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

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Now Voyager! Travelling the Solar System

What's been the most moving TV programme I have seen for a long time?  It may surprise you that it was a BBC4 documentary on the journeys of Voyager 1 and 2 through the Solar System. 

They two Voyagers were launched in 1977 to study the outer planets of the Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  A blog can hardly do justice to the quantity and quality of the information beamed back to us across the void.  The turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter with its storm-system known as the Great Red Spot, the rings of Saturn and the shadows on them caused by its magnetic field, Uranus (which largely kept its secrets from Voyager) and Neptune the ethereal blue planet that is the sentinel of the Solar System: all these and many of their diverse and fascinating moons have been disclosed as never before. 

The two Voyagers are receding from us (in different directions) by several thousand km/hour.  Yet their 1970s technology, so clunky by current standards, is still working and is capable of transmitting information across billions of miles, and for as long as they can continue to be powered.  It’s an eerie thought that these humanly-made objects are now crossing the threshold between the sun’s influence, passing out of the environment that is earth’s home, and entering deep space. This is as far as anything made by humankind has ever travelled.  

Why did I find all this powerfully moving?

For two reasons.  The first is the tribute the Voyagers’ journeys are still paying to what human beings are capable of.  But this isn’t simply the technology that launched them on this odyssey.  The spacecraft are carrying discs that are a greeting from Planet Earth to any ET who may chance to come across them.  They contain a record of what the world was like in the 1970s: landscapes, townscapes, human language, beliefs, buildings, writings and culture.  Among this testimony to homo sapiens sent into space was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps because there would be some consensus (which I’d endorse) that he was the greatest composer of the western world.  

Of course the chance that any extra-terrestial will ever see pictures of children across the world and listen to their greetings is practically zero. But the real point was not to inform ET.  It was to inform us, and by an act of the imagination, underline the infinite preciousness of planet earth and the miracle of life that has evolved on its surface. To think of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues hurtling through inter-stellar space for aeons to come should make us realise how marvellous a thing it is that we are here at all, so privileged, so gifted and yet so precariously placed in the face of the threats that are posed not by outside forces but from our very selves and our capacity for self-destruction.  We hear the echoes of our own life from a far-off place, and that makes us hear ourselves in new ways.

There is a real agenda for theology here, because the Voyager journeys not only put questions about the cosmos and its meaning but also put the psalmist’s question (apologies for the non-inclusive language): ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit him?’ That question of Psalm 8 is asked because the psalmist has looked up into the sky and been awed by its tracts unknown.  If the Voyager programme has helped instil a greater sense of awe so that we begin to know our place in the universe, it will have been worth it.  I wish I could believe that the past 35 years have seen the human family take that question seriously, become more aware, more responsible, wiser.  But we must not lose heart.

My second reason for being touched was more personal.  The Voyagers were launched in 1977.  That was also the year that our first child was born and launched on the adventure of being alive. She too has been travelling for all that time.  Like them, she is an explorer.  She is bound to be because she is a human being, and it’s the vocation and destiny of every human being to discover worlds undreamed of and try to make sense of life’s mystery. 

This is where cosmology and religion belong together.  It's one of those places where faith seeks understanding to the enrichment and delight of the human mind and heart. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Turn on the Lights! Cathedrals and Spiritual Capital

I have been reading a report called Spiritual Capital: the Present and Future of English Cathedrals.  You can download it at:

I think I knowthe cathedral world reasonably well.  I first came into full-time cathedral ministry 25 years ago, and have been there ever since (to come clean: Canon of Coventry, Provost, then Dean, of Sheffield, and now Dean of Durham.  I should also add that as a young priest I was a vicar-choral at Salisbury Cathedral where I sang services a few days a week.  This is a cluster of very different cathedrals, and each of them has taught me much.).  The deans of England hold regular meetings that give us a national perspective on cathedrals.  So I read this report with more than usual interest.  I need to read it again before I can absorb all that it says (and our Cathedral Chapter will wish to discuss it carefully later this year) but here are some rather general - and provisional - comments.

What makes this report especially interesting is that it doesn’t start with a theory of what a cathedral is.  It is entirely led by evidence.  A research project lasting much of this year gathered information from six cathedrals, Durham being one.  One of the important aspects of this was to ask the public to complete a professionally designed questionnaire.  There were also face to face meetings with a great variety of individuals and groups of all ages and experience. I was keen to have choristers, ex-choristers and other young people contribute to this discussion. The researchers wanted to hear from as wide a range of people as possible: visitors, worshippers, volunteers, civic leaders, those promoting tourism, people who had never visited a cathedral at all (hard to find, those), people who loved art and music, people with or without an explicit faith, people who regarded themselves as having a spiritual dimension to their lives (however it was expressed) and those who were convinced atheists.

What this complex survey was trying to do was to understand not only who comes to cathedrals but why.  It is motives, attitudes and perceptions that can and should be our teachers.  How welcoming is our cathedral perceived as being?  What about how money is asked for?  How are visitors and pilgrims changed by coming inside, touched by what they see and experience?  Why do people choose to worship in a cathedral – or not?  How can we describe the ‘spirituality’ of a cathedral?  How does a cathedral enrich the spiritual and social capital of diocese, city and region – and what do they in turn have to give the cathedral? And so on.   

At the end, the authors tentatively offer some reflections on how cathedrals might flourish in the future.  They suggest that cathedrals should:

·       Continue the on-going work of reflecting together on the nature of this cathedral’s spiritual capital and how it can be put to work.

·       Maintain alertness to the specific and changing zeitgeist of its community and in particular the unresolved ambiguities.  (This is a comment on how cathedrals help the wider community at points of tragedy, not only through ceremonies and services but also through their knowledge of where social action and other kinds of engagement are happening.)

·       Explore how to make connections with those groups in the community that may be less familiar with the cathedral and less likely to come into its orbit (such as lower socio-economic groups, local businesses etc).

·       Articulate clearly its understanding of its distinctive role as a cathedral and maintain dialogue with the diocese about how this contributes to and complements the diocese’s understanding of its own mission.

·       Explore how the cathedral can best resource and support the bishop so that he is strengthened and spiritually upheld and nurtured in his ministry.

·       We are clear from the study that this ministry of holding the community’s ambiguities and the internal contradictions they trigger is costly. It will only be sustained if it is deeply rooted in the cathedral community’s rhythm of prayer and worship.

I’ve sometimes summed cathedral ministry up by saying that what we need to do in our cathedrals is to turn on the lights and fling open the doors. Cathedrals are wonderful places of mystery (and this comes out in some of the comments quoted in the report).  But mystery must not be an excuse for complacency, for not trying harder to do justice to their potential as places of sanctuary, meeting, learning, dialogue, evangelism, supporting the bishop and diocese, social service and transacting the business of their communities. There was a time when cathedrals seemed to float in Olympian splendour above the life of both church and world.  That isn’t true any longer, thank God.  But there is so much more potential to be realised. 

We know that up to 11 million people visited the 42 cathedrals last year (over 600000 of them came to Durham). That tells us something about the pulling power these places have, and the limitless opportunities for evangelism, interpretation, education, service and spiritual formation that cathedrals have. It will be our own fault if we don’t respond energetically and inventively to these openings which are handed to us every day on a plate. This report will help us.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Going Slow: organisational time or God's time?

So the name of the next archbishop of Canterbury has not been announced this week after all.  It was promised, though I thought at the time it was ‘courageous’ (in Sir Humphrey speak) to think the appointment could be done and dusted so speedily. It seems that the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) wasn’t able after all to agree on whom it wanted to recommend as its first choice and runner-up. That’s what been reported anyway.  Who knows how long it will take?

Predictably the airwaves and cyberspace were full of chatter.  A lot of it sounded frustrated in tone, raking over the flaws in the process, re-running pros and cons of the (putative) candidates.  Questions abounded.  Why haven’t they decided? What has gone wrong? Who is blocking whose candidacy? Who is still in the race? Who is not? 

In my counter-suggestible way, I thought (as my friend Stephen Cherry would put it) there has to be another angle.  What if this long wait was not a problem but an opportunity?

So I tweeted (a trifle disingenuously perhaps) that maybe the CNC simply needed time to say its prayers.  What if the realisation had suddenly struck its members that discernment of vocation won’t and can’t be hurried?  That too quick an announcement would smack more of appointing the chief executive of a bank than of recognising someone’s God-given call to occupy St Augustine’s chair? 

In a process-driven church, it shouldn’t surprise us if there sometimes turns out to be some dissonance between organisational time and God’s time. I have been ordained nearly 40 years, but I remember vividly (and thankfully) the painstaking journey of discernment by which the church tested my inward vocation to become a priest. It took years, not months let alone weeks.  My motives, needed to be scrutinised and understood, especially by me.  There needed to be theological and spiritual reflection with others making the same journey to elicit the meanings of ordination.  I needed skilled accompaniment and wise guidance.  And when I was ordained, this was only the beginning.  It takes a lifetime to inhabit a vocation, make it authentically your own under God, just as it takes a lifetime to inhabit a marriage.

So I’m not sure I altogether trust vocational processes that happen too quickly, that are driven by organisational time. God’s time happens at a different pace. Perhaps it is more like the hidden, barely perceptible processes like the leavening of dough or fermenting of must.  Jesus presumably chose the image of yeast for a reason.  The spiritual tradition teaches us that the Deity is more often a ‘three mile-an-hour god’ than a high-speed divinity.

Slow is good.  Its outcomes take time, but allow space for prayer, listening, discernment.  No doubt the job of being an archbishop of Canterbury is truly impossible.  If so, the discernment of the one who is called to carry its heavy burdens desperately needs not to be done in haste.  Or, in God’s time, festina lente. That way, the decision will carry proper integrity, and the next archbishop will have the reassurance he very much needs that he truly was and is not only the CNC’s man but God’s.