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

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: May

In the Deanery garden we have a bellwether to signal the seasons as they turn: a glorious beech hedge. In autumn it lingers green when the trees go gold and red. When it finally succumbs, its crinkly dead leaves hang on to their moorings until a sudden explosion of green displaces them in late spring. It's always the last survivor of winter as if to say to daffodils and bluebells, don't get your hopes up too soon. Wait for me. I'll give you the cue to trust that summer is on its way. 

The liturgical cycle has its own way of telling us that 'summer is icumen in'. The Rogation Litany in procession offers prayers for good harvests, especially for the poor, a memory of the Jewish Feast of Weeks that marked the early ripening grain and looked forward to reaping its full harvest in the summer. Ascension Day marks the 40th day of the Easter season with a joyful celebration of Christ's reign over all things. This year I preach at the Durham churches' open air service in the evocative and beautiful ruins of Finchale Priory, a few miles downstream from Durham where the hermit Godric came to live and pray the solitary life 900 years ago. The big wide sky above our heads speaks of both a hermit's solitariness in a remote place and the heaven that is the central metaphor in the Ascension story. It should be a warm balmy May evening. Instead it is grey, windy and bitterly cold. I  keep the sermon short!

Whitsunday or Pentecost feels like a forgotten church festival. No longer married to a bank holiday (though they coincide this year) 'Whit' means no more than the last weekend of May. On this last day of Easter, the church and its ministers are decked in brilliant red to recall the fiery gift of the Spirit. At evensong we go in procession to the Galilee Chapel to say our final prayers at the Easter Garden by the huge stone rolled away in front of the empty tomb. We shout our concluding alleluias and extinguish the Paschal Candle for the last time. 'Ordinary time' is here again.

Except not quite in Durham. For Whit Monday 25 May is the festival of St Bede the Venerable, another high day in our calendar with more festivity, music and incense. His shrine in the Galilee is one of the holy places in North East England, like St Curhbert's at the other end of the Cathedral. But unlike Cuthbert, Bede did not belong here to begin with. He had been buried in his own monastery at Jarrow 20 miles away in 735. But the Saxon monks of Durham wanted him, not just for his legendary wisdom and holiness but because it was mostly thanks to Bede's writings that the world knew anything at all about Cuthbert and his heroic sanctity. So in 1022 a monk of Durham went to Jarrow, became a member of that monastic community, and having earned the trust of his brothers, lifted Bede's precious relics one night (I imagine it was done under cover of darkness) and brought them back to Durham where they have been to this day. This practice of 'sacred theft' was not unknown across medieval Europe. It was seen as a way of 'helping' a saint find the place where he or she was destined to lie. Go to the Abbey of Conques in South west France, for example, where Sainte Foy's relics travelled a lot further than Bede's. But I can't help having an uneasy conscience about him when I show Jarrow people his tomb.

What else has the merry month of May brought? For students, exams. While we feel for them, we don't regret the peace and quiet that descends on university cities during the exam period even if we pay for it with riotous celebrations when it is all over. For the tourist industry, it is the start of the high season. The Cathedral is thronged with visitors day after day. Our several hundred volunteer stewards do a magnificent job welcoming them at the door, putting a human face on this majestic but - to some - intimidating building. May and June are big Saga months for the more mature visitor (not an ageist remark: at 65 I am now in my second Saga decade). But there are also lots of school groups on visits organised by our own Education Centre whose enthusiasm in helping youngsters enjoy, understand and respond to the Cathedral is truly inspiring. 

And May has brought a much anticipated gift to the Cathedral Chapter: three new members, two lay, one ordained, all of them women, who fill the empty places vacated by colleagues who left Durham last year. It is very good to have the Chapter table fully populated once more after several months. The Cathedral's governance is secure. And I am proud that our Chapter gender balance puts us in the forefront of cathedrals in terms of equality. 

I am writing this May blog on the last day of the month, this year Trinity Sunday. The long 'green' weeks of the Trinity season stretch far ahead across high summer and into the autumn. For us, that will mean retirement and the hard task in September of saying farewell to this holy and beautiful place with its rich communities of wonderful people. It suddenly feels a lot closer. I feel a sigh coming on. 

And yet.... The advent of summer is always a rich time of gifts. And while the order of time runs its course in this our last Durham summer, God's mercies endure for a lifetime. And with them, precious memories and great thankfulness. 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Dying Matters

It's a bank holiday weekend. The sun is shining. The world is beautiful. Tomorrow is Whit Sunday. It's not a time to be gloomy.


This is Dying Matters Awareness Week. I wish I'd known about it sooner. I became aware of it yesterday as I was reading the Catholic weekly The Tablet. This always excellent journal leads on the subject, and there is an excellent article by Rosie Harper, an Anglican priest, about helping people talk naturally about death.

This is what the week is intended to be about: recovering the importance of thinking about and discussing end-of-life matters: palliative care, dying, death, loss and grief. I say ‘recover’ because as we know, the difficulty we have in even naming some of these topics seems a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Our forebears did not stumble over facing the incontrovertible truth of the old tag memento mori. To remember the certainty of death and to reflect on dying well is all part of learning to live well, and not just well but happily.
The Dying Matters hashtag is #YODO: You Only Die Once. It’s good. I’m learning late in my life that the things we only do once are supremely worth investing time and effort in. Yesterday I was giving an address to school-leavers. I talked about how they might cross this unique threshold of becoming an adult with thankfulness, hope and joy. I linked it with my own imminent retirement, another threshold that carries significance for the whole of my working life, not just the few weeks that are left and whatever lies beyond. I spoke about (horrid word, but useful) mindfulness. If I’d been talking to fellow clergy or caring professionals I might have spoken about awareness or reflective practice. The words don’t matter. What 's important is that we draw on our emotional and spiritual intelligence to bear upon these life-changing passages we all have to negotiate.  
This year’s Dying Matters theme is Talk, Plan, Live. The website says: ‘During the week, we will be encouraging members of the public to take five simple steps to make their end of life experience better, both for them and for their loved ones.’ These are: 1 Write your will; 2 Record your funeral wishes; 3 Plan your future care and support; 4 Consider registering as an organ donor; 5 Tell your loved ones your wishes.
Here in Durham (and we are not alone), we have encouraged this approach to death by inviting members of the Cathedral Community to design their funeral rite, or as much of it as they wish, and deposit it in writing with the Precentor. We often have deeply-held desires about the shape of the service: where it should take place, who should be involved in it, the readings, music and hymns we would like, what is to happen to our body and so forth. This is of real help to shocked and grieving next of kin and to the ministers who support them. Unless incorporated in a legal will, our funeral wishes are not legally binding, but loved ones will almost always want to respect them. (And if we change our minds subsequently – i.e. not after death but before it! – we can amend as we wish.)

We only die once. It’s an event worth taking seriously. I’m not talking about ‘designer dying’ as if it were a lifestyle (deathstyle?) choice. I mean investing in dying as the culmination of living, a gateway that we hope to pass through with the dignity that belongs to a human being made in the image of God. The seventeenth century Bishop Jeremy Taylor famously called it Holy Dying. Here’s the reason we need to talk about it more. Death is not simply a solitary matter for each of us personally. It is communitarian. Apart from its public and civil aspects – recording it, investigating it if necessary, handling the succession in accordance with law – it’s an event that belongs to all our communities of love, trust and care: our family, our faith community, our neighbourhood and the institutions we have belonged to. In each case, ‘every man’s death diminishes me.’

Nothing can be more important than the way we say farewell and honouring the memories that are left behind. I always feel the chill in the Ash Wednesday words 'dust you are, and to dust you shall return', especially when I say them to children as I impose the ashes on their foreheads. But being mortal, with our existence bounded by a beginning and an ending, is something we can learn to celebrate for the focus it gives to the unique meaning of each precious human life.

It makes me wonder why the Church of England isn’t making much more of it – or perhaps I have missed something? This year, Dying Matters Awareness Week falls at the very end of the Easter season. What better time to meditate on death in the light of these Great Fifty Days, and Christian faith’s sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead?

Even at the grave we sing alleluia!

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Why Did They Resign? Political leaders and election fallout

Why did Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg believe they had to resign after their parties' election defeat?

What they each said in their own way was: 'I take responsibility as my party's leader for this outcome, and therefore I must resign'. Both men acted with dignity. We should respect that. As Malcolm says of the executed Cawdor in the Scottish Play, 'nothing in his life became him like the leaving it' (thanks to a Twitter follower for reminding me of that famous speech in Macbeth). I'm aware as retirement comes down the slipway that leaving an office well is just as important as arriving well and inhabiting it convincingly.

Someone tweeted that it's noble, and gospel-like, to lay down your life (and career) for your friends. That's far better than politicians who cynically lay down their friends for their lives, as Jeremy Thorpe said of Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives (thanks to a comment on this blog for that). I am sure that both men acted out of the best instincts in resigning. And doubtless the widespread British enjoyment of seeing leaders brought low has been satisfied. But my question is, did they have to take this drastic step? Might it not have been better if they had carried on for a while, picked up the pieces, help their party reflect and regroup and begin to find a way forward?  Isn't a crisis the real test of leadership?

I was discussing this with a friend who is a seasoned politician and well-versed in the relationships between political leaders and a mercurial public. She said that this is just how it is in British politics. Like football managers and CEOs in business, it's the results that count. If your club is relegated, or your business outturns take a hit, it's not easy to survive as a leader. There is a drive to purge out the old, begin afresh. It's a fact about most revolutions in history. There is a crisis. The leadership are blamed or blame themselves. They have to go, either at their own volition or the enforced will of others.

But the dynamic is more complicated than that. The 'blame' culture we know a lot about infects not just the collective behaviour of a group like a political party, but also its leaders' own sense of self. It isn't necessarily conscious. In such a culture, it's easy for leaders to say to themselves, 'this is my fault' - even if it isn't - because of the projections the group will put on them. I'm aware that when people accuse me of failing in some way, letting the side down, I default to assuming that they must be right about. Then I feel I should take responsibility and blame myself. I am intuitively aware that if I do this, own up and apologise, a kind of catharsis will take place. The situation will be righted again, cleansed of the malign influence that caused it to wobble. Even if I am not to blame!

This is the well-understood phenomenon of scapegoating. A victim is made to 'carry' the wrongdoing of a group and is banished to the wilderness, a far-off safe place where defilement can no longer damage the community. The Old Testament has a lot to say about this: the scapegoat is one of the ways in which the Hebrew people were to find reconciliation healing. It's among the images the New Testament uses to depict Jesus banished to die 'outside the camp' and take our sins with him. The French theologian Rene Girard has written extensively about this ritual 'mimetic' way of dealing with social wrong and disorder (for instance in his book Violence and the Sacred). By loading a victim with 'blame' and driving it out, stability is restored.

Political parties, like all organisations(including the church), can behave like this when under threat from real or imagined disorder in its midst. It's how the far right thinks of immigrants and asylum-seekers. It has to be 'their' fault. The principle is: the social group must recover stability if it is to survive. Find a victim who will take this burden off everybody else. As I say, these forces are often unconscious. They seem to have been at work in the Labour and LibDem parties in the aftermath of the election.

Paradoxically, when a leader says 'it's all my fault', he or she can collude with a kind of self-aggrandisement that a moment's thought will show is misplaced. These days, political parties, like churches, are organisations of consent. You can't be a leader and indulge in command-control and the fantasy of omnipotence, not if you want your party to flourish. Mainstream political parties, including Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are places of keen open debate. It's not, I'm sure, that mistakes weren't made in some policy areas. All I'm saying is the leaders can only go where the organisation is willing for them to. Of course good leadership means expanding horizons, offering new directions of travel. Managing change is difficult and painful. But ultimately, it's the organisation that takes responsibility for it. Especially when it prides itself in believing in democratic values.  

So I want to say to Ed and Nick, neither of whom I know personally: don't carry this responsibility on your own. Don't blame yourself. Don't buy into the scapegoat mentality and go out into the wilderness. Don't imagine that you were omnipotent enough to fail by yourself. You did your best for your party, and didn't act out of self-interest. You conducted decent campaigns and as leaders performed credibly. You largely held the trust of those you led. You could have stayed on and been part of the long hard process of reconstruction. You can still contribute to that journey in important ways. I hope you will, for the good of democracy and the political life in our nation.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Election and the Ascension: a theological meditation on leadership

Three days since we went to the polls. How long ago it seems. But far from the election clearing the air, the atmosphere is still febrile. Time will tell whether things will stabilise or whether the nation will find itself pulled apart by social forces that may not be contained for much longer.

But whatever is on the agenda, what we want to be reassured about in our political leaders is that they have not been elevated far above our sight and our common human experience.  We need to know that they are not absentee incumbents but still belong to our world, still get their hands dirty, still share our hopes and fears for the future.  We all know how risky high office can be; we have seen it corrupt men and women, and some of us know from within how easily we begin to have inflated ideas about ourselves and our power. 

Thursday is Ascension Day. I think it holds up a mirror to all who find themselves exalted in public places.  ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?’ asks one of the psalms we shall sing.  ‘Those who have clean hands and pure hearts; and has not lifted up their mind to vanity, nor sworn to deceive their neighbours.’  That rite of entry into the sanctuary may especially have been meant for the Israelite king to remind him of his place in the divine scheme of things and not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. 

In his ascension, Jesus mounts the throne of his glory. But it is not the ‘happy ending’ to an earthly career, the tidy closure we would like to see at the end of the story.  Nor is it the restoration of an earthly kingdom as the disciples so much wanted, or even the promise of it.  Still less is it that he has abandoned us as if he had disappeared, though it may seem like that as we gaze like the disciples into an empty sky.  It affirms what Jesus has been proclaiming throughout his ministry, that God reigns, and he calls us to embrace his reign with joy and become subject to it.  It affirms that the exalted Christ ‘fills all things’, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it. It affirms that it is our own destiny to be exalted with Christ, and that is wonderfully to glorify and ennoble our human nature.

But we need to get 'glory' in perspective. The ascension is of a piece with everything Jesus has been to us in his incarnate life. The scriptures speak of his exaltation in the imagery of the coronation of the kings of Israel. But if we follow that imagery back to its source we are drawn back to the obligations of kingship as well as its privileges.  The king is to be loyal to the covenant between God and his people; indeed, he is there to guarantee all that it promises: peace, wellbeing, justice, the care of God’s humble poor. 

In one of the psalms (82) God sits in a cosmic court with all the heavenly beings gathered round him for judgment.  Are these beings worthy of their exalted status, to be called elohim, gods?  The test is simple.  ‘Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute; rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’  It is the mandate for wise and just government in any age. But they fail it dismally.  ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’ So they are toppled from their thrones.  ‘I say, you are gods, nevertheless you shall die like mortals and fall like any prince.’  To be dethroned is the destiny of those who aggrandise themselves, who forget who they are and to whom they owe account.   In Jewish tradition this saying is applied to corrupt leaders who have forfeited the right to govern.  They have ascended the hill of the Lord, only to fall from the pedestal by the sin of pride.  

The exalted Christ is not like them.  For he bears the imprint of the nails on his body, and takes us with him into God’s very heart. The Letter to the Hebrews says that even in its imagined heavenly realms, he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He can help those because he himself was tested by what he suffered. Jesus is not simply one of the elohim in the psalm but is above all other principality and power.  Yet, exalted though he is, he is always present to the lowliest of his family, the hungry and naked, the voiceless and the poor, those whom St Matthew calls ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’  

So humility and service characterise the ascension of Jesus. There is no pomp and ceremony, no whirlwind or fiery chariot or a fanfare of trumpets. He was and is the Son of Man who healed the sick and spoke kindly to the neglected, who washed his disciples’ feet, agonised in Gethsemane and went out to die.  Any other messiah would not have been born in a stable, executed between thieves, raised secretly behind a stone, or ascended without ceremony on an obscure hilltop with only a handful of witnesses to tell of it.  Only this Messiah could bear the marks of the nails in his glorified hands and feet and be pictured as a Lamb upon a throne.  Only this Messiah could be both priest and victim and make his approach to us in lowly bread and wine so that we might welcome him, and exalt him in our hearts. 
I call this kenotic ascension. The word means self-emptying. For Jesus' way of exaltation is in the spirit of the whole story we tell about his abasement I which he takes the form of a slave and lays down his life for his friends. As he says in the upper room, 'I am among you as one who serves' - not only in his days on earth but always. The foot washing affirms for all time that it isn't Olympian grandeur that God cares about. It's self-giving service of every kind that is exalted and blessed in the gospel, because in the imitation of Christ, truth and justice are honoured, mercy and peace meet together, and in the movement of self-giving love, the poor are not forgotten.
We who are in ministry need to remind ourselves of this, whether we are in the service of church or state or serve in any other representative role. Public office holds many pitfalls: the higher we climb, the better we become known, the more proficient we become, the more we are at risk of the sin of pride and the further there is to fall. But Jesus' exaltation models a more excellent way of leadership. St Theresa famously said that we are the only hands and feet Christ now has to do his work in the world.  But not as an absentee or remote sovereign. Far from it. The ascension affirms that he leaves the world only so that he can be present to it for ever. 'It is good that I go away.'
It's this quality of 'presence' that we all need, especially in our leaders, as together we endeavour to construct a society that serves the common good and thereby points to the promised kingdom.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

For I will Consider my Cat Godiva

Not quite a quotation from the poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771). He was gifted, devout and more than a little mad. Among his most charming outpourings is the long versified tribute he paid to his cat, written in the Bedlam Asylum where he was confined. It's part of his great poem on creation, Jubilate Agno from which Benjamin Britten drew the text of his marvellous work Rejoice in the Lamb.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.

In a long list of his amazing accomplishments comes this:

For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is
docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an
eminence into his master’s bosom.

I wish I had Smart's flair for words when it comes to our beloved cat Godiva who died this week. She was twenty, a great age. She could not rise to half Jeoffry's attainments (she was never much good at spraggling though she could certainly jump from an eminence, and was doing so right up to last weekend). She outlived her characterful brother Leofric who died eight years ago. And she achieved something that even Jeoffrey could not have dreamed of. She had her own Twitter feed (@HRHLadyGodiva).

Why Godiva, you ask? She was originally called Bridget when we adopted her from the cat shelter in Sheffield where we had just moved. (Leofric's name had been Carlton.) The children wanted to name them in memory of our happy eight years in Coventry. So Earl Leofric and his brave wife Godiva fitted the bill. With the years, Leo transmuted at times into the Shakespearian Leontes and then the 'Cat of Glory'. Godiva simply became Diva or Dives (and not as in 'and Lazarus').

A more affectionate creature than Godiva was never born. Especially after Leo died, she craved human company. She would wander all over this great house seeking it. She was not fussy: Susan my PA, Linda our housekeeper, John the Head Porter, the students upstairs in the eyrie all doted on her. She attended Chapter meetings, seminars on the Psalms, recitals in Priors' Hall, fundraising events in the solarium. She has met a Prime Minister, members of the Royal Family, sundry ambassadors, lords lieutenant, high sheriffs, mayors, vice-chancellors and bishops without number. She never went far from the Deanery (unlike Leo who was twice caught invading the neighbours' cat-flaps and stealing the food of other College cats). She was timid and risk-averse, near the bottom of the feline food chain.

Despite what it says on her Twitter profile, she had little sense of being a World Heritage Cat living in Grade One listed surroundings. (This is despite being a published cat: she and Leo are the subject of a chapter in Richard Surman's illustrated book Cathedral Cats, Collins 2005.) Maybe the Deanery turned her head a little, for she would follow us round the house like a puppy dog eager to please, not at all the Senior Cat she could have been by rights. To the very end, she insisted on clambering on to the amplest vacant lap or settling into a her well-shaped hollow on the sofa to keep us company while we watched TV.

Maybe Godiva's feline sense of self was prematurely arrested by Leo's bullying tactics. Dogs are famously supposed to have owners while cats have staff, but Godiva was too dependent to grasp this important principle. Freud said that time spent with cats was never wasted. Godiva believed that it was definitely the other way round. She was never more miserable than when she was devoid of human companionship. She would trust anyone, incapable of believing that anyone might wish her harm. She hated the sight of bags and suitcases in the hall which meant that we were going away.

For the last year or two, she was completely deaf but this enabled her to find her voice for the first time. She would welcome us vocally when we came into the room, or cry and wail down the long echoing corridors looking for us until we went to find her for the sake of a quiet life. Then a few days ago she went blind too. It was poignant and sad to see her wandering around not knowing where she was, colliding with the furniture, tumbling on steps, her only awareness of us being our touch and caresses. It was kinder not to let this misery go on.

Like every pet who is loved, Godiva carried so many associations. She witnessed two decades of Sadgrove history. Fond recollections of our children, family Christmases, birthdays and Easter egg hunts, celebrations and losses, the highs and lows of life come flooding back. Without her, the house seems empty and a trifle forlorn. It already 'knows' that we are leaving in a few months' time. We miss her funny foxy tortoiseshell face, her creeping around behind us, the warmth of her cherished hollow on the sofa. This parting feels like part of a long-drawn-out farewell. But she leaves behind a rich vein of memories. She has been a loving companion for half our married life, half my working life, the entire time I have been a dean. We are thankful for it all.

So on the day she died I said a prayer of thanksgiving for our pets at evensong. I don't know what I believe about life after death when it comes to animals. But Christopher Smart was right. Animals belong to the world God has made. His love embraces them as it does all of creation: Cuthbert and Francis both teach us that. In her own idiosyncratic cattish way Godiva too has been the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him. Yes, we shall consider, and never forget, our Cat Godiva.