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

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Seasons of Durham Life: December

In every cathedral and parish church, the year ends on a high note. Or rather, begins - for Advent marks the start of another liturgical cycle. 

Advent and Christmas see more people flock to places of worship than any other time of year. From late November a busy procession of services and events prepares the way for Christmas itself. Local organisations such as schools, Durham colleges, the University Christian Union, MenCap, Women's Institutes, the Hospice and others hold annual services. The Durham Christmas Fair partly takes place in the cloister bringing thousands through the Cathedral where many linger to sing carols. There is the Lighting of the Christmas Tree and the Blessing of the Crib. The Cathedral Friends and Cathedral Choir have big concerts. And to bring the season to its climax, there are two sittings of the Nine Lessons and Carols, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and the major services on Christmas Day itself. 

We love seeing the Cathedral full of people day after day. It's what the place is for. I guess that for many of them, this is their only church service of the year, so we want to make it as beautiful and eloquent as we can. The good news about the coming of Light and Love into the world is too important not to make every effort to communicate it by all means possible. And if you are like me, you find that the magic of Christmas becomes more powerful and mysterious with each returning year. As I look back on 25 Christmases in three different cathedrals, where marvellous liturgy and music in magnificent surroundings have never failed to lift the heart and imagination in profoundly moving ways, I realise what a gift these wonderful places are. They are an inspiration not only to us who work and worship in them daily, but to our entire communities, our guests, public.

However, December does take its toll. The Cathedral staff, the volunteers, the building itself are on duty day after day. Services have to be prepared, printed, choreographed and rehearsed, largely back-room jobs unseen by most people but vital to every act of worship. Vergers have to move furniture around, put up staging, prepare robes, make sure that the ceremonial details are taken care of, solve problems on the day, generally see that everything passes off smoothly. Seating plans have to be devised and the volunteer duty stewards need to understand them before worshippers arrive. The church will be decorated near Christmas, and need daily cleaning and tidying. Organists and choir have music to practise, ministers have sermons and prayers to prepare. For large services there will be representatives of the media to brief, security operations to manage, first aiders to oversee, civic guests to receive. Even a simple service takes a lot of preparation; run several of them back-to-back on top of the daily services of matins, eucharist and evensong and you can see that it all takes a lot of careful planning. This is why we have each year's pattern of Advent and Christmas services carefully laid out a full 18 months in advance. We have learned the hard way that not to do this ends up by exhausting everyone. Not to mention the awful possibility that the wheels could come off....

'It's your busy time' people often say to us clergy at this time of year. I wish there were a better answer than feebly to agree that there is a lot to do. Advent ought to give us space to take the long view. This means reflecting on the ultimate things of human life itself, traditionally the season's themes of death, judgment, hell and heaven. And also on the meaning of the Incarnation itself: what Christmas is really for and why we make so much of it. There's a real tension between doing this through the Cathedral's solemn Advent worship while at the same time being ungrudgingly hospitable to everyone else's desire to anticipate Christmas early in the month. We can be singing 'O come O come Emmanuel' and 'Yea, Lord, we greet thee' on any day in December and feel thoroughly mixed up as we do. After all, we wouldn't sing 'Thine be the glory' during Passiontide. 

There isn't an easy way of resolving these tensions. But I try to suspend my own personal welcome to the Nativity until Christmas Eve itself, say to myself that until then, I'm singing carols 'proleptically', in the future tense so to speak, keeping the present until we finally arrive there. So when I get into the pulpit at the Nine Lessons and Carols on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and invite the huge crowd to 'go in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that has come to pass', it comes as a fresh revelation of a great and might wonder. I admit it - I am powerfully moved by the words of that bidding prayer. This 'surprise by joy' has never failed yet. 

And even after evensong on Christmas Day, when the choir has gone home and the Cathedral is quiet once more, the vaults and arcades still re-echo in mind and heart to the remembered tidings of comfort and joy we have celebrated in this past month, and to the glory that has come among us, never to depart. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Heaven in a Shop Window: a meditation at Christmas

Here is a piece I wrote for Christmas, published today in the Durham Times and other local papers.
For many North East people, a highlight of the Christmas season is going to Newcastle to admire the windows in Fenwick’s. They are always beautiful to look at, even if you have to queue in the bracing December air with scores of excited children to get anywhere near them.

This year’s theme is Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were my favourite bedtime reading as a child. Maybe that tells you something…. But back to the windows. They are wonderfully dramatic and colourful. You can see the White Rabbit and his house, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mat Hatter’s tea party, Caterpillar on his mushroom, the Cheshire Cat, and a fearsome Queen of Hearts looking for all the world as if she were wearing a bishop’s mitre. It’s all beautifully done.
What’s it got to do with Christmas?, you ask yourself. Well, the connection isn’t as direct as the Nativity windows Fenwick’s devised a few years ago. But Christmas can speak to us in many different ways. One of them can be by stretching our imagination, helping us think thoughts and dream dreams beyond the ordinary and every day.
Looking back to my childhood, I can see that this was what Alice did for me. I loved the thought of plunging down a rabbit hole and falling into a new world, or pushing through a mirror on the wall and stepping into topsy-turvy-dom. In those imaginary places, the laws of normal life didn’t apply any more. Nothing was what it seemed. And yet it didn’t feel any the less real. In some ways, these worlds of fiction seemed almost tangible, populated by characters you got to know. Yes, in the end Alice has to wake up from her dream. But her journey has changed her. And those of us who travel with her.

I don’t reckon it’s fanciful to think about Christmas in this kind of way. It’s a time of year when we not only dream about a kinder, fairer, better world, but even dare to try living it out. How? By thinking of other people through Christmas greetings, the presents we give as symbols of our love and care, noticing the needs of others far and near and responding with compassion. We long for a new start for our world, our society, ourselves and those we care for. And in small ways, we enter into the spirit of that new beginning.

These are the dreams, the hopes, the vision embodied in the Child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. We ask so much of this Infant in the manger. And we are right to. When he becomes a man he starts to speak about the ‘kingdom of heaven’. It’s the language of the grand vision, the great hope, the wonderful dream: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In that kingdom, things are different. There is no more conflict or pain. People don’t hurt or damage one another. Everyone lives in peace and harmony. There is happiness instead of grief, laughter not tears. Who doesn’t long for such a world?

Alice ends on a charming note. She wakes up and runs home for tea, thinking ‘what a wonderful dream it had been’. Her sister lingers, thinking ‘how this same little sister would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and happy summer days’.

Christmas says: this tender vision of innocence, happiness and a ‘simple and loving heart’ is God’s gift to us and all humanity. In Wonderland, goodness wins out against all that is cruel or hostile. This is what the Infant Jesus promises us. It’s why we love him, why his birthday fills us with hope once more.

If you live in the North East, you've still got time to see the Alice windows. They paint a wonderful dream. And hint that the reality can be even better. Happy Christmas.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Next Generation of Church Leaders: thoughts on the Green Report

I left theological college more than 40 years ago. In my leaving interview, my tutor said: ‘Michael, it’s possible that one day you might be invited to become a bishop or a dean – who knows what God might call you to? (Pause for wry smile.) But if you are approached, think carefully about which of those two paths would best fit your personality and gifts.’ When I was asked to become a cathedral dean I willingly said yes, first at Sheffield and then here at Durham. That makes me ‘duodeanal’ (cue groan). I have loved this role and would unhesitatingly say that being a dean is one of the best jobs in the Church of England.

Looking back on how I arrived here in the providence of God, I am amazed that nothing was ever done to help me think about taking on this role. Of course, my ministry before this taught me a huge amount about leadership in the church, especially being a parish priest. Then I joined the cathedral chapter at Coventry, observed my boss the provost (as he then was) at close quarters, tried to learn from his example. But most of what I now know about senior office I acquired ‘on the job’, often the hard way. I have made many mistakes, but I hope I have learned from some of them. That of course is how we tend to learn the important things of life. Experience is a great teacher.
But I can’t help feeling there was something haphazard about a system that did almost nothing to prepare my generation of church leaders. Two of my children have done the excellent ‘Future Leaders’ programme that trains teachers for senior roles in education. The selection and appointment process for deans was always thorough, but it didn't involve much 'discernment' as we now call it. There was no ‘accompaniment’, no testing of my motives, no exploration of my path in ministry. I said to bishops years ago that this should be taken with the kind of seriousness that is the norm for candidates who offer for ordination as deacons and priests. I think this is especially important for bishops because the episcopacy is the odd one out when it comes to preparing people for the three orders of ministry.
The Green Report Talent Management for Future leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans seeks to change this. At last, the Church will identify men and women from among whom the bishops and deans of the future will mostly be drawn. This ‘talent pool’ of up to 150 'high potential' candidates across the nation will be nurtured for a future leadership role in the church. There is to be a more rigorous approach to the professional development and in-service training of senior post holders. As somebody who has helped with the induction of new deans for the past few years, I welcome this thinking in principle, and have said so in broad discussions I have participated in. No-one will argue with the three components of church leadership that are identified in the report: reshaping ministry, leading the church into growth, and contributing to the common good. And no-one will argue with the importance attached to achieving excellence in both the leadership and management of the church.

My reservations are to do with what theological and spiritual wisdom underlies this thinking. Some of these are echoed in a perceptive critique from a fellow dean, Martyn Percy, in this week’s Church Times.

The tone of the report is heavily influenced by the language and assumptions of leadership and management theory. And this, precisely at a time when writers on systems and organisations are recognising that no one-size-fits-all model can be imposed on institutions that are as diverse as individuals, with their own histories, characteristics, eccentricities and if you like, ‘personality’ types.  So while there is a lot to learn from the public, private and voluntary sectors (and I am the first to admit my debt to secular leadership training), the experience of one organisation is never entirely transferable. When it comes to the church with its long and often quirky history it’s especially important to be wary of organisational ‘solutions’ that are imported from somewhere else. I doubt if an MBA can be a serious answer to the church’s search for the best possible leadership and management.
I am worried about the erosion of the traditional Christian way of speaking about vocation and the spiritual path. Words like formation, awareness, discernment and above all wisdom feature prominently in the classic writers on Christian ministry. These profound concepts, carrying as they do such deep spiritual and pastoral resonances cannot be collapsed into some generic textbook notion of ‘leadership’. I want to make it clear straight away that I don't regard any of these classical concepts as 'soft' or lacking in rigour. On the contrary: they are more exacting than any of the leadership or management criteria listed in organisational check-lists, because they go to the heart of how someone inhabits their role. I asked in a recent forum why this rich tradition was so little referenced in the report. Deans in cathedrals like mine are the direct successors of Benedictine priors, so how could the Rule of St Benedict, one of the best manuals on spiritual leadership ever written, be passed over without notice? Or Gregory the Great's  Pastoral Rule, for centuries presented to new bishops at their ordination?
I can’t speak about bishops. But I know a bit about deaning after 20 years in this role. As a dean I am many things. I preside over a part of the nation’s heritage, a medium-sized enterprise with a multi-million pound turnover, a retail outlet and catering facility, a leisure destination, a public park, a music-and-arts centre, a place of education and a sizeable piece of estate. I need, and the Chapter needs, to draw constantly on a huge amount of expertise and skill on the part of those whose day-job it is to lead and manage the various departments of the cathedral’s life. We couldn't do it without one hundred per cent collaboration and a great deal of trust in one another. I am proud of my staff who do what they do so professionally and so well.
But I need to be completely clear about what lies at the centre of my calling as a priest in this senior church role. It is to be the Head of a Religious Foundation, that is to say, a spiritual leader like the abbots and priors before me. The most important thing I do is to be in my stall twice each day to pray with this community of faith. This is where the distinctive vocational task of a dean has its source and end, and where leadership as configured in a Christian way is modelled. From there springs the dean's role as an interpreter: speaking for the cathedral in society, and for society in the cathedral. This mean helping the wider community understand what at its heart a cathedral is meant to be because of what its gospel means. And it entails helping the cathedral to grasp what it is to be a faith community in our contemporary, complex culture with its ever-loosening ties to organised religion. This is much more than being a good corporate CEO who runs a tight and efficient ship. It's a theological and vocational task, and it is at this fundamental level that nurture, accompaniment, formation and training must be focused. We could say that it is the human and spiritual ‘ecology’ within which the role of a dean and every senior church leader is lived out. 
Like the environment, we need to ‘green’ the spiritual ecology of the church if it is going to be sustainable and flourish, and not be eroded by an Athenian love-affair with whatever is the current organisational doctrine. The Green Report points in important directions and I have welcomed this new focus on leadership in the church. But it is work in progress, not the finished product. More debate is needed, particularly on how the Christian spiritual tradition can impart a deeper wisdom texture to the thinking of the working group. For example, good spiritual accompaniment will be as important as professional mentoring (which is also vital). Like some other matters in the report, it's not a case of either-or but both-and. This is something those who have been bishops and deans for a while could offer.
I'm suggesting that In the ecology of God's people, the Green report could benefit from becoming a bit more ‘green’. All of us who are currently bishops and deans will I'm sure want to contribute to that task for the good of the whole church.