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

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A Dean is Captured on Video

Now less than eight weeks to go to retirement. It’s coming up so quickly….

I’ve been clearing out the study, deciding which books to keep and which to discard (many are called but few are chosen!). It’s a thankless task but occasionally it throws up something that makes you stop and take stock. Today I came across a historic video of one of my predecessors. He too was retiring and this short documentary was put together by Tyne-Tees TV to mark his eight years in Durham. I needed a break so I sat down to watch it.
Some of you will remember Peter Baelz who was Dean of Durham from 1980 to 1988. He had been Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, so another in the line of distinguished theologians who have held this office down the centuries. (His predecessor had been Eric Heaton who had taught me Old Testament at Oxford in the 1970s.) But it's not an aristocratic bookish don who comes across in this endearing TV portrait but a wise, kind and thoughtful priest who had evidently relished his years at Durham and come to love the Cathedral and its people.
The film follows the Dean round the Cathedral and its environs. As he walks, he chats amiably about what it means to be Dean in such a place. Interestingly, he begins not by rhapsodising about its history or heritage, its music or its liturgy, but by telling us that the Dean’s role is like being the managing director of a small business. He points out that the Cathedral gives employment to nearly 100 people engaged in a whole variety of tasks. We meet some of them, including a young stonemason who explains what he’s doing and why it is so important.
You sense that the stones of Durham have come to matter to the Dean in an almost mystical way. But not as an end in themselves. They exist to serve a higher purpose, and this is about human beings, communities, ultimately God himself. He speaks lovingly about its saints as his companions: Cuthbert at one end of the Cathedral and Bede at the other. A cathedral, he suggests, travels through time as a symbol of the enduring values of religious faith. (He is dismissive of the ‘Land of the Prince-Bishops’ signs at County Durham’s gateways because, he says, they suggest a backward-looking church whereas Christians today must always look forward to the future in hope.)
He has a lot to say about the choristers and the Chorister School where they are educated. (I recently came across a delightful photo of Peter Baelz in the cloister on the day of his installation as Dean, surrounded by a gaggle of laughing choristers.) He shows off the newly-constructed sports hall with pride, explaining how tricky it is to build well in such a sensitive historic environment. It sounds as though the Cathedral’s daily choral worship gave him special pleasure and inspiration.  
Having watched this delightful piece, I tweeted that I wish I’d seen it twelve years ago when I arrived here as Dean myself. Someone asked me why, and what I drew out of this documentary.
It’s not so much what he says about cathedral life and Durham in particular. I’d already worked full-time in cathedrals for a decade and a half when I arrived here. No, it’s much more to do with his personal style. There is so much to admire in the way he goes about his business, something refreshingly ordinary. There is not a trace of self-importance in him: witness the little touches like waving to people as he cycles past them in the College, his personal interest in the people he meets, his curiosity in the way he talks to that young stonemason about his work, his affectionate relationships with the choristers, his personal enjoyment of his home, 'the best house in Durham', where my wife and I have lived during these years. 
Even late in our working lives, I suppose we all invoke our role models to help us make sense of our roles. I’ve always believed that the essential priestliness of a Dean lies close to the heart of what makes him or her credible as the head of a religious foundation. In Peter Baelz, the Cathedral had a Dean who understood from his own experience of parish life what it meant to be the leader of a faith community. On the basis of what I had read about him, I had already spoken about him some years ago in a lecture on Durham’s Deans as one of the wisest and the best. Today I have come to see why that instinct was right, why I recognised in him a true 'reflective practitioner'. Which is why I couldn’t have done better than to watch the video twelve years ago.
‘How are you feeling about retirement?’ asks the interviewer. He replies that part of him will be glad to be free of the burdens of the role, but another part will be hurting for all that he has come to love in Durham and that he is going to miss sorely. Well, I still have a couple of months’ ministry as a Dean to go. When Michaelmas comes, part of me will be relieved, it’s true, but another part - a very big one - is going to hurt badly. How could it not when I've been privileged to live and work in such a marvellous place and with such wonderful people?

But watching the film, I thought to myself: it’s never too late to learn from the people who inspire us. These last few weeks could still be a time to learn and to grow as a priest. God willing.


  1. Retirement after a life time of work can be a huge wrench, a bereavement as you're giving up much of what is intrinsic to your identity. Not that work defines us, hopefully, we define our work. But somewhere a piece of the jigsaw that makes up our complex 'being' is being taken out to be replaced with what? In my case, it was volunteering seriously in roles in a parish, without any form or training - eventually leading to a discernment process, which I hoped would define the future, but that was not to be. Now, I'm training for Licensed Lay Ministry, which is now helping to redefine my identity in affirming, ways. Reflective practice being a real part of my development - it's allowing new insights into so much in my and others lives, but essentially, revealing God's action in a myriad of small (and sometimes huge) ways in our lives as a community of prayer in God's Kingdom.

    So, after 43 years of active military life, I now have a life of practical ministry, combined with study of a wide range of topics which makes up the training, and than applying that learning practically in our context. As good a job description as any I held in my many roles and postings as a soldier.

    Praying for you in your retirement and hoping that retirement doesn't also mean from your blog :)

  2. Perhaps a passing mention could also be made of Herbert Hensley Henson, another great and formidable Dean of Durham who returned to Durham as bishop after an episcopal stint at Hereford.

  3. You to will be fondly remembered by so many .Your quiet unassuming manner, gentleness and wisdom that have flowed from you will be remembered just as much as previous Dean's of Durham. When Michaelmas arrives, yes it certainly will bring a pull of the heart strings, look back to all you have achieved, and to all you have ministered to in Christ's name. Look forward to being all that you are, enjoy and know how much everyone wishes you and Jennie, and the family good luck for the future. The best is yet to come. Thanks be to God for you.

  4. Thanks for comments. UKViewer: yes, retirement opens doors that enable us to (re?-)discover lost parts of ourselves. You speak about a discernment process: I have yet to discern what it will mean for me, but I want to be useful to both church and community. Father David: we have been exploring Hensley Henson's thought in this Great War centenary year by having on public display his (transcribed) diaries for the current month and holding study events on his attitude as Dean to the War. Chadwick's biog a masterpiece. Pamela: thank you for these kind words. Yes, I do believe that life in God is a constant journey of enrichment, not diminishment, and this continues into what we mis-call 'retirement'. I shall no doubt continue to blog about it while I believe I may have something to say.