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

Friday, 28 February 2014

Ears to Hear: something overheard

‘I can teach you how to hear. But only you can learn to listen.’ That sounds like a typical preacher talking. It could easily have been me. In fact it was the audiologist at Dryburn Hospital where I spent much of the afternoon.

You’ve guessed it, and it’s no great secret: I’ve reached the age when hearing has become a bit of a problem. So I went to a tinnitus group to learn how to manage the condition, and then sat down with a consultant to be fitted out with a hearing-aid.

I’d not looked forward to what I imagined would be large ungainly excrescences over and inside my ears. Nowadays however, they are, pretty discreet. So much so that when I got home later on and sat down with my wife it took her a whole 2 hours to realise I had them in, and only then when I complained about The Archers being too loud.

But they will take some getting used to. Walking home from the hospital was a revelation. My anorak seemed to swish like tin-foil as I walked along. I’d forgotten how noisy a car can be as it accelerates uphill. My own voice, when I said hello in the street, seemed to come from a strange, disembodied place that I couldn’t quite locate. The high-pitched wail of a rusty gate sounded like finger nails dragged across a blackboard. ‘Don’t worry about how disconcerting it is at first’ said the nice audiologist. Your brain will soon adjust.

But what especially struck me as I walked was the sheer richness and variety of the sound world I was part of. The songs of birds in the trees took on a vibrant joyousness that was entirely new to me. I was aware of picking up snatches of amiable conversation as I walked past the shops. In one of the stores there was music, nothing memorable at all, except for the brilliance of its upper registers and the acoustic of the shop interior in which it resonated. I enjoyed the background hum of a city going about its normal Friday afternoon routines. It was if I was hearing in colour once again, and in focus, and not only that but with surround sound to give it all depth and ambience. It was as if I was given back my capacity to listen.

Anyone with a hearing aid will know what a difference the technology can make. It feels as though what was dormant has been brought back to life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear before. But my hearing had become dulled, particularly when there was a lot of background noise or when people weren’t speaking very clearly. Big social events, and American films, were particularly challenging. My children used to gesture to me in imitation of the redoubtable Mrs Richards in that wonderful episode of Fawlty Towers where disasters of all kinds follow from the simple inability to hear and communicate. I hope, for myself, that from now on I’ll be more aware of those whose hearing difficulties are far worse than mine, and who are entirely or largely cut off from the sounds that make life such an auditory gift.  

‘Those who have ears to hear, let them hear’ says the Gospel. Like looking and seeing, hearing and listening are frequent images of taking in and grasping a life-changing message. To be able to hear well so that we can listen and understand is truly life-changing. I glimpsed, or rather I overheard, that today.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Welcoming a New Bishop

It’s little more than a year ago that we said farewell to our last Bishop, Justin Welby. Today we welcomed our new Bishop, Paul Butler. On a beautiful day, 1800 people gathered in the Cathedral for his enthronement. There was colour and movement. There was a lot of involvement by children and young people who waved flags, led prayers and presented symbolic gifts. There were traditional hymns, contemporary worship songs and fine choral music (including Wood’s exquisite Expectans Expectavi, Howells’ powerful Collegium Regale setting of the Te Deum, and a new commission by Jonathan Rathbone). It was solemnly joyful and joyfully solemn.

The Bishop preached about the parable of the mustard seed. Don’t underestimate the small things, he told us: they have the potential to grow, like the seed growing into a great bush that welcomes all the birds of the air. He reaffirmed the priorities he had set out when his appointment was announced: to tackle poverty, to make children and young people a priority, and to grow the church. He reminded us of the saints of the north as they established Christianity in Northumbria: Aidan, Cuthbert, Bede and Hild. He quoted his namesake, the first Bishop Butler who occupied the see in the 18th century; and from the 19th century Bishops Van Mildert and Lightfoot. It was inspiring, authentically northern, and done with warmth, winsomeness and skill. Afterwards, everyone took a bean seed home with them to plant and nurture by way of remembering the occasion.

In Durham, deans have plenty to do when Bishops are welcomed. The key moment is the enthronement itself, placing the new Bishop in his cathedra or throne, the ‘seat’ from which a cathedral takes its name. In the northern province, this is the dean’s privilege (in southern dioceses, that ceremony is performed by the Archdeacon of Canterbury. If you want to know why, ask her!). The great cathedra of Durham was built by Bishop Hatfield in the 14th century as the highest throne in Christendom, higher even than St Peter's, Rome. But then there are two more installations to do. In the middle ages, the Bishop was the titular abbot of the Cathedral Priory, so I placed him in his stall opposite mine in the Quire where the abbot once sat. And later on, the members of the Foundation processed out to the Chapter House where I sat him in the stone chair from which the abbot presided over meetings of the monastic chapter.

In my blog about our last Bishop’s farewell service, I recalled a poignant moment that had touched the choristers. ‘When you and the Bishop walked alone up to the high altar with the big gold stick, and disappeared behind the screen, and when you both came out again, it had gone’. Today, I led our new Bishop back to that same place, where the ‘big gold stick’, the beautiful Lightfoot Crozier symbolising his jurisdiction and pastoral ministry, was lying on Cuthbert's shrine where I had laid it at Justin Welby’s farewell. To take it up and deliver it to Justin’s successor was, for me, the most moving part of the service. (I did warn him how heavy it was.)

Afterwards we all spilled out into the sunny cloister for lunch. Someone said this was the Cathedral at its best. I’d like to think so. Certainly, on this spring-like day when we welcomed the 74th Bishop of Durham and his family, there was delight and hope in the air.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Many Waters: floods and faith

Here on the Durham peninsula, we live with water all the time. As the River Wear, it flows round the rocky acropolis on which Cathedral and Castle sit. When it is in spate, you can hear it in the cloister, tumbling noisily over the weir between the Mill House and the Old Fulling Mill. When the river is very high it goes quiet again, for then the weir becomes just a wrinkle across the smooth fast surface of the flow.

However, all this is happening far below. The river remains confined to its gorge, kept in its place as rivers are meant to be. What we have seen in Somerset and across the south of England is water that bursts out of its proper bounds. And then it is not simply unwelcome but frightening, a power that is as relentless and destructive as hurricane or wildfire.

When I am walking past the mill, I sometimes think about one of my favourite novels, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. In that story, the mill is Tom and MaggieTulliver’s home. Never mind the plot (read it for yourself) in which river and mill play a central part. During the story, Tom and Maggie become estranged. At the climax, the river floods and the mill is swept away. Tom and Maggie’s boat capsizes and sinks, but not before Tom and Maggie are reconciled and drown in a tender embrace.

The novel is set in the Lincolnshire fens, not the Somerset Levels. But it captures so much of what people have been suffering in Somerset where life is imitating art in a terrible way. But there’s a point at which art and life differ. In the book, the flood brings about a reconciliation, and by implication, something new and better is coming to birth. It’s the same in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung where the old order of the gods is swept away by fire and flood and a new humanity is born. But in Somerset, there is no redemption, at least not yet. People continue to be overwhelmed, week after week, submerged beneath cold, filthy, hateful waters that simply refuse to go away.

George Eliot and Richard Wagner were drawing on ancient mythological archetypes in their art. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis story of the flood are among the oldest narratives in the world. The Bible is witness to the primordial fear the Hebrews had of waters that transgressed their limits and would not stay where they belonged. ‘The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods lift up their roaring’ (Psalm 93.3). To them, the flood represented chaos in its worst manifestations, monstrous, terrifying, powerful.

So it is not strange that in the New Testament, one of Jesus’ most memorable actions is to calm the storm, reassure the boatmen and instruct the waters, like a ferocious wild animal, to ‘be muzzled’ (Mark 4.35-41). It echoes the psalmist’s faith: ‘more majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!’ Or as another watery psalm says, ‘be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46.10).

But to those who are victims of the waters that are despoiling homes and farms and livelihoods at present, these words may not yet bring encouragement, still less hope. It will require a huge act of faith to hear them in any way other than as a cruel mockery. But we who are dry and warm in our own homes should 
try to pray imaginatively for the children, women and men who are on our hearts right now. We can stand alongside them and on their behalf, hold on to our belief that there is no chaos, however awful, where God is not already present, sharing in the pain of victims, knowing in his crucified self the waste and the loss and the pain. They need us to hold on to our belief that in God’s time and in God’s way, not least through the care of those who are bringing help and support, they will find hope once more, and be given back their lives. 

'Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it' says the Song of Solomon. I am writing this on Sunday, the day 
of resurrection. May it come for us all - soon.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Floods and Photography: telling all the truth

We have seen some unforgettable images of water in recent weeks. Water lying still and serene across half of Somerset; water hurling itself against the railway line at Dawlish; water unleashed from sagging rain clouds collapsing under their own weight. There is a kind of beauty in these sights, and our best photographers have not been slow to capture it.

What we know, however, is that this terrible beauty often belongs to the bystander, the observer who is lucky enough to be able to view it from afar. Not necessarily physically afar: it’s possible that the photographers who captured those extraordinary waves rearing up to the sky were at risk themselves. But some of these images seem to come from an emotional distance where the camera is uninvolved and safe, positioned on higher ground, so to speak, where it won’t get wet. And we who admire them are at risk of looking at them in the same way, seduced by what seems wonderfully fascinating and strange.

The truth of course is more ugly. I am guessing, but when your home or land has been under several feet of water for weeks on end, when you cannot get in or out of your village, when your crops are destroyed and your animals have to be transported far away, when everything you have worked for is ruined, when raw sewage is floating through your house, when you are old or sick or alone or just very afraid, there is nothing beautiful about this watery world. It is dirty, polluting and cruel. The camera does not easily go into these forlorn despoiled places other than to document them and thereby objectifying them, a pornography of disaster. It sells newspapers and draws us like a magnet to our screens. But it may not always help us to capture the merciless way life has been wrenched out of its normality. It may not stimulate our imaginations so that we begin to view dire events with real empathy.

The best photographers understand this. They take risks by getting involved, and their legacy is war photography, disaster photography or street photography that moves us not just for its artistry and technique but also for its honesty. The trouble is, photography also risks beautifying what it sees. This is fine (or is it?) if your subject matter is an idyllic landscape or building radiant in the sunlight. You crop out anything that compromises the vision, clone-stamp blemishes, adjust the colour saturation, and create a paradise. Even the violence of nature is susceptible to this treatment. Those sunsets over the Somerset Levels look gorgeous. Of course, photography didn’t invent this beguiling way of seeing nature. Painters in both the classical and romantic traditions did it freely, and photography has been heavily influenced by it.

We thought water was our friend: life-giving, cleansing and refreshing. But we have seen the shadow side of water, its capacity to despoil and threaten with a relentlessness that is without mercy. It can be the quiet relentlessness of rivers slowly rising up to the bank top, of water creeping silently beneath floorboards and front doors and French windows. It can be the furious relentlessness of the whole gale from the south shattering puny defences and driving seas inland where they have no right to be. Like the Hebrew psalmist complaining that ‘the waters have come up even to my neck’, victims must feel helpless against its power. How is that to be conveyed in images that can make a difference to how we respond?

Perhaps still photography has to admit its limitations. The photographer is not usually the one who is dealing with a crisis, and this at once makes a difference to how it is seen and responded to. I recognise that the same is true of much of the commentary, like this blog. But when a voice speaks directly out of the waters themselves, it is vivid and authentic. Reading some of the tweets that have come out of south west England in recent days has touched me*. I don’t know how anyone has the time let alone the will to write even 140 characters. But these first-hand accounts of what it feels like to be flooded are compelling not simply because of events themselves, but their effect on the men, women and children caught up in them. These are our fellow-citizens who are suffering. We should be in solidarity, not bystanders but friends who weep with those who weep and do what we can to help.

We need to remember this when we are dazzled by a great photograph. It may not tell all of the truth.

* For example, @SouthWestFarm. Farming couple living and working on a farm surrounded by vast amounts of water in the heart of the Levels. Please support our ongoing battle to #dredgetherivers. Somerset.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Out of the Mouths...: tea with the choristers

One of the enjoyable aspects of Cathedral life is getting to know the choristers. They are not only hugely talented but also a wonderful fount of bright conversation, irony and wit, shrewd observation and often, surprising insight.  They are great company.

For the last 10 years I have invited choristers to come round to the Deanery in their year-groups for tea (well, fruit juice), cakes and conversation. The aim is to talk in a relaxed way about Christian faith and life so that they can begin to get a sense of what the worship of a great cathedral is for. Of course others are doing this too. Exploring faith is encouraged in the Chorister School alongside formal RE. My canon colleagues prepare them for confirmation when the time comes. The Organist is assiduous in explaining the meaning and background of the texts choristers sing daily at the services, and through his own example of discipleship models the service of the church as a true vocation.
So I cultivate an off-beat homespun approach to chorister ‘formation’. I’m keen to encourage them to peer behind a dean’s liturgical persona and glimpse the lived Christian experience. That sounds rather grand.  It isn’t meant to. Some years I’ve asked them to choose a favourite hymn and talk about it. We’ve looked at the Psalms, so central to their evensongs. We’ve thought about the biblical readings at services, what they readily respond to and what they find hard. We’ve explored prayer and how to practise it. I’ve emptied wardrobes to explain why we dress up for the liturgy. We’ve studied the Deanery wall paintings and their themes of Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection. In their final year, we’ve looked at what they have enjoyed about being choristers, and what not. The interaction is always lively, always great fun. I learn a lot and we often go way past the time set. The gap students who chaperone these visits like joining in too.
This year I am risking a ‘client-led’ approach by inviting them to write down a couple of questions they would like to ask about any aspect of faith, the Bible, the Cathedral and its worship and music – anything that puzzles or intrigues them. Recently we’ve had: ‘Who made God?’ ‘Is being a chorister becoming out of date?’ ‘Is there any pattern to the way we read the Bible in services?’ ‘What’s the difference between the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches?’ ‘What are icons and how are they used?’ ‘How deep are the Cathedral foundations?’ ‘How will the world end?’ And more personally, ‘How did you decide to be a priest?’ and ‘Have you ever thought that being a dean is a waste of time?’

In a Socratic way (you might say), I’ve tried to get the group to explore these questions rather than merely give answers. Sometimes there’s information to convey (doing this with a light touch when it came to explaining in one minute the events of 1054 and 1517 was a tall order). Often we stray wide of the mark, often we find we’re plumbing real depths. There’s plenty of liveliness and laughter but serious reflection too. I am constantly amazed by how thoughtful and articulate these boys and girls are, not just the 12 and 13 year-olds, but also those who are much younger.
What do I hope for? I’m realistic. The children won’t remember much of what we talked about. But I hope they recall in years to come long after chorister days are over, that the Cathedral wasn’t simply interested in their musical development and their formal education in the school. I want them to know that we cared about them as human beings and as young Christians.  I want them to recall that we valued them as members of our community. I want them to feel that the clergy were not remote Olympian figures who glided grandly round the cathedral, but were human beings on the same journey of faith as them– just that bit further on. I want them to remember Durham Cathedral as a warm, humane, caring, welcoming and good place. I’m glad to be playing a small part in this great project of contributing the shaping of these young lives.

And when the time comes to say goodbye to Durham (DV not just yet….), I know I am going to miss the choristers.  Here’s a big thank you to them all.