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

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: July

People don't always believe me when I say that in cathedrals, the diary in June and July tends to be more full than either Advent and Christmas, or Holy Week and Easter. If you've read this blog before, you'll know that I heartily dislike the word 'busy'. So let me just say that at this time of year there is quite a lot to do.

What is it that fills these July days?

Much of it is end-of-year services and events. Thousands of people come through the doors to attend them, most of them young. There are several consecutive days of big lively school leavers' services for church schools across the diocese. There are more than a dozen University graduation ceremonies that occupy the best part of a week. The ancient schools founded by the Cathedral, Durham School and the Chorister School, hold services to mark the close of the school year including Choristers' Speech Day. And at the end of a long series of valedictory events, the last Sunday of the choir year comes round when we say a fond farewell to choristers and adults who are leaving us. (For more, read my last blog on this site.)

But this isn't all. In every cathedral's calendar, summer ordinations are high days. They bring great gatherings of people from across the country (and beyond) to celebrate the rites of passage into different phases of public ministry. In Durham, we ordain the priests and deacons at separate services over a weekend, the priests on Saturday evening and the deacons on Sunday morning. This year I had the privilege of conducting the ordination retreat and preaching at both the services. This was poignant for me because I was ordained deacon 40 years ago this summer, and, as regular readers know, shall be laying aside stipendiary public ministry early in the autumn. So the ordinations gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in that time and to share a few insights with those who are now embarking on this great journey.

The week after the ordinations, July brings two big services that are quintessentially 'Durham'. The first is the Miners' Gala Service on the afternoon of the 'Big Meeting' that brings over one hundred thousand people into the city to celebrate Durham's mining heritage and the lives of the working people of the North East. It's a sight you won't see anywhere else in England. The Cathedral is always packed out. It's a most moving service at which the year's new banners are processed in with their colliery bands to be blessed by the Bishop. I've blogged about it before. Someone said to me in my first year here that I would never understand Durham Cathedral until I had been to this service and seen for myself how the people of County Durham claim this Cathedral as their own.

The other big service takes place the next morning, Matins for the Courts of Justice. Like the Miners' Service, this is another colourful piece of sacred drama, but in every other way it's a complete contrast. This gathering to celebrate the Queen's Peace brings together senior people including Lords Lieutenant, High Sheriffs and High Court judges from the four counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and North Yorkshire. The High Sheriff asked me to preach this year at my last such service. Since I was speaking to an audience that included many people from the legal profession, I spoke about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Archbishop Stephen Langton's role in creating it, and the significance of the Great Charter's religious origins.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick towards 27 September when our Durham years come to an end. There have been so many 'last times' this summer, farewells not just for the summer holidays but for good. No doubt I'll write more in this vein as our retirement horizon comes into view, as it must once we start saying, as we shall have to in August, 'next month...'. How swiftly it all flies by. 'Life's but a passing shadow' quoted Rik Mayall in his final TV interview before he died. Those words of Shakespeare were etched on a sundial on the house opposite ours in Salisbury in the 1970s. I used to look at that verb sap out of my study window a dozen times each day. But its truth is coming home to me now as the days grow perceptibly shorter. 'Summer's lease hath all too short a date.'

But we want to enjoy this last Durham summer to the full while we can, to be present to each day as our time here draws to a close. In De Caussade's great insight, it's a call to practise the 'sacrament of the present moment', to see all of time as the gift of God, our yesterdays, our todays, our tomorrows. This is an incredibly beautiful place in which to have lived and worked. We have been, and are, surrounded by wonderful people in the communities of the Cathedral and of this part of England. Our lives have been touched and changed in ways that we can only just begin to glimpse, even if it will take years to appreciate them for what they really are.  

If you have the stamina, you can read the sermons I've mentioned on my other blogsite, http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

'O May we Soon Again Renew that Song': choir farewell Sunday

This is the day we have not wanted to arrive, for it has marked the end of Durham Cathedral Choir's year. At the end of evensong, we said farewell to our leavers: boy and girl choristers, choral scholars, a lay clerk and an assistant organist. It's the day when another year of music-making in the Cathedral is gathered up and celebrated.

It's a significant day for all of us, but especially for the choristers who have reached the age of 13. For them, this is not just the end of their chorister days. It is the end of their time in the Chorister School. Some will have been pupils for as many as five years or, or even more. So this rite of passage marks the end of their childhood. Next year, they will be in secondary schools, small fish in much bigger ponds. Life will be very different.

It's the biggest evensong of the year. Parents and families recognise the importance of today. Some choristers have had older brothers or sisters in the choir too, so we welcome back many old friends. They come together from all over the country. There are quips before the service about 'Sob Sunday' or 'Tissue Evensong' but we know that we are not joking about the emotions the day arouses. It feels like the breaking up of a tight-knit, intimate family. Never again will this particular group of talented youngsters and adults make music together as the 'foundation' of this great Cathedral. It echoes the emotions Malory says King Arthur had when his knights rode out on the quest for the Holy Grail and he knew he would never see them all together again sitting at that round table.

It’s Prayer Book evensong as we always do it on a Sunday. This year, I am in residence so I conduct the service. The psalms and readings are those appointed in the lectionary. But the Cathedral has evolved farewell traditions that have come to mean a great deal. The first hymn is a Durham favourite, John Mason's How shall I sing that Majesty? to the majestic tune Coe Fen. The canticle setting is the powerful Blair in B Minor. The anthem is C. H. H. Parry's 8-part Blest Pair of Sirens. In the intercessions we pray for our Cathedral musicians, the Chorister School and those who are leaving. The final hymn is always Lead kindly light (the theme of the Precentor’s fine sermon this morning).

After the blessing, the leavers come out to the Scott Screen at the entrance to the quire. At this step where I once admitted them to the foundation, I now 'read them out' at the end of their time. I stand before them with the Precentor, the Organist and the Head. This is the hard part. I say a few words of thanks and valediction and try not to catch the eyes of any of them in particular. Here's what I say.

It’s time to say goodbye to members of the choir who are leaving us: seven senior girl choristers, four senior boy choristers, three choral scholars, a lay clerk and our assistant organist. With so many departures you may wonder if anyone will be left behind to carry on!

I want to say to all our leavers: you have been an inspiration to us. In your music you have expressed our praise and gratitude, our sorrow and lament, our hopes, our longings, our joy. Our worship would not be what it is without you.

Durham Cathedral will always be a part of you, just as you will always be part of the Cathedral. You won’t forget the music, the worship, the building, this wonderful place. But I hope you’ll also remember the people you have met here, and who have become your friends. 

You have given so much to Durham. But Durham has given a lot to you. So let it inspire you to serve God wherever life leads you. I’d like to think that that the memory can inspire and help you to make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others.

You leave with our affection, best wishes, and our prayers.  It will always be good to see you when you come back to the Cathedral, as I hope you do often.

So thank you. Go with our blessing. Go with God. 

The choir processes out singing Psalm 150, O praise God in his holiness. In the Chapter House there are presentations and applause, and then the singing of a final Psalm: 84, O how amiable are thy dwellings. We end with the prayer of dismissal I use with the choir each day after evensong. There is more applause, then hugs, photos and tears. Some linger around to reminisce; others want to make a quick getaway. It is not long before the first cars drive out of the College. I imagine the children looking back as they turn into the Bailey and pass the Cathedral for the last time. When we get back to the Deanery, we feel a bit forlorn.

I've sometimes wondered whether we should put the choristers, indeed all of us, through this public ordeal. That worry is soon answered. Of course we must thank them publicly for their huge commitment to the Cathedral, not simply as musicians but as our companions in worship, discovery, friendship and laughter. And of course there must be a proper leave-taking in which we all acknowledge that an unforgettable chapter in our lives has come to an end. Rites of separation are always painful, but there is tenderness in bitter-sweet goodbyes.

The ritual doesn't pretend that a chorister's career, or that of any cathedral musician, is easy. The exacting demands of cathedral life impose stresses and strains on all of us at times. Cathedrals have their shadow, like every human institution. But a good farewell ceremony is like a good funeral. It enables us to say thank you. It recognises the depth of our relationships. It gives us a structure in which to face our loss, and to grieve. It helps fix our memories so that we can tell our story about them one day. All of this has happened this afternoon. A lot of important emotional work has been done.

For me, it's toward the end of Blest Pair of Sirens that I feel the reality for myself. Parry's music falls and then rises again as Milton concludes his great poem on a note of exquisite longing: for a world in which lost harmonies are restored, and where the discord of our fractured lives is finally resolved. Who wouldn't be moved by those last lines, especially when they are sung on such a day as this?

O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.

I won't pretend it has been the easiest of days. But cathedrals are good at holding together complex human experiences and offering them to God. For me, it's no doubt bound up with the knowledge that the next time we say farewells in the Cathedral, they will be my own. That too is a day that I am not wanting to arrive too quickly.

Friday, 17 July 2015

In Praise of 'Alice': a 150th anniversary tribute

What did you read in your childhood that instilled a love of books and changed your life?

There was so much I enjoyed as a child: Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy (I admit it), Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I found Andersen a bit tame), Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tales of King Arthur, The Wind in the Willows. I’m afraid that the Bible doesn’t feature in that list: we weren’t that kind of family. But as to my all-time favourites, there’s no question. It’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. To me these will always be the great masterpieces of children's literature.
Today I was idly thumbing through books in a local charity shop (I know, I know…I’m supposed to be downsizing). To my delight, there for the price of a pint of beer was Alberto Manguel’s collection of essays A Reader on Reading. I’d come across enthusiastic reviews of his book The Library at Night but I’d never read him for myself. I opened the book and off the page leaped one of John Tenniel’s timeless illustrations to Alice, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (What would Alice be without those graphic engravings that so perfectly captured the essence of the books?)
I started reading about the influence Alice had had on Alberto’s childhood, how ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Looking-Glass Land’ became metaphors of his life as a writer and a man. And I thought: yes, that’s me too. Not in a very conscious way, and certainly not understood with the kind of insight with which Manguel writes – at least, in the couple of chapters I’ve read so far. But it prompted me to pay my own tribute to Alice. This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. And there is local interest too, for Lewis Carroll was brought up at Croft-on-Tees at the very gate of County Durham where his father was incumbent of the parish.
What was it about Alice that I responded to as a child? I wrote a blog at Christmas (scroll down to 24 Dec 2014) about the 'Alice' windows at Fenwick's in Newcastle and touched on this. Maybe I loved the elusiveness of the stories, the sense of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ with which Carroll constantly teases his young readers. They seemed to stretch my imagination in ways that made other children’s literature feel wooden by comparison. In a world where nothing is quite what it seems (which happens to be universe we live in), metaphor, analogy and symbolism are everything.
Carroll often touches on the nature of language, most famously when Humpty Dumpty outlines his theory of language in which he decides what words will mean. ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense but it’s also not-nonsense: in its chaotic jumble of sounds, you feel there could be a meaning just over some horizon that it’s your own fault you can’t grasp. And then (and this is where Manguel’s book begins) there is Alice lost in a forest of forgetfulness where nothing has a name. The image is straight out of Dante walking in his dark wood not knowing which way to go, but Carroll makes it entirely his own. I remember feeling chilled when I used to read that chapter in Looking Glass and the sense of relief when we emerged on the other side.
I wrote ‘we’ just then. For yes, this wasn’t just Alice’s adventure. It was mine too – it must have been, or I wouldn’t have felt so implicated in her fortunes. And that seems to me to be what makes great literature. You find yourself drawn into the story so that you become part of it. It’s a commonplace to say that this was what made Jesus’s parables so memorable. Whether it’s the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus or (for me especially) the Prodigal Son, it’s as if you are there. These stories are not about someone else. They are about you.
Perhaps I was already feeling for the themes that I came to explore in adulthood. I read mathematics and philosophy,and then theology at university. Philosophy tutors would sometimes invoke Alice to illustrate key themes: linguistic analysis, ideas, meaning, perception, personal identity, metaphysics and logic are all there but artlessly, as if Carroll was not really aware of what he was doing. The theological dimensions of Alice are less explored but they too would be a fertile field for study, for example transcendence and immanence, the nature and destiny of the human being, the quest for meaning, authenticity and happiness, eschatology or the last things. My wife is an analytic psychotherapist, and thanks to her I can now see in Alice echoes a-plenty of Freud’s ego, super-ego and id, and of Jung’s archetypes.
Maybe Alice’s constant experience of disorientation and reorientation has something to say not only to individuals but also to society. No doubt Alice is a looking-glass in which there are many reflections, but one of them is no doubt his own society going through the painful throes of industrialisation. Perhaps we can see our own collective condition reflected there too. Which is to say that while so much children’s literature feels like a flight away from a complex and often painful reality, Alice takes us right into its heart.
Alberto Manguel ends his introduction with this: ‘In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.’
Looking back, I think this may have been what it did for me. And yet, in a way that was always playful and expectant, as if to say: you will eventually reach that beautiful garden. You will make it to the eighth square of the chessboard. Just persevere to the end. Travel in hope. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ wrote Carroll’s Victorian contemporary Robert Browning. This is Christian hope.