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

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Seasons of Durham Life 1: October

October feels like the start of the new year in the Cathedral. It’s true that the rhythm of Cathedral meetings is already a month old, the Chorister School term has begun, the choir is back from its summer break so that once more daily choral evensong is restored to us - how we have missed it!

But more than anything, October in Durham means the influx of thousands of students. No sooner have the summer tourists gone than it’s time for another invasion. The freshers make up the first wave – returners have a few days grace. You step out of the medieval gate of the precinct and find the Bailey festooned with welcome banners over the colleges, the narrow streets heaving with young people, bewildered parents with cars packed to the gunwales, baffled by Durham’s arcane traffic system while delivering their offspring for the first time. On Volvo Sunday as it’s called, residents don’t try to drive off the peninsula. It only takes one driver in a big 4x4 attempting a 9-point turn in a street no wider than a car’s length and you lose the will to live.

All new students are presented in the Cathedral to be matriculated by college. This is the formal ceremony of admission to the University. The name comes from the matricula or register that a representative student from each college signs during the occasion. There are so many students that it takes five ceremonies to get all of them through. For most, it will be their first time inside the Cathedral; for some, their first time inside any Christian church.

I scan their faces. Most are expectant, some look anxious or uncertain about what is about to happen, a few fold their arms as if defying the occasion to move them. How they dress tells you a lot. As Dean and ex officio member of the University Council, I sit on the platform with the Vice-Chancellor and senior staff and give a welcome. I tell the students that I hope that they will always feel at home in this great place, whatever their faith. I invite them to make the most of what it offers. I also say that students bring great liveliness to Durham, and that’s a gift to us, despite the grumbles of a few locals about how the University is ‘taking over’ our little city.

Going to services is part of life for surprising number of students. I say surprising because the environment of higher education in Britain is mostly resolutely secular. They head for their college chapels, or for churches in the city of all styles and denominations, or both; and some of them become regulars at the Cathedral. Some were brought up in faith and are committed worshippers. Some have recently found faith and are excited by its life-changing impact on their lives. Some are curious, some come because of the building, the liturgy and the music. October always sees a noticeable increase in congregations both on Sundays and weekdays. One or two even find their way to the daily service of morning prayer (which we say at 8.45am: later than most cathedrals, not because we are lazy but because it’s an hour when some students at least will be up and about and on their way to lectures or supervisions). Some start volunteering in the Cathedral as welcomers, servers or singers in one of the voluntary choirs.

You mustn’t think that the Cathedral’s life is dominated by the University. It isn’t.  But when you are working and praying (and in the case of the clergy living) cheek-by-jowl with it, indeed, when you are historically the institution that gave it birth, it’s understandable that it features prominently. This is especially true at the beginning and end of the academic year (when students flock into the Cathedral once more, this time for their graduation ceremonies).

What other cathedral has such opportunities for outreach to students at such a key time in their development? Hundreds walk past it, even through it, every day on their way to their studies, shopping or socialising. Some of these young men and women will be in positions of great power and influence in the future. We owe it to them to grasp this opportunity. And we try to be alive to how the gifts we inherit in Durham – our wonderful building, its community, its saints, its heritage, its music – are among the tools God has given us to use in this mission that is both his and ours.

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