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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. 


  1. I like and approve of your suggested new wording!

  2. I think that you make a sound point when you write;

    "To my mind, any ceremony in a sacred building takes on the character of liturgy, even if God is never mentioned."

    With the tendency to use consecrated buildings for community purposes this applies to humble Churches as well as grand Cathedrals.