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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.