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

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: April

There is a heady rush of green all over the Peninsula. In March it seemed as if winter would never end. Now it is April and Eastertide, and the trees are outdoing one another to dress for summer. The silver birch outside the bathroom window is back in the role of modesty screen, its foliage concealing us bashful bathers from our neighbours across the College. The magnolia by the Chorister School, harbinger of exams, cricket and speech day, is in glorious flower. The dandelions are out for St George's Day. Even the beech hedge, always the last to respond, is casting off last year's dowdy autumn brown as fresh shoots push through. The wind has lost its biting edge, the sun is shining daily and winter woollies are stowed away till the equinox. The time for singing has come. All's right with the world.

T. S. Eliot famously said that April was the cruellest month, but perhaps he wasn't thinking very theologically. Even when Easter is late, April always seems shot through with resurrection. Maybe I'm biased - my birthday falls on the Ides (the 13th - about which see a recent blog On Reaching a Certain Age). When I was a boy, the sun always used to shine on that day. I know this because I always used to read my birthday books lying on the carpet in front of the south-facing open front door through which the sun's warmth and light streamed in with such generosity that even in my irreligion, I felt grateful to be alive. Now that I am 65, and well into my last Durham spring, that feeling has returned forcefully. Easter has felt like a precious gift to savour this year. We shall not be here to see this generation of green leaves drop off their trees in the autumn.

This year, April began in Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday morning, the diocesan clergy come to the Cathedral in large numbers to the annual service at which we renew our vows of ministry with the Bishop. We don't speak of Durham Cathedral as the 'mother-church' of the diocese because historically it isn't - that honour belongs to the older foundations at Chester-Le-Street or Lindisfarne. But on Maundy Thursday as the diocese gathers under this sacred canopy, it feels motherly. Clergy who have not seen one another for a year greet friends. For some, it is their first Maundy Thursday in Durham - they may have been ordained here last year, or have moved into the diocese from somewhere else. For others, this will be their last before moving away or retiring. I make this point in my welcome, and point out that I am speaking about myself. I'm conscious that today, as we worship, The Queen is visiting my former Cathedral in Sheffield to deliver the Royal Maundy. We held it in Coventry while I was Precentor there, and it was unforgettable. Mandatum novum, the 'new commandment' of the upper room that we should love one another lies at the heart of Christianity.

At the Maundy eucharist that evening, I preside. At the foot of the mighty prince-bishops' throne, once 'the highest throne in Christendom', I wash the feet of the youngest choristers. I like the juxtaposition of smallness and vulnerability right next to this huge symbol of jurisdiction and power. After communion, I lead a ceremony unique to Durham known as the 'Judas Cup' where the members of the Chapter pass round a mazer of wine and we ask ourselves the dreadful question of the upper room when Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him: 'Lord, is it I?' Then the lights are put out, the choir sings the Lamentation, we strip the altars and leave for the vigil in the dark Galilee Chapel. The transition from joyful thanksgiving to darkness and dereliction is extraordinarily powerful. It's one of those occasions where a well-developed sense of drama serves the liturgy so well. You would have to be hard-hearted not to be moved by it.

For me, Good Friday is the most moving day of the Christian year. Late in life, I am wondering why this is so. Maybe it just is. Our preacher in Holy Week this year is Bishop Martin Wharton, lately retired from our neighbouring diocese of Newcastle, and living among us in the College this year. He delivers a magnificent sermon on St John's great final word from the cross, 'It is finished'. I once wrote a little book about the sayings of Jesus in St John's passion narrative, but as I listened to this sermon I felt I wanted to tear it up and begin again. I came to faith through singing Bach's St John Passion as a boy. Somehow this beautiful sermon on the holiest day of this final year of mine in public ministry seems to bring things to a kind of completion: a personal tetelestai! indeed, if you'll allow me to put it that way. ('Is there a text?' I ask afterwards. 'No, just a few notes scribbled on the back of a fag-packet' he replies with typical modesty). Then the great cross is processed in and as the choir sing the Sanders Reproaches, we go forward to venerate it. Some simply kneel in front of it, but at a distance; others go right up to it to touch and kiss it. There are tears in the love and devotion of that simple action. They include mine. 'It is a thing most wonderful....'

Easter Eve is the day of emptiness and waiting. I've blogged about that too, and about the significance of Easter dawn breaking into it. Not every cathedral can muster a full choir at 5.15am, but we have always believed we should invest everything into this the central liturgy of the year. The Bishop presides and preaches, and parishes bring their baptism and confirmation candidates to join ours. Everyone is asked to bring something noisy to blow or bang as we shout the first alleluias after the long silence of Lent. This year, the Sunday school has furnished the clergy with rattles that glow in bright colours as you wave them about. This replaces the Buddhist prayer wheel I used to bring to this ceremony until the head flew off dangerously a few years ago during my moment of Easter excitement. Afterwards, there are bacon butties and coffee in the undercroft restaurant, while those of us whose liturgical day is only just beginning go home to turn round before choral matins, the sung eucharist and evensong.

'Can there be any day as this?' asks George Herbert. After the exhilaration of Easter Day, it all goes quiet for a while. Maybe it shouldn't, but it's a relief after the long liturgies and intense spirituality of Holy Week. The joy does not dissipate as the Great 50 Days begin, but it's in a more restful mode for a few days while the choir is on holiday and clergy take a break. After Easter Week, Jenny and I go to Bristol and Gloucester for the annual Deans' Conference, one last opportunity to see colleagues many of whom have become friends during the couple of decades I have been deaning (in two cathedrals - which makes me one of the few who are known as duo-deanal).

Back in Durham, the Cathedral is full again for the funeral of our friend and colleague Joe Cassidy, the Principal of St Chad's College across the Bailey. After his sudden death at the very end of March, I blogged about this inspiring, generous man to whom, as I now realise, I have owed a great deal during these Durham years. Some funerals are unbearably poignant, especially when someone has died tragically or prematurely, or when the liturgical season lends a particular colour. What makes this unforgettable for me is the tribute paid by Joe's daughter (you can find it on her Face Book page - Emmeline Skinner-Cassidy). It is filled with radiant memories of faith and love, a profound sense of gratitude and an unassailable sense of terrible loss. At the end, with the family standing round, I can barely get round the coffin to cense it: it is such an intimate act, the last thing I can do for someone I have come to care deeply for. I say the words of commendation with difficulty. A few minutes later we are at the cemetery. The air is soft and clean, and there are daffodils all round. We lay Joe to rest and in turn throw earth on to the coffin. And I call to mind the words of the Russian kontakion: 'even at the grave we sing alleluia!' Take him, earth, for cherishing.

If Easter doesn't make a difference to the way we think about mortality, what can it possibly mean? What can life itself mean? Yes, for Joe's family and for so many others in the world, April has been the cruellest month. Yet faith insists on seeing in it the brightest and best of hopes - even if it sometimes means holding on as best we can, and like Abraham, hoping against hope.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Voting with Head and Heart

I'm conscious that apart from a few tweets, I've not said much about the election. 

With two weeks to go, I'm thinking how dull this election campaign seems to be. There's a curious lack of passion about it, not much evidence of fire in the belly either of our political leaders or in the way we ourselves talk about it. Yet we keep being told that it could be one of the most defining of elections for decades. On its outcome may depend the future of the United Kingdom and whether or not we remain in the European Union. Yet we have heard only a little about the former and next to nothing about the latter despite one of the parties branding itself in relation to Europe. Nor have we heard much from our leaders about how they see Britain's place in a changing world order, or the global threats of conflict, climate change and terror, or even what kind of nation we aspire to be in five or ten years' time and how we address exclusion and poverty in our divided society. 

Is it that these Big Concerns don't stir the hearts of the electorate because they don't win votes? Or maybe (God forbid!) they don't greatly stir the hearts of most of our politicians either? In a famous poem 'The Second Coming', W. B. Yeats warned that 'the best lack all conviction'. But we shouldn't lay this indictment only at the doors of politicians. Our leaders mirror the conviction, or lack of it, that we ourselves demonstrate. If we're casual or indifferent in politics, we're going to get a politics that is itself casual and indifferent to so much that ought to matter intensely in the world we find ourselves living in. It worries me that this doesn't seem to be featuring in the election debates I've overheard so far.

It's not that domestic issues don't matter. It's right that we are clear about what our elected representatives would do with the economy, taxation, immigration, education and the NHS. But it's hard not to suspect that self-interest isn't colouring the way we're all talking about them, candidates and electorate alike: what's in it for me? In TV interviews with 'ordinary' voters, very few seem to have anything to say about global concerns, a politics of care, social justice and the common good. Are journalists not pressing these bigger questions hard enough, I wonder? I'm chairing the hustings in Durham next week. I happened to meet one of the constituency candidates recently and warned that if no one else voiced these questions from the floor, I would be. 

A few weeks ago the House of Bishops' published an admirable pastoral letter. We could all do worse than read it once more a fortnight before we cast our vote. Contrary to what some sectors of the press were saying when it was issued, it doesn't tell us to vote this way or that. What it does is to highlight the things we should all care passionately about if we see ourselves as citizens participating in a democracy. It challenges us about where our values lie. It proposes how we might bring Christian insights to bear upon the electoral choices we must make. It asks where God might be in our common life as a human family, a nation, a society.

The letter echoes something that G. K. Chesterton once said. He remarked that the trouble with British elections was not that the whole electorate couldn't be bothered to turn out and vote. It was that the whole elector didn't either. He meant that even if we cast our vote, we may only do it half-heartedly, like Yeats' 'lacking all conviction' Perhaps if we are honest, we don't care too much about its outcome or reckon it can change anything. 

But voting is like prayer. What matters as much as the act itself is what we do next so that it makes a real difference. This is how people of faith should believe in the election, and take part in it: with all of our heads and all of our hearts. And yes, definitely: with every prayer we can muster. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

On Reaching a Certain Age

This is the 23,741st day of my life.* One more day of grace. Today is the Ides of April.** More personally, I reach the emblematic age of sixty-five. I can now draw my state pension.

Sixty-five doesn’t carry the significance it once did. Gone are the days when you would be summoned to the MD’s office on your birthday to be given a carriage clock (an eloquent symbol of mortality?), a slice of cake, listen to farewell speeches of varying sincerity and be toasted with a glass of bubbly. Some retire earlier, many later. As readers of this blog know, I am staying on for a few more months. I am not ready to become history just yet. But when that day comes later this year, I don’t think, somehow, that I shall spend my days pruning my roses. There are fresh ways in which I hope I can be useful in retirement to church and wider community. Who knows?

But this is not a blog about retirement. What today marks for me has more to do with the prospect of ageing or, as we used to say, growing old gracefully. And in that respect, this does feel like a significant threshold even if not perhaps a momentous one. It’s reinforced by two other anniversaries that coincide with this 65th year: having been forty years an ordained minister, and twenty as a dean. As I look back, I realise how hugely life has changed during the time I have been ordained, not least in the nation’s religious attitudes and in the culture of the church itself.
I've set aside some months after finishing full-time public ministry to reflect on two things. The first is what other roles might be awaiting me in the ‘third age’, however short or long it may be. That’s the retirement question. The other, is more important: what the years ahead will mean for physical, personal and spiritual health, for the deepening of intimate relationships, for creativity and the enjoyment of life’s gifts, and for journeying purposefully into truth and into God. This feels like an unknown region for now. It will need negotiating with care and self-awareness with the help of those with I am fortunate enough to travel with on this journey of being a human being and a Christian.

‘Old age’ can be a rich and fertile time of life. We know this from those we see flourishing in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Clergy are privileged to have a lot to do with those whom we call ‘senior’. It is wonderful when the elderly flourish, giving so much to church and society through volunteering and the sharing of their lifetime’s experience. There is a beautiful wisdom that comes with age that the Bible, like all ancient civilisations, prizes highly. There are the pleasures in spending time with the young – our grandchildren if we are fortunate to have them, but, as I have also discovered here in Durham through my involvement with choir and school, many others as well. There is the gift of time to reflect on the world in new ways, cultivate the imagination, become more of a contemplative. I hope I can appreciate more and more the sheer wonder of being alive. These are all things I look forward to and hope to have time to enjoy.
It's not so wonderful when we see elderly people who have become diminished through pain, bereavement, suffering and disability, or by the more imperceptible ways life shuts down through disappointment, loneliness, loss of hope or physical weakness. Clergy spend much time with the vulnerable, sick and dying. I wonder how well I would – may have to – cope with the loss of my faculties, failing memory, dementia, incontinence or loss of physical function. I ask myself how gracious I would – may have to – be if I were to become dependent on other people for everyday tasks I don’t even think about right now: communicating, eating and drinking, personal hygiene, getting around. What if I could no longer watch a sunset, read a book, walk the fells or listen to the music of Bach? These disabilities are not unique to age, of course. But every year that passes makes them more likely.

And today as I flip the calendar, I can’t help being sharply aware that an even more daunting threshold awaits. One day it will be time to say farewell to this life. There is no evading the hard truth about mortality. It doesn’t do, the nearer we come to dying, to pretend any more. Philip Larkin’s chillingly great poem ‘Aubade’ plays with our ambivalence as we contemplate ‘unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. ‘“Most things may never happen”: this one will.’ He criticised religion, ‘that great moth-eaten musical brocade / Invented to pretend we never die’ – a brilliant trope, if a cruel judgment on the gospel that has sustained me for a lifetime. But I have learned a lot contemplating that poem. It’s been in my mind since a close colleague and friend dies suddenly before Easter. He was four years younger than me. It has concentrated my thoughts. As the seventeenth century Bishop Jeremy Taylor knew when he wrote his two classics Holy Living and Holy Dying, it's important to think about your own death, and how you intend to live the rest of your life in the light of that certainty.
I have a hunch that symbolically, to turn sixty-five makes it more difficult to ignore – at least, if I want to live the last phase of life honestly, wisely, thankfully and well. And of course joyfully and Christianly – ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’ as the funeral service puts it. The Ides of April sometimes fall in Lent, sometimes in the Easter season. This year it’s Eastertide. That helps my thoughts on ‘reaching a certain age’ to be shaped in the light of Christian hope, which is how we should always think about ageing, mortality and death. It's hope in Christ crucified and risen that illuminates each day we are given to enjoy and grow old in. While we live it makes us wise, and generous, brave, loving and good. And when the end comes, as the hymn says, ‘it takes its terror from the grave / and gilds the bed of death with light’.

Meanwhile, I shall spend much of this 65th birthday on a train with my wife travelling to the other end of England for a conference. A kairos threshold embedded in ordinary time. There’ll be plenty of opportunity to gaze out of the window and ponder landscapes as they hurry by and think the thoughts that emerge. 'Each a glimpse then gone forever.' An apt metaphor of life.

*23,741 = 365 x 65 + 16. The sixteen are for the leap years.**Ides on 13th of every month except 15th March, May, July and October.


Saturday, 4 April 2015

Harrowing Hell: the significance of Easter Eve

It's not Easter Saturday but Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. This day between Good Friday and Easter is unique. No other day feels quite like this, a day of emptiness, of waiting, of hoping.

For the Jewish community, it's the Sabbath or seventh day of the week (and this year, it's also the first day of Passover). That's an important clue to what it means. In the Genesis creation story, God finished his work on the sixth day and rested on the seventh. St John's account of the crucifixion picks up this theme when he has Jesus speak his last word from the cross, 'It is finished'. He has accomplished the new work of creation. Tetelestai! - it is complete. So Jesus can now be laid in the tomb. He can rest. He can keep the Sabbath.

Early next morning, the first day of the week, the tomb is empty. Jesus is up before daybreak. He appears to Mary in the garden. We hear the echoes of the creation story again, the garden of Eden where God places the man and the woman to look after the world that he is making. But now there is a new world. Life is beginning again on this eighth day, this first day of the rest of history. Everything is transfigured. Nothing is the same again after this Sabbath.  

So on this day we are 'between times': between old and new, between past and future, between expectation and fulfilment. Traditionally, Easter Eve is 'a-liturgical', that is, a day when the church doesn't celebrate the liturgy but enters into the mysterious pause between one era and the next. The altars are stripped after Maundy Thursday, the church is forlorn and bare, its songs have fallen silent. It's like Zion as she is depicted in the Book of Lamentations: desolate, abandoned, void. Nothing stirs; nothing happens. This is the Sabbath of the grave.

I'm speaking symbolically, of course, about the lifelessness of Easter Eve. Yet in medieval theology, it was on Holy Saturday that a great drama was acted out in unseen places. When Christ went down to the grave, it was in order to harrow hell and bring redemption to lost souls who had been condemned to die. The new Adam goes to rescue the old. 'He descended into hell' we recite in the creed. Those words aren't easy to say. Some treat them as no more than a colourful way of talking about his death.

But let's use our spiritual imagination here. One way is to say: the cross has not only personal but cosmic significance. Nothing is beyond the reach of God's redemption, and Jesus goes to the far side of all that is dark and dreadful to achieve it. Even the hells of this world are not beyond the scope of God's loving purposes. How could the gospel have a truly universal dimension without the harrowing of hell?

Back here, Easter Eve may be liturgically a day of rest, but it is also a day of preparation. There is work to do after all. Like Jewish people preparing for the Passover, there is a festival to get ready for both at home and in church. In the Cathedral, rehearsals for the great liturgy of Easter dawn take place. The best vestments are being laid out, the golden hangings are placed on the altar, the church is cleaned, and flowers and decorations are being arranged. The Cathedral will never look more beautiful than it does on Easter Day.

So as we pass symbolically through the grave and gate of death, we wait for the celebration of a new dawn. We shall be there, ready to greet him when he comes to us at first light in the breaking of the bread. Our hearts will burn within us as we hear the voice of our Beloved who calls us by name and tells us not to be afraid.

Here is my translation of a familiar Easter hymn.

Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.
Radiant in the morning, angels bright come down,
Greet the day that’s dawning, hail the conqueror’s crown:

Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.

See Jesus meets you, see your Lord appear!
Hear the word that greets you, tells you love is here.
Dance with joy and gladness, people of the Lord.
Banish grief and sadness, tell the news abroad!

Fear flies before him: evermore he lives!
O my heart adore him! peace and joy he gives.
Christ my mighty conqueror, Christ my gracious friend,
Christ my life and glory, till all ages end: