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

Friday, 20 February 2015

In praise of... the East Coast Main Line.

In a few days' time, another chapter will begin on the East Coast Main Line. On 1 March, the railway will be operated by a new franchise holder, Virgin Trains East Coast, a partnership between Stage Coach and Virgin. So this is a good opportunity to celebrate this illustrious line.

I am one of those clergy who have loved trains since I was in a pushchair.  I was brought up in north London just a couple of miles away from the East Coast Main Line. In carefree years before adolescence, my favourite place in London was King's Cross Station. In all weathers I would spend hours on the platform end, sometimes with friends, often alone, Ian Allan train-spotter's book in hand, and watch the Gresley Pacifics setting out on their long journeys towards exotic places like Durham, Newcastle and Edinburgh. I dreamed one day of travelling to this undiscovered country of the North. 

Years later I got to make the journey. I always hoped that my maiden voyage would be behind the famous streamlined Mallard, 60022, then - and still - the holder of the world speed record for a steam locomotive. Alas, by the mid 1960s, the route was run by diesels. But it still felt like a big adventure into a strange land. That day I got as far as Durham where I had applied for a place to read maths at the University. When the train rounded the curve across the viaduct and I got my first sight of the Castle and Cathedral perched on their rocky acropolis, I had two epiphanies. The first was like the disciples gazing on the Jerusalem Temple: 'what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings'. The second was simply: 'is there a main line in the world that can be compared to the East Coast?'

I have seen a few other main lines since then, many of them magnificently engineered. But I have not lost my admiration for the ECML as it is known to its friends. You don't need me to remind you of its scenic highlights: Durham, of course; the Angel of the North, crossing the Tyne at Newcastle, Alnmouth sitting prettily on its estuary, Berwick huddled by the Tweed, the gorse-clad cliffs of north Northumberland and the Border, the uplands of southern Scotland and finally, the majestic sense of arrival you get at Edinburgh Waverley - what other destination is so romantically named? Not to mention the procession of great cathedrals and churches you pass on the way: Peterborough, Grantham, Newark, Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle, and even Lincoln, beckoning on a clear day from its far-off hill top. And three of England's best railway stations: King's Cross, York and Newcastle.

In 2013, to celebrate the residency of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, East Coast named Class 91 electric locomotive 91114 Durham Cathedral. I admit it was a proud moment to stand on the platform at Newcastle Central station for the naming and blessing ceremony.  In my address, I spoke about the pleasures of train travel, the links between a railway and the regions it passes through and the importance of excellent public transport. And I also reminded the gathering that County Durham was the cradle of the railways. The ECML crosses the original Stockton and Darlington line which was opened in 1825. So the railway connects us not only to the natural and built heritage of the North East but also to its proud industrial heritage and to the working traditions of this part of England. 

I ended by saying this. 'The Great Western GWR was affectionately known as ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’.  I don’t see why that quirky broad-gauge line should have the monopoly on divinity or greatness. It was on this East Coast Main Line 75 years ago this very day that Gresley's A4 Mallard achieved the world speed record for a steam locomotive. East Coast Main Line, ECML, is surely the Excellent, Classic and Most Magnificent Line. We are proud of it in this region, and I take today as meaning that the railway is proud of the region too. As a working cathedral of today and tomorrow, it is good to be linked with the twenty-first century railway system with all its positive messages about the part public transport plays in environmental responsibility and sustainability.'

Thank you to nationalised operator East Coast UK for running the line so successfully during the past few years. They have served us in an exemplary way. As we bid them farewell, and exchange Palatinate purple for red, we welcome Virgin Trains East Coast. Privatised railway operation remains controversial. The jury is still out. So please care for our much-loved railway. Treat it well, and all who travel up and down these tracks.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday, the Bishops and the Election

It's tempting to conclude that when the Daily Mail and the Sun scream at you, you've probably done something right. At least, you've been noticed. That can't be a bad thing.
But it's Ash Wednesday. We should give up cheap jibes for Lent. The House of Bishops has issued a Pastoral Letter. It's what bishops do. But you have to wonder whether the fierce reaction from some parts of the media comes from people who have bothered to read even a few lines of it. Sad to say, the voice of sweet reason is already being drowned by shouts of outrage and foul play.
What has motivated the letter? The Bishops write: 'the church has an obligation to engage constructively with the political process, and Christians share responsibility with all citizens to participate in the democratic structures of our nation. We offer these reflections because we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is enormously relevant to the questions which the coming Election will throw into sharp relief'. 
Straight away I am struck by the tone. It is not strident or hectoring: here is a contribution to a debate that is offered. The letter is part of a conversation, not its conclusion. Throughout, the register is: we want to listen, to participate in the public business of helping to frame minds and hearts before an election. We hope that in turn you will want to hear what we have to suggest. They could have added 'in all humility' because there is something genuinely modest about the way this piece is drafted. 
I want to use the word formation to describe the tenor of the letter. It is not, as the Bishops are at pains to remind us, a shopping list of approved policies. Rather, it's an attempt to shape the minds of the electorate so that at the very least, the challenges facing us can be accurately identified and the terms of a real conversation agreed. 'Decent answers to the questions facing the nation will only emerge when politicians start to promote a dialogue with the people about a worthwhile society, how individuals, communities and the nation relate to each other, and [about] the potentials and limitations of politics in achieving such ends.'
What does a Christian mind bring to the debate about the future of our nation? The first thing is the belief that it matters to God, and must therefore matter to us. G. K. Chesterton famously said that the problem with British elections was not that only a small part of the electorate voted, but that only a small part of the elector voted: so little was the lack of conviction about politics and public faith. The Bishops want us to cast our vote, not in a routine, token way, but by giving the whole of ourselves to this privileged task of decision-taking in a free democracy. 
Formation in citizenship will motivate us to think and talk about 'a worthwhile society and what it means to serve the common good, and how politics helps serve that end'. The Bishops are not dreaming of the unattainable ideal of Athenian democracy under Pericles. They do however dare to hope that we can shed our cynicism and start believing in politics, politicians and political processes again. 'This letter is about building a vision of a better kind of world, a better society and better politics. Underlying those ideas is the concept of virtue – what it means to be a good person, a good politician, a good neighbour or a good community.' That's a good example of how the letter is motivated by a spiritual concern for citizenship, inspired by the theological ideas of justice and compassion in pursuit of the common good.
Are we a 'society of strangers', or are we a 'community of communities it asks? And here's the bit the hawkish press don't like. 'There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed. It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need, because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community. For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state.' If you examine the context, you'll see that this is not, however, left wing rhetoric, but is based on the vision of David Cameron's 'big society'. What has happened to that noble idea, the Bishops ask, that 'richer narrative of the person-in-community' as they put it? 
The letter suggests that 'virtues are nourished, not by atomised individualism, but in strong communities which relate honestly and respectfully to other groups and communities which make up this nation'. And what is true of the nation in itself is also true of its relationships within the wider world. ' Our politicians have been reluctant to talk openly with the electorate about Britain’s relationships around the world, the realignments of global power, a realistic role in securing a stable and peaceful world order and the tools we would need for the job. In short, we should reflect more deeply on Britain’s role in generating an international community of communities.' 
Part of this is maintaining the UK's current commitment to allocating 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid. 'For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.' But it has to do with being an active player on the global stage. The Scottish Referendum and its aftermath are an object lesson in taking great care in this area and not succumbing to the quick fix. And although the Bishops don't commit to a view about Britain's role within the European Union, they do underline our 'belonging' to this continent, a clear message to those who would dismantle our historic and cultural links too hastily.
This blog can only hint at the insight and good political sense that the House of Bishops' letter demonstrates. They have read with accuracy the state we're in. I can't recall a document from that source that was so intelligently written and that spoke with a fairer voice. Whoever drafted it should be congratulated. Sometimes, when I read what comes out of 'the centre' I want to protest: 'not altogether in my name'  Not this time. I believe it speaks for all Christians, indeed, all fair-minded citizens of our country, whatever their political views, in setting out the matters that ought to concern us in the run-up to the election. So I urge you to read it for yourself. Share it with others; make it the theme of a Lenten study group. 
The letter ends where it began, with St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, words that may 'help to defend us against the temptations of apathy, cynicism and blame, and instead seek – because we are disciples of Jesus Christ who long for a more humane society – a better politics for a better nation. Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.'  Amen to that, I say. What better way to launch this season of Lent with its invitation to reflect more deeply, seek truth, practise charity, deepen the ties that bind us together, and learn to be God's people once again?
You can find the Bishops' Pastoral Letter at: 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Christ and the Hurdy-Gurdy Man

I've just finished reading a rather wonderful wintry book: Ian Bostridge's Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. It's about a musical masterpiece, written by a singer who has made it peculiarly his own - and who knows not only how to sing but how to write.

Schubert's song cycle is a setting of 24 poems by the German romantic poet Wilhelm Müller. They tell of a spurned lover who, leaving his beloved's home town behind, sets off through the snow and ice on a forlorn winter journey. You may know Winterreise - I have it since I was five: my grandmother would pick out some of its songs on the piano and tell me the story. But this blog doesn't depend on your ever having heard it. So read on....

I've always been intrigued by the way the work ends. You would expect the last song to be about either death or springtime. Yet the final poem in the cycle is a strange piece called 'The Hurdy-Gurdy Player', Der Leiermann. It depicts the lonely wanderer's final encounter on his hopeless journey. This is Bostridge's translation.

Over there behind the village / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
And with numb fingers / he grinds away, as best he can.
Barefoot on the ice / He sways back and forth,
And his little plate / Remains always empty.

No-one wants to hear him, / No-one looks at him,
And the dogs growl / Around the old man.
And he lets it go on, / Everything, just as it will;
Turns the wheel, and his hurdy-gurdy / Never stays still for one moment.

Strange old man, / Should I go with you?
Will you to my songs / Play your hurdy-gurdy?

After the emotional complexity of the earlier songs, this one is artlessly simple. The stanzas are repetitive, without much variation or adornment, as if the wanderer's warm beating heart is being frozen lifeless by the icy cold and blank despair - the first a recurring metaphor of the second throughout these songs. And there the cycle ends - or maybe, simply stops, for in no sense is this a conclusion of the agonised journey that has led up to it.

What do the hurdy-gurdy man and the wanderer's encounter with him symbolise?

Bostridge explores some of the ways in which Leiermann has been read. He could be an image of death, beckoning to the wanderer to succumb to the inevitable, which has been foreshadowed earlier in the cycle, and which to some extent he has already been longing for. Or he could be a symbol of the musical wanderer himself: no longer the performer at an elegant salon or 'Schubertiad' but a despised street musician dully, mechanically, churning out tunes for whoever cares to stop and listen; like Flaubert's 'cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars'. At this edge of unreason, the songs we have been listening to for over an hour turn out to be parodied as no more than the mindless turning of the hurdy-gurdy handle. In the end, the singer is faced with who he truly is: an unwelcome, unloved, disfigured outcaste.

But is it outlandish to see another more theological trope in this strange, alien figure, an image of the Christ who is every wanderer's journey's end?

It's true that there is nothing explicit in the songs to suggest this. But I'm not so much interested in what the poet or composer 'meant' (how would we ever know?) but how we 'read' the piece today. To me, the symbolism of this ending is powerful. In the previous 23 songs, the traveller has been drawn into many different worlds suggested by his dreams, memories, endless introspection, reveries, and experiences of natural phenomena that in his fevered romantic imagination, come to stand as images of the self. There have been only fleeting encounters with living, breathing creatures, let alone with other human beings. This all underlines his terrible solitariness in a freezing lifeless landscape, the familiar romantic image of having loved and lost.

But in this last song, he meets another man. The Leiermann is a complete wreck of a person, yet his very disfigurement and exclusion from human society recall the degraded victim of Isaiah who was 'despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief'. In the passion narrative of the gospels, this is how the suffering of Jesus is described; he is crucified 'outside a city wall', banished from human society, cast out, accursed.

This kind of language has been used by the theologian Rene Girard in his study of the scapegoat. He suggests that 'mimesis' lies at the heart of the familiar human transactions that isolate individuals who are made to carry on behalf of everyone else the negative projections of people unable to live with their unwanted dysfunction. Victims of oppression or bullying often carry symbolic meaning for those who perpetrate cruelty for reasons that are not always consciously understood. The 'scapegoat' is then banished from society as an accursed figure who will carry those split-off aspects of the self into a far country where they need no longer cause trouble. In classical language, the scapegoat 'bears the sin of many' by removing it to a safe place.

If the hurdy-gurdy man is a symbolic scapegoat, he may turn out to hold redemptive significance for the wanderer as his winter journey comes to a close. Here is one exile confronting another; one kind of despair recognising its mirror image in the other person. On the desperate margins of existence, there is a solidarity in their isolation. At long last, the singer has found a kinsman, 'bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh'. He is not alone in his music-making any longer. So, from speaking about him, the wanderer finally addresses him directly. 'Strange old man, should I go with you? Will you to my songs play your hurdy-gurdy?' A new relationship is formed, a new community.

I know: it's a pretty desperate answer to the wanderer's question. What, if anything, happens next? After these 24 stations of death, will there be a resurrection? Are these two alienated characters, the wanderer and the hurdy-gurdy player, changed by their strange meeting? Is there so much as a hint that spring might come at last?

Bostridge writes about what often happens in the concert hall as the last note dies away at the end of a performance of this work. There is a long silence that indicates how deep the audience's own involvement with it has been, then only tentative applause to begin with, as if, like a religious work, you aren't quite sure if you are supposed to applaud or not. The response of audiences to Bach's Passions is similar, as : maybe the song cycle is Schubert's highly personalised version of the passion story. A mark of great art is that it has a cathartic, redemptive, dimension, not just because of its beauty but because of the depth of insight with which it interprets its subject matter. Somehow, we know that this winter's journey is about each of us: Winterreise is our journey too, in whatever aspect of life we feel it: our disappointment in love, our loss of hope, our bereavement, our identification with the pain and sorrow of a suffering world. This is its capacity to open doors to a genuinely spiritual experience, even for those who don't think of themselves as 'religious' people.

On the surface, the cycle seems unremittingly bleak. But the passion analogy may suggest meanings that are not so hopeless after all. The Good Friday lament, 'Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?' invites us to stop, pay attention and reflect in front of an image of human suffering. To bystanders, the crucifixion must have seemed to be an event without purpose, just another death like all the others. This bafflement is reflected in the way the death of Jesus is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The innocent sufferer dies in godforsaken dereliction: 'my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' This passion is absurd; what possible significance could it have? It is only on profound reflection that the victim's story, like the scapegoat, begins to gather meaning.

So while the companionship between these two lost souls in exile, wanderer and hurdy-gurdy man, looks like a bitter irony on human love and belonging, the final question-mark in the poem puts it in a different light. And the song's concluding chord, unresolved but not hopeless, offers a clue that despair has not had the last word after all.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: January

After the excitements of Advent and Christmas, January is quiet, like the frosts and mists that steal up on the peninsula in midwinter. I ought to have had time to write this January blog during the month itself. But it got overtaken by other things: writing that I'd not had time to finish over Christmas, large Cathedral matters I had to give time to. And our minds and prayers have been occupied by what has been happening beyond our shores, terrible events in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Here in Durham, we have had a tragedy. Winter took its toll on a student who fell into the icy black waters of the River Wear in the small hours of a January morning. Durham's river banks are lovely beyond description, but they are a trap for the unwary who don't know the topography. In the dark, they pose hazards that have taken their toll on no fewer than three young student lives in the past 14 months (and nearly took a fourth just last week). The Cathedral owns sections of the river banks, though not where this latest drowning took place. In an intimate city like this, any grave incident makes you stop and think. We have been talking with the University, the Police and the Local Authority to see what needs to be done to make sure no-one else loses their life in a place of exquisite beauty. It was a shocking reminder that even beauty has its dark side.

January feels like 'ordinary time': gentle and steady. No-one affects to like January very much. But in the Cathedral it is still Christmas until the feast of Candlemas on 2 February. So there has been light and colour to enjoy. During these forty days, the crib has been in position, as have the Christmas trees under the Victorian Scott Screen. At Epiphany, we celebrate the revealing of the infant Jesus to the world and develop the rich theme of how something so tiny as an infant can have significance for the entire cosmos. Incarnation makes me think of Hamlet: 'I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space'. It goes on 'were it not that I have bad dreams'. Epiphany feels like a season of good dreams, imagining our world as it would be if this infant King reigned, with all its wrongs righted and tears and pain brought to an end.

Our development project Open Treasure continues through the month. The cloister buildings are enveloped in scaffolding. Behind, mostly invisible, we are treated to bangs and thuds and the whine of machinery as the contractors continue the long and noisy job of preparing these ancient buildings to house our wonderful treasures such as Cuthbert's cross, the Durham Gospels and three copies of Magna Carta. There is mud everywhere, and much of it finds its way into the cloister, the Cathedral and our homes. The chantier (is there an English word for a works site?) has eaten up precious parking space in the College, so visitors' cars get left in front of the Deanery gates, much to the annoyance of its occupants. But these are the trials of progress. Spirits are high as we see this great work move forward. By summer, the fabric conservation will be finished. College Green will return to its verdant normal, in time for the Chorister School to entertain its speech day guests for tea underneath the branches of the spreading beech trees.

Meanwhile, the days get longer, though ever so slowly at first. But there are snowdrops on the river banks and in the Deanery garden. The golden sunlight that illuminates the pillar opposite the Dean's stall at morning prayer around solstice time has gone for another year. It's a welcome sign that the sun is climbing back up the sky towards the zenith, and with it, the sap is rising in the trees. And in our spirits, I trust. Ready for Lent when it comes in February.