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

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Spirituality and the Olympic Opening Ceremony

I admit it: I was sceptical.  The more the BBC ramped up the hyperbole in the countdown to the opening ceremony, the less inclined I was to watch.  It will be studded with slick celebs, I thought, cheerfully grandiose and gung-ho, full of the tired rhetoric of sport and nationhood.  Or it will be just plain embarrassing, like the Eurovision Song Contest. I’ll give it a few minutes, I decided, maybe dip in and out every so often.

But it was compulsive viewing.  This was not the theatre of stardom, 'us' watching 'them' dazzle us.  This theatre belonged to the thousands of ordinary people who took part in it.  And therefore it belonged to us all.  I didn’t expect to enjoy it but I did.  I didn’t think I would be moved but I was. 

Everyone said that the director Danny Boyle was faced with an impossible task.  Not simply how to follow Bejing four years ago, but how to present our country to the world.  In that, he succeeded brilliantly.  It was an astonishing technical feat that left so many unforgettable images, many of them of great beauty.  Who will forget the nostalgic rural idyll being torn apart, those industrial chimneys forcing their way out of the ground, the Wagner-like forging of the Olympic ring, or the Olympic cauldron being born out of fire?  Or the scores of nurses with their hospital beds, or Peter Pan and other themes from children’s literature, or Mr Bean (alumnus of the Chorister School here at Durham) at the keyboard during Chariots of Fire? As theatre, ballet, ceremony, call it what you will, it was hard to fault. It was entirely different from Bejing (thankfully), and in its originality, from any other sporting event I can recall.  It was far, far better.

But more important was what the ceremony had to say about us.  Is there such a thing as our national character, a collective British personality type if you like?  The opening ceremony isn’t simply a shop-window for the world: come and spend at GB plc.  It’s a mirror held up to ourselves.  The important question is whether we recognise ourselves in what we see.  And that comes down to telling the truth about us.  That is a far bigger challenge than pyrotechnics and clever effects.

I think we saw some important things that spoke about Britishness in the 21st century.  I’m not thinking so much of pride in the beauty of our landscapes or our pioneering achievements, though it is good to remind the world – and ourselves - about them.  I’m more interested in intangible values like care and compassion, inclusivity and diversity, flair and creativity, modesty and understatement, the confidence to be at ease with ourselves, our ability to question ourselves, our enjoyment of life.  We saw something of our complexity: this was an event to probe beneath the surface and explore.  It was good to see humour play a big part in the show, something we British are surely best at in the world.  The trouble with sport is that it takes itself absurdly seriously much of the time.  The large dose of subversive irony and self-deprecation (involving even Her Majesty) came over as authentic.  But the fun was at no-one’s expense.  It was all done with affection. Of pomposity and deference there was none.  Of respect: plenty.

In this complex, richly textured offering, what about the spirituality of the British?  Here again, my expectations of a completely secular ceremony with religion airbrushed out were surprised. The lone chorister singing ‘Jerusalem’ at the start (an echo of ‘Once in Royal’ at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols?)seemed to announce a spiritual dimension to the evening.  Danny Boyle’s programme note speaks about the vision of ‘building Jerusalem’.  Blake’s great poem is subtly ambiguous: it would have been so easy to blast it out in the arena as if it were the Last Night of the Proms.  Instead, Boyle was true to Blake's text, which is his Christian vision of a just and caring society. But it has to be formed and helped to flourish with the native gifts and characteristics that make us what we are.  This nuanced awareness is, I think, an aspect of the spirituality of our islands that we cherish.  It’s embedded in the way we do liturgy and theology. In its eloquence and simplicity, that moment carried great power.  

The other moment where faith broke through was in the invitation to remember ‘those who are not here’.  After the spectacle and the celebration, what heralded the arrival of the athletes was not a grand rhetorical climax but the silencing of the crowd, an act of recollection, the words of a prayer.  For yes, unbelievably, we had all of ‘Abide with me’ sung quietly while a simple ballet on the theme of being lost and found was performed on the stage.  It was a clever choice because of its Cup Final resonances; and yet once again, it was subverted in a way that restored meaning to a great hymn and personalised it.  ‘Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies’: who would have thought we would hear such words charged with Christian hope and expectation at an Olympic opening ceremony?  For me it was among the most moving aspects of the whole event.  

There is more to 'spirituality' than when it surfaces and becomes explicit.  It has an intuitive side that doesn't get expressed in words but is still alive in most people's experience of life.  Perhaps in the joy and exuberance of last night, something more about life and about God was hinted at.  Perhaps some may have experienced it as a kind of liturgy.  Perhaps, even, the sight of thousands of people of every age, background and ethnicity throwing themselves into this genuinely democratic celebration offered a glimpse of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of heaven itself. 

When words of faith do get uttered, especially when we are not expecting them, we should listen not only to what they say but how they are said.  This was what I did not foresee last night.  And for once, I’m prepared to trust how I responded as I watched.  I believe there was spiritual truth to be glimpsed in what we saw and heard. Yes, it was a performance and a great one.  But the trick was to make it more than a mere performance, to enable it to say something intelligent and interesting, even profound, about how we are to ourselves and to our world.  And, the ceremony seemed to be saying, how we are before God too. 


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Four Days by the Sea

I have been away on a kind of retreat.  I spent four days last week in a sunny, airy environment being well looked after by a kind team of staff.  I shared a room with five other men. My bed was by the window from which you could see the sea.  Fledgling pigeons were learning to fly from the ledge outside.  Next door was the church where my wife’s parents had been married 75 years ago, so I felt a family connection to the place.  

These days brought rhythms and routines very different from what I was used to.  Some of them meant uncomfortable physical and spiritual challenges.  But this was true for my companions too.  When we struck up conversation they turned out to represent a rich and colourful kaleidoscope of life in the north-east. I spent much of the time reading: a life of one of my favourite saints, a history of railways, a contemporary novel.  I slept a lot. 

You’ll have guessed that I am talking about a spell in hospital.  I was in the Sunderland City Hospital for surgery.  I’ll spare you the details.  The procedure was routine for everyone except me: I won’t pretend that I didn’t contemplate this ordeal with some anxiety.  It’s behind me now and I’m grateful to be in recovery mode at home. But the quality of care on the NHS is splendid.  Nurses, consultants, orderlies, meal attendants, chaplains were all exemplary.  I want to thank the hospital staff who took such trouble.  It was my first time as an in-patient and it was a good, wholesome experience. 

What are my thoughts about it a week later? 

First, I reflected a good deal on the nature of a hospital as a ‘place of truth’.  This was something made much of when I went on training courses as a part-time hospital chaplain in the 1980s.  There was nothing life-threatening about my surgery: others were in for more serious reasons than me, and this made me realise I had a lot to be thankful for in a lifetime of good health.  Yet every procedure has its risks, and I was talked through these carefully and honestly.  I always knew what was happening to me and why.  I thought, if only every institution could deal with its ‘clients’ in this way: schools, governments, universities, financial institutions, churches (and yes, cathedrals).  The world would be a better place without smoke and mirrors. A place of truth is also a safe place because truth holds us.

Secondly, I glimpsed in a new way the pressures the NHS is under. One night there was pressure with emergency admissions, a patient who needed constant attention, another patient who fell out of bed. All the staff coped magnificently, yet it seemed that there was no slack in the system to deal with a crisis.  Add to that the systemic challenges of funding cuts and efficiency drives, and all the normal stresses and strains any organisation knows about, and it is amazing to me how good humoured the staff were.  When I was about to go under the knife I quipped with the surgeon and the anaesthetists that it felt rather like an episode of House.  ‘Oh, we really hope not!’ they said.  Their laughter was the last thing I remember. Yet as we all know, our Health Service faces big questions and, despite what politicians say, an uncertain future.  It deserves our complete confidence if we still believe in being a caring, compassionate society – which we do, don’t we?

Thirdly, I learned something about the spirituality of being a patient.  One part of this is the way your world collapses down in a hospital ward.  In this narrow space, you notice everything with heightened intensity: who comes, who goes, the smallest changes in routine, above all what's happening to your own body.  'Out there' with its hum of traffic noise, the line of the sea, the pigeons wheeling in the sky, is a far-off realm, another country where they do things differently.  Even a much-admired orchid sent by friends which took up residence on the window-sill seemed only half to belong to this little world inside.  It's easy to become self absorbed within the confining horizons of the walls of your ward.  Prison literature, the monastic experience both teach the importance of inhabiting a confined space generously, becoming as 'detached' as possible from the things it is so easy to obsess about. Or as Hamlet says, 'I could be encompassed within a walnut shell, yet count myself the king of infinite space'.  An idea rich with possibilities.

Then there is the aspect of being not just a patient, but ‘patient’: allowing the healing processes to take their time, not to be in too much of a hurry for my ordinary life to be given back to me, listening to what my body was telling me. The saint whose life I read was Francois de Sales, the 16th century Bishop of Geneva.  He said: ‘desire nothing; refuse nothing’. That summed up how I needed to be.  Canon Bill Vanstone wrote an influential book called The Stature of Waiting whose themes kept coming back to me.  The central one is that in his passion, Jesus gave up autonomy and control; instead he was 'handed over' and instead became ‘done to’ by others.  Passion means renouncing the active mode for the passive.  This is where healing and redemption spring from.  That helped me not to worry about all the things I wasn’t able to get on with: unfinished tasks, missed meetings, hundred of unanswered emails, letters not written, work piling up.

‘Desire nothing, refuse nothing’:  there is a lifetime of spiritual wisdom in those four words. Recovery means learning to live thm in a fresh way.  I’d like to think that when the time comes to return to work, it will be the richer for having made this journey.  There has been a lot to think about in my four days by the sea.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Durham Miners' Gala

Today the Miners’ Gala has taken place in Durham. 

The ‘Big Meeting’ has been an annual fixture in the Durham calendar since 1871.  Once upon a time when coal was king here in north-east England, there were as many as 100 deep mines in the County.  Now there are none. Yet up to a hundred thousand people throng the narrow city streets on the 2nd Saturday in July to watch the long procession of banners and colliery bands snake its way slowly towards the race course for a day of political speeches and partying.  It’s a noisy and colourful affair, the sort of thing you don’t often see in sedate English streets.  This year’s Gala will go down in history because it’s the first time for almost a quarter of a century that the Labour Party leader has spoken at it.  Once it would have been death to a leader’s prospects not to have been seen in Durham on this day.

There’s a service in the Cathedral in the afternoon, one of the biggest of the year in terms of the crowd it pulls in. Many of these are not people you normally see in church. They come from all over County Durham from its colliery towns and pit villages (you must never say ‘former’ pit villages: these are still mining communities today and you will not be thanked for speaking of their identity in the past tense). For them, the Cathedral is where miners have come since the industry’s heyday to celebrate their achievements as working people and to mourn their losses in the pit disasters of that year.  Before and after the service, people go quietly to the Miners’ Memorial in the south aisles where the names of those who have died in mining accidents are recorded.  The sense of kinship and solidarity in mining communities runs very deep.

Half an hour before the service begins, the church is already full.  A silence descends, and from outside the Cathedral, as if from a far-off place, you hear a colliery band begin to play. The solemn music, usually a hymn, grows in intensity as it enters the Cathedral. A crowd follows the band quietly, respectfully, bringing up their new colliery banner to be blessed and dedicated.  This happens as many times as there are new banners that have been made during the past year.  For yes, colliery banners are still being lovingly created and proudly presented. It always moves me to see Durham Cathedral depicted on these noble banners as it is on some of them, including one from Burnhope that was blessed today.

You might think that the Gala is an exercise in nostalgia for an industry that is gone.  It is not this at all. What strikes you as you walk the streets or look round the Cathedral congregation is how many children and young people are in the throng, playing in the bands or walking with the banners.  This year, a school in Gateshead had created a banner, and they were here in force to bring it up with pride.  An increasing proportion of people who loyally come to the Gala year after year have never known working pits – just as most of those who fill churches on Remembrance Sunday have never lived through a war. But the power of memory is palpable, and one of the aims of the event is to keep it alive.  Even incomers like me fall under its spell because it is such a genuine celebration of the life and traditions of working people in the north-east. 

The Gala has a strong political agenda too, of course.  It was always an occasion for the unions to demonstrate their muscle, and still is.  The memories of the systematic and ruthless winding down of their proud industry by distant London administrations are fresh and still bitter.  I was a parish priest in Northumberland during the 1980s, just beyond the northern tip of the Great North Coalfield. You could touch the anger and hostility of miners who felt betrayed not only by the government but, sometimes, by members of their own families. It is there in Billy Elliot (set in Easington, the site of one of Durham’s biggest, most modern and most successful pits).  But the reality was harsher than that feel-good film suggests.  Brassed Off perhaps came closer to the heart of it. 

The preacher at today’s service was Leslie Griffiths, a well-respected Methodist minister who sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords.  He is a son of a Welsh mining community and – no doubt because of this – judged the nature of the Gala perfectly.  His sermon will appear on the Cathedral website in due course so I won’t summarise it here.  But he is only the second preacher in my time to win a spontaneous round of applause at the end (the first was Tony Benn in 2003).  The crowd recognised him as one of their own and loved what he had to say. 

It all ends too soon, with Jerusalem and then another long procession out, this time to joyful marches played by the bands and much enthusiastic hand-clapping by the congregations.  As people head for the doors, a surprising number are too moved to say much.  For so many, the sense of what they have lost is mingled with fierce pride in what the working people of Durham stand for in their achievements past and present.  I am moved by that too, because this warm-hearted, generous community includes me in its celebration, and make me feel I too am a little part of its long history.  

When I first came to Durham, a senior priest said to me: ‘Michael, you will only understand what this Cathedral means when you have been to your first Miners’ Gala service’.  He was right. There’s a powerful feeling that today the Cathedral is being claimed by the people it truly belongs to.  Whatever bishops, deans and canons may say, they know.  And of course, they are right. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Watching Cricket

My wife and I have been to a one-day international cricket match today: England v Australia.  It is good for County Durham that the Riverside Ground at Chester-le-Street is now hosting international cricket.  Lumley Castle presides grandly over the game making it a quintessential north-eastern venue.  What’s more, despite the dire weather forecast and weeks of rain, the day turned out to be dry and even sunny.

We were enjoying a day of corporate hospitality, thanks to Northumbrian Water.  You get well looked-after.  Like travelling 1st class, it isn’t something we do very often.  England was tipped to win, and they did so comfortably, reaching the target of 201 with 8 wickets and 2 overs to spare.  There was an air of satisfaction in the packed ground: England deserved to win.  It was a job well done.

I should say at once that my wife is the one endowed with sporting intelligence, not me. I’m not an expert so I won’t (because I can’t) comment more on the match itself.  If you’re a follower, then you’ll already have come to your conclusions about it anyway.  If you’re not, it won’t matter.  But cricket was not all that fascinated me on our day out. 

I took my camera and got some nice action shots of the game.  But the camera was just as interested in the crowd.  When a four was hit or a wicket fell, the spontaneous reactions of spectators were no less absorbing than the main event.  Sometimes the crowd was eagerly or anxiously engaged.  At other times (for cricket has its longeurs), it sank back into a kind of gentle passivity.  Sometimes the crowd took control of its own collective emotion by indulging in Mexican waves (which the camera also enjoyed).  As everyone who attends sport regularly, the crowd has a life of its own and despite yourself, you get caught up in it.  Which I suppose is part of the point of going along when you could just as easily sit at home and watch it on TV.

But this crowd consisted of thousands of individuals, each participating in their own way.  Sports grounds are great places for people-watching. Looking down from the balcony, I noticed different kinds of behaviour among the people sitting directly below.  Some were deadly serious about cricket, the cognoscenti who peered intently through field-glasses, entered scores on their sheets, worked out the analytics and earnestly discussed performance and precedents among themselves.  Others looked as if they had been dragged along by an enthusiast spouse or sibling.  You could tell who they were because their heads were buried in newspapers, novels or iPads, jerked back to attention when the roar of the crowd suggested something interesting was going on. 

But these weren’t the majority.  Most were there because they enjoyed cricket and came looking for a good day out.  Many people love music and enjoy concerts even if they are not experts.  Many enjoy going to church even if they are not spiritual athletes or experts in theology.  There is something benign about a cricket match, just as there is about a good liturgy or concert.  It gathers people together in an experience they can share and that’s bigger than they are.  It adds to our social capital and our personal wellbeing.  Maybe it brings some of us closer to God. Who knows?

Because I go to a sporting event so rarely, I feel a bit like an occasional churchgoer, sitting at the back, glad to be there, watching the faithful at their devotions, more than half-envying them their fervour and their faith, a bit bemused by what I am experiencing , grateful to those who can help me make sense of it. I think I could become a convert, like Agrippa the ‘almost-Christian’, or Augustine, wanting conversion but not yet. But retirement is on the horizon, and with it, the invitation to discover new interests, and long days waiting to be filled with wholesome activity. 

I’ll keep you posted.