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.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

'Papa Joe': A personal tribute to Canon Dr Joe Cassidy RIP

Canon Dr Joe Cassidy, the Principal of St Chad’s College, died suddenly on 28 March 2015. He had had a serious heart attack a week ago but he and we all thought he was recovering very well. He was sending upbeat messages across the world from his Blackberry. He was expected back at work after a few weeks' convalescence. Now, without warning, he has been taken from us. His death is a cruel loss. Our fond thoughts and prayers are with Gillian his wife, their children Emmeline, Marianne and Benedict, his wider family, his beloved St Chad's College, and his many colleagues and friends in Durham and beyond.  

When I came to Durham twelve years ago, Joe was one of the first to welcome me. The Cathedral is St Chad’s nearest neighbour on The Bailey: the elegant front door of the College is directly opposite the Cathedral’s majestic east end. The College invited me to be first its Visitor, and then Rector. Joe believed that a lively partnership between these two great Durham institutions could only be good for both. I have loved my roles in the College, and this is not least due to Joe’s generosity, kindness, personal warmth and gift for friendship.
Joe had been a distinguished Catholic philosophical theologian and ethicist whose fine mind was already recognised in awards and prizes gained in undergraduate and postgraduate days. His specialism was the thought of the twentieth century Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan. Joe was a Canadian himself (and had the accent to prove it). In due course he himself joined the Society of Jesus where among a wide range of involvements he was a much valued retreat conductor and spiritual director. Accompanying others of every age on their spiritual journeys was close to his heart all his working life.

His gifts took a new ecumenical dimension when he became an Anglican in 1993.  He would contribute significantly to the councils of the Church of England, including General Synod, though I wonder if his intellectual acuity as a theologian was sufficiently acknowledged. In 1997 he came to Durham as Principal of St Chad’s, an independent Anglican foundation within Durham University. If he thought that being head of house in a Durham college would allow lots of time for leisured literary and scholarly output, reality quickly set in. Running a college  nowadays is an all-consuming enterprise. It is to Joe’s enormous credit that he succeeded in stabilising St Chad's which was then going through demanding times. His prodigious energy (‘always in the fast lane’, someone said of him), his practicality, his capacity to solve problems, his sheer appetite for hard work were all important aspects of his leadership of St Chad’s.
But most important, I think, were his personal and spiritual qualities. If you ask Chad’s students and alumni what they will remember ‘Papa Joe’ for, you will hear a lot about his humane wisdom, his personal warmth, his quick-witted love of repartee and his intellectual liveliness. (He thought and spoke fast: you had to keep up.) And you will also hear about his belief that a higher education institution like a Durham college should – indeed, must – be a living community of human beings in which people care about one another so that everyone can flourish. This was the kind of college he set out to shape at St Chad’s. I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that in this project, he was brilliantly successful.

At the College Domus Dinner the other night, this was what I was being told on all sides from Chadsians past and present, whether they were staff or students. It’s sometimes a cliché to say that someone is ‘much-loved’ but this was genuinely true of Joe. I’m so glad that before he died he was able to hear tributes to his leadership expressed publicly on that lovely occasion (including a faltering offering from me as Rector) and that he could know how much he was valued and loved. In his modesty, he did not want to make too much of it. Self-deprecation was an endearing trait. Though I’d prefer to call it genuine humility, a beautiful quality in anybody but especially in those who are called to lead where many follow.
Joe’s death is a sad loss to the Cathedral too. He belonged to the ‘Foundation’ as a member of its College of Canons and Council. He loved the Cathedral and valued his own as well as the College’s connection with it. He said so in the Cathedral just a few short weeks ago at the annual College Day service. At the end, he suddenly produced from nowhere a green College hood and invested me with it, saying that the College had resolved to make me a life-fellow to recognise the importance it attached to its relationship with the Cathedral. ‘Now this relationship is for life’ he said. Alas that his own was so cruelly cut short the following month. It’s a loss I feel very personally.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. ‘If you want a monument, look around you.’ So runs Christopher Wren’s famous memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral. What will Joe’s monument be? Talk to Chadsians across the world; or look into the life of this remarkable community for yourself. It’s written on the hearts and lives of the men and women he served so devotedly – and loved. This is the only tribute that would matter to Joe.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Female Bishops: Crossing the Rubicon

Today we have the news we have waited for so long. The name of the Church of England's first female diocesan bishop has been announced. She is Rachel Treweek, currently Archdeacon of Hackney in London. She is to be the next Bishop of Gloucester.

Why is this so significant for the church, perhaps even more so than the hugely welcome appointments of the first two female bishops?  Why have I given this blog the dramatic title Crossing the Rubicon? Surely we have already crossed it by consecrating Libby Lane as the first woman in England to be ordained as a bishop?

Like a bishop suffragan, a diocesan bishop is consecrated to a senior leadership role in the church's ministry of word and sacrament, in mission, service, pastoral care and the teaching of the faith. But what marks out the diocesan bishop is that this role carries distinctive legal jurisdiction. It gives her leadership an authority in her diocese that belongs solely to her. She will of course share her episcope with her senior team in the diocese: her suffragan bishop, her dean, her archdeacons. But ultimately, the jurisdiction will belong uniquely to her.

And this is the rub. For as long as the church did not have a female diocesan bishop, the journey towards full equality in ministry with men was not complete. (Membership of the House of Lords is not the point here, though the special parliamentary provision fast-tracking the first female diocesan into the Upper House is also greatly to be welcomed.) But now, at last, we can say that this 'one more river to cross' has been successfully traversed.

Every diocesan bishop will tell you that it is an awesome responsibility to be a leader in the church in these demanding times. To be a bishop in the 21st century is not (in my view) at all an enviable vocation. Indeed, to be an effective leader in any organisation these days imposes great demands. 'Who is sufficient for these things?' we ask with St Paul. But diocesan bishops will also tell you that it is an enormous privilege to inhabit this role as a servant of the servants of God. It was high time that women were allowed to undertake it. Indeed, it ought never to have taken this long.

Of course, full equality will only be achieved in practice when there are comparable numbers of women and men in the episcopate. This will take many years, maybe decades. But for those like me who longed to see this day, and wondered if we would still be alive when it came, today's announcement is the best possible news.

I have written a number of blogs on the subject of female bishops. In one of them, I took as a metaphor the line embedded in the medieval Frosterley Marble floor by the font at the west end of Durham Cathedral. It marked the boundary which women were not allowed to cross in the days when the Cathedral Priory was a community of male Benedictine monks. They could watch, and listen, but they couldn't be full participants. I've often said that even into our own century, this has continued to be symbolically true for women in our church. The line began to be crossed with the ordination of women as deacons, then priests, then bishops.

But now, one woman has both her feet firmly to the east of the line. One more wall of division has been breached. The gospel that says that in Christ Jesus, we are all one people. Among the distinctions that once counted and must count no longer was that between male and female. Not now, in this new covenant society of grace into which Christ brings us. I think we should be allowed a Lenten alleluia.

So this is, I reckon, the last time I need to blog on this subject. It's a great day for the Church of England, for the women who serve in it so loyally, for Gloucester and, I'm sure, for Rachel and her family. We congratulate her with all our hearts, and promise her our prayers.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: March

March in Durham means two things above everything else: Lent, and St Cuthbert.

I wrote about Lent in February. This year, Easter falls in early April, the Goldilocks period that is not too early and not too late. Which means that all of March is Lent. And although the spring equinox has come, and with it a paschal new moon to eclipse the sun, it is still wintry. High pressure has brought sullen gunmetal skies and keen winds from the north and east to chill to the bone. Late snowdrops and crocuses hang on, mingling with courageous daffodils. Spring comes late in North East England.

Towards the end of March Lent is feeling long. Those high aspirations with which we began this journey on Ash Wednesday now feel like hard work. The Chapter has its annual budgets to approve, always a demanding process that falls appropriately in Lent. People are longing for sunshine and warmth. We are ready for a break before we go into the toughest part of this pilgrimage, Holy Week itself. Mid-Lent, Mothering Sunday, is known as Refreshment Sunday. But here in Durham, we do more than enjoy some gentle mid-Lent relaxation. For it’s St Cuthbert’s Day on 20 March. And that means one of the highest and holiest festivals in the entire year.

Whatever the date of Easter, St Cuthbert’s Day is always in Lent. Because of this, the Church of England wanted to move the festival to Cuthbert’s other day, 4 September, the anniversary of the dedication of his shrine in Durham Cathedral. But North East people were not having this. Cuthbert died, Bede explicitly says, on 20 March and this is when we should celebrate him. So we do, with enthusiasm and élan. There are even alleluias at the big services (the service sheet explains to the shocked why we allow ourselves to use the forbidden a-word in Lent). We say a Te Deum and sing the Gloria and other joyful music and big hymns like ‘For all the saints’ that lift the spirits.

Cuthbert’s shrine behind the high altar is the spiritual and emotional heart of the Cathedral. People came there in vast numbers in the middle ages to ask for his healing and his prayers. Today, pilgrims still come to find inspiration in his life of holiness, devotion and gospel simplicity. To the people of the North East, he has been a companion and fellow-traveller since the seventh century. So at the eucharist on the eve of his day, and at evensong on the day itself, we go in a long procession to the shrine and remind ourselves of his importance by listening to what Bede tells us about a life that was so extraordinary and so beautiful as to be remembered by all subsequent generations. 

The monks of Durham saw themselves as the guardians of his memory, the living successors of those who bore his body across the north of England to Chester Le-Street, Ripon and finally Durham’s rocky peninsula. This is still how we see ourselves today at the Cathedral. Which is why, ten years ago, we boldly reversed a sacrilegious act of Henry VIII in the 1540s and put Cuthbert’s name back into the legal title of the Cathedral. It’s why the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in his honour shortly after his death, are treasured in this place where they belonged for so many centuries.

Cuthbertstide isn’t simply a time for great liturgy. There is a range of other activities on offer: a market of local produce in the cloister, children’s story-telling based on the Saxon saints, ‘show and tell’ presentations on the Lindisfarne Gospels (using the facsimile presented to us in 2003), and demonstrations by stone-masons in the cloister garth. Visitors (and there are many) can enjoy Cuthbert’s Slice with their coffee or tea in the restaurant. Young people have constructed a model Cuthbert shrine to go into our great LEGO Cathedral. 

And there is a little spectacle to take part in. Each year, the Northumbrian Association organises a St Cuthbert’s pilgrimage from Chester Le Street to the Cathedral, retracing the steps of the Saxon community upstream along the River Wear as they brought his body here in 995. Led by pipe and drum and the St Cuthbert Banner, we end the journey in Cuthbert’s shrine where there are prayers and readings. It affirms this Cathedral’s rootedness in this evocative part of England.

This time of year holds special meaning for me because I was installed as Dean of Durham on St Cuthbert’s Day 2003. That year March was warm and still and springlike, not like 2015. Sadly, this year’s will have been my last because this is the month I have announced my retirement later this year. But that's another story I've written about already. 

Meanwhile, in Durham, this wonderful festival is over for another year. It is time for the Cathedral to return to its Lenten simplicity. Lent is very Cuthbert-like. If only we could imitate him more successfully in this complex world in which we live. Which means imitating Cuthbert's Lord whom he loved so fiercely and followed so faithfully. Holy Week will show us how. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Retirement is Announced

I announced my retirement today. It’s not something I’ve ever done before. I don’t expect to be doing it again. So you’ll forgive a soliloquy to mark the day.

Here’s what I wrote in the Cathedral notice sheet.

I write this with mixed feelings.

On St Cuthbert’s Day it will be 12 years since I was installed as Dean of Durham. The time has now come to announce that I shall be retiring from the role at the end of this year. The Bishop and the Chapter have kindly granted me three months of sabbatical leave to complete my time here, so Jenny and I will be saying our goodbyes to the Cathedral and the wider community at the end of September. Our farewell service will be evensong on Sunday 27 September.

It is too soon yet to put into words the gratitude we feel as this wonderful chapter in our lives approaches its end. However, I am sure you will realise that this parting of friends, when it comes, will not be easy. But in the image of an earlier dean (who loved this place as I do), we are hermit crabs who need to recognise when the time is coming to move on. We shall be retiring to Northumberland. There we shall say our prayers for the Cathedral in the knowledge that it will be in the best possible hands in the future.

It’s a strange feeling, knowing that the die is cast. We made the decision months ago, Jenny and I, that we would retire in September. So I already knew that it was my last Advent Procession in the Cathedral, my last Christmas sermon, my last ashing at the start of Lent. I knew that I would never again watch the trees on the river banks turn autumn gold, or the first snowdrops push through the frosty Deanery lawn. I was aware of these things, but didn’t allow myself to think too much about them. It didn’t feel real. It wasn’t imminent.

But after today it is different. It still isn’t imminent (I tell myself), but it has become a whole lot more real. Seeing it there in black and white says to me: the time is coming. There’s no argument. You need to be ready when it comes. There are things that need to be done before I go: people to see, undertakings to meet, jobs to finish, files to close. I have never been a good completer-finisher, so this could be exacting. The rituals of leave-taking can be deferred for a while: it’s not yet time for farewells. It can be business as usual for a few more months.

Or can it? For in a sense, every moment from now on is a kind of leave-taking, not just of these 12 Durham years but of the 40 years I have been in full-time ministry since my ordination in 1975. I have to learn that everything that has ‘constructed’ my working life is now provisional. It’s not that everything comes into the category of ‘last time’: ministry doesn’t end with retirement. But what will be different is that it won’t any more be the daily habit of ordinary working life. I need to recognise that pretty well everything will need to be renegotiated on the other side of the threshold called ‘retirement’. That feels exhilarating but, if I’m honest, daunting too.

All day I’ve had the line of a Philip Larkin poem in my mind: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now. This great poem is called 'Aubade'. In it, Larkin imagines death creeping up on him remorselessly, terrifyingly. The dreadful visitant will not be put off. There is no postponing the unwelcome encounter, so it all depends on how the poet faces it. I wonder why I unconsciously made the association: presumably because whatever else it is, retirement is a kind of dying, letting go of one kind of life in order to embrace the new. Right now, life after retirement feels as much of a mystery as life after death, so maybe the analogy has something in it. It recalls earlier rites of passage: what was I supposed to do on the first day after I left school? Or got married? Or was ordained? You never quite know till you get there.

On the other hand, I won’t pretend that I’m not looking forward to the possibilities retirement will bring: more time for family and friends; a new place to live and a new community to belong to; lifelong interests to enjoy and new ones to discover; volunteering in ways that could put something into church or society; having choices about where to focus energies. One of the best things will be that we shall still be living in our beloved North East England with its wonderful people, rich heritage and beautiful landscapes to go on enjoying. We shall accentuate the positive in the spirit of Dag Hammarskjöld: for all that has been, thanks! To all that shall be, yes! Isn't that the Christian way to cross any threshold?

But oh, it is going to be so hard to leave Durham….

More anon.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

Last week's destruction of Nimrud by Daesh-IS is nothing less than a calamity.

Nimrud is a very ancient Assyrian site. The city was founded in the 2nd millennium BC, and became the capital of the mighty Assyrian empire in the 9th century under its legendary king Ashurnasirpal II. His palace was one of the most magnificent buildings of its age. You can see for yourself by going to the marvellous Assyrian Galleries in the British Museum (or by visiting the website www.britishmuseum.org). Two whole rooms are dedicated to Nimrud including the famous palace reliefs. They show in amazing detail the kind of activities that kings liked to engage in such as battles, lion-hunts, chariot rides and sacrifices. From Nimrud king Tiglath-Pileser III launched his campaign to overrun the kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold; his cohorts were gleaming with silver and gold wrote Byron. It was the end for Israel. Twenty years later, when the capital had been moved to Nineveh, the Assyrians attacked again, this time the southern kingdom of Judah. The palace reliefs showing the siege of Lachish are among the Museum’s most precious treasures.

One of the Nimrud sculptures in the galleries is a statue of a winged lion. It was one of a pair that stood at the entrance to Ashurnasirpal’s throne-room. Because the king was seen as a divine figure, this room was the most sacred space in the palace complex. The carved lamassu, as they were called, had a ritual, protective function. The lion’s strength and the eagle’s wings together symbolised keeping chaos at bay. By defending the space against the demonic, they kept it as a ritually safe place where the gods could do business with the king and through him with the people whose sacred representative he was.

Some sculptures from that era survived in situ at Nimrud until last week. They must have been a magnificent sight. Not now. Even its famous winged lions and bulls have not been able to protect it against the power of the bulldozer. IS has said that it has levelled it. We needn’t doubt that they have razed its walls and buildings, ground its peerless sculptures and decorations into dust. They claim that these relics of an ancient civilisation are idolatrous. They are an affront to Islam with its prohibition of images; whatever is pre-Islamic must be destroyed. They glory in the iconoclastic project of erasing every survival, every trace, every memory of what is seen as subverting the purity of monotheism. It is an act of cultural cleansing. It's a crime against humanity. And it's heart breaking.  

How do you measure the value of heritage as against the value of human life? 

I've learned a little about the human and spiritual significance of heritage, having lived and worked in the Durham World Heritage Site these past 12 years. It has raised for me the sharp question about whether we shouldn't have an uneasy conscience about investing too much in ancient stones. We no doubt regret the loss of Nimrud, but shouldn’t we care more about the human beings and communities of Iraq and Syria who have been treated so cruelly? Isn’t the life of even one man or woman or child worth more than all the treasures of antiquity?

As soon as I pose the question that way, I see that it’s based on a false premise. It's not either-or: each is part of the other. The callous treatment of Iraq and Syria’s heritage is just another aspect of a regime that is callous in every other respect. Nothing is sacred to it except its own corrupted version of faith, its concept of a hideous deity whose pleasure is to exact vengeance. The destruction of heritage with all that it symbolises of human life, culture and achievement is just another expression of this murderous world-view. It is hardly the first time. Iconoclasts have flourished in many periods of history. In the 20th century, precisely this was true of Nazi Germany with its hatred of all that was not Aryan. The book-burnings, the re-writing of history, the suppression of ‘decadent’ art and culture were part and parcel of the terror, the deportations and the extermination camps. Where life is cheap, so are civilisation and heritage. These too become the objects of wrath and revenge. There is nothing new under the sun.

We have wept for many months for the victims of this tragedy that is being played out in the lands of the ancient near east. We would not have believed the cruelty inflicted on so many innocent victims if we had not seen it on our screens with our own eyes. The world seems powerless to stop it. ‘Look on my works ye mighty, and despair!’ And desperate is what it seems, when the lone and level sands stretch far away over the bodies of murdered victims and the vanishing human traces of millennia. But Ozymandias himself had become a mere memory in Shelley’s sonnet, his impotent toppled colossus a symbol of how all principalities and powers fall in time. There is a reign we look for that will be the judgment of all the cruelties and corruptions of human systems. Only this kingdom lasts for ever.

Meanwhile, we can still visit the Assyrian Galleries in London and wonder at the treasures from Nimrud. But for me, it will be with a deeper sense of the tears in things. The Assyrian empire was itself a theatre of cruelty: the atrocities of Ashurnasirpal were legendary. These ancient artefacts already speak of terror from the past. Now they speak of a terror of today that is the daily experience of ordinary people in Iraq and Syria. The palace reliefs, sculptures and winged lions mustn’t leave us untouched. They should evoke our lament and compassion, return us to the work of prayer and action on behalf of people we must go on holding in our hearts.

Valuing heritage must always mean reverencing human life, showing our solidarity with all of humanity past and present, especially the suffering peoples of all ages. If we don't cherish the memory of the past and try to understand it, perhaps there's something missing from our care for the victims of the present. Good remembering is a symbol of our capacity to be humane. It should excite our social conscience because at heart it is always about people. Those who despise it show us what their values really are.

At least no one can destroy the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: February

It's March, and I haven't yet written the February blog. 

February is the shortest month, but pace T. S. Eliot, I've always felt it to be the cruellest. (He believed it was April, which is to disparage the month of my birth.) It is Lent, and althought the old English word means 'spring', up here in North East England it is still definitely winter. And cold. Not the fierce iciness you sometimes get at this time of year, just that relentless damp chill that creeps up from the river banks and clings to the peninsula. Maybe I am just feeling my age. 

However, the snowdrops have been spectacular this year, carpeting the precincts and river banks in a delicate white. Now, aconites and crocuses are bringing back the colour we have missed for so long. The sun is rising higher in the sky and the days are longer again, even if its rays have yet to regain their warmth. When we reach the end of evensong, it is still daytime. 

The month begins with a burst of celebration and colour. On the 2nd we keep the joyful feast of the Presentation of Christ. It commemorates Joseph and Mary bringing their infant Jesus to the temple to be blessed. The story tells how aged Simeon took the baby in his arms and spoke of him as a light for the nations. Hence the traditional English name of Candlemas. At the service, the Cathedral is lit by two thousand candles (tea-lights if I am honest). It's an extraordinarily beautiful sight - even if it's quite a job for the vergers. You see the building illuminated as its builders always intended, its magnificent vaults, arcades and piers lit from below. It's a luminous experience, literally and spiritually. 

Not many days later it is Lent. You couldn't have a starker contrast than that of Candlemas and Ash Wednesday. This solemn day is our Christian equivalent of the Jewish Day of Atonement: a time to reflect on our sin and wrongdoing, our falling short of what God wants us to be and what we know we could be. The Cathedral is stripped of decoration: the hangings and vestments are of plain sackcloth-white, the flowers are gone until Easter, the music is understated and we don't say alleluia.  At the Ash Wednesday service the choir sings the haunting Miserere of Allegri, Psalm 51, that outpouring of guilt and shame that the psalmist feels might be beyond forgiveness and healing. We try to pare things down to their essentials and ask ourselves: what is human life? What is discipleship? What ultimately matters as we walk with Jesus as his followers and friends? 

We read about the age-old disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in Jesus' teaching at the Ash Wednesday eucharist. We receive the ashes on our foreheads as we hear the portentous words that speak of our mortality: 'remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.' But we don't take our eye off the goal of it all. For that is Easter, the very centre of our faith, so we give these six precious weeks of Lent to prepare to celebrate it. 40 days. Not counting the Sundays of course, because every Sunday is the Christian memorial of the resurrection. And Lent, while it is a solemn time, should never be joyless or grim. A good Lent is a cheerful Lent. There is simplicity, but there is also joy. As George Herbert puts it in a memorable paradox, 'Welcome, dear feast of Lent!'  

So Lent will see winter give way to spring. At last. Not just the cold and the wind, the sleet and the rain, but the wintriness in our souls. R. S. Thomas has a poem that talks about the frost and rime that encrust our hearts. The liturgy and the personal discipline we adopt for Lent help us face this fact of life. They hold out the promise of transformation to come, a springtime of renewal and resurrection. 

Here's how I put it in a Lent poem I wrote some years ago. 

Lent is no fast time, but a hard long prising
Out, from winter’s fist, of spring’s gestation;
A slow, waiting season, new life’s birthing,
Atonement’s womb, Easter’s incubation.
It is year’s shaping, scaffolding under skin,
Bones bearing body, strong and spare;
Like earth’s ancient rocks, world’s silent discipline
Exposed when spirit’s topsoil is scraped bare.
Lent’s lengthening light, concentrated and clear,
Lean as plainsong, sharp as east-wind’s keenness,
Shrives air astringently, calling passion near
To wash the ashen soul in fat white cleanness.
No hasty passing over old world’s loss –
Lent’s unrelenting climb toward the cross.

Even in February the sap is rising.