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

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Dean's Year: personal highlights from 2013

New Year's Eve is a time to reflect. There is plenty to lament as we ponder what our world has travelled through in the past twelve months. But it's also a time for gratitude as we look back, and for hope as we look forward. So here, without any commentary, is a short list of my personal highlights from 2013, accentuating the positive. I have not documented world or national events: this is the comparatively narrow world inhabited by a woolgathering northern dean.

Durham Cathedral events:
            (a) Naming of Durham Cathedral East Coast electric loco, July;
            (b) Flower Festival, August;
            (b) HLF grant of £3.9 awarded, November.
Durham Cathedral services:
            (a) Farewell to Justin Welby on leaving to become Archbishop of Canterbury;
            (b) Ecumenical Anglican-RC Vespers, Lindisfarne Gospels.
Durham events:
            (a) Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, July-September;
            (b) Lumière, November.
Family event: the birth of Isaac, March, his baptism in September and his first Christmas.
Whimsical event: justifying in poetry my membership of Nobody’s Friends dining club.
Moving event: Battle of Flodden 500
anniversary commemoration, September.
Stimulating event: dance-drama A Young People’s Guide to the Lindisfarne Gospels;
Preaching invitation: 750
anniversary service of my college, Balliol College Oxford.
Enjoyable public performance: being the Voice of God in Britten’s
Noye’s Fludde.
Enjoyable tasks:        
            (a)  judging Chorister School Public Speaking Competition;
            (b) giving addresses at ‘come and sing’ day on Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Personal satisfaction: publishing Landscapes of Faith.
Book read: J L Stempel,
Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.
Poet read: Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire.

Musical discovery: Britten, Death in Venice (at Newcastle, October).
Concert: The Sixteen on their 2013 Choral Pilgrimage ‘Mary, Queen of Heaven’.
Film: About Elly (Iran, 2009).
Theatre: Romeo and Juliet (Durham Student Theatre)
TV Programme: John Eliot Gardiner’s documentary on J. S. Bach.
Radio programme: The Archers (of course).
Overseas place visited: Abbey of Conques, SW France.
UK place visited: the roof of St Pancras Station, London.

Photos taken: 'Isaac on a chesterfield sofa'; 'Prebends' Bridge in Winter'. 

Friday, 27 December 2013

That is Not Yet That: on keeping Christmas going

W. H. Auden famously wrote about the despondent aftermath of Christmas:  'Well, so that is that'. He talks about taking down the tree and decorations, burning the holly, eating the leftovers, admitting our failure once again to love our relatives as we should. Once again, as so many times before 'we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility'. If you Google the first few words you can read it all, and you'll recognise what he's talking about.

It's written as a poem for Twelfth Night, but looking around you'd think it was meant for the day after Boxing Day. Or even that day itself, which is apparently (I didn't know this) one of the top shopping days of the entire year. Already on Christmas Day, TV advertising is tilting decisively away from Christmas and towards the other big midwinter themes of sales and summer holidays. By dawn on Boxing Day, the nation has already spent vast sums of money on online sales, and many stalwarts have been braving the cold and camping outside department stores with an eye for a bargain.

It all takes a determined effort and much stamina. Part of me disdains it: 'not me, thank you', but another part grudgingly admires this show of hope and perseverance. (If only we took our faith as seriously!) I'm not going to be grumpy about this colossal economic effort: as one bishop tweeted, it's good for the recovery. Let everyone spend Yuletide as they will. But I'm sorry that we let go of Christmas so quickly, so that even before the end of the year it quickly becomes a memory. 'Did you have a nice Christmas?' we're all asked a hundred times in these twelve days, to which I reply with a smile, 'Thank you. Yes, we are having a lovely Christmas. I hope you are too.'

When we live by the liturgical calendar, keeping the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is deeply instilled in us. But that's not altogether my point. It was not so long ago that most people kept an aftermath of Christmas Day, prolonging holidaying and happiness and good will for a few more days. The year would slip gently away to the echoes of carols and Handel's Messiah. Even in my secular childhood, there was never any question of not keeping Yule going until Twelfth Night. Boxing Day was for family visits or walks or fireside reading or the panto or film, not for shopping or even being particularly productive. In rural England, hard work did not begin again properly until the week after Epiphany with Plough Monday. The days were a necessary restful interlude before the pace of life picked up again in the new year. Have we lost something precious here?

The obvious answer is, our innocence maybe. Yet Christmas could be precisely the time to recapture it. The image of the Child who comes to us speaks perfectly to that longing for our lost innocence that the child in us still has. Auden is tough when he says later in his poem: 'once again we have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, the promising child who cannot keep His word for long'. But we need time to absorb the message of his coming if it's going to make a difference to life. The calendar gives us that time to let it sink in that we have sung and spoken about the better world we look for in the new year. Maybe the hectic lives many are living need the Twelve Days of Christmas more than ever simply to recover and stabilise.

Today is only Day 3 of Christmas. Three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. What's not to enjoy? HAPPY CHRISTMAS once again!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Past and Present: reminiscences and reflections.

It’s hard not to be nostalgic at Christmas. Memories of childhood Christmases come flooding back at this time of year. If I am at risk of self-indulging, take it as a sign that I am getting old. Some may want to stop reading now.

Our memories inevitably include the people we used to celebrate Christmas with, and who are no longer with us. My father died on Christmas Eve six years ago, so today is an oddly elegiac day, a bitter-sweet mixture of loss, thankfulness and those childhood longings we had when Christmas had almost arrived, but not quite. I remember on the day of his death thinking how strange it was to be mourning an elderly man while everyone else was celebrating a child’s birth. That same afternoon I had to get up in the pulpit in front of a thousand people and read the bidding prayer at the Nine Lessons and Carols. Its haunting phrase about ‘those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’: I still find it difficult to get those words out.
As regular readers of this blog know, we were not a religious family. But my mother and grandmother, both of German-Jewish origin, knew how to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps no European nation does Advent and Christmas more beautifully than Germany. My father was a long-lapsed Anglican, but he loved Christmas too, and our merged family traditions made for enjoyable, even magical, festivities. My grandmother would bake sweetmeats to die for: Stollen, gingerbread and Lebkuchen in a hundred different shapes and colours, huge piles of them that were not to be touched until Christmas Eve at sundown. She would create an immense herring salad that filled vast mixing bowls with its pink mixture of fish, nuts, raw cabbage, potato and beetroot that filled the house in late Advent with a heady unmistakeable aroma. If I ever scented it again, it would transport me straight back to Christmas in Lauradale Road in the 1950s. Sadly, it died with her.

I’m not sure what I thought Christmas was about when I was very young. I suppose it was a glorious midwinter festival of colour, light and gifts. I first came across Jesus at primary school. There, aged five, I got to read my very first words of scripture. It was my moment of fame at the nativity play where I had to read St Luke’s words from memory: ‘and she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.’ Whenever I hear that verse read aloud at Christmas, there is a shock of recognition that I can’t quite explain. I doubt if many people can recall the moment their Bible-virginity was lost, but my memory of it is vivid.

The following year, there were voice-trials at school among those children who had made good reading progress to see who was capable of tackling the opening verses of St John’s Gospel at the end of the nativity. I failed miserably to make any sense of it. My best friend Andrew, who was brighter than me, got the part. How envious I was! But that too remains an important memory of the first time I heard a text read that was clearly portentous, laden with profound meanings that eluded me. I am preaching on John 1.1-14 on Christmas morning this year. I’m not sure even now whether I have fully understood it. It takes a lifetime to begin to plumb its rich depths.
One more memory. This comes from my first Christmas in the church choir at St John’s Hampstead. It sang to cathedral standard under its legendary Director of Music Martindale Sidwell, and my parents thought I’d benefit from a good musical education there. They were right (though the fact that the choir offered musical scholarships to University College School down the road wasn’t lost on them). As I’d never been to a church service before, the liturgy both excited and baffled me. I have never forgotten that first churchgoing Christmas early in the 1960s with the lambent beauty of the Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve and the exhilaration of sung Christmas matins (yes!) next morning. We sang ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’. I didn’t know it but the ancient hymn by Prudentius soon became my favourite Christmas hymn, and so it has been ever since. Lo! he comes, the promised Saviour, let the world his praises cry, evermore and evermore. It still moves me deeply, as I know it will when we sing it at the climax of the carol service in Durham Cathedral tonight.

Festivals should help us cherish memories. Our new grandson Isaac, 9 months old, is with us in the Deanery to celebrate his first Christmas. He won’t know much about it. But his parents and grandparents, aunts and uncle know that to have a new-born infant in your home at Christmas time is something to treasure. And maybe, at some deep and hidden level of his little life, memories of light and colour, of warmth, laughter and love, of a magical and holy time are already being formed. Who knows? 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Season's Greetings or Happy Christmas?

Outside Durham town hall there is a sign wishing us all SEASONS GREETINGS. Let’s not argue about the missing apostrophe. It’s the text itself I’m concerned about. It used to say HAPPY CHRISTMAS. Not now. ‘Season’s Greetings’ isn’t as risible as Birmingham’s infamous ‘Winterval’ but in its awful blandness it’s still a worrying sign of the times. We don’t seem to be allowed to use the C-name in public any more for fear of causing upset.

I wrote about this to the Mayor of Durham, who is also the Chair of the County Council. I received a courteous, lengthy reply from her.  As I suspected, it comes down to not wanting to offend people of other faith traditions, or those with no faith, by being too explicit about the Christian nature of Christmas. In an inclusive multi-faith society where no single religious tradition is to be privileged over any other, we must be careful.

No-one disagrees with the project of building inclusive communities in a modern democracy. But this isn’t really the point. The fact is that England is a Christian country, not just because of its history but because Christianity is (still) by law established with the Sovereign as Defender of the Faith. I guess that it’s in this spirit that our political leaders, whatever their personal convictions, are sending seasonal cards bearing the greeting ‘happy’ or ‘merry’ Christmas. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, whatever their own faith, are presumably sending cards to a great many people who are not themselves practising Christians. (I haven’t been able to ascertain what message David Cameron’s card opts for.)
But that claim by itself doesn’t move me unduly. I am much more persuaded by the attitudes people of other faith communities actually take towards Christmas. There is clear evidence that they very much want us to own our faith seriously and not be coy or ashamed about it. I was intrigued to hear of some devout overseas Muslims who had chosen to come to Durham University precisely because of its Christian origins and because Durham City wears its historic Christian character on its sleeve.
A Guardian article from 2011 entitled ‘Christmas is not just for Christians’, focuses on a multi-faith group called the Phoenix Inter-Community Initiative. This aims to explore a ‘new centre ground’ against the polarising forces of extremism and radicalisation in politics and religion. That year they ran a campaign to ‘demonstrate support and respect for Christmas among different faiths’. They tell of Muslim students taking part in nativity plays and how the seasonal symbols and archetypes of Christmas (e.g. darkness and light) are common to many different faiths. They are keen to get non-Christians joining Christians in volunteering over the Christmas period and supporting Christian charities. They quote a Hindu who says: ‘I don’t know anyone who actually wants to ban Christmas and most Hindus and Muslims that I know actually celebrate it’.
Dialogue between faiths is conducted on a much more sophisticated intellectual basis than many people realise. Participants in such conversations know that honest, rigorous debate and practical collaboration are entirely compatible with religious convictions that are deeply held on every side. Sharing in one another’s festivals can be an important part of learning together, as can mutual hospitality offered generously, as it very often is, by mosques, temples, synagogues and churches alike.
So, County Council, please give us back our Happy Christmas sign next year. If you want to wish people Happy Eid or Happy Passover or Happy Diwali as well, why not? It's what they do in Leicester, one of the most diverse cities in the UK. Perhaps it's our lack of real experience in the North East of living in settings of true ethnic & religious diversity that seduces us into unintelligently timid approaches to faith. So please take religion seriously. It will be warmly welcomed not just by the churches but by people of many different faiths who are citizens of Durham and want to share with Christians their celebration of this most wonderful time of year.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Durham Cathedral's 'Open Treasure': a Big HLF Award

It is immensely heartening that in the latest round of awards, the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting Durham and Peterborough Cathedrals. We are not the only two cathedrals to be grateful for the HLF’s generosity in recent years. No doubt it is a coincidence that both these famous and beautiful cathedrals are Romanesque, and that both their profiles are well known to travellers speeding up and down the East Coast Main Line.

The first thing I want to do is to pay tribute to the great team here at the Cathedral who worked up the bid and worked with staff, volunteers and community to prepare for its submission.  We have had great support from the officers of HLF itself, from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission and many other bodies and individuals along the way. And of course we want to say thank you to the HLF for this great news. It is a wonderful way of beginning Advent.

This £3.9 million award will mean that we are within sight of achieving our long-held dream of displaying the Cathedral’s marvellous treasures in some of its equally marvellous medieval spaces. The buildings round the cloister constitute the unique (for England) survival of an intact monastic enclosure that is still used for the religious purposes for which it was intended. Their treasures include relics associated with St Cuthbert such as his coffin, pectoral cross and portable altar. Not only that, but the Cathedral Library has retained more of its monastic collections of medieval manuscripts and early printed books than anywhere else in the country.

The collections are of international significance as a witness to the civilisation, culture and history of Christian North East England particularly in the Saxon and early Norman periods. They more than do justice to the landscape and architecture of the World Heritage Site that has been their home for so many centuries. What we have lacked are facilities to exhibit them properly. In the 21st century, this means creating environments that conform to the highest conservation and security standards in which they can be safely displayed and interpreted. To adapt medieval buildings for this purpose while at the same time enhancing their beautiful interiors in their own right is a formidable challenge.

After years of planning, we are now poised to realise this dream. Called Open Treasure, the development will create a large exhibition space in the monastic Dormitory (which will still retain its 19th century function as a library). Its focus will be the shaping of church and cathedral in medieval Northumbria, and how this story of a faith community has continued beyond the Reformation into the present day. A newly constructed gallery will house some of our most important and precious manuscripts together with our Saxon stones and artefacts, while the Great Kitchen will have as its focus St Cuthbert and the relics associated with his memory.

Why Open Treasure? Because we shall be opening up what has been largely hidden from public view in the past: incomparable medieval spaces, and the equally incomparable treasures they will contain. This year’s highly successful Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, in which the Cathedral has been a partner and to which we lent no fewer than 14 items for display, has shown that there is a real appetite for Christian heritage that is beautifully displayed and intelligently interpreted.

There is another purpose to all this. We want to maintain free entry to the Cathedral itself. By opening up our ‘Treasure’ as a revenue-earning exhibition, we hope to stabilise the Cathedral’s finances so that it will never be necessary to levy an admission charge to such a fine sacred space. When we held a press call to announce the news, I was pressed hard on this point: it is hugely appreciated in North East England that the Cathedral does not charge for admission to the church itself. We want to keep it that way and we rely on Open Treasure to achieve this.

For our biggest treasure is the Cathedral itself, so much loved and admired across the world. Not just the building and what it contains, but its community that has its origins in 7th century Lindisfarne and its saints such as Aidan and Cuthbert. Like the Benedictine house that it became, the Cathedral is still a living place of worship, work and learning and this adds contemporary human, Christian texture to the place. Our invitation to visitors to experience for themselves this rich past and present is part of our mission both of hospitality and of interpretation. We hope all our guests both young and old will not simply come here as sightseers or observers but become participants in the Cathedral’s life of prayer, community, arts, learning and outreach.

Thanks to HLF and other funders, this vision is close to becoming reality. We want to begin the works in 2014 and already have significant funds raised and pledged. Thank you to everyone who has supported us generously so far. If there is anyone reading this blog who can help us match the funding so that the project can begin all the sooner, that will be wonderful too. Call me night or day!

This is a revised version of my piece on the HLF Blog to coincide with the announcement of the award.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Scottish Referendum: a simple question

Earlier this year I attended a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. It’s a stone’s throw from the River Tweed which marks the present Anglo-Scottish border. This was the last of a long line of Anglo-Scottish battles, and it was one of the bitterest. Its outcome changed the history of Scotland, and arguably paved the way towards the Union of the crowns in 1707. The memorial cross on the hilltop that overlooks the battlefield says simply, and movingly, ‘to the brave of both nations’.

In North East England we have been a border people for centuries.  These marcher lands have long been fought over as their array of castles and fortifications show. The Durham Palatinate ruled by its powerful Prince Bishops was a buffer state within a state set up to guard the rest of England from invading Scots. Yet all that belonged to the middle ages. It’s odd to think that we were still fighting these battles on the threshold of modernity in the early 16th century.

I write this on the day the SNP publishes its vision for an independent Scotland. It’s a milestone on the long journey that leads up to next September’s referendum. It’s obviously a matter of keen interest to all Scots. But here in the borderlands, it’s a matter of concern to the English too. The decision Scotland makes about its future will have effects south of the border. If Scotland votes for independence, there will be consequences for the North of England that are economic, political and social. But these wouldn't merely affect the North. They would affect the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Independence would radically alter the way the surviving peoples of the Union saw themselves. It would need us to re-group in order to face a future that could be very different from what we know at present.

I happen to think that the Union is a good thing, and so far, the evidence is that a majority of Scots feel that way too. The Union as a federation of peoples is one of the world’s most successful nation-states. There is no doubt room to re-calibrate the precise ways in which our nations, provinces and regions relate to one another within a united whole, but that is no argument for dismantling it.

But this isn’t my principal concern right now. What baffles me is very simple. Why is the future of the Union, which is the business of all UK citizens, to be decided on our behalf by the Scottish people alone?

The more I try to get my mind round this question, the more puzzling it seems. I can’t find a flaw in the argument that the future of the Union is the business of the whole Union, not just part of it. It may be that in North East England, because of our violent history, we feel the force of this particularly keenly. What matters at the border, what kind of border it even turns out to be are as important to us south of it as to those on its north side. But as I’ve said, it affects all of us who are citizens of the UK. Profoundly and probably irreversibly. I am not sure we have woken up to this yet.

I can’t see that it is good politics, let alone justice, to delegate the dismantling of the UK to the say-so of 10% of its total population (fewer than 6 million out of more than 60 million). Whichever way it goes, it does not look like a well-founded plebiscite that acknowledges the legitimate interests of all UK citizens. I'd like to be clearer what the role of the Westminster Parliament is in this watershed constitutional decision. I am not comfortable about being disenfranchised, relegated to the role of onlooker gazing at a drama acted out on the Scottish stage that will have far-reaching consequences for the large audience sitting impotently in the rest of the UK.

For the avoidance of doubt let me add that I honour the Scots for many things, not least their intellectual rigour, their love of fairness and their strong sense of common purpose. We need all these qualities in the Union. But if there is a decision to make about the future of the Union, it should be through a process that is rigorous, fair and that has regard for the purpose and flourishing of all its peoples, not just some. I am sure the Scots don't dissent from that.

Monday, 18 November 2013

In a Nutshell: infinite space in Durham Cathedral's light show

Lumière has come and gone. Durham’s festival of light brought 175000 people into the city over four dark winter nights. The city was filled with beautiful, inventive light shows that revealed how sophisticated technology can serve art. For many, the Crown of Light installation on the north face of the Cathedral was (forgive the word) a highlight. It painted a vast colourful canvas in images and music encompassing the northern saints, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the building of the Cathedral.  Although I had seen it many times, it never failed to work its magic.

We don’t yet know how many tens of thousands of people found their way into the Cathedral: the queues were so long that not everyone made it inside. Those who did may have found themselves bewildered at first. The blacked-out nave communicated darkness and mystery like a huge cave. Narrow beams of light swung rhythmically back and forth across the width of the church, so focused that the surrounding darkness remained almost impenetrable. Clusters of very fine wire hangings, looping invisibly down from the vault caught the beams as they passed through creating an effect like a myriad of dancing fireflies. As the rays hit the architecture opposite, amazing geometrical patterns formed converging and diverging, expanding and retracting, picking out for an instant capitals and arcades, flutings, striations and chevrons in an ever-changing dance of light. It would need a poet to put it into words. It was hard to photograph too though I have posted some images on my Twitter feed @sadgrovem.
As I watched this celestial drama I wondered what made it so beguiling. It was as if I was looking out across the vastnesses of a dark empty cosmos to stars and galaxies millions of light years away, reaching back across the aeons of a far distant past.  The Cathedral had become a mass , a container that was re-shaping time and space.  Hamlet says: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’. The title of the light show designed in France by Atsara was [M]ondes: ‘worlds’ with the ‘M’, ‘waves’ without it. Light at work in the cosmos creating worlds, light both making waves and being waves: a whole theology of creation was suggested by what we were seeing.
The 12th century Abbé Suger said of his masterpiece, the Abbey of St Denis near Paris, that a cathedral should encapsulate heavenly worlds. It should be a casket for the infinite, a beautiful container in which to glimpse what lies beyond human understanding. The created materials of stone and glass should become a window on to the Eternal. For him, the essential quality was light and how it irradiated the building, and how the building in turn influenced and shaped the light pouring through it. 

To me, [M]ondes was an extraordinarily subtle, complex, many-layered work. It was not in your face, exhilarating like Crown of Light. It was more reflective, and understated, needing time to do it justice, penetrate its textures and touch its mystery. Yet I heard people remark after walking through it for a few minutes that there was something tantalisingly effective about it. Perhaps they experienced it as thought-provoking, suggestive, putting questions to us that were not just interesting but even important.  If art succeeds in getting us to ponder, perhaps touching and changing us in some way, helping us to glimpse God, it is realising a deeply human and spiritual purpose.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


I’ve read a couple of articles during the past week by people who have fallen out of love with the poppy. I don’t mean the flower itself, but the symbol most of us wear at this time of Remembrance. The argument is that its meaning has been debased into unthinking support for a narrow nationalism and the militarism that goes with it. Wearing the poppy is to collude with assumptions that drag our world back into the mind-set of conflict between nations rather than forward towards a global community of reconciliation and friendship.

I admit I have reservations about enforcing the wearing of poppies or regarding them as a kind of fashion accessory. The meaning must surely have something to do with what it symbolises for the wearer. For instance, on tonight’s Strictly Come Dancing, contestants were all sporting them over every conceivable kind of costume from ball gowns to tight leotards and skimpy outfits. It was no doubt well-meant, but it did not always look like a personal choice, more an expression of BBC policy that it is de rigeur not only for its own staff but everyone who takes part in a show.

That said, let me try to defend the poppy. The Great War gave our Remembrance rituals their defining shape. ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow….’  The poppy seemed to resonate with the instincts of ordinary people to memorialise war in a simple way through a blood-hued flower, beautiful as a life laid down, prolific as millions of victims, short-lived as the young men who fell. There are not many invented symbols that are as eloquent as this. Its popularity speaks for itself.

It’s true that like any symbol, the poppy carries many meanings: loss, grief, the pity of war and the tragedy of wasted lives. But it also stands for pride and gratitude for sacrifice offered and service rendered. It is both honourable and necessary for every people to cherish its common memory of war in this way. Yet because the poppy focuses on the debt we owe to the armed forces, and because it is largely they and the ex-service organisations that keep remembrance alive, it is susceptible to a narrow militaristic twist. But this is not the poppy’s fault. The answer to the abuse of a symbol is to use it properly. That is to say, we need to learn how to remember accurately, and then ‘remember forward’ to a world in which we have learned the lessons of war. In such a peaceable world, there will be no place for the divisive nationalisms that inevitably lead to conflict. Ultimately the poppy is a symbol of our humanity, our ability to remember and to care.
Perhaps the poppy is like the Christian cross. That too is the reddened memory of suffering, pain and bloodshed. But it is also a redemptive symbol of sacrifice offered and new life given. Like the poppy, the cross has at times been grossly abused by being turned into a sign of blood-filled destructiveness in, for example, the Crusades that took their very name from it. It has taken the church a long time to wean itself off its addiction to coersive force. If it is doing this, it is through a deeper reflection on what the cross truly means: self-emptying, vulnerable love and the reconciling peace that flows from it.

Might a deeper reflection on the fragile poppy help recover the richness of its symbolism?  I stood in the Cathedral tonight at the annual Festival of Remembrance and watched the poppies drift down from the lantern tower during the silence. I was moved as I always am, by this simple but powerful ceremony. I do not think I was being seduced by it, nor was I colluding with anything. The awfulness of war, the honour of those who served, our mortality, the 'heartbreak at the heart of things', our agonised longing for a better world – all this seemed to be there. I doubt if this marriage of the collective and the personal could be done in better.
Good rituals and symbolism reminds us who and what we are as peoples and as individuals. They open the doors of perception, enlarge our vision and imagination.  This is more and more necessary with every year that passes if we are serious about re-making the world as a safer, wiser, kinder place. In that spirit I shall go on wearing the poppy.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

On Going to See Shakespeare

Last week we went to Sheffield to see The Winter's Tale. The Crucible Theatre has a thrust stage and we had seats close to it. It always takes me a few minutes to get used to Shakespearian language, but in this environment so near to the action we could hear everything clearly. It was a great performance: such a pity that the theatre was half-empty.

Winter's Tale is a favourite play of mine. It's one of the late dramas that are not easy to classify, as if in his maturity Shakespeare is reaching beyond straightforward categories. It starts out as a classical tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his old friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. The drama vividly depicts a man eaten up by self-absorption jealousy, his rapid disintegration bringing about the collapse of a family's whole world with the deaths of his wife and his young son.

But then comedy breaks into the hopelessness. The famous stage direction  'exit, pursued by a bear' seems to introduce a note of parody, hinting that nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and lots of flirtatious dancing, and all is set for a happy ending with paradise restored and broken relationships mended. But (spoiler alert) Shakespeare gets there by using a device that has puzzled critics because it seems as if it resorts to trickery. At the climax of the play Paulina brings the statue of lost Hermione back to life. It's a tease, for we don't know whether she was ever really dead or had simply been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. Anyway, in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the drama achieves its resolution.

Does the play itself 'lose its mind', disintegrating from the high art of tragedy into what at times feels close to farce? Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don't take any of this too seriously: it's just illusion, a ceremony to mark the passage of the seasons? Perhaps it's a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into an apparently careless comedy complete with songs, ballet and pick-pocketing slapstick and a miracle (if that's what it is) to end with and undermine belief still further.

Or is Shakespeare, far from being careless, showing his mastery of dramatic form by merging the two genres in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?

Here's where I find the drama especially telling. As a theologian, I see profound resonances in The Winter's Tale of the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ.  It's not that any one figure is an image of Jesus (unless it is Paulina whose action in the drama is to bring about both judgment and redemption). It is the drama itself that feels irresistibly Christological, taking us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. So the play is a great transformation scene, leading us out of winter into spring and summer, bringing colour into the sombre monochromes with which it began. This is one way in which the movement from tragedy to comedy is not just credible but ultimately necessary. (See F Buechner,  The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.)

Paulina says near the end: 'it is required you do awake your faith'. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you can smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, or else find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we seem to be summoned into an act of faith that draws us into the life of things, into God. Either parody or gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the silliness of self-important human lives and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but eternal. Shakespeare is always big enough for there to be endless possibilities in the way we respond. And by keeping us guessing, he always has the last laugh.

Marvellous theatre. Why don't I go to see Shakespeare much more often?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

'People are saying...': on being criticised

A few days ago a fellow priest tweeted that she was having a tough time in the parish because she was finding herself criticised and misunderstood. Which of us hasn’t been there, and not just clergy but anyone who has a public leadership role of any kind?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on how to deal with these difficult experiences (ask my wife!). However, age does bring a certain perspective which I find helps. So I thought I’d reflect on what I’m trying to learn about this. Here are eight points, offered tentatively because this is a lifelong journey in the making. 

1              Accept that criticism is a completely normal part not just of public life or parish life but life. Don’t think of it as unusual or exceptional. It’s the consequence of having views, making decisions and acting on them, being your own person and not subject to other people’s whims, fancies and directives. If you are not being criticised, take it as evidence that you are not making an impact, are subject to others’ power over you, and have not yet begun to live as an autonomous grown-up.

2              Stay in role. Try hard not to begin by taking it personally, but see if you can discover what aspect of your role is under scrutiny here. A leader is a symbol of the institution or community of which she or he is the visible representative. Symbolic people always attract unconscious projections and transferences, especially in the church which is itself a richly symbolic environment. It may be that whatever is being criticised may have more to do with what you represent than with you personally. It may have historical dimensions you are unaware of. There may be unacknowledged authority issues for your critic. Sometimes you can distance yourself and say that this genuinely has nothing to do with you personally.

3              Don’t let your natural hurt or resentment get in the way of your emotional and spiritual intelligence. Being self-aware is all-important.  Ask yourself whether the issue may have something to do with your personal style or attitude in leadership. If it does, you may still be entirely content with how you are, and how you handled whatever it was that provoked the criticism. On the other hand you may want to ask yourself if there was anything you could have said or done differently, or some way in which you could have been different in the way you exercised your ministry. That's always a good question to ask.

4              Don’t be rough with your critics. Try not to be defensive. Above all, show that you are listening carefully.  Look them in the eye. Answer with questions that will help you to clarify what is at issue. Don’t get into a heated argument if you can help it, especially if the language of right or wrong starts creeping in. Don’t raise your voice, even if you are angry. ‘A soft answer turns away wrath.’ If there is a genuine disagreement, by all means debate it, and don't apologise for having your own views even if they are unpopular. But stay in your head and don't shout.

5              Identify accurately when you need to apologise. If saying sorry is necessary, then don’t delay: say it as soon as you can. But don’t apologise for something you know in your heart you shouldn’t apologise for, even if others are exerting considerable emotional power over you. You must never sacrifice your own integrity. But when you apologise (not ‘if’ - who doesn’t have to say sorry from time to time?), resist the temptation to explain yourself. ‘I’m sorry’ is often completely disarming. ‘I’m sorry, but I need you to know why it happened’ less so.  

6              Reflect on the experience of criticism. It’s not comfortable to do, but we have a lot to learn from it, both about the dynamics of relationships and organisations, but also about ourselves and how we cope with negativity in our roles. If you got angry, notice it and ask why. If you have a supervisor or someone in an accompanying ro le towards you (maybe call them a ‘critical friend'?), take it to them for discussion. Hearing ourselves talk about bad experiences with a skilled listener can be both healing and informative.

7              Don’t indulge in feeling misunderstood or criticised. Nothing is more destructive of good leadership than harbouring grudges, especially when you are up against the same few (and it’s usually a few) who want to find fault time after time. In the psalms, the antidote to resentment is gratitude. It’s good to foster the habit of finding things to be thankful for in the workplace despite the challenges.  One day it may be possible to be grateful for what you learned through others’ criticism of you: despite what it felt like at the time, it may have given you insights you didn’t have before, and helped you to learn.

8              Finally, always cherish your integrity. It is the most important gift we bring to leadership. It’s vital that we can way when criticised that we meant it for the best and had at heart the welfare of others. When I mess up, this is what I come back to. Most people will forgive our mistakes if we acknowledge them, and they believe that our motives were altruistic and not self-serving. The psalm speaks about ‘truth in the inward parts’. It’s not that we can’t deceive ourselves (‘and the truth is not in us’), but taking seriously our human and spiritual development will help us recognise self-deception when we see it. And own up to it where we have to.

Like I said, it’s work in progress.  In leadership, in ministry, it always is.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Students are back in Durham!

I walked into the town centre today. The streets of Durham were thronged with young people enjoying an afternoon out in the balmy October air. For the students are back at the start of another academic year in the University. This little city of ours is awakening out of a long dreamy summer ready for the bracing air of autumn and winter.

Last weekend the freshers arrived, many accompanied by bewildered-looking parents trying to navigate large cars through the narrow streets of the medieval city (on the Bailey we call it 'Volvo Sunday').  This week over 6000 of them have streamed into the Cathedral college by college for University matriculation ceremonies. It's interesting to look round the Cathedral during these occasions. Some freshers look a bit baffled by it all ('how did I come to be here?). Others put on a big and not altogether convincing show of bravado. Many have already started to hunt in packs: for security in this new kind of world, better to stick together. A few seem determined to be solitary.

This ceremony of being admitted to the register (matricula) is a big rite of passage into adulthood for those who have come straight from school. It's a chance for me to welcome them to Durham and say a little about the Cathedral and what it offers students. I always get a laugh when I talk about this medieval cathedral having a FaceBook page, whose ageing dean tweets from time to time. The president of the Student Union speaks about student life, and the Vice-Chancellor makes them feel good about having got into one of the nation's top universities.

It's slightly trying to drive or walk up and down the Bailey and Sadler Street in October: new students take a few weeks to get the hang of how pedestrians and road traffic have to befriend each other as we thread our way gingerly along. But the leisurely pace allows time for unexpected and pleasant encounters. Today I have had three long and interesting conversations on the pavement. I have been smiled at by one or two teenagers I'd not knowingly met - no doubt freshers who'd seen me in the Cathedral or, if they were from St Chad's, at the College's welcome ceremony last Sunday.

These brief encounters are among the pleasures of Durham life. On a Saturday, it's no use trying to get down to town and back in half an hour for a quick visit to M&S or Waterstones.  When you are the dean in a miniature city, a lot of locals know you by sight, including students. It's an enjoyable opportunity to mingle, bump into others (sometimes literally), open conversations, notice people. Who knows where these unlooked-for meetings and conversations may lead? Especially when, like freshers, you are new to the place?

Students bring great liveliness to our city. I see this as a gift. Sometimes there are stresses and strains between town and gown, and residents become grumpy. But I want to emphasize the benefits students bring to Durham. It's good to have them back. Here's wishing freshers the best of times at university. And a good new year to all students.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Farewell to the Lindisfarne Gospels

It's past ten o’clock on the last day of September. The doors of the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition Durham have closed for the last time. 100,000 people have passed through them in the last three months. Many have spoken about how inspired and delighted they were by what they saw. I want to pay tribute to colleagues at Durham University and here at the Cathedral who have worked so hard to make this summer such a huge success.

The Cathedral worked closely with the University on this project, and as Dean I served on the project board. We were clear that we wanted the Gospels to come back not simply to Durham but to the North East. And this is one of the great achievements of the summer. It has seen an amazing outburst of creativity right across the region with local communities entering into the spirit of the visit with great enthusiasm. There have been celebrations of the Gospels’ art and design, their place in English civilisation and in the history of the book, their symbolism for the North East’s identity and character. Was ever a book so much loved and welcomed back to its historic homeland?

Local churches have played a leading part in this celebration of our Christian heritage. At its heart, this has been an invitation to discover the gospel message in the four gospels. There have been study groups, public readings of the gospels, special acts of worship, pilgrimages to places associated with the saints of the region, lectures and talks, exhibitions and displays, temporary art, street theatre, creative play and themed entertainment.  This has stimulated adults and children not only to learn about their heritage but to read the gospels with a new awareness. The Cathedral has welcomed thousands of people to its own lively programme of events throughout the summer, culminating in an unforgettable flower festival to celebrate the Lindisfarne Gospels, the northern saints and our life together in the North East today.  A Roman Catholic newsletter spoke about how the Cathedral was rising to the challenge of using the Gospels’ visit in an evangelistic way. That pleased us because it recognised the true nature of the ‘gospel-work’ we were trying to do.

Yesterday, I went to Holy Island to preach on the last Sunday of this summer of celebration. It is always moving to walk where Cuthbert walked and pray where he prayed. To do this while the Lindisfarne Gospels were in his native Northumbria added its own richness to the experience.  I spoke, as I have done all summer, about why this celebration should matter to us, and what we have learned about the Manuscript, the Man in whose honour it was written, and the Message of the Gospel Book both then and now. 
I said that what the summer has helped us to do is to understand this great book in the setting of Saxon Christian Northumbria, and specifically, Cuthbert’s shrine. This linkage was fundamental to its meaning throughout the middle ages: it would have been unthinkable to separate the saint from his book. Severed from this environment, it acquired different linkages and has come to be read in new contexts. It’s not that these are less 'valid' than the original Cuthbert context. But the intellectual case for bringing the Gospels back to Durham was to enable us to hear them speak with their original northern accent once again.

In the south aisle of the church on Holy Island stands Fenwick Lawson’s powerful sculpture ‘The Journey’. It shows the monks of Cuthbert’s community carrying his body (and by implication the Gospels) on its 120 year journey that would end on the peninsula of Durham. I thought about the journey the Gospels had made to come to Durham and be reunited with their saint, and how it was now time for them to make the return journey back to London.  The Gospels have always travelled; now they are setting off on yet another valedictory journey. We all hope they carry a return ticket.

On Palace Green tonight, I talked to one of the security guards who had done duty outside the library during these three months. He told me how much it had meant to him to be doing his bit to care for this precious book, how sad he would be to see it go.  Like Cuthbert, the Lindisfarne Gospels touch ordinary lives in ways that are both moving and inspiring.  They have certainly touched mine. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels: the Young Person's Guide

Superlative alert…

It’s been marvellous to have the Lindisfarne Gospels in their ancient home of Durham this summer. Around 90000 visitors have been to admire it, and acclaim for the exhibition itself has been matched by enthusiasm for a huge variety of events being held up and down the North East during the book’s residency.  Among them was a spectacular flower festival in the Cathedral, Jewels of the North that celebrated not only the Book and our northern saints but also the life of the region today.

But nothing will have moved me more than the performance I attended in the Cathedral last night. It was called The Young Person’s Guide to the Lindisfarne Gospels. A large cast of children, teenagers and young adults aged from about 3 to 21 gave everything they had to this utterly brilliant interpretation of the Lindisfarne story. There were colour and light, speech and drama, rhythm and dance, ventriloquism and puppetry in an entirely convincing alchemy of fact and fiction, fantasy and pantomime, wit and parody. It was an unashamedly Christian ‘take’ on the Gospels with no attempt to airbrush out their religious significance as if the book were 'no more' than a landmark in cultural history and great art. 

There were many highlights (including the 3-year old in the front row who kept waving endearingly to his family in the nave). Eadfrith explaining to his monks why he was writing his Book, the Viking senior management team launching their campaign, and the Four Gospels Blues with clever montages imitating the evangelists’ portraits in the Lindisfarne Gospels were unforgettable. The commitment of all involved was one hundred per cent. It's clear that the Gospels had vividly taken hold of these youngsters' imagination.

I always find it moving to see young people achieve. We are fortunate to enjoy this every day in the Cathedral as we listen to our choristers sing evensong.  But the cast of Young Person’s Guide were not like most choristers, except for their talent.  The organisation putting on this performance, ‘Enter’, is a Community Interest Company (CIC) works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to promote personal and social development through the creative arts. 

I learned a bit about the backgrounds of some of these children. You would think there was little hope for them. Yet parents and children tell powerful stories about Enter's impact. For some, the performing arts have brought about a real transformation of their lives keeping them off the streets, giving them confidence and a lot of fun, enlarging their imagination, and imparting life-skills that will serve them in adulthood. It forges them into a community, gives them something to belong to and helps foster life-giving relationships.  I would not have believed what these youngsters were capable of if I had not seen it for myself. It takes inspirational leadership to bring it off, and parents pay tribute on the website to Enter's staff and how they are touching young lives.

I couldn’t help thinking how all this was a metaphor of how the church should be a place of inspiration and transformative life. It was abundantly clear that these youngsters loved what they were doing. It was as if they had given their lives to it. Isn’t this how Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as a glorious rainbow party that creates a wholly new way of looking at life?

This morning, as I presided at the eucharist in the Cathedral, I thought about the previous evening. The exuberance of that evening had been replaced by the solemn dignity of cathedral liturgy – yet somehow the vibrations had not quite died away. The music of Stanford is not exactly Elvis or the blues. But once again, children were excelling themselves through their singing, and the joy on the faces of the young family who had brought their child for baptism spoke of the same life-changing power of great performance – for isn’t the divine liturgy the greatest drama there is? - and the glimpse it gives us of a world made new.  

Visit Enter’s website at www.entercic.org.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

North East England: desolate and void?

We’ve all done it: got on our feet, opened our mouth, heard the words come tumbling out and wished the ground would open and swallow us up. I don’t suppose Lord Howell meant to disparage the North East in his now infamous remark about fracking, though that seems to have been the effect. ‘There are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part [sic] of the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment.’

But as psychoanalysts are fond of reminding us, you may not say what you mean, but you always mean what you say. In an unguarded moment, a whole set of attitudes towards the North East is laid bare. It shows how, in the southern mentality, the ‘idea of north’ is of a remote, strange and essentially alien place, a liminal borderland between what we know and feel at home in, and what we don’t know and are subliminally nervous or even afraid of.

The trouble is that it is a very confused perception. There is certainly ‘desolation’, but it is found not in the remote country but in deprived urban areas that are the opposite of uninhabited: densely populated environments where people feel forgotten and abandoned by a those in power who are supposed to care for the weak and voiceless. By contrast, the remote fastnesses are in no way the 'desolate' degraded places that no-one cares about and which are therefore available for exploitation. Far from it. For it is precisely these landscapes that constitute the North East’s wonderful treasury of national parks, heritage coasts, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historic buildings and a great deal more.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea of desolation. The Idea of North is the title of a brilliant book by Peter Davidson. Its elusive discipline of topographics links geography, culture, landscape, literature, art, social anthropology and the history of ideas. And it turns out that this Howellian southern fantasy about the north is in fact close to a widespread ‘myth’ that is found across many different cultures in which ‘north’ with its connotations of remoteness, darkness and cold is an eloquent symbol of what is alien, chaotic and threatening. ‘Here be dragons.’

Some make friends with it and embrace it. For example, W. H. Auden, a midlander, fell in love with the North Pennines as a boy. He was haunted by the wild astringent fell country with its untamed climate and the ghosts of its long-dead industries of fluorspar and lead mining. He would have said that the toughness and desolation of ‘north’ was precisely what pulled him irreversibly into its gravitational field,  'the solace of fierce landscapes'. He found his poetic voice in County Durham, at Rookhope in Upper Weardale where, idly dropping a pebble down a disused mine-shaft, he had a flash of recognition about ‘self and non-self’ and with his new-found awareness began to write. Would he have become a great poet without the North?

As a Londoner, I can echo Auden’s love for a part of England that is not only ‘North’ but is also ‘Not-South’. I wrote Landscapes of Faith: the Christian heritage of the North East as a tribute. But as I said in the book, we must be careful not to romanticise either the landscape or the people and communities who have been shaped by it. It’s important that we speak accurately about the North East and not be seduced by easy cliché. It’s interesting that much of today’s response to Lord Howell has been to cite the canon of Northumbrian beautiful views rather than probe more deeply into what lies under the skin of the North East. The opposite of desolation may not always be consolation. With its complex history shaped by power and conflict, wealth and poverty, privilege and servitude, faith and politics, industry and its decline, there are more ambivalent readings of the region, and these too are aspects of its character.

I don’t know if Lord Howell in some obscure way has intuited this.  Possibly not.  But it is how we as North-Easterners react to this unexpected opportunity to put ourselves on the map that perhaps tells its own important truth about this region and those of us for whom it is our much-loved home. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

On Hearing Wagner at the Proms

This 200th anniversary year of Richard Wagner’s birth has been a great celebration for his admirers. I had better admit that I am one of them. I write this having just listened to a marvellous performance of Götterdämmerung from the Proms. For me, the greatness of Wagner is not so much the theatre as the music. The luminous orchestration, the seamless marriage of instruments and voices, the use of distinctive musical themes or leitmotifs that act as musical and emotional signposts – all this adds up to an incomparable experience.

Someone once told me off when I was an undergraduate for listening too much (as he thought) to the Ring and trying to play parts of it on the piano. ‘It’s like a drug’ he said: ‘before you know it, you’re on a high and risk taking leave of your senses.  Look at Ludwig the Second who was seduced by Wagner’s music and went mad as a result. It’s what led to Hitler (a notorious admirer) and the death camps. Stick to Bach and Beethoven. At the very least, try to have an uneasy conscience about it’   

I’ve blogged on this site about my semitic background, and have paid tribute to my German-Jewish grandmother who was one of the most important influences of my life. Before the Third Reich, her family of assimilated Jews loved opera, especially Wagner. And even after she had survived the holocaust and made her home in England, she could never quite get it out of her system though I think she tried. When I was old enough, she asked me to play for her the ravishing Quintet from the last act of Meistersinger. Then it had to be the Prize Song, and then the Prelude. This gave me the permission I needed.

At theological college, one of my lecturers (Dr Jim Packer) asked if I would like to listen through the Ring cycle with him, one act every afternoon on the 24 (or so - I've forgotten how many it was) LPs of the legendary 1954 Fürtwängler version. (You have to have a lot of time for Wagner.) After each act, there was tea and then an hour’s conversation (more a tutorial) about the significance of Wagner and the Ring. JIP loved the cycle because, he told me, it was a profound myth of redemption. Its central theme was salvation through suffering: sacrifice offered so that the era of the corrupt gods could be ended and a new humanity be born. What could be more Christian than that? he insisted. Coming as it did from a highly conservative evangelical theologian, this was a remarkable insight for me as a raw young biblicist student barely out of his teens. I don’t think JIP ever wrote it up, but I have never forgotten it.

Rossini once said unkindly that Wagner had good moments but bad half hours. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially not, perhaps, those who are just as enthusiastically  marking this year’s other bicentenary, the birth of Verdi or the centenary of Britten's birth. I can only say what his music does for me. And that is, to touch me in places few other composers can reach.

I once went to a performance of my favourite of all Wagner’s music dramas, Tristan and Isolde. My wife bought me a ticket for the front stalls as a birthday present but didn’t come with me because, she said, she doubted if she would stay awake. It was staged in a self-conscious symbolist way that for me lost the naturalness of this profound story of human passion. So I decided to close my eyes and listen, lose myself in the waves of sublime music rising up from the orchestra pit a few feet in front of me, and imagine the 
drama in my own way. It was one of those experiences I knew I would never forget.

Should I as a Jewish-Christian man have an uneasy conscience about something that has touched me so deeply? To love the music is not to endorse the notorious self-serving egotism the composer was famous for, let alone the anti-semitism he purveyed. But the Jewish Daniel Barenboim, conductor of the Proms Ring, has had to negotiate this issue for himself. That he could give us such a rapturous series of performances speaks for itself. At the end of tonight’s Götterdämmerung it was several seconds before anyone could bear to break the long pregnant silence that followed the final cadence.  It was truly spellbinding. (Listen to the last 20 minutes on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer and judge for yourself.)

Like Caiaphas in St John’s Gospel, I think that Wagner’s music-dramas speak beyond anything the composer himself could know. Their universal vision gives the clue as to how our broken humanity can be put back together again.  Wagner spoke about the ‘music of the future’. It is – not just because it was artistically ground-breaking, but because of the range of its perspective and embrace. Like all great art, it speaks into our contemporary lives and dilemmas. It recognises who and what we are.

But for now, as the continuity announcer gently reminded us after the broadcast, ordinary life goes on. Tomorrow it will be Monday morning.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Summer in Rookhope

Up here at Rookhope in the North Pennines, we are a thousand feet higher than Durham. The height brings the temperature down by 3 degrees, though that is still unusually warm for these uplands. Below the tree line, Pennine zephyrs lightly rustle leaves and branches. Fair weather cumulus floats lazily across the sky.  In the distance, the bluish fells mark the watershed that closes off the dale. Beyond is Northumberland, another country.

The landscape has altered since we were last here in June. The vivid green hues of midsummer are yielding to less saturated yellows, mauves and ochres. The heather is turning purple.The riot of wild flower colour in the hay meadows is subsiding (but instead, come and see beautiful planters and hanging baskets all over our village-in-bloom). The burn runs low and lazy off the flank of Bolt's Law. The school has closed for the summer holiday. Torpor is settling in as August draws near. The land is still beautiful, but in a languid way.

It would take a Delius to do justice in music to the sights and sounds and scents of high summer in the countryside. Not so much 'Summer Night on the River' or 'In a Summer Garden', music we courted to one summer 40 years ago, as my parents-in-law apparently did 40 years before that.  One of Delius' less well known works is called 'A Song of the High Hills'. For me, it perfectly evokes long summer days in the Pennines: the fells shimmering in the dreamy heat, the aroma of warm yellow grass, the song of a lapwing momentarily breaking the silence, sheep dotted among the drystone walls running up the steep valley walls. Delius knew the moods, colours and textures of the Pennines from his West Riding upbringing. No-one could paint them better than he does.

Is there a better landscape anywhere in England? This North Pennine wilderness is one of the country's last truly remote places where, if it is what you are looking for, you can be silent and alone as you roam these undiscovered hills under huge skies with just the sheep and the curlews for company.


PS this was yesterday. You have to travel out of Rookhope to get a mobile signal. As I post this today, the sky is overcast. Wisps of mist cling to the fell tops. There is a hint of moisture in the air though it is still warm. You never quite know what the weather will do in these hills.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Railway Adults

So The Railway Children has attracted its first complaint in 42 years. Someone has alerted the British Board of Film Classification to the risk that the film could encourage children to play on railway tracks and harm others and themselves.

Quite right. And this is not the only railway film that poses moral hazard to the young. In response to a BBC Radio 4 tweet request to nominate films for the censor’s scrutiny, I put in my candidate: The Railway Adults, aka Brief Encounter. I gather this suggestion got read out on the air waves, so I thought I had better expand on it.

The fact is that David Lean’s famous black-and-white film, released in 1945 and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, is dangerously subversive of high moral values. I have tested this out through having shown it once to a group of senior clergy and laity, two of whom, including a bishop, were definitely Not Amused.  

Think about it.  All those steam engines thundering through Carnforth Station, their clouds of smoke billowing up to such great effect. It is marvellously atmospheric, of course, but at what cost to the atmosphere itself?  It’s cynically calculated to encourage the extravagant use of fossil-fuels that pollute the planet and contribute to climate-change. When we are trying to help children have respect for the environment, this is hardly a film to promote wholesome values.   

Then take its attitude to ophthalmology (thanks to another tweeter for pointing this out). The smoke from a passing train drives a speck of soot into Celia Johnson’s eye. Trevor Howard extracts it by inserting his handkerchief into her eye. This is hardly good hygiene, and the fact that a doctor behaves with complete disregard for accepted medical procedure makes it much worse. A young person considering a career in medicine could be badly corrupted by this disgraceful example of clinical practice.

Celia Johnson, in a memorable homage to Anna Karenina, reaches such a pitch of misery that she contemplates throwing herself in front of a train. No comment on the sheer unsuitability of this scene for the young is needed from me. Anyone viewing it, not just a child, might need intensive counselling. At the very least, parents should be warned.

Inside the café on platform – what number was it now? – things are no better. I am not thinking so much of ticket-collector Stanley Holloway’s crude humour and innuendo. It’s more café-manageress Joyce Carey’s snobbery, her unpleasant assumptions about class, her condescending de haut en bas manner with everyone who does not share her Daily Mail world-view. It is attitudes like these that are so corrosive of etiquette, courtesy and societal cohesion. The young should definitely not be exposed to them.

I forebear to speak about the film’s storyline, or its Rachmaninov score calculated to inflame the passions of the young. Nor will I comment on its self-evidently risqué title. That in itself should be enough to warn anyone that Brief Encounter is strictly for adults only.  Certificate 18 please, BBFC: nothing less will do. 

As for another subversive railway film The Titfield Thunderbolt, that will have to wait for another blog. 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Two Books and a Train: the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham

Last week Durham’s Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition opened to the public. I have already visited four times. It would need a twice-daily visit to do justice to it. The Famous Book is the centrepiece of an array of marvellous books, manuscripts, sculptures and treasures that shed light on the Gospels and the world in which they were created. Will we ever see so many Saxon gospel books in the same place?  And Cuthbert’s cross, ring and personal gospel book of St John in the same room as the Gospel written in his honour? Come and see for yourself. It’s open all summer, till 30 September. I never use this phrase lightly, but it is not to be missed.

One of the things ‘not to be missed’ is the location of the exhibition. We can see the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library in London where it will not cost us a penny. But that is not the same as seeing it on the Durham peninsula, in the shadow of the Cathedral that not only contains but is Cuthbert’s shrine. His coffined body, together with the Gospels, were the most precious objects the Lindisfarne community possessed. When they left their island, they carried them round the north of England until finally arriving in Durham in 995.  Here they stayed, in each other’s company, until irrevocably parted at the Reformation. Yet they belong together and should never have been separated. We have Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries to thank for that. This summer gives us the remarkable opportunity to bring the Gospels back ‘home’ not just geographically but culturally, intellectually and above all, spiritually, near St Cuthbert in his very own place. The message to those visiting the exhibition is simple. You've seen the Book; now come and see the shrine of the man for whom this huge labour of love was created, whose place is the Cathedral itself. 

For me, visiting this exhibition has been an emotional and spiritual experience. To re-learn the history of how Saxon England embraced Christianity is one thing. To see and enjoy some the highest achievements of 'Northumbria's Golden Age' is deeply satisfying. But what is so memorable about Durham 2013 is how it witnesses to the remarkable devotion of our forebears: Cuthbert and so many other native saints and their communities. It's a cliché to put it like this, but I think I have glimpsed the 'gospel' in the Gospels in a new and, I want to say, compelling way. The exhibition is not only celebration and interpretation.  It is evangelism.  

There have been other events this week that have celebrated the Gospels in Durham.  Here are just two. On Wednesday, on the platform at Newcastle Central Station, we named and dedicated a locomotive ‘Durham Cathedral’. (For those who like to know, it’s a class 91 East Coast electric 91114.)  During the summer, it will also carry imagery from the Lindisfarne Gospels and invite people up and down the East Coast Main Line to come to Durham and see the book for themselves.  In addition to the name, the loco also has a silhouette of the Cathedral as seen from the railway viaduct which is also depicted. So here’s another way in which Cathedral and Gospels are linked. You never saw a happier dean than when I was presented with my own replica of the large (and heavy) nameplate that now adorns ‘our’ engine. My best thanks to East Coast, Stephen Sorby, railway chaplain, and many others for a great partnership that I am sure will continue in the future.

The second event was to launch my new book Landscapes of Faith during the week.  This too is published to celebrate the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham. Like the exhibition, my book is a celebration of the rich heritage of Christianity in North East England. I blogged about it last week, so I’ll say no more here except to thank the team who worked so hard on it, especially Third Millennium for producing a large and beautiful book that is a joy to handle, even though I say so myself. And thanks to the large number of friends from north and south of Tyne who offered encouragement by coming to the launch. I am doing a book-signing in the shop at Alnwick Garden on Friday 12 July from 1230-1400 if you happen to be in the area.

And this is just Week 1!  It promises to be an extraordinary summer in Durham.

**I preached about the Lindisfarne Gospels at the launch service.  You can find the sermon in my Sermons and Addresses Blog on this site. Go to: http://deanstalks.blogspot.com/2013/06/on-lindisfarne-gospels.html?spref=tw

Friday, 21 June 2013

'Landscapes of Faith' is here!

I hope this is not seen as an act of shameless self-promotion.  But yesterday, an advance copy of my new book Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England was delivered. It is published by Third Millennium International, and I have to admit that I am proud of how good it looks. It will be available in early July, maybe sooner.
'What's the use of a book without pictures or conversation?' asks Alice. Well, this glossy large-format book at least has plenty of pictures. And even if some will look mainly at the photographs and sit loose to the text, why not? I have bought many a book just to enjoy the images.
I spoke about 'my' book. I must at once nuance what it says on the cover.  I am not the author of all of its text or images, more like the mysterious Mr W. H., the 'onlie begetter' of Shakespeare's Sonnets. I had an idea which caught on. A lot of talented people have played a part in its realisation over the two years we have worked on this project. I pay tribute to them and thank them.  It's only really 'mine' in the sense that I have long wanted to have something attractive and accessible that would celebrate the North East's Christian past and how it lives on. I didn't want to focus simply on famous buildings like Durham Cathedral and great artefacts like the Lindisfarne Gospel Book. There are many less well known, even secret, places that tell their own moving story about a living Christian presence right up to today.
I have loved writing my sections of text and travelling up and down the North East to photograph for the book. The timing is deliberate: we wanted to contribute something to this summer's exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels in the University's library on the Durham World Heritage Site. The Gospels are so emblematic of the North East that it seemed apt to publish a book that set it in this larger regional context.
But Landscapes is not confined to the 'classical' Saxon and Norman periods. We wanted to portray the rich Christian heritage of this part of England in the broadest possible way, from Saxon shrines to urban parish churches, and from remote Methodist chapels to the self-conscious splendour of the legacy of the Prince Bishops. We wanted to reflect how landscapes and townscapes have both influenced how Christian communities have been shaped, and how these communities in turn have shaped their settings.
In the book, I wrote:
We need to know our history, read our landscapes, understand our communities.  We need to sit still in our north-east’s sacred spaces and listen to what they have to tell us.  This book is offered as a contribution to this all-important conversation with our past, present and future.

The title Landscapes of Faith implies something that is visible and tangible, that can be travelled to and enjoyed for all that delights and inspires.  But the true ‘landscapes of faith’ are those of the mind and heart of individual human beings and the communities they belong to. The places we visit in this book are signs of this life of faith, hope and love that despite the depredations of secularising modernity persists across the North East as it does everywhere.  It continues to express itself with the same conviction and vitality as it has always done.  The saints, long dead, still speak to us of a message they described as good news, a life-changing gospel. They would have understood the phrase ‘landscapes of faith’ and wanted us to invest it with new meaning for our own times.
I hope that this book may make a small contribution to what I see as the important task of rescuing the idea of 'heritage' from a dangerous obsession with simply preserving the 'past' at all costs. Instead, we need it to be a living entity with surprising power not simply to give us pleasure, education and enjoyment, but to touch our lives in ways that are both inspiring and life-changing.
ISBN 978 1 906507 89 3.  www.tmiltd.com