About Me

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

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A New Woolgathering (Not-Decanal) Blog

If you're visiting this site and wondering why the Decanal Woolgatherer has been silent since 2015, the answer is that he has retired! I now blog in a personal capacity under the title Woolgathering in North East England. You can find me at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com. My lectures, addresses and sermons are still at my (renamed) site http://northernambo.blogspot.com.

I am keeping this site live for any who want to revisit it. Thank you for reading, for company and for conversation online.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Dean's Last Blog

Not my last blog ever, just the last in the role of Dean. I'm writing on my final day in Durham. You'll forgive me if it's a trifle longer than usual.

I am sitting in the medieval library of the Deanery that has been our home for the last twelve and half years. One eighth of a century. That's a mere blink of the eye in the long history of this Cathedral, but it's a significant chunk of my own lifetime. I can honestly say I have never been more fulfilled or happy. As I look at the Cathedral glowing in autumnal sunshine on a beautiful Michaelmas Day, I am profoundly grateful for the privilege of having served here and lived here during these years.  

During these last few days we've been given a truly wonderful send-off. I blogged last time about what was coming up but hadn't anticipated: the extraordinary warmth and generosity of everyone who has been part of it. You'll allow me, I hope, to say a bit about it because it's one way I can begin (but only begin) to say thank you.

On Friday night, we are dined out by the Cathedral Chapter together with our spouses. We always enjoy these convivial occasions, whether it's to welcome or say farewell to our colleagues. I've never needed to be reminded of how much I owe to a Chapter that has been outstanding throughout my time. I'm not forgetting the tough times, when it's been vital to have a strong sense of common purpose and shared values. The Vice Dean offers a beautiful (and funny) tribute to us both that leaves us deeply moved. Among many other things, the Chapter presents me with an exquisitely tooled and bound book containing all my sermons preached in the Cathedral since I arrived in 2003. (Actually, that's volume 1. Volume 2 will arrive now that my final sermon on Sunday can be included.)

Saturday is largely Sabbath. But I'm delighted that one of my last acts is to admit seven new choristers to the Cathedral choir at evensong: a case of avete atque valete. And also to have the family here and celebrate my daughter's engagement, announced today after the proposal has been put on the roof of the Deanery and her father courteously spoken to by the young gentleman. We like the proper formalities to be adhered to.

Something deep inside me does not, really does not, want Sunday to dawn. I find myself queasy and sad at the thought that it has finally come, a case of 'most things may never happen, this one will' as Philip Larkin puts it in his brilliant poem about death, 'Aubade'.

But it is the most marvellous day. The Precentor and Organist (for once) have allowed the Dean a free rein with the choice of music and hymns. Inevitably they carry a deep symbolism - perhaps unwisely because they awaken powerful memories and strong emotions. 'Live this day as if it were your last' says the first hymn at matins with an accuracy I haven't foreseen when I chose it. I preside at the sung eucharist when we enjoy a Haydn mass and a Mozart motet. The Precentor preaches on the gradual psalm (19 - 'the heavens declare the glory of God'). He draws out of it some of the themes of my ministry at Durham. You'll be able to read it on the Cathedral website. I would have urged him not to do it if I'd known what he planned, but it is a beautiful and loving sermon that I'll always remember.

At the reception afterwards, the Cathedral Community celebrates and says goodbye. We are taken aback by their extraordinary generosity. Jessica, who leads it as their representative on the Cathedral Council, eschews the spoken words and instead sings a tribute to us both to the tune of Maccabaeus (a gentle humorous poke at me for re-writing the words of 'Thine be the glory' to try to do more justice to the original French). Close friends from the past, together with the Vicar who first trained me as a curate forty years ago, are there to share in it. In my response, I pay my own tribute to the community of this Cathedral which is endlessly kind, humane, generous and forgiving. I tell them the truth of today, that it's hard to contemplate saying farewell.

The final service is evensong. There is a great crowd filling the nave. I walk the Lord Lieutenant up the aisle as I would at any big event. Then I think, disconcertingly, they are here because I am leaving. I don't mean they are not here to worship God - of course that is why we are at this service at all, but valediction is what has brought so many people together. I arrive at my stall and find a colourful folder put together by the choristers with pictures, personal messages from each of them, tributes and prayers. The tears in things are real even before the service has begun. As they are several more times during the service: at that amazing leap up to a top 'A' in the Gloria of Howells' Gloucester Service, the paradisal ending of Bairstow's Blessed City, our beloved Coe Fen (How shall I sing that Majesty?', the beautifully crafted intercessions by Sophie the Canon in Residence, the final hymn 'Glory to thee my God this night', and laying up the Dean's cope on the high altar after the blessing.

There are speeches and presentations from four people who have all become good friends. Lilian Groves, an octogenarian Cathedral guide and worshipper with a passionate love for the Cathedral, speaks for the community in another demonstration of the sheer goodness that characterises Durham. Isaac Walton, a former Head Chorister just starting out at university, is lucid and generous about my love of the Cathedral's music and my relationships with the choristers, and speaks playfully about the decanal 'glide'. Somebody was bound to. Margaret Masson, Acting Principal of St Chad's College, is kind about the outward-facing aspects of my role in her college, University, City and County. She reminds us it was she who first persuaded me to join Twitter. (Some of you may wish she hadn't.) And Mark Bryant, the Bishop of Jarrow whom I've known most of my working life, finds gently subversive but warmly affectionate things to say about my 40 years in ordained ministry and role in the Diocese.

I have heard a lot of eloquent farewell speeches in my time, but I don't think I have ever heard better. I am deeply touched. It's hard to find the words with which to respond, but for better or worse, they are on my blog together with my sermon (http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk). At the very end, the choir sings the psalm sung at chorister dismissals each summer, Psalm 84. It is incredibly hard to listen to these treasured words for the last time. But grandson Isaac, aged two and a half, comes to the rescue. He invites himself on to the platform ('I want to see Opa') with an uncanny sense of timing. Because of him, and his laughter and happiness, all is well.  

Today has seen my last ever public act for the Cathedral: to bless the Virgin East Coast electric locomotive 91114 now in its bright new red livery, 'Durham Cathedral'. I love the thought that this strikingly beautiful engine will carry the name and image of the Cathedral and Cuthbert's Cross up and down the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. The choristers sing, and I get to do the train announcement welcoming passengers and explaining the significance of the day. At Newcastle there is a short ceremony. The media love the tribute paid personally by Virgin in including my name on the design at least for today - surely every train-loving clergyman's dream. It's a terrific send-off.

I have planned to go to evensong today, my name day, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. A wise friend has told me that I need to say my own intimate farewell to the Cathedral and its worship and he is right. So I creep unnoticed into the nave and join in the prayer of the church from near the back. It's a lovely service. The Cathedral is golden in the equinoctial light, its vaults illuminated by the setting sun. It has never looked so beautiful. I lose myself once more in the glorious music that floats in the air like sweet incense. At the end I leave with a heavy heart. One of the vergers notices, and is gentle and kind with me in these last painful but precious moments. He embodies the best of this beloved place that will always be written on my heart.

The Vice-Dean and his wife invite us for a last supper. We share memories and thank one another for what these years have meant to us. Then it back among the packing cases and getting ready for life in rural Northumberland. I've loved being Dean of Durham. It's been the supreme privilege of my life. Now it's time for more ordinary days. We shall see what they bring. It feels like a great unknown. But we know that God will be as present to us in them as he has been during these wonderful years in Durham.

This isn't my last blogging word. I'll keep this site live for now, and begin a new blog after a while with a new name for a new life. But for now, a fond farewell from this wool gathering Northern Dean, and thank you to all readers for prayers, stimulating company and good friendship.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

So That is That

Well, almost.

I'm on the last lap. Almost everything is done for the last time. Files are closed, documents archived, thousands of emails deleted. The books have undergone a painful triage: when it comes to downsizing, many are called but few are chosen. Keyboard music and my Wagner scores have gone to a talented young musical friend. Our much-loved pine kitchen table with its memories of family meals, happiness, laughter and love has gone to the sale room with other furniture of less symbolism. Pictures are off the walls. Possessions are piled into desultory heaps. On the floor is a pile of ecclesiastical robes (old, worn, nothing beautiful, and not much that is useful) lies on the floor awaiting the Precentor's advice. Linda, our wonderful housekeeper with the gift to be cheerful on wet Monday mornings has gone away on holiday so we've had to say our farewells early.

On Sunday I preach for the last time at the sung eucharist. My theme is the child whom Jesus brings into the circle of disciples to teach them about simplicity and humility (see http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk). I spend Monday meeting Chapter members and senior colleagues one by one to say thank you and goodbye - exit interviews, only it's my exit, not theirs. I owe so much to my superb team here. Whatever the achievements of the last twelve years, I need to say we, not I about who has enabled them to happen. Next day I do a radio interview about my years in Durham, what I'm proud of and what I shall miss most. That evening we launch my new book of Durham sermons Christ in a Choppie Box, a farewell offering to the worshipping community of this Cathedral.

On Wednesday I take the Chorister School Sixth Form pupils round the Cathedral on a pilgrimage. I have led many of these spiritual journeys, and always enjoy them, but it's a particular joy that my last one should be with these lively, intelligent children. At we come to the end, I speak about the Galilee Chapel as a place of beginnings and endings, and mention my own imminent departure. We say a prayer together that I love:

Lord God, you call your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden; give us faith to go out with a good courage, not knowing whither we go, but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us; to the glory of your name.

Today we have a final round of business meetings. People say kind things when you are leaving. Their genuineness is moving. At evensong the New Testament reading is St Paul's farewell to the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20). I've always found this story moving, but never more so than when I have to read it in the service tonight. My voice catches at the end where it says that Paul knelt down with them and prayed with them, and there were tears and embraces when they heard him say that they wouldn't see his face again. The music is Walmisley in D Minor, the very first canticle setting I sang as a chorister in 1961. It brings back a lifetime of memories. It's possible that but for that experience, I might not be a cathedral dean now.

Tomorrow it's my final Chapter meeting - business as usual. In the evening they will host a farewell dinner for Jenny and me. 'Dining out' members who are leaving (not in quite the same sense as the armed services use that phrase) is an old Durham Chapter tradition. It is always hugely enjoyable to spend an evening with Chapter colleagues and their partners, but tomorrow will be bitter-sweet for us.

On Saturday our children will join us for the weekend ceremonies. Words like 'celebration' and 'thanksgiving' are being used but they could just as well be called obsequies. There is a gathering of the Cathedral community after the morning service at which I shall preside at the altar. At evensong I preach a farewell sermon. It's one of the most difficult I've ever had to prepare because it marks the conclusion not just of 12 years in Durham but 40 years of public ministry. I can't predict the state of my emotions at that service, for which we have chosen all the music and hymns. There'll be a party afterwards in the Cloister. And then we shall be gone.

Actually, it's not quite the end. On Tuesday, I shall perform my last ever public act for the Cathedral. It's to all to do with the flanged wheel - I've blogged before the love affair many clergy have with railways. 'Our' East Coast class 91 electric locomotive 91114 Durham Cathedral now has a beautiful new Virgin Trains East Coast livery. It has flowing patterns drawn from the drum piers in the Cathedral, and a prominent St Cuthbert's Cross. There's to be a ceremony of blessing on Newcastle Central Station. It will be fun to go out on that note. But it will make a serious point about 'public faith' too, and the Cathedral's relationships with our many external partners who support us and wish us well.

More on this when it's happened, in a final decanal blog.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: September

It's the equinox. The trees, still mostly green, display yellow highlights. The vegetation looks tired. The rose garden that has brought a burst of late-summer colour to the Deanery garden is looking tired now. Leaves on the trees are tinged with yellow. Curtains around the College are drawn in the early evening. There is a chill in the night air. The heating clicks on; there is the scent of an open fire somewhere nearby. The year is closing in on itself. Before we know it, it will be winter.
I have always loved this time of year with its unique mix of experiences: endings and beginnings intertwined with one another as summer's lease runs out, and the annual cycle of activities starts up again, and children go back to school, and it's students rather than tourists who are now walking these ancient streets.
The rhythms of Cathedral life haven't quite been paused during the summer, as readers of my August blog will recall. But the pace changes with September. On the last weekend the Cathedral Choir is on holiday, we enjoy our annual visit from the Buxton Madrigal Singers. As usual they are here for the last big festival of the summer, the Translation of the Relics of St Cuthbert. On the Sunday nearest 4 September, we commemorate the day in 1104 when the first phase of the Cathedral's construction was completed. The sanctuary and quire were finished, and in an elaborate and carefully documented ceremony, Cuthbert's body was placed in his new shrine. Today the whole congregation processes to the shrine where incense is swung (yes, it's still permitted despite worries about 'legal highs'), and prayers are said. It's a high day in the calendar, and for Durham people marks the threshold between summer and autumn.
The Cathedral choir returns, and the rhythm of daily evensong resumes. How good it is to see and hear them again. We are grateful for all the choirs that visit over the summer, but there is nothing like your own Cathedral choir. At first, we miss the old familiar faces in the choirstalls: last term, a larger cohort than usual reached their top year in the choir and left to go on to other schools. We always wonder how the survivors can possibly reach the standards of last year...but they always do, even if the first evensong or two are a trifle more tentative than we are used to. I say to the choristers that confidence is all they need. Everything else is there.
This year there is a major service on Day 2 of the new choir term. This is the day when The Queen overtakes Queen Victoria as the longest-serving Monarch in British history. The Lord Lieutenant has summoned the county to celebrate at the exact time (5.30pm) this threshold is reached. The music includes music used at the Coronation including Zadok the Priest, sung at every coronation since George II's. The choir distinguishes itself magnificently in front of a large and appreciative congregation.
The pattern of Cathedral meetings resumes. Agendas and minutes are sent out, and non-urgent business laid aside during the summer is dealt with. A flurry of emails follows the opening of bulging inboxes. Out-of-office notices are turned off, things not done attended to. There is an air of Busyness around the campus. You're reminded that the Cathedral is a significant organisation that employs over one hundred staff to serve it. The departments include finance, property, development and fundraising, music and liturgy, library and collections, marketing and communications, the shop, the Chorister School, development and fundraising, governance and administration, volunteers, vergers, cleaners, the 'yard' which includes the Cathedral works team and the gardeners. The restaurant is run as a franchise but it still needs oversight.
Another way of putting this is to say that the Cathedral is a business with a gross turnover of more than £7 million. Some people don't like a Christian church to be described in that way. I don't shy away from using that word, as long as it is complemented and informed by other words like faith, spirituality, worship, mission, learning and heritage. Our purpose and values statements are important here. If we are also a business, I say: let it be a good business that is efficiently run, and above all, an ethical business.  
I said that with the advent of September, the year feels as though it is drawing itself in for the winter. This is true for me personally. We are just a week away from our farewell service at evensong on 27 September. I have 168 hours of deaning left. After that, retirement. Already there have been farewell dinners and parties, and some beautiful gifts, and many, many kind letters and cards to thank us for the past twelve years and to wish us well. Perhaps you only appreciate the sheer goodness and generosity of people when the time comes to say goodbye. I have done valedictory interviews for the local radio stations and the press. I'm asked: 'What are you most proud of?' 'What do you regret?' 'What will you miss most?' How could I not miss the unique and wonderful place that is Durham Cathedral with its amazing beauty, its unrivalled heritage, its quintessentially northern spirituality, its procession of holy saints and its limitless capacity to inspire? How could I not miss daily choral evensong? How could I not miss this ancient Deanery that has been our home for twelve years? 

But when I think back to this morning's eucharist, and administering communion at the altar rail, I feel an especial pang for the people of this place: the colleagues with whom I have worked here, this warm, forgiving, generous community in all its richness and diversity. They transcend the boundaries of Cathedral, Diocese and wider community. They include the many who have become, we are sure, friends for life. How privileged these years here have been.

We now face negotiating this difficult ending gracefully. But whatever other emotions surface in the next few days, I know that at the heart of it all will be a great and lasting gratitude for these Durham years. So this is the last of my twelve blogs on 'Seasons of Durham Life'. Another year has passed, and with it, our time here at Durham. Thank you for reading. I'll blog once or twice more under the Northern Dean banner. After that.... who knows? 

Friday, 4 September 2015

A Job is Advertised - Mine!

Today I got a web alert to tell me that a job has been advertised on the CofE website. Mine. DEAN OF DURHAM it says in big letters. That it should appear today, 4 September, is something to note. This is the anniversary of the day in 1104 when the relics of St Cuthbert were laid in their new shrine at the east end of Durham Cathedral. It was a great festival in Durham in the middle ages. Please don't tell me it's just a coincidence that the world learns today that Durham is looking for a new Dean. Especially when this one was installed in the Cathedral on the other St Cuthbert's Day, the anniversary of his death on 20 March 2003.

It's odd, staring at an ad for your own job before you've even left it. (I should say that I was asked months ago if I was happy for the appointment process to begin while I was still in office, and I readily agreed to it: it's in everyone's interests to see the next Dean in post as soon as possible.) But seeing the ad in cold print and reading the detailed documentation that went with it made me stop and think. A bit like stepping on your own grave. My first flippant thought was: if I applied for this post now, would I even make it to the short list?

Enough said. I am going to be scrupulous about not commenting on matters to do with the succession. Except to say that whoever is appointed will find him- or herself in a truly wonderful place inhabited by an equally wonderful community. It's been hugely rewarding to complete my full-time ministry by serving these dozen years at Durham Cathedral. I can honestly say that I have never been happier.

But it's my next thought that has haunted me all day. This is actually happening, I realised. It's real and irrevocable. The die is cast. In less than a month I shall become part of history, the thirty-ninth Dean whose name is engraved on the Bishops, Priors and Deans board outside St Cuthbert's shrine. It's not quite in memoriam. The name board is not a grave slab - yet - though it will be one day. Of all Durham's Priors and Deans, only two of us are still alive.

But when I stop and muse in front of it as I regularly do - because I enjoy lists and names and dates - I don't think morbid thoughts. On the contrary, I'm reminded that the recollection of the past is always a vital aspect of our sense of place and belonging. These servants of God still live on in our collective memory. This grand alabaster tablet is a celebration of so many honourable and good people who have given their lives to this place and left their mark on it, some of them heroically. Even after twelve years, I still feel keenly the privilege of seeing my name among them. I have tried not to take it for granted.

As I look back after the end of this month, I want to be able to say, 'This was the best of me'. Pray God that I shall be able to. Each step in this long drawn-out rite of passage called 'retirement' is an opportunity not for regrets but for thankfulness: to contemplate the past with a deeper awareness of the goodness of God, and to look forward expectantly to the days that lie ahead.

Yes, sunt lacrimae rerum: there are tears in things too, and no doubt they are permitted when we come to say farewell. As I've blogged before, leaving Durham is going to be a big wrench. But I shall - from afar - share the celebrations that will surround the appointment and arrival of the fortieth Dean. This Cathedral is the focus of so much prayer, affection and love across the world. It will give to the next Dean as generously as it has given to me. It's that kind of place, that kind of community, like its saints, especially beloved Cuthbert whom we honour today. And ultimately, that is how God is, for love is his nature and his name.

You can find the papers about the post at https://www.churchofengland.org/clergy-office-holders/aaad/vacancies/dean-of-durham.aspx

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: August

If you read my last blog you'll know that I've not been around in Durham for much of August. We have been in Haydon Bridge beginning to inhabit our new home and getting the feel of what life in 'retirement' may be like in this lovely village.

I think of August as a dreamy sort of month. It evokes glowing suns, afternoon heat haze, balmy evenings, and if the climatic reality is cooler and damper than this, an aestival chimera still lingers on in the mind. The year seems to be at its still point, finely balanced as if on an edge from which it's about to fall. It feels like a time of endings. Bank Holiday weekend is its final rite of passage. After Monday, it will be September, a lovely month, but indisputably autumnal. The nights will draw in and the day's warmth will quickly dissipate. The school year starts up again and the movement of the seasons gets back into gear. Soon it will be the equinox. August is a month to savour while there is still time: 'summer's lease hath all too short a date'.

I recently came across a poem called 'The End of Summer' . It's by the American poet Stan Kunitz. He speaks about how the year turns on a hinge even when the sky is still glowing azure, 'blue poured into summer blue'. The poet has a moment of recognition: 'I knew that part of my life was over'. That's especially the case as I contemplate the last month of my full-time working life that begins the day after August ends. A forty year era, a big part of my life, is coming to an end.

But what of the Cathedral in August? It's both busy and not busy (or should I say #notbusy?). The 'not' bit is that the schedule of formal commitments and business meetings slows right down. It ought to have stopped altogether in my opinion: only workaholic Cathedral chapters hold meetings in August, surely. This year, we had to break a rule and hold one in order formally to approve the annual report and accounts. But it's always a relief not to be chasing paper and answering hundreds of emails for one month of the year. It's the nearest we get to a corporate annual sabbatical. Wonderful for catching up, writing, preparing, pondering, woolgathering. And for getting round and spending valuable time with people whose paths you don't normally cross except at meetings and events.

The other side of this is of course that August is the peak of the visitor season. The Cathedral is thronged with families on holiday, guests from every corner of the globe, groups from cruise ships docking at the Port of Tyne, overnighters taking a breather on the way to Scotland and pilgrims following the path of our Saints. The Cathedral keeps late opening hours to welcome evening visitors. Our front-of-house staff and volunteers work their socks off. The Education Department runs activities for children. The Lego Cathedral team promotes our wondrous achievement in and around the Cloister. The Durham Photographic Society holds a summer exhibition in the nave. There are concerts and informal recitals. There's a wonderfully lively atmosphere in the church all day long. And if you want a quiet place to pray in, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is open every day as a cool, contemplative space that is kept silent for our visitors' needs.

And of course, the liturgy goes on day by day and hour by hour like a Christian prayer wheel. Visitors are sometimes annoyed, often delighted to find that their visit coincides with the daily midday eucharist or shrine prayers, pulpit prayers for peace and justice or choral evensong. And August brings a rich crop of local northern festivals. On St Oswald's Day, 5 August, we joined up with St Oswald's Church across the river to celebrate evensong in honour of the saint who was the midwife of the Northumbrian mission in the seventh century. The Blessed Virgin Mary, honoured with Catholic Christendom on 15 August, is one of the three patrons of the Cathedral along with Christ and St Cuthbert. On 25 August we honour St Aebbe, Prioress of Coldingham and a friend of St Cuthbert. And tomorrow is St Aidan's Day, another high day in the Cathedral calendar. And that's on top of the Transfiguration (6) and St Bartholomew (24)!

The Cathedral choir is of course on holiday but visiting choirs from the UK and all over the world spend a week in residence working extraordinarily hard to sing the eight choral services of the week, including no fewer than three on Sunday. Sometimes they have booked their visits three years in advance. Our visiting choirs love the experience of making music in this Cathedral and of living in such a beautiful environment. We do our utmost to make them and their supporters welcome so that they know how much we value their contribution to the liturgy.

Tomorrow we go back to Durham for September. There is a lot of sorting out and tidying up to do in the Dean's office. There is the round of final meetings to chair and farewell interviews with each of my senior colleagues. There are valedictory events both formal and informal. And then there is the last service of my Durham years and of all my years in stipendiary ministry on Sunday 27 September at 1530. I can't pretend to be looking forward to the deep emotions that will be stirred up within me: in some ways it's a day I wish did not have to dawn.

But I know that good farewells are important for those who leave and for those who are left behind. God will be in our bitter-sweet partings as he has been in everything else down the years. Life is always gift. The end of summer is a passage to the rich autumn harvest of the abundance of the year and the years. For all that has been, thanks. To all that shall be, yes!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Retirement: an interim report from Haydon Bridge

Six weeks to go, give or take: retirement is charging down the slipway. 40 days - the same as Lent. But the prospect sometimes feels more like Lent wound back in reverse, as if retirement day, far from being some kind of Easter, is more like Ash Wednesday, a day to mourn and give things up.

No point in pretending: there will be so much to lose. It's not just the life and worship of this wonderful community here at Durham Cathedral. It's the end of forty years of full-time stipendiary ministry as 'clergy'. Not the end of priesthood, of course - that vocation is till death us do part. But it will mean the end of the way I have been called to exercise it over four decades. And that's symbolised by the names of the places where I've been privileged to minister during that time - Oxford, Salisbury, Alnwick, Coventry, Sheffield and Durham. So many memories. So much learned. Such a rich time of gifts. Yes, there have been periods of struggle and pain too. But at such dark times, these places and their people have been compassionate, wise and forgiving. They have been wise teachers. I owe them a great deal.

But as we always say at Lent, 'giving up' creates space to offer life in new ways, be open to new opportunities. 'New lamps be lit, new tasks begun' says George Bell's hymn. That's the entire point. And this weekend I've begun to glimpse this in a new way. We've spent 48 hours in Northumberland, Haydon Bridge where we shall retire, beginning the long process of turning a house into a home. It's hard work to dismantle one home, especially when you've been happy there, and start to build another. But for the first time I began to glimpse what new gifts await us as we let go of the old.

I'm thinking of simply homely things. A neighbour invites us in for coffee. The Vicar and his family call in with a bottle of wine and a welcome card. Locals help us out in all kinds of practical ways. The folk at the pub are genuinely interested in who we are and when we'll be arriving. The church clock chimes the hours reassuringly - reliably five minutes late, just like Christ Church in Oxford. Local trains trundle over the level-crossing fifty yards away. We take a late stroll and linger on the ancient bridge across the Tyne enjoying the warmth of a summer evening. Sunlight pours into the front of the house each morning and lights up the rear each afternoon and evening. We sit contentedly on the patio drinking coffee.

As it's Sunday we go to church. It's even nearer than the railway station, indeed every bit as close as Durham Cathedral is to this Deanery. It's dedicated to St Cuthbert because his body probably lay on the site of the little Romanesque church up the hill on its long journey to Durham. Cuthbert has been our constant companion and guardian these twelve years so it's a comfort to know he is here too. Jenny and I sit together in the nave as we look forward to doing for many years to come. It's good to be 'lay' as well as 'ordained'. The Vicar presides at the liturgy with care, and preaches thoughtfully about the Living Bread and how the eucharist should shape our life together as a Christian community. Afterwards there is coffee and we meet a lot of warm-hearted friendly people. No-one needs to be told who we are or where we live. The village grapevine has done that long ago.

These are simply glimpses of the future, hints of horizons that are yet to come fully into view. Who knows what life is going to be like after September? I've learned the wisdom of Woody Allen's famous joke. 'How do you make God laugh?' 'You tell him your future plans.' On the other side of this threshold, so much is unknown, inevitably. There's no way to discover what lies beyond except by crossing it - that's the nature of a rite of passage.

We need to have good travelling companions when we cross boundaries. That's why we have farewell rituals, however much of an ordeal they are. They are a chance to say thank you, and maybe sorry, but above all to affirm the relationships that have meant so much to us and will continue to do in years to come. I won't deny that my last Sunday, 27 September, is not a day I look forward to with eagerness. My emotions will no doubt be in turmoil. But as we have all found, when our lives are offered within the life of the people of God, loss has a way of being transformed into gift, even if we don't always see it that way at the time.

So to have eaten our first meal, and slept our first night, and worshipped on our first Sunday in our future home feels like a big step forward on this strange but rather wonderful journey. Because Ash Wednesday always looks forward to Easter when life begins again.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Songs of Praise in The Jungle at Calais

I admit it: I'm not the biggest fan of Songs of Praise, though my wife and I watch it most weeks after cathedral evensong over a cup of tea. Put it down to my getting old and grumpy, but I find myself irritated by its relentless feel-good tone, its love of the bright, shiny and can-do, and the often jejune melodies and lyrics of its hymns and songs (and I don't just mean the contemporary ones). Sometimes it feels perilously close to religion-lite.

However, we all know that it has a devoted following. And the programme has at times achieved real depth. This has often been when it has explored the darker side of human experience such as human pain whether physical or emotional, relationships that are undergoing stress, remembrance of war and conflict, and death and bereavement. Such themes have brought out the best in presenters who show how good they are at interviewing people who are suffering with real sensitivity and insight.

This is why I was pleased to read yesterday that Songs of Praise is visiting the Jungle migrants' camp at Calais. I first read about it on the front page of The Sun. (What was I doing reading that particular newspaper? Answer: I was at our new house to see how the decorators were progressing. There it was in the kitchen. I couldn't resist the temptation to pick it up - it made a change from Friday's Guardian.) I tweeted: 'It's not often that mainstream Christian faith makes it on to the front page of The Sun'.

Then I looked inside. True to form, the paper fulminated self-righteously about what a wicked thing it was to do this. The BBC sending Songs of Praise to the Calais migrant camp amid the current chaos is like something from Monty Python. Will we get to see migrants wrestling with riot police and storming lorries as a choir stands at the Channel tunnel welcoming them with a rousing rendition of Jerusalem? The BBC is showing its trendy lefty colours once again. It shouldn't be supporting the migrants and making a political point out of them. It's the police and border personnel who are protecting our shores from migrants who are the real heroes and who deserve our support. The migrants must be stopped from trying to get into Britain. And so on. I've paraphrased.

So I want to applaud the BBC's decision to cross the Channel and broadcast from The Jungle. I have no doubt that SOP will do it compassionately and sensitively, but also intelligently and fairly. The Church already has a presence in The Jungle where a tent has been set up for migrants to gather and worship in. I'm glad that SOP can be there to give the migrants air-time in a broadcast forum where it would be so easy to pretend they don't exist. We need to hear their voices in other contexts than daily news reports.

What's the answer to the scornful Pharisees at The Sun? It's pretty obvious. Just ask what Jesus would do. He would be in The Jungle, of course, just as he kept company with a lot of other people the establishment of his day found it difficult to tolerate. It's not that Jesus didn't maintain a clear head about the weighty matters of the law such as duty and justice. Nor is it that he didn't grasp the endless complexity of human life. It's simply that where he saw people in need of touch, tenderness and a listening ear without the threat of sanction and exclusion, he was there with them.

'I am for the suffering people' said Mother Mary Pilenko, a Russian nun who championed Jewish victims of the holocaust. She herself was to die at the camp at Ravensbrück because she stepped in to take the place of a frightened woman who was waiting to go into the gas chamber. The church must always be for, and stand with, all who are victims and who are the suffering people of our time.

I'm very glad that Songs of Praise has made the courageous decision to be there too. Three cheers for the BBC once again.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A Dean is Captured on Video

Now less than eight weeks to go to retirement. It’s coming up so quickly….

I’ve been clearing out the study, deciding which books to keep and which to discard (many are called but few are chosen!). It’s a thankless task but occasionally it throws up something that makes you stop and take stock. Today I came across a historic video of one of my predecessors. He too was retiring and this short documentary was put together by Tyne-Tees TV to mark his eight years in Durham. I needed a break so I sat down to watch it.
Some of you will remember Peter Baelz who was Dean of Durham from 1980 to 1988. He had been Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, so another in the line of distinguished theologians who have held this office down the centuries. (His predecessor had been Eric Heaton who had taught me Old Testament at Oxford in the 1970s.) But it's not an aristocratic bookish don who comes across in this endearing TV portrait but a wise, kind and thoughtful priest who had evidently relished his years at Durham and come to love the Cathedral and its people.
The film follows the Dean round the Cathedral and its environs. As he walks, he chats amiably about what it means to be Dean in such a place. Interestingly, he begins not by rhapsodising about its history or heritage, its music or its liturgy, but by telling us that the Dean’s role is like being the managing director of a small business. He points out that the Cathedral gives employment to nearly 100 people engaged in a whole variety of tasks. We meet some of them, including a young stonemason who explains what he’s doing and why it is so important.
You sense that the stones of Durham have come to matter to the Dean in an almost mystical way. But not as an end in themselves. They exist to serve a higher purpose, and this is about human beings, communities, ultimately God himself. He speaks lovingly about its saints as his companions: Cuthbert at one end of the Cathedral and Bede at the other. A cathedral, he suggests, travels through time as a symbol of the enduring values of religious faith. (He is dismissive of the ‘Land of the Prince-Bishops’ signs at County Durham’s gateways because, he says, they suggest a backward-looking church whereas Christians today must always look forward to the future in hope.)
He has a lot to say about the choristers and the Chorister School where they are educated. (I recently came across a delightful photo of Peter Baelz in the cloister on the day of his installation as Dean, surrounded by a gaggle of laughing choristers.) He shows off the newly-constructed sports hall with pride, explaining how tricky it is to build well in such a sensitive historic environment. It sounds as though the Cathedral’s daily choral worship gave him special pleasure and inspiration.  
Having watched this delightful piece, I tweeted that I wish I’d seen it twelve years ago when I arrived here as Dean myself. Someone asked me why, and what I drew out of this documentary.
It’s not so much what he says about cathedral life and Durham in particular. I’d already worked full-time in cathedrals for a decade and a half when I arrived here. No, it’s much more to do with his personal style. There is so much to admire in the way he goes about his business, something refreshingly ordinary. There is not a trace of self-importance in him: witness the little touches like waving to people as he cycles past them in the College, his personal interest in the people he meets, his curiosity in the way he talks to that young stonemason about his work, his affectionate relationships with the choristers, his personal enjoyment of his home, 'the best house in Durham', where my wife and I have lived during these years. 
Even late in our working lives, I suppose we all invoke our role models to help us make sense of our roles. I’ve always believed that the essential priestliness of a Dean lies close to the heart of what makes him or her credible as the head of a religious foundation. In Peter Baelz, the Cathedral had a Dean who understood from his own experience of parish life what it meant to be the leader of a faith community. On the basis of what I had read about him, I had already spoken about him some years ago in a lecture on Durham’s Deans as one of the wisest and the best. Today I have come to see why that instinct was right, why I recognised in him a true 'reflective practitioner'. Which is why I couldn’t have done better than to watch the video twelve years ago.
‘How are you feeling about retirement?’ asks the interviewer. He replies that part of him will be glad to be free of the burdens of the role, but another part will be hurting for all that he has come to love in Durham and that he is going to miss sorely. Well, I still have a couple of months’ ministry as a Dean to go. When Michaelmas comes, part of me will be relieved, it’s true, but another part - a very big one - is going to hurt badly. How could it not when I've been privileged to live and work in such a marvellous place and with such wonderful people?

But watching the film, I thought to myself: it’s never too late to learn from the people who inspire us. These last few weeks could still be a time to learn and to grow as a priest. God willing.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: July

People don't always believe me when I say that in cathedrals, the diary in June and July tends to be more full than either Advent and Christmas, or Holy Week and Easter. If you've read this blog before, you'll know that I heartily dislike the word 'busy'. So let me just say that at this time of year there is quite a lot to do.

What is it that fills these July days?

Much of it is end-of-year services and events. Thousands of people come through the doors to attend them, most of them young. There are several consecutive days of big lively school leavers' services for church schools across the diocese. There are more than a dozen University graduation ceremonies that occupy the best part of a week. The ancient schools founded by the Cathedral, Durham School and the Chorister School, hold services to mark the close of the school year including Choristers' Speech Day. And at the end of a long series of valedictory events, the last Sunday of the choir year comes round when we say a fond farewell to choristers and adults who are leaving us. (For more, read my last blog on this site.)

But this isn't all. In every cathedral's calendar, summer ordinations are high days. They bring great gatherings of people from across the country (and beyond) to celebrate the rites of passage into different phases of public ministry. In Durham, we ordain the priests and deacons at separate services over a weekend, the priests on Saturday evening and the deacons on Sunday morning. This year I had the privilege of conducting the ordination retreat and preaching at both the services. This was poignant for me because I was ordained deacon 40 years ago this summer, and, as regular readers know, shall be laying aside stipendiary public ministry early in the autumn. So the ordinations gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in that time and to share a few insights with those who are now embarking on this great journey.

The week after the ordinations, July brings two big services that are quintessentially 'Durham'. The first is the Miners' Gala Service on the afternoon of the 'Big Meeting' that brings over one hundred thousand people into the city to celebrate Durham's mining heritage and the lives of the working people of the North East. It's a sight you won't see anywhere else in England. The Cathedral is always packed out. It's a most moving service at which the year's new banners are processed in with their colliery bands to be blessed by the Bishop. I've blogged about it before. Someone said to me in my first year here that I would never understand Durham Cathedral until I had been to this service and seen for myself how the people of County Durham claim this Cathedral as their own.

The other big service takes place the next morning, Matins for the Courts of Justice. Like the Miners' Service, this is another colourful piece of sacred drama, but in every other way it's a complete contrast. This gathering to celebrate the Queen's Peace brings together senior people including Lords Lieutenant, High Sheriffs and High Court judges from the four counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and North Yorkshire. The High Sheriff asked me to preach this year at my last such service. Since I was speaking to an audience that included many people from the legal profession, I spoke about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Archbishop Stephen Langton's role in creating it, and the significance of the Great Charter's religious origins.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick towards 27 September when our Durham years come to an end. There have been so many 'last times' this summer, farewells not just for the summer holidays but for good. No doubt I'll write more in this vein as our retirement horizon comes into view, as it must once we start saying, as we shall have to in August, 'next month...'. How swiftly it all flies by. 'Life's but a passing shadow' quoted Rik Mayall in his final TV interview before he died. Those words of Shakespeare were etched on a sundial on the house opposite ours in Salisbury in the 1970s. I used to look at that verb sap out of my study window a dozen times each day. But its truth is coming home to me now as the days grow perceptibly shorter. 'Summer's lease hath all too short a date.'

But we want to enjoy this last Durham summer to the full while we can, to be present to each day as our time here draws to a close. In De Caussade's great insight, it's a call to practise the 'sacrament of the present moment', to see all of time as the gift of God, our yesterdays, our todays, our tomorrows. This is an incredibly beautiful place in which to have lived and worked. We have been, and are, surrounded by wonderful people in the communities of the Cathedral and of this part of England. Our lives have been touched and changed in ways that we can only just begin to glimpse, even if it will take years to appreciate them for what they really are.  

If you have the stamina, you can read the sermons I've mentioned on my other blogsite, http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

'O May we Soon Again Renew that Song': choir farewell Sunday

This is the day we have not wanted to arrive, for it has marked the end of Durham Cathedral Choir's year. At the end of evensong, we said farewell to our leavers: boy and girl choristers, choral scholars, a lay clerk and an assistant organist. It's the day when another year of music-making in the Cathedral is gathered up and celebrated.

It's a significant day for all of us, but especially for the choristers who have reached the age of 13. For them, this is not just the end of their chorister days. It is the end of their time in the Chorister School. Some will have been pupils for as many as five years or, or even more. So this rite of passage marks the end of their childhood. Next year, they will be in secondary schools, small fish in much bigger ponds. Life will be very different.

It's the biggest evensong of the year. Parents and families recognise the importance of today. Some choristers have had older brothers or sisters in the choir too, so we welcome back many old friends. They come together from all over the country. There are quips before the service about 'Sob Sunday' or 'Tissue Evensong' but we know that we are not joking about the emotions the day arouses. It feels like the breaking up of a tight-knit, intimate family. Never again will this particular group of talented youngsters and adults make music together as the 'foundation' of this great Cathedral. It echoes the emotions Malory says King Arthur had when his knights rode out on the quest for the Holy Grail and he knew he would never see them all together again sitting at that round table.

It’s Prayer Book evensong as we always do it on a Sunday. This year, I am in residence so I conduct the service. The psalms and readings are those appointed in the lectionary. But the Cathedral has evolved farewell traditions that have come to mean a great deal. The first hymn is a Durham favourite, John Mason's How shall I sing that Majesty? to the majestic tune Coe Fen. The canticle setting is the powerful Blair in B Minor. The anthem is C. H. H. Parry's 8-part Blest Pair of Sirens. In the intercessions we pray for our Cathedral musicians, the Chorister School and those who are leaving. The final hymn is always Lead kindly light (the theme of the Precentor’s fine sermon this morning).

After the blessing, the leavers come out to the Scott Screen at the entrance to the quire. At this step where I once admitted them to the foundation, I now 'read them out' at the end of their time. I stand before them with the Precentor, the Organist and the Head. This is the hard part. I say a few words of thanks and valediction and try not to catch the eyes of any of them in particular. Here's what I say.

It’s time to say goodbye to members of the choir who are leaving us: seven senior girl choristers, four senior boy choristers, three choral scholars, a lay clerk and our assistant organist. With so many departures you may wonder if anyone will be left behind to carry on!

I want to say to all our leavers: you have been an inspiration to us. In your music you have expressed our praise and gratitude, our sorrow and lament, our hopes, our longings, our joy. Our worship would not be what it is without you.

Durham Cathedral will always be a part of you, just as you will always be part of the Cathedral. You won’t forget the music, the worship, the building, this wonderful place. But I hope you’ll also remember the people you have met here, and who have become your friends. 

You have given so much to Durham. But Durham has given a lot to you. So let it inspire you to serve God wherever life leads you. I’d like to think that that the memory can inspire and help you to make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others.

You leave with our affection, best wishes, and our prayers.  It will always be good to see you when you come back to the Cathedral, as I hope you do often.

So thank you. Go with our blessing. Go with God. 

The choir processes out singing Psalm 150, O praise God in his holiness. In the Chapter House there are presentations and applause, and then the singing of a final Psalm: 84, O how amiable are thy dwellings. We end with the prayer of dismissal I use with the choir each day after evensong. There is more applause, then hugs, photos and tears. Some linger around to reminisce; others want to make a quick getaway. It is not long before the first cars drive out of the College. I imagine the children looking back as they turn into the Bailey and pass the Cathedral for the last time. When we get back to the Deanery, we feel a bit forlorn.

I've sometimes wondered whether we should put the choristers, indeed all of us, through this public ordeal. That worry is soon answered. Of course we must thank them publicly for their huge commitment to the Cathedral, not simply as musicians but as our companions in worship, discovery, friendship and laughter. And of course there must be a proper leave-taking in which we all acknowledge that an unforgettable chapter in our lives has come to an end. Rites of separation are always painful, but there is tenderness in bitter-sweet goodbyes.

The ritual doesn't pretend that a chorister's career, or that of any cathedral musician, is easy. The exacting demands of cathedral life impose stresses and strains on all of us at times. Cathedrals have their shadow, like every human institution. But a good farewell ceremony is like a good funeral. It enables us to say thank you. It recognises the depth of our relationships. It gives us a structure in which to face our loss, and to grieve. It helps fix our memories so that we can tell our story about them one day. All of this has happened this afternoon. A lot of important emotional work has been done.

For me, it's toward the end of Blest Pair of Sirens that I feel the reality for myself. Parry's music falls and then rises again as Milton concludes his great poem on a note of exquisite longing: for a world in which lost harmonies are restored, and where the discord of our fractured lives is finally resolved. Who wouldn't be moved by those last lines, especially when they are sung on such a day as this?

O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.

I won't pretend it has been the easiest of days. But cathedrals are good at holding together complex human experiences and offering them to God. For me, it's no doubt bound up with the knowledge that the next time we say farewells in the Cathedral, they will be my own. That too is a day that I am not wanting to arrive too quickly.

Friday, 17 July 2015

In Praise of 'Alice': a 150th anniversary tribute

What did you read in your childhood that instilled a love of books and changed your life?

There was so much I enjoyed as a child: Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy (I admit it), Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I found Andersen a bit tame), Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tales of King Arthur, The Wind in the Willows. I’m afraid that the Bible doesn’t feature in that list: we weren’t that kind of family. But as to my all-time favourites, there’s no question. It’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. To me these will always be the great masterpieces of children's literature.
Today I was idly thumbing through books in a local charity shop (I know, I know…I’m supposed to be downsizing). To my delight, there for the price of a pint of beer was Alberto Manguel’s collection of essays A Reader on Reading. I’d come across enthusiastic reviews of his book The Library at Night but I’d never read him for myself. I opened the book and off the page leaped one of John Tenniel’s timeless illustrations to Alice, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (What would Alice be without those graphic engravings that so perfectly captured the essence of the books?)
I started reading about the influence Alice had had on Alberto’s childhood, how ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Looking-Glass Land’ became metaphors of his life as a writer and a man. And I thought: yes, that’s me too. Not in a very conscious way, and certainly not understood with the kind of insight with which Manguel writes – at least, in the couple of chapters I’ve read so far. But it prompted me to pay my own tribute to Alice. This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. And there is local interest too, for Lewis Carroll was brought up at Croft-on-Tees at the very gate of County Durham where his father was incumbent of the parish.
What was it about Alice that I responded to as a child? I wrote a blog at Christmas (scroll down to 24 Dec 2014) about the 'Alice' windows at Fenwick's in Newcastle and touched on this. Maybe I loved the elusiveness of the stories, the sense of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ with which Carroll constantly teases his young readers. They seemed to stretch my imagination in ways that made other children’s literature feel wooden by comparison. In a world where nothing is quite what it seems (which happens to be universe we live in), metaphor, analogy and symbolism are everything.
Carroll often touches on the nature of language, most famously when Humpty Dumpty outlines his theory of language in which he decides what words will mean. ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense but it’s also not-nonsense: in its chaotic jumble of sounds, you feel there could be a meaning just over some horizon that it’s your own fault you can’t grasp. And then (and this is where Manguel’s book begins) there is Alice lost in a forest of forgetfulness where nothing has a name. The image is straight out of Dante walking in his dark wood not knowing which way to go, but Carroll makes it entirely his own. I remember feeling chilled when I used to read that chapter in Looking Glass and the sense of relief when we emerged on the other side.
I wrote ‘we’ just then. For yes, this wasn’t just Alice’s adventure. It was mine too – it must have been, or I wouldn’t have felt so implicated in her fortunes. And that seems to me to be what makes great literature. You find yourself drawn into the story so that you become part of it. It’s a commonplace to say that this was what made Jesus’s parables so memorable. Whether it’s the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus or (for me especially) the Prodigal Son, it’s as if you are there. These stories are not about someone else. They are about you.
Perhaps I was already feeling for the themes that I came to explore in adulthood. I read mathematics and philosophy,and then theology at university. Philosophy tutors would sometimes invoke Alice to illustrate key themes: linguistic analysis, ideas, meaning, perception, personal identity, metaphysics and logic are all there but artlessly, as if Carroll was not really aware of what he was doing. The theological dimensions of Alice are less explored but they too would be a fertile field for study, for example transcendence and immanence, the nature and destiny of the human being, the quest for meaning, authenticity and happiness, eschatology or the last things. My wife is an analytic psychotherapist, and thanks to her I can now see in Alice echoes a-plenty of Freud’s ego, super-ego and id, and of Jung’s archetypes.
Maybe Alice’s constant experience of disorientation and reorientation has something to say not only to individuals but also to society. No doubt Alice is a looking-glass in which there are many reflections, but one of them is no doubt his own society going through the painful throes of industrialisation. Perhaps we can see our own collective condition reflected there too. Which is to say that while so much children’s literature feels like a flight away from a complex and often painful reality, Alice takes us right into its heart.
Alberto Manguel ends his introduction with this: ‘In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.’
Looking back, I think this may have been what it did for me. And yet, in a way that was always playful and expectant, as if to say: you will eventually reach that beautiful garden. You will make it to the eighth square of the chessboard. Just persevere to the end. Travel in hope. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ wrote Carroll’s Victorian contemporary Robert Browning. This is Christian hope.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Slaughter on the Beach: in whose name?

I'm reticent about adding to the torrent of comment and opinion following the massacre on the Tunisian beach at Sousse. When we're faced with terrible events that affect others rather than ourselves, our instinctive response is to start talking. So the first thing to do before we open our mouths is to be silent in solidarity with its victims. This atrocity is beyond words. When Job was afflicted with terrible pains, the best thing his comforters could do was to sit silently with him for a week. It was when they began to speak that his suffering got a lot worse.

So this is a time for tears and for prayer. We weep with and for the victims. We pray for those who have been murdered and injured and bereaved. It's a time for us all to try to enter into the grief so many across the world will be feeling. It's a time when people of good will who follow the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, must stand together in supplication, protest and witness. This outrage, with every other act of terror in our young but bloody century is another step in the mindless assault of brutal savagery upon human civilisation. No one of integrity condones it, whether they have faith or not. If you don't read any further, at least please endorse that sentiment if you can.

However, we have to speak about terror in relation to faith. After Sousse, many said things like: the jihadists weren't acting in the name of Islam, but in pursuit of some crazy ideology. I've heard a number of commentators say that this was not about religion but politics. Yet that doesn't sound quite right. Those beach murderers, and those who perpetrated similar outrages including the 7/7 bombings in London can't be insulated from the religion they espoused.

We all do it. I've defended Islam by saying that the great majority are a noble witness to their faith; only a tiny minority embrace its perversions that utterly discredit it. We know we speak for virtually the whole of the Muslim community that condemns violence and seeks peaceable co-existence in a world of many faiths. I've been privileged to know a fair few Muslims in two cities I've lived in. They have all been fine people. I've learned a lot about Islam from them and admired the disciplined way it shapes its adherents. You only have to watch Muslims keeping Ramadan this summer to see this. It puts my Lent to shame.

You'll remember the sense of panic and fear not far below the surface following the attacks of 9/11. I wanted the church to hear the voice of Islam amid the cries for retribution and a war on terror. I persuaded a local Sunni leader to address the Diocesan Synod. In a powerful speech he begged for understanding and partnership with us as a church. and with all the faiths represented in the city. He began by turning to the Bishop and saying, rather to his surprise, 'You, Sir, are a Bishop to us Muslims too'.

How should we speak about the perversions of faith when actions like terror discredit it? Perhaps something like: whatever they say, these jihadists are not acting in the true spirit of Islam. Take our Christian history. Islam still hurts in the aftermath of the crusades. Jihadists look back to them as a reason for wreaking vengeance on 'infidels', among whom Christians (or perceived Christians) are prominent for their reckless adventurism, slaughter and cruelty centuries ago. When I travelled the pilgrim road to Compostela in Spain and saw medieval images and paintings of St James the Great, called Matamoros, 'Slayer of the Moors', I realised how the spirit of the crusades had permeated medieval Christendom. It took centuries to learn co-existence and toleration, one of the gifts of the Enlightenment to religious faith (pace those who see only bad in that movement to which the modern world owes so much).

It's no use Christians saying: those who inspired, preached and led the crusades, princes, popes, bishops and even saints like the great St Bernard, were somehow 'not acting in the name of Christianity.' They clearly thought they were doing precisely what their faith required. Very few questioned it. Only with hindsight have the churches recognised the monumental error they committed in the name of Christ. We should be deeply ashamed that our Christian history is stained with massacre and bloodshed on this colossal scale. Of so many collective sins the church has committed down the centuries, the crusades are among the very worst. Of course Muslims too were implicated in these centuries of violence. It was largely the unquestioned way in the pre-modern world. But that shouldn't make us feel any better about it. as we look back to those terrible times.

I'm saying that a faith has to grow in self-understanding and maturity in each generation. If it doesn't, all religion is brought into disrepute, not only your own particular faith. But the faithful move at different speeds. Christians don't now defend the crusades (do they? - the evangelical Bible class I attended as a teenager, the 'Crusaders', changed its name for this reason, a wise move). But we still see believers today who bring discredit on the good name of Christianity just as jihadists do on the good name of Islam. Woodenly literal readings of the Bible leads some Christians to commit acts of violence at abortion clinics, stir up racial hatred and endorse institutional homophobia in their churches. They are acting 'in the name of' Christianity, whatever we more liberal types say about the complexities of Christian history and hermeneutics. That's also true of Islam. Radical fundamentalists in all religious traditions claim to represent faith in its pristine ur-purity, free of corruption and compromise. They read their sacred texts, come to simplistic black-and-white conclusions and consign the rest of us to burn as heretics (which is how Isis-inspired Sunni extremists justify their attacks on Shia mosques).

Clearly there are many different 'Islams' and many different 'Christianitys'. We want to think that our version of our faith tries to be close to its central vision and values. Who is to say that it isn't, however imperfectly we live it out? We eschew religious craziness in all its forms, whether expressed violently or not because we have seen the huge damage it causes. People are killed and injured through clashes of religious civilisations and ideologies. Millions more are cowed with fear. Bad religion is poisoning the world.

It takes religious literacy to gain intelligent purchase on all this and allow good religion to see off the bad. We, the millions who are lit up by our faith, for whom it is the very centre of our path to wisdom and goodness cannot allow religion to be hi-jacked by the madness of the few. In an era when secularised leaders often have little clue about the rudiments of world faiths, we have to ask if they are up to (or even up for) this tricky conversation. All the more need for them to take the best theological advice on offer so as to speak with clear heads into this babble of religious claim and counterclaim. We have to understand the complexities of what we are handling when we speak about faith at all, let alone at a time of crisis. 'Islam' and 'Christianity' won't be pinned down. So we need some sense of the long and difficult histories that lie behind those words.  

So it's safer to say something like these religious perversions are not in the spirit of how a great world faith understands itself today rather than just not in the name of. It's part of the need to foster a vital debate about what good religion brings to the modern world and how the world faiths talk to one another. I don't sense that our leaders always grasp how urgent this is in relation to religious-inspired terror. How we frame the discourse is all-important. To speak wisely and well is only the beginning. But it will lay a firm foundation.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: June

Midsummer. Not that you'd feel it most of the time. The cool grey spring has slid imperceptibly into a cool grey summer. In previous Junes after evensong, we'd sit on the bench outside the Deanery front door drinking tea (or if it was a festival, G&T). Not in 2015. But whatever the hue of the sky you get to love these long northern evenings. Southern guests can't believe that the sky is still light at 11pm. There have been auroras on rare clear nights, I'm told, though the Cathedral, berthed like a great galleon a few yards outside the Deanery windows blocks out all sight of the northern sky so we haven't set eyes on them. 'Decanus Borealis' has yet to glimpse Aurora Borealis. It's on my bucket list of must-see sights before I die.

At Christmas and Easter, people jokingly say to deans, 'this is your busy time'. I never like admitting to being busy - it doesn't fit with my concept of how a priest should be, having time for God and time for people. A few Lents ago we launched a rather good project with the hash tag #NotBusy and its own website. It was meant to help us all live in a more reflective prayerful way and not be overwhelmed by activity. So I smile and say, 'well yes, there's a fair amount to do. And it's all good'. (You may recognise that last bit as the upbeat catchphrase in the brilliant TV comedy series 2012. Accentuate the positive.)

In cathedrals however, June and July are just as full as the run up to Christmas and Easter. At the tail end of the Easter season comes Pentecost, and then several weeks of end-of-year celebrations and events. Schools have prize-giving and leavers' services. In Durham, this includes several days of packed leavers' services for local authority schools in the area. The Cathedral Education Department is occupied with visits at a time of year when schools are keen to take students off-site and plan imaginative excursions and projects. The Cathedral Friends, a fine body of far-flung people who support us with great generosity hold their annual festival. There are concerts and recitals. The University has four full days of vast graduation ceremonies. Hard on the heels of all this come the summer ordinations (this year in early July so I'll come back to those next month).

And of course the visitor season is in full swing. June and September are 'Saga' months when most of our visitors are adults who have chosen vacation dates that will avoid the school holidays. It's not so much children and youngsters that our more senior guests are avoiding, I suspect, as the absurdly inflated prices many outfits charge holidaymakers the moment summer term ends. This isn't true of us of course. I'm sure you know that we don't charge a penny for admission to the Cathedral: we believe that hospitality to holy spaces should be without payment or condition for all who wish to come in. This 'public benefit' costs us around £2 million each year, and voluntary donations come nowhere near to matching it. How to make up that sum and keep Cathedral finances stable is a continual challenge for the Chapter and our Finance Office. 

Meanwhile, the great works on our £10.5+ million Open Treasure project continue. The precinct has been a building site for months; but at last, the scaffolding is starting to come down, and the historic buildings round the cloister are beginning to be revealed in their full glory following intensive conservation. The new exhibitions they will hold will be installed at the turn of the year. These will be fully open in a year's time, and will transform the way we display the amazing array of treasures that we hold in our collections. These include priceless Saxon and Norman manuscripts, early printed books, artefacts like the incomparable Saxon cross that go back to St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne community, no fewer than three copies of Magna Carta, gorgeous church plate from the post-Reformation period... where do I stop? To exhibit these wonderful things in the monastic dormitory, the medieval kitchen and a new collections gallery will make for marvellous exhibitions in their own right. But we want the exhibition timeline to interpret the Cathedral's Christian past and present in ways that will help visitors understand why it is here at all. 'Open Treasure' doesn't just mean creating a rather splendid museum. It means telling the story of the Cathedral's life and community across the centuries, and pointing to the treasure that is nothing less than the gospel itself. It will become a vital part of our mission and Christian outreach.

For me personally, the month has been a time to take stock. The summer solstice has fallen exactly one hundred days before my retirement in September. This same month I notch up forty years as an ordained minister and twenty as a Dean (eight in Sheffield, twelve here). At the start of the month, the Prime Minister's and Archbishops' Appointment Secretaries visited Durham to look at what was needed in the next Dean. They met a lot of people within the Cathedral and in the wider community of this city, county and region. They will compile a report that will help the committee that leads the appointment process on behalf of the Crown. Words I'm hearing frequently are 'succession' and 'legacy'. It has to happen, of course, and I'm pleased for the Cathedral that it has already begun. But it's odd knowing that this activity is taking place around me while there is much work I still have to do, not least try to leave things in an orderly state for the Acting Dean and my eventual successor.

So no further valedictory thoughts: I'm not ready to become part of history just yet. For now, I want to go on being as present as I can to the Cathedral, valuing the time that is left for the gift of serving in one of England's most remarkable holy places. I have loved being Dean here, and am saying to myself more and more fervently with each day that passes, Laus Deo: Praise God! The sun may not be shining much up here. But as we come to the end of another month, I have so many reasons to be profoundly thankful.

And who knows? If the skies clear for long enough, I may get to see the Aurora after all.

Monday, 15 June 2015

In a Meadow at Runnymede: Magna Carta 1215-2015

It's been an absorbing day. I have been at Runnymede representing the Cathedral at the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Durham does not, like Lincoln and Salisbury, possess an original 1215 Issue, the one that King John signed in this place on this very day. But we do have the only known Issue of 1216, two others of 1225 and 1300, together with the Forest Charters of the same years. It is an outstanding collection. 

Obscurely prompted by 1066 And All That, I'd imagined Runnymede as a rather soggy place. My wife told me to pack a thermal T-shirt to wear during five long hours in the fresh air. If the Barons had met the King by the banks of the River Wear, it would have been the right advice. As it was, Thames-side has been positively balmy, and when the sun came out later in the morning, decidedly warm. Just right for this happy, colourful Carta-Fest.
I don't need to describe the event: you will know all about it from the media. (It wasn't possible to live-tweet as there was no more 3G to be had today as there was in 1215 - a security blackout or is coverage along the Thames corridor as patchy as it is along our Pennine rivers?). So here are a few personal reflections on the day.
1. The speeches were the centrepiece. They were concise and to the point. The Master of the Rolls underlined Magna Carta's historic role in politics, governance and the rule of law. The Prime Minister (who has form when it comes to being tested on his knowledge of MC) cited Nelson Mandela who, on trial and facing a lifetime in prison, quoted the Charter and the constitutional liberties England owed to it. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about his predecessor Stephen Langton and his key contribution to Magna Carta, and as an example of upholding its principles of justice, singled out Bishops of Durham for their defence of the miners. I especially liked that bit and nearly applauded. Princess Anne referred to it as a bulwark against the abuse of human rights. Even if you could have predicted that much of this would be said, it was right to say it on this symbolic day. And it was well said.
2. Children and young people were prominently involved. The warm-up events gave us a hugely enjoyable menu of singing, ballet and drama. The best moment was a colourful procession of flags carried by school children into the arena. The flags represented all the counties of the UK; they were designed by children through competitions held among schools in each county. I was especially pleased to see County Durham's because the Cathedral's own Chorister School won the competition. It was good to see the Cross of St Cuthbert in all its northernness, together with a pit wheel and a Northumbrian bastle, paraded on a southern field before this large and distinguished crowd.
3. I hadn't appreciated until today the huge significance Magna Carta has for the USA. The American Bar Association's Magna Carta Memorial is a prominent landmark at Runnymede. Today it was rededicated by the Princess Royal after its recent renovation. The President of the ABA and the US Attorney General spoke to good effect about the American Constitution, how 1215 was only the beginning of a long journey towards justice, how we must all deliver on the promises held out then. 'Magna Carta defines what we must do and who we must be if there is to be peace in our world.' (I suppose the whole of West Wing is a dramatic commentary on this - I couldn't stop it coming to mind as we stood for the Stars and Stripes. In the Deanery we have almost reached the end of our second time watching the whole of this brilliant series. But that's for another blog.)
4. The music was excellent, and performers rose to the challenge of playing and singing in the difficult acoustic environment of the open air. The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave us a rumbustious programme of classics, including Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Beethoven's Wellington Symphony, a fun piece (not his greatest) I have only ever heard at open-air concerts. The European subtext of a German composer celebrating an English victory over a French self-proclaimed emperor was no doubt not lost on the audience (or on the PM who may even have chosen it for the occasion). The Temple Church Choir robed in scarlet sang a newly commissioned anthem by John Rutter and a passage from one of Handel's Coronation Anthems, 'Let justice and judgment, mercy and truth go before thy face'. It was just right for the occasion and beautifully performed: another highlight.

5. There was art in abundance, including a fine new piece by Hew Locke which was dedicated by the Duke of Cambridge. It's called The Jurors and consists of twelve empty chairs. They symbolise justice and the rule of law, and the idea is that visitors to Runnymede sit in them and thus become part of the good story of justice themselves. There is a noble simplicity in the way the chairs are executed and arranged; and as interactive sculpture, effective, proving very popular with today's crowd after the ceremony.
6. All this made for a memorable event. But I wonder if something was lacking. I felt there needed to be some big symbolic act to bring it to a climax and give ritual shape to it, some way in which we could unite in appropriating and making our own the high ideals that were spoken about and honoured today. For example, children could have processed a facsimile of the Charter on to the podium and presented it to the Queen and the Archbishop. Some sentences could have been read out, and the audience invited to respond in words pledging loyalty to its ideals. There could even have been a prayer of rededication. (Yes! Why not, when the English Church and Archbishop played a crucial part in the events of 1215?) There was one prayer and it was a beautifully framed one, but that formed part of the American Bar Association ceremony and wasn't read from the central podium. An archiepiscopal blessing on the nation in the presence of The Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England would have been especially apt. As so often, these public ceremonies are timid about acknowledging the central place of religion in our common life. I'm not saying the faith dimension was absent. today It was implicit in many parts of the celebration, especially the music (and not forgetting Cuthbert's cross so prominent on the Durham flag!). I'm simply wondering whether the event altogether did justice to the comprehensive religious world view of our British and American forebears to whom Magna Carta was a foundation document of faith. We should have more confidence than even in a society as diverse as ours, public ceremony need not fight shy of religion. 
7. The organisers of today deserve to be pleased with the success of this great event. Everything was done in an exemplary way. I want in particular to pay tribute to the officials, stewards, security staff and police on duty: their good humour and warmth made a big difference to the feel of this great event. We in the north tend to think we are better at generating a sense of welcome and friendliness than southerners. Today has made me think again....
How to sum it all up? I am sure everybody who was at today's sunny celebration in Runnymede will agree that it was a real privilege to be there. It has been inspiring to reflect on the emblematic significance of Magna Carta and why it matters to people across the world. I am sure it should matter rather more to us in England, and institutions like Durham Cathedral that are guardians of these almost sacred texts need to think hard about how we use them to work for us in our endeavour to promote the common good of all the human family. The Charter is not simply about heritage. It is a tool for mission and social justice. That is an important thing to have glimpsed today. 
As to being brought closer to the spirit of 1215, it's more difficult to say. If I felt it anywhere, it wasn't in the presence of royalty and the nation's leaders, nor in the big crowd, the music or the speeches. I felt it most when I was walking early this morning to the arena along the banks of the river that has borne witness to the centuries of history that have shaped our nation and brought us to today. The water meadows of Runnymede are still a beautiful, unspoilt landscape thanks to the National Trust. The day was calm and still, as if - corny thought this - the trees, the flowers, the water, the air were all meditating quietly on the momentous event that took place there eight hundred years ago. There was complete tranquillity. That may turn out to be - for me - today's enduring gift. I don't know yet. Time will tell.