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

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Seasons of Durham Life 2: November

'Now is the time for the burning of the leaves' says Lawence Binyon of the late autumn. The trees are stripped bare. It can take you by surprise if there is an overnight storm or a sudden sharp frost. This year, November has brought calm, warm days as if to coax the golden leaves to stay a little longer. But they know it is time. And now the trees in the College and on the river banks are almost bare. The peninsula is bedding down for winter.

November is an up-and-down month in the Cathedral. It begins on an upbeat with All Saints' Day: all light and splendour and warmth. But next day it's All Souls when we remember our dead. So the liturgy takes us from alleluias to 'requiem aeternam' in the space of just a few hours. All Souls sets the tone for so much of the month: elegiac, reflective, sombre. By now it is entirely dark at evensong each day. The Cathedral vaults are lost in the gloom, though they still echo to the singing of choristers. Sometimes there are just a handful of worshippers strung out along the length of the quire, almost lost in the dark 17th century stalls. The nave may be quite empty. 

Regulars in cathedrals wouldn't wish it otherwise. When you have several hundred thousand visitors streaming through the Cathedral, you welcome these weeks marked by a quieter pace between October half term and Advent when it all starts up again. It can feel like a mini-Lent, a chance to breathe and take stock. The Cathedral has its own tranquil beauty in this quiet empty season. 'Ordinary time' is a precious gift in the liturgical calendar, just as it is in human life.

The 2nd or 3rd Sunday of November is Remembrance, with Armistice Day close by. The service that culminates in the two minute silence and act of remembrance echoes the reflective character of the month. In the 12 years I have been Dean, I have been intrigued by how big this service has become. It's interesting how many students and young people come nowadays. Undoubtedly, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq have a lot to do with it, along with a deeper awareness of what we owe to our armed services, and how fragile peace really is. And perhaps, too, a greater sense of citizenship and how ceremony in public life, whether it is celebration or lament, can bind a society together. 

But November is also marked by a number of celebrations that are special to Durham. There are red-letter days marked by joyful services and processions as we remember those who have played a part in the story of  North East England. St Margaret of Scotland, a great 11th century friend of the Cathedral, and St Hild, the foremost female leader of the Saxon church in the 7th century, are commemorated on successive days when we go in procession to their altars swinging the incense and singing hymns. Other Durham people remembered this month include the much-loved 20th century Archbishop Michael Ramsey in whose memory a new stained-glass window was installed a few years ago, and the 15th century Bishop Thomas Langley, Chancellor of England, whose tomb is in the Galilee Chapel and who founded the two schools associated with the Cathedral.

The litany of famous North East names are gathered up in another November occasion, the annual celebration of Founders and Benefactors (or 'Bounders and Malefactors' as it is affectionately known). This service on the last Sunday of the church year brings people together from across the North East to celebrate the generosity of past ages towards our great public institutions. Civic leaders come to give thanks for the life of Durham City, its University and the Cathedral without which neither would have existed. The service culminates in a procession to St Cuthbert's shrine where posies are laid on his tomb as our tribute to the humble man of Lindisfarne to whom the North of England looks as the fountainhead and inspiration of so much of our past and present. This year we celebrate the centenary of this service in its modern form, though its roots go back to the Middle Ages when a 'Liber Vitae' recording the names of the Priory's benefactors was laid on the altar in their memory each year. We now have a modern Liber Vitae which names all who have supported the Cathedral through generous giving and loyal voluntary service in recent times, and this too is laid on the high altar together with the facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

After this burst of colourful splendour, it is back to a few more days to reflect as the daylight continues to fade, and the year grows old and prepares to slip gently into its night. By then it will be Advent. 

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