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

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: July

People don't always believe me when I say that in cathedrals, the diary in June and July tends to be more full than either Advent and Christmas, or Holy Week and Easter. If you've read this blog before, you'll know that I heartily dislike the word 'busy'. So let me just say that at this time of year there is quite a lot to do.

What is it that fills these July days?

Much of it is end-of-year services and events. Thousands of people come through the doors to attend them, most of them young. There are several consecutive days of big lively school leavers' services for church schools across the diocese. There are more than a dozen University graduation ceremonies that occupy the best part of a week. The ancient schools founded by the Cathedral, Durham School and the Chorister School, hold services to mark the close of the school year including Choristers' Speech Day. And at the end of a long series of valedictory events, the last Sunday of the choir year comes round when we say a fond farewell to choristers and adults who are leaving us. (For more, read my last blog on this site.)

But this isn't all. In every cathedral's calendar, summer ordinations are high days. They bring great gatherings of people from across the country (and beyond) to celebrate the rites of passage into different phases of public ministry. In Durham, we ordain the priests and deacons at separate services over a weekend, the priests on Saturday evening and the deacons on Sunday morning. This year I had the privilege of conducting the ordination retreat and preaching at both the services. This was poignant for me because I was ordained deacon 40 years ago this summer, and, as regular readers know, shall be laying aside stipendiary public ministry early in the autumn. So the ordinations gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in that time and to share a few insights with those who are now embarking on this great journey.

The week after the ordinations, July brings two big services that are quintessentially 'Durham'. The first is the Miners' Gala Service on the afternoon of the 'Big Meeting' that brings over one hundred thousand people into the city to celebrate Durham's mining heritage and the lives of the working people of the North East. It's a sight you won't see anywhere else in England. The Cathedral is always packed out. It's a most moving service at which the year's new banners are processed in with their colliery bands to be blessed by the Bishop. I've blogged about it before. Someone said to me in my first year here that I would never understand Durham Cathedral until I had been to this service and seen for myself how the people of County Durham claim this Cathedral as their own.

The other big service takes place the next morning, Matins for the Courts of Justice. Like the Miners' Service, this is another colourful piece of sacred drama, but in every other way it's a complete contrast. This gathering to celebrate the Queen's Peace brings together senior people including Lords Lieutenant, High Sheriffs and High Court judges from the four counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and North Yorkshire. The High Sheriff asked me to preach this year at my last such service. Since I was speaking to an audience that included many people from the legal profession, I spoke about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Archbishop Stephen Langton's role in creating it, and the significance of the Great Charter's religious origins.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick towards 27 September when our Durham years come to an end. There have been so many 'last times' this summer, farewells not just for the summer holidays but for good. No doubt I'll write more in this vein as our retirement horizon comes into view, as it must once we start saying, as we shall have to in August, 'next month...'. How swiftly it all flies by. 'Life's but a passing shadow' quoted Rik Mayall in his final TV interview before he died. Those words of Shakespeare were etched on a sundial on the house opposite ours in Salisbury in the 1970s. I used to look at that verb sap out of my study window a dozen times each day. But its truth is coming home to me now as the days grow perceptibly shorter. 'Summer's lease hath all too short a date.'

But we want to enjoy this last Durham summer to the full while we can, to be present to each day as our time here draws to a close. In De Caussade's great insight, it's a call to practise the 'sacrament of the present moment', to see all of time as the gift of God, our yesterdays, our todays, our tomorrows. This is an incredibly beautiful place in which to have lived and worked. We have been, and are, surrounded by wonderful people in the communities of the Cathedral and of this part of England. Our lives have been touched and changed in ways that we can only just begin to glimpse, even if it will take years to appreciate them for what they really are.  

If you have the stamina, you can read the sermons I've mentioned on my other blogsite, http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk.


  1. Greetings, Dean Sadgrove. I'm a faithful reader of your blog, and have the stamina for the sermons too! And let's not forget your books and photos. I'll miss your communications about Durham. Let's hope you'll continue to write. I just took out a life membership in the Friends of Durham Cathedral in honour of your service to Jesus Christ and the Church. The Rev. Deacon Susan M. Reeve, B.A. Dunelm, 1967, St. Mary's College. Living in California.

  2. Thank you so much. I am touched by what you say and by your generous support for the Friends of this Cathedral. I hope to continue to write, but will need to find another woolgathering identity when I cease to be a Dean!