a continual challenge for the Chapter and our Finance Office. 

Meanwhile, the great works on our £10.5+ million Open Treasure project continue. The precinct has been a building site for months; but at last, the scaffolding is starting to come down, and the historic buildings round the cloister are beginning to be revealed in their full glory following intensive conservation. The new exhibitions they will hold will be installed at the turn of the year. These will be fully open in a year's time, and will transform the way we display the amazing array of treasures that we hold in our collections. These include priceless Saxon and Norman manuscripts, early printed books, artefacts like the incomparable Saxon cross that go back to St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne community, no fewer than three copies of Magna Carta, gorgeous church plate from the post-Reformation period... where do I stop? To exhibit these wonderful things in the monastic dormitory, the medieval kitchen and a new collections gallery will make for marvellous exhibitions in their own right. But we want the exhibition timeline to interpret the Cathedral's Christian past and present in ways that will help visitors understand why it is here at all. 'Open Treasure' doesn't just mean creating a rather splendid museum. It means telling the story of the Cathedral's life and community across the centuries, and pointing to the treasure that is nothing less than the gospel itself. It will become a vital part of our mission and Christian outreach.

For me personally, the month has been a time to take stock. The summer solstice has fallen exactly one hundred days before my retirement in September. This same month I notch up forty years as an ordained minister and twenty as a Dean (eight in Sheffield, twelve here). At the start of the month, the Prime Minister's and Archbishops' Appointment Secretaries visited Durham to look at what was needed in the next Dean. They met a lot of people within the Cathedral and in the wider community of this city, county and region. They will compile a report that will help the committee that leads the appointment process on behalf of the Crown. Words I'm hearing frequently are 'succession' and 'legacy'. It has to happen, of course, and I'm pleased for the Cathedral that it has already begun. But it's odd knowing that this activity is taking place around me while there is much work I still have to do, not least try to leave things in an orderly state for the Acting Dean and my eventual successor.

So no further valedictory thoughts: I'm not ready to become part of history just yet. For now, I want to go on being as present as I can to the Cathedral, valuing the time that is left for the gift of serving in one of England's most remarkable holy places. I have loved being Dean here, and am saying to myself more and more fervently with each day that passes, Laus Deo: Praise God! The sun may not be shining much up here. But as we come to the end of another month, I have so many reasons to be profoundly thankful.

And who knows? If the skies clear for long enough, I may get to see the Aurora after all.


  1. Hearty congratulations on not introducing Admission charges to the cathedral during your 12 year Decanal watch.

  2. That thing about the last few months at work - I retired in 2009 after 43 years of Army service, from age 17. I was ready for retirement, but this was mixed with sadness and a nostalgia for something that had been my life's work, which had taken me around the world and latterly in home places. From being a nomad for decades, to someone who settled in a single place and traveled to and from newer posting, because being a nomad with a family, eventually tires on you. 18 addresses in 20 odd years, isn't good for family stability nor for children's education.

    At least having a home base, meant no need to move when I retired. Spouse kept her job and children and grand children (by now) have known were we are for a ew years not.

    The hardest thing was leaving friends and colleagues that I'd worked with for the last 8 years of my last Job as leader in Canterbury (yes there are other Cathedrals apart from Durham), where solid working relationships, which had become friendships were now going to be some distance away, I live in North Kent, so, not easy to see them without planning.

    You don't appreciate working relationships until they're no longer there. I felt them to be precious, so treated those who worked for or with me very well, this meant for a happy workplace, jobs being done properly and efficiently and off course, sharing after work social life to the extent that distance permitted. In fact living a double social life really. One at the home base and another at the work base, which sometimes overlapped as my spouse quite liked Canterbury and we thought about relocating there ourselves. But leaving the children and grand children (who have their own lives) and my spouse leaving a job that she loves tipped the balance towards staying put.

    How did I fill my time? Well I wonder sometimes how I found the time to go to work; my life is filled with church stuff, friends and family, study for Licensed Lay Ministry and a whole host of other things. I'm busy, but not in the pressured time critical way of work, but mainly on God's business - finally giving him the time he deserved to have been given throughout my years of working life, but wasn't.

    Retirement can be and is for me a time of blessing. All I need to do is to persuade my spouse to retire (she's already 3 years past it) and all will be well. But that doesn't seem to register. She enjoys her job, doesn't feel ready to retire, so I'm now the house husband I never thought that I would be. God does work in mysterious ways :)

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful comment on retirement. I hope I can say the same on the other side of this threshold.

  4. Just as the Bench of Bishops is now seriously lacking in scholars of the calibre of the Ramseys and Rowan, who is there among the a Deans of the intellectual stature of the soon to be retiring Dean of Durham? We need far less Managing Directors and far more pilgrims, priests and ponderers.

    1. Thank you for this kind comment. Undeserved, but touching.

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