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

Friday, 29 June 2012

Religion by Degrees: thoughts on Graduation Day

It’s been graduation week in Durham. 

The peninsula has been a kaleidoscope of colour as academic staff and graduating students don their gowns and hoods and process into the Cathedral to receive their degrees.  The new Chancellor, Sir Thomas Allen, was installed at a ceremony on Tuesday.  Then he presided over no fewer than 14 congregations. Many thousands of people: graduands and their families, honorary graduands, staff, governors and alumni have passed through the Cathedral.  It has been a happy and enjoyable week.

The Dean of Durham is an ex officio governor of the University. This recalls the history of Durham University, founded in 1832 by the Bishop and the Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter.  The Bishop gave his castle as its first college, and the Cathedral gave large estates to secure its endowment.  It was also influential in shaping the direction of the young institution, and its first Chancellor, 100 years ago, was a Dean of Durham. 

I make a point of being at all the ceremonies.  I sit on the platform with the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and the other University senior staff.  Most of the ceremony involves sitting still and ‘lending tone’ as we deans sometimes say.  If you enjoy people-watching this is fertile theatre: each graduand has his or her own way of mounting the dais and shaking the Chancellor’s hand (or offering a more intimate gesture).  It’s like Peter Brook’s Empty Space: each time the stage is crossed, a new drama is created.  The Chancellor is a lively speaker whose love of the north-east is infectious.  And I have to say that compared to many other such ceremonies I have been to, Durham does it well.  

It’s customary for the Dean to give a welcome at the very beginning: guests at graduations are the Cathedral’s guests as well as the University’s.  So I take this seriously because it sets the tone of the whole event.  And it’s not quite as obvious as it sounds because the majority of those who have come for the ceremony will not be used to sitting in a church.  Many of them, especially if they have come from overseas, will belong to another world faith.  Many more will be agnostics or have no faith at all (the Vice-Chancellor makes no secret of his thoroughgoing atheism). 

When I first arrived in Durham, I was asked to say in my welcome that a graduation ceremony is not a religious service.  As a now wholly-secular organisation, the University is highly sensitive about not conveying the wrong message by holding congregations in the Cathedral.  So I have complied ever since.  The formula is something like: ‘this is a working Christian church, but this is not a religious event.  So whatever your faith tradition, I hope you feel at home in this great building’. 

But this week I have wondered about whether this is an appropriate or even an honest thing to say.  It suggests that the Cathedral is simply a very grand shed in which to hold a big secular event.  There’s no point in wishing that we could ‘bless’ these ceremonies with a prayer as some Scottish universities still do.  When at my first congregation I ended by saying to the graduands, ‘God bless you wherever your paths take you in the future’ I was roundly told off for offending susceptibilities. So this is not going to happen under the present leadership.

But there is a deeper question here.  To my mind, any ceremony in a sacred building takes on the character of liturgy, even if God is never mentioned.  You simply can’t do ritual in a Cathedral without the Cathedral itself having a say in what goes on. And Durham Cathedral unambiguously says, in the old words of the Delphic oracle, ‘whether recognised or not, the deity is present’.  In such a numinous, transformative space, there is a powerful and compelling religious message. The building shapes our words and actions in ways we can’t predict and don’t necessarily intend.  Sometimes, after a graduation, parents will say: ‘thank you for that service which we enjoyed so much’.

So it’s simply not true that ‘this is not a religious ceremony’.  The Cathedral defines it as being precisely that, and as liturgists say, the building always wins in the end. Perhaps it would be better if I said: ‘you are welcome here, whatever your faith background. Make of this event what you will.  Be glad to be in this great Cathedral and let it speak to you in whatever way you are ready to listen.  This Cathedral was built for celebrations and enjoys them.  So let it help you celebrate today’.   

I have a few months to think about this: the next graduations are in January.  Meanwhile, the PA and CCTV installations are coming down, and the nave is returning to its customary calm.  For a few hours: tomorrow it’s ordination day. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Moved and Mystified

I’ve been reading an intriguing book this week: The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.  I haven’t finished it yet, so I won’t say more about the argument now, though I feel a blog coming on.  (If the title sounds a trifle racy, let me assure you that it’s a serious book.  It looks at the ‘can-do’ success culture that is endemic in the organisational and business world of today, and asks whether it makes sense to live and work this way.  More soon.)

Early on, Burkeman talks about a meeting he had with a self-confessed Stoic (yes, I didn’t know either that people still followed Stoicism as a rigorous philosophical life path inspired by the apostles Seneca and Marcus Aurelius). ‘Keith’ describes how he looks back to a defining incident when he was walking in the park one day.  It was, he says, ‘a shift in perspective – the kind of jolting insight that often gets described as a “spiritual experience”.  “It was quite a short thing…. just a minute or two.  But suddenly I was…directly aware of how everything was connected together in space and time…like travelling out into space, perceiving the universe as a whole, and seeing everything connected together in exactly the way it was meant to be.  As something finished and complete.’  

When I read that I asked myself: what are the unforgettable spiritual high points of my own life?  There are many: being baptised as a teenager, getting married, being ordained, holding my first child as she emerged from the womb, my grandmother’s funeral, and other times. What these have in common is that they are rites of passage.  At liminal times like these, we are in a state of mind that the social anthropologists call communitas.  We feel alive in a different way, even in grief.  Our emotions are heightened, our sensitivities more acute.  We feel closer to other people crossing the same threshold, and we often feel closer to God.

But I had to work harder to recall experiences quite like Keith’s.  I think I have only ever had two.  One was as a schoolboy when I sang the top line of Bach’s St John Passion. I blogged about this a few months ago.  I look back on it as a profoundly religious experience of ‘the Other’ that opened the doors of my perception in a wholly new way. In my evangelical past, I spoke about it as realising, through the music of the passion, that Jesus died ‘for me’.  That is still at the heart of my story and the cross is at the heart of my spirituality.  But I now see how much bigger and wider was the spiritual world into which this heightened awareness was leading me, what the psalms call ‘a large place’.  It was if existence began to be charged with a new and wonderful meaning. 

The other happened about 12 years ago.  I was out walking on my own among the fells of the Dark Peak around Kinder Scout.  In that part of England you are never far from dense population centres: Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.  Yet the hills are as bleak as any in the Pennines.  It is the nearest England gets to desert.  The wind and rain can howl across the watershed and then you could think yourself at the end of the world.  But on this day it was sunny and warm, calm and peaceful.  Yet for no reason that I could think of, the landscape suddenly began to glow with a hot luminescence that was ominous and threatening.  It was if everything was metamorphosed into a parched, lifeless wilderness.  I felt unutterably alone, forlorn, abandoned.  I must have stood still in this state for a minute or two.  And then I noticed that there was a steady movement in the corner of my eye.  It was traffic on the main road snaking over the fells in the far distance.  Cars and lorries: how reassuring they seemed!  Gradually, my mind cleared and my vision returned to normal. The grass faded to green, the sky to blue.  Grouse were chattering happily.  A curlew swung across the sky.  The warm peat underfoot radiated earthy scents. All was well.

For a few years I tried to ‘make sense’ of this disturbing experience.  I linked it with the Bach moment, and used the time-honoured language of consolation and desolation to try to speak about it.  But the words ran out.  I had to learn Wittgenstein’s dictum that if we can’t speak about something, we should be silent.  And maybe the test of any experience we think of as ‘mystical’ is perhaps that we should struggle to put it into words at all. 

But there is one thing I can confidently say about these two events. In Keith’s language, I became in a new way directly aware of how everything was connected together in space and time.  With Bach that brought the promise of salvation, peace and goodness.  On the Peak I was lonely, afraid, struggling not to be overwhelmed by the presence of the Mysterium tremens et fascinans.  Both times I felt that for a few moments I was at one with this great Presence that infuses and energises the cosmos, one with reality, one with God. It was a profound sense both of connection and of simplicity.

I don’t want to claim too much.  I don't think I am a ‘mystic’.  If these were mystical experiences, two are enough for a life-time.  ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’  When Semele pestered her lover Zeus to show himself as he really was, it killed her.  Ordinariness is good, the slow, steady rhythms of prayer, discipleship, relationships, Christian service.  Enough, while we wait for the vision of God, to practise what living faith requires of us: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord our God. And know that all of life is gift. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Olympic Flame Arrives in Durham

In a dean’s life there are occasional diversions from the solemn business of looking after a Cathedral. 

This weekend the Olympic Torch was in Durham.  Early on Sunday morning, a lot of people gathered in front of the Cathedral to see Durham cricketer Paul Collingwood light the Torch before being taking it in procession down to the market place.  It was timed to depart at 0833 with the railway precision of a French TGV.  The Cathedral choir sang anthems (including, appropriately, Hail Gladdening Light despite the line ‘the lights of evening round us shine).  The Chorister School turned out in force, as did the civic dignitaries, the media and the public.  The rain had stopped.  It was all very merry. 

I did some interviews with press, radio and TV.  One of the media people asked a question I hadn’t expected.  Did I secretly hanker after holding the Olympic Torch for myself?  Not especially, I said, though I was pleased for the many ‘ordinary’ people who had been honoured by being asked to carry it.  Then it was time to light the flame at the Cathedral door.  I found myself standing next to Paul Collingwood so I asked him how heavy the Torch was.  ‘See for yourself’ he said and handed it to me.  I held it up in the approved way. At once a score of cameras started clicking. Apparently a cleric in a cassock holding the Torch had some novelty value, even if it wasn’t yet lit. 

I’d expected that it would all simply be a bit of fun, not much more.  But as it was happening, I realised that perhaps it carried a deeper symbolism.

First, lighting the Olympic flame outside a religious building reminded me of the origins of the Olympic Games in classical Greece. In ancient times the Games were deeply imbued with religious ceremonies and rites, indeed they were thought of as a religious event held in honour of the gods who lived on the sacred mountain of Olympus.  So what about today?  Some would throw their hands up in horror at the thought of linking the Games with God.  Yet the question is not whether God will be present in the London Olympics (we know he will be: as Carl Jung famously inscribed on the lintel of his front door, recognised or not, the Deity will always be present), but how we shall recognise and know his unseen presence there. 

Second, lighting the Torch at the door of the Cathedral recalled for me the lighting of the new fire early in the morning of Easter Day. The Easter liturgy is the greatest service of the year.  The new fire symbolises the light of the risen Christ whom we look forward to greeting in the eucharist. This unconscious resonance with Easter seemed especially apt on a Sunday morning when the early morning eucharist had just been celebrated inside the Cathedral. Light is a great symbol for all people of faith.  Perhaps the Olympic flame and the Games themselves can raise the sights of people going through dark times during this economic crisis.  Perhaps it can even bring hope.

Third, the ancient Olympics were a time of truce between peoples in conflict. Warfare was forbidden while the Games were taking place.  The Flame seems to have had a remarkable effect in bringing people together out on the streets as it passes through cities, towns and villages.  It helps to build community.  Perhaps we should cut through the dark side of sport with its obsession with power, image and big money and think of it instead as re-creation. When I was a youngster learning to play rugby, our instructor told us: ‘the object of a game is to enjoy yourself.  Never forget that’. Joy is always a clue that God is around.  So the Olympics could be a striking image of the kingdom of God.  When people of every race and background gather together for celebration and recreation, when the barriers of division are broken down, at least for a while, isn’t this a picture of the world as God would like it to be?

Finally (and perhaps I should have put this first), I thought about ancient Greece again, and how the Olympics are its gift to the world.  I recalled the agonies (a good Greek sporting word for the struggles an athlete would endure) modern Greece is going through right now.  On Sunday, while the Torch was passing through Durham, the Greek people were going to the polls in an election that the whole of Europe was watching anxiously.  Their crisis is our crisis.  As we celebrate the London Olympics 2012, it’s important that we don’t allow them to become a big distraction from the problems our world is facing. Rather, we should allow the Games to give us a new vision of God’s world as it might be shaped one day.  So this is not a time to forget the people of Greece but to hold them in our hearts and pray for a better future for them and for us all. 

It was a good start to the day for Durham.  It was fun.  And it was thought-provoking. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Where are we now on Women as Bishops?

Where are we now on women as bishops?

We should this summer have been looking forward to the meeting of General Synod in July and a confident vote in favour.  We had years of study, consultation and debate.  The Synod had unambiguously stated its belief in the principle and how it wanted to see it implemented.  It provided for a statutory code of practice that would safeguard the consciences of those who for theological reasons could not go along with it.  I was a member of the Synod when these debates were taking place.  They were intelligent and fair.  In the past year, 42 out of the 44 dioceses in England have approved the draft legislation.  That feels like a fair following wind.  What could deflect the church now? 

The House of Bishops!

As we know, the bishops considered the draft legislation at a recent meeting and decided to amend it.  They reckoned that the two amendments were slight and would not make much difference to the proposed measure. One of them is indeed simply a matter of clarification.  But the other is significant.  It has the effect of permanently endorsing within the church the position of those who are opposed to the ordination of women.  It does this by guaranteeing to provide male bishops and priests whose theological convictions about women’s ministry are consistent with the beliefs held by parishes that seek ordained leadership from men only. For ever…. In those parishes, whether anglo-catholic or conservative evangelical, it would be a case of ‘only men allowed’.    

What’s the problem with that?  Shouldn’t the church be generous in providing an honoured place for people who don’t agree?  Of course it should.  It always has.  Ours is a broad church where we differ about many issues: how to read the Bible, what we believe about the sacraments, what we think about human sexuality and so on.  But we don’t legislate around those matters.  We live with difference on the basis of common faith, mutual trust and our sharing in the sacraments.  It’s called koinonia, ‘communion’. 

But the bishops’ amendment privileges the issue of women bishops and priests by saying: unlike any of the other things we don’t agree about, on this we intend to give legal protection to the minority who cannot come with us on this journey.  That would have the effect of disabling women bishops themselves by limiting their authority.  So inequality would be built into the college of bishops because its male and female members would not have the same powers or freedoms.  That would institutionalise discrimination at the very top.  And it would send out the message that the Church of England did not have complete conviction to say ‘yes’ to women bishops and take the consequences of that decision.  It would be a half-hearted compromise.

There’s something else.  How could the House of Bishops contemplate tampering with draft legislation that had so convincingly been approved by the Synod itself and by 42 of the 44 dioceses?  That is an overwhelming consensus.  We all thought it would be more than enough to take it back unchanged to the Synod in July for the final decision to be made.

I am sure that the bishops were acting with the best of intentions.  They wanted to sugar a pill that some would find very bitter to swallow. But good process is at stake here.  We often repeat the mantra that the Church of England is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’.  The role of governance is to hold and shape the operation of power and authority in an organisation, to ensure that decisions are made properly and due processes are observed.  This is what the General Synod exists for.  It is there to make sure that church decisions are made in a way that is transparent, accountable and can be trusted.  It safeguards integrity.  The Bishops can’t act independently of the Synod’s wishes any more than I as a cathedral dean can act independently of the chapter I chair. Leadership in any organisation needs the checks and balances of good governance.

It feels as though the House of Bishops has exerted force majeure and imposed its will on the Synod.  As a rank and file cleric, I am dismayed that my elected representatives have not been consulted about it.  And because of the compromise now built into the draft measure, I am not sure I would want to vote for it.  I am not sure that Parliament with its care about equality would support it in this form. 

I posted a blog a few months ago with the title ‘Women Bishops – Let’s Do it!’ (You'll find it on this site.) It’s not too late for the Bishops to withdraw the amendment.  I hope they will.  If they do, then we can take this great step in the conviction that it is biblical, that it is catholic, and that it is just and right.  But let’s not do it at all unless we can embrace it with confidence and joy. 

For a careful statement on the Bishops’ amendment see the statement by WATCH at


Monday, 4 June 2012

In Weardale

After the excitements of the Jubilee in Durham, we have escaped for a couple of days to the North Pennines where we have a little house. Rookhope is a village in a remote side valley in Upper Weardale. Up here at about 1200 feet, the fells are wide, lonely and silent. It is the highest settlement in the valley: beyond, the land is bleak and treeless, broken only by abandoned farm buildings and homesteads and the sandstone walls that run up the fell sides. We look out over the village and up the valley; at the top 5 miles away a high ridge closes off the view. This is the watershed between tributaries of the Wear and the Tyne.  Beyond lies Northumberland.

You get a lot of 'weather' here. Clouds mass above the high fells to the west heralding the fierce rainstorms that power down the valley. The sky is often leaden and lowering for days on end. The snow can be relentless and lie in sheltered pockets until May: Upper Weardale is said to be the snowiest place in England. All roads descend into Rookhope and we have known times when it has been impossible to get in or out. Life has always been hard in the Pennine dales.

The valley sits in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  And there is great beauty in this environment, though you have to like your landscapes tough and gritty rather than intimate and charming.  Guests etherealise over the marvellous view from the living room.  'To look out on all this, just as nature intended!' they sometimes say. But this is not altogether how nature intended the dale.  The big industry in the North Pennines up to the early 20th century was lead mining. Its fossils are everywhere in our valley for Rookhope was once a thriving centre of mining. Our house is in a row of former miners' dwellings, true Victorian back-to-backs that were knocked through in the 1960s. The view up the valley takes in the arch that used to carry the flue bearing poisonous gases from the smelters to the fell-tops.  The unmistakable outlines of spoil-heaps, long grassed-over, are everywhere. Below the house is the trackbed of an inclined railway up which wagons were hauled by a fixed steam engine: the ruined engine house is still there on the flank of Bolt's Law. It was the highest standard-gauge railway in England.  You can walk the track-bed for miles across the fells. 

W.H. Auden loved this exposed, inhospitable lead-mining country. A midlander, he felt the pull of 'north' and as a young man loved nothing better than exploring the wreckage of this once flourishing industry. He found his poetic voice at Rookhope. He had a defining moment when he idly threw a pebble down a disused mineshaft and imagined it disappearing into the dark and distant void as its echoes died away into silence. In 1940 he wrote in 'New Year Letter':

                                         In Rookhope I was first aware
                                         Of self and not-self, Death and Dread....
                                         There I dropped pebbles, listened, heard
                                         The reservoir of darkness stirred.

Today Rookhope is visited by walkers and cyclists doing the cross-country Coast to Coast route. The village pub is busy in summer: their b&b trade probably keeps it going. There is a school, a small shop and a church where Anglicans and Methodists worship together. The villagers are warm and friendly and are glad that off-comers like us enjoy being here. When it comes to practical jobs, you seem to be able to get anything done here or close by: building work, joinery, plumbing, electrics.... Help is always at hand: when we had to dig the car out of the snow, or get a table into the house round impossibly tight corners, folk were cheerfully willing. And although Durham Dales people don't wear their heart on their sleeve, Rookhopers (is that what they are called?) are kind, warm-hearted neighbours. We love coming here.

Yet life is hard for many in the upper Dale. The abandoned farms tell their own story of drift away from the countryside.  With local government reorganisation, people feel further away than ever from where decisions are made.  Public transport and local services are patchy.  The cement works, once a major employer in the Dale, has gone.  Tourism is important and growing, but it is not flourishing on the scale you find in Teesdale let alone the Yorkshire Dales. Yet there are many attractions here.  The Dale has some of the best walking country in England.  Killhope open air museum is a great evocation of lead-mining.  The Weardale steam railway (whose opening I blessed) has one of the longest heritage lines in the country and deserves to succeed. 

It will take time for this forgotten valley to be rediscovered.  But to all who love wide open spaces, Weardale, and our side-valley, are Pennine jewels.  In summer you can walk the fells all day with only the grouse and curlews for company. June days seem almost endless: it is late when the day's last embers flicker out behind the high ridge that marks the watershed. In winter after briefer forays against the cold or rain, you head homewards where smoke from a score of hearths hangs over the village's homes huddling together for shelter, and you look forward to an evening in front of the stove with books or music or conversation. There is no mobile phone signal in Rookhope, and in our house, no TV or Internet*. Life is simpler here. It seems to cleanse the mind.  Perhaps there is more room for God in these remote places.

*So I have travelled down to Stanhope, capital of Upper Weardale, to post this.