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

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Slaughter on the Beach: in whose name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 June 2015

In a Meadow at Runnymede: Magna Carta 1215-2015

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

'Dear Deans': a response from the north

A grenade has been lobbed into the playground of the Deans. Richard Moy of Christ Church W4 has written a blog entitled Dear Deans.* He has visited a handful of cathedrals for midweek services, a 'nearly deserted' Durham among them. And he is left with a question: Do we have any interest in the conversion of England – or even the survival of faith within the CofE?

His complaint comes down to this. In the CofE cathedrals he visited, there was no homily at any of the services, and no attempt to present the Christian faith or interpret the scriptures. He writes: St Paul’s had all the atmosphere of being a hen in a petting zoo as tourists at the north, south, west and east ends of the sanctuary surrounding the hapless worship pets (literally) like children on a field trip; and the lectionary readings at Durham/Canterbury were so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer / chance visitor/faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming).

He goes on: The Church of England should not indefinitely spend the millions it does each year (£9.1million in 2013 on stipends / staffing) propping up Cathedral ministry partly on the basis of it’s (sic) alleged attendance statistics if no serious attempt is made to communicate the Christian faith when people attend public worship. The apostle said ‘woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.’ Woe indeed. If the Deans really can’t find a preacher for a five minute gospel homily I’ll happily send one of our highly talented interns...

We deans mustn't get defensive. It's important to expose ourselves to criticism, look at what we do and how we do it, and learn from colleagues in Christian ministry. Here in Durham we often ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to help 700,000 visitors not only enjoy and be inspired by what they experience in this cathedral, but also to understand what it stands for. Believe me, we are well aware of the evangelistic privileges and challenges that we have here.

A couple of deans have offered measured comments on Richard's blogsite, and Pete Willcox the Dean of Liverpool has written an excellent, comprehensive response in a blog of his own.** In it, he invites Richard to experience for himself the extraordinary diversity of activity in that great cathedral including worship, prayer and pilgrimage, outreach, social care, the arts, Christian common life and a whole lot else.

I want to ask a few questions of my own. (And they are questions that I hope will help the conversation along.)

1. Is Richard's concept of how God speaks to human beings unduly selective and narrow? Doesn't God make himself known in an infinite variety of ways, not simply through the spoken word. Cathedrals are numinous sacred spaces that speak of the divine not only through their buildings but also in the life and activity of their communities: daily prayer and worship, music and the arts, a common life of love and service, all of which play a part in building up the people of God and communicating faith. I am not undervaluing the role of preaching - far from it. But the gospel is lived out and testified to in a thousand different ways in churches and cathedrals everywhere. Look in our visitors' books to see how people are given glimpses of God and hear the Living Word speaking to them in unexpected ways that we can't and mustn't control. An incarnate God has freedoms that always transcend the limits our fallen nature wants to put on him. He speaks in many ways.

2. Does Richard underestimate the key role liturgy plays in speaking of faith? Wesley called the eucharist 'a converting ordinance'. Paul says that the breaking of bread is to 'show forth the Lord's death until he comes' - show forth being a strong, outward-facing missionary word. The Apostle wants the church's worship to be so compelling that people venturing in from outside have no choice but to conclude that 'God is among you'. The huge investment of care that goes into cathedral worship is at the heart of our witness to the gospel. People have been converted through coming to midweek choral evensong. (You don't believe me?)

3. Would Richard address the same criticism about the spiritual disciplines of religious houses - monasteries and convents? Yet these powerhouses of prayer play a vital part in the spirituality and mission of the church. Cathedrals and religious communities believe with conviction that corporate daily prayer should be at the heart of what we do. How many local churches are still open day by day to welcome those who wish to join our communities for public prayer? Who can say what the benefits of this may be, not just for its participants but for the world, our society, the church and for people in pain and need all of whom we hold before God in public cathedral worship at least three times every day?

4. Does Richard need to think a little more deeply about the part heritage can play in evangelism? Here in Durham, we are clear that Christian heritage is not an end in itself. It is one of our greatest tools in presenting Christian faith as a lived and life-changing reality. We have invested over £10M into our 'Open Treasure' project which is designed to interpret the Cathedral's past through the marvellous artefacts and buildings that tell its story. But the key aims of the project are to open up the 'treasure' of the gospel, and the 'treasure' of the Christian community that has borne witness to it in past ages and continues to do so today. So 'Open Treasure' is about two central Christian values: mission, and hospitality. (By the way, these paid-for exhibitions will help us to continue to maintain free visitor admission to the Cathedral itself, something we believe itself speaks of God's own free hospitality and generous invitation to come to him as the gift of his grace.)

5. Does Richard need to revisit his understanding of scripture? It is true that the daily readings from the Bible often raise sharp questions. When 'difficult' passages come up in the evensong lectionary at Durham, readers usually introduce them with a sentence or two in order to help worshippers understand the context. Yes, interpretation is vital (and cathedrals take very seriously the need to interpret themselves and the faith they stand for to those who have little or no concept of Christian, or any other, faith). But does he really believe that Bible reading can be so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer/chance visitor/faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming)? Leaving aside the rhetorical way he puts it, I wonder if it betokens an over-anxiety, a lack of trust in the God who always responds to those who feel after him and find him.

6. Does Richard need to inform himself a bit better about the many ways in which cathedrals are engaging with the national church and specifically the Church Commissioners so as to be properly accountable for their mission, given the resources that are expended on cathedral ministry? He might be surprised - even pleased - to discover the extent and range of evangelism and outreach activity there is in the 42 cathedrals of England.

Some people - Richard may be one of them - may imagine that as an 18th observer put it, cathedrals are merely 'asylums for amiable gentlemen with indistinct convictions'. Or heritage theme parks. Or exhibition halls and concert venues. If you get to know us, you may want to think again. For the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, a cathedral is 'a creation imagined by the human spirit in order to affirm an inspiration and a faith'. Deans are spiritual leaders who are engaged in Christian mission every day of their lives. Cathedrals are not perfect when it comes to mission or anything else. We are painfully aware of so much unrealised potential. But they are also places of remarkable growth, lively faith, Christian flourishing and energetic outreach. And yes indeed, 'woe to us if we do not preach the gospel'. There isn't a dean in the land who doesn't aspire to inhabit that truth and pray for the gifts to live it.

Richard, you are a partner in that shared enterprise of proclamation and witness-bearing. Please don't knock us!

*Richard Moy's blog is at http://richardmoy.com/2015/06/03/dear-deans/
**The Dean of Liverpool's response is at https://deardeans.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/a-response-to-richard-moys-dear-deans-challenge/