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

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: August

If you read my last blog you'll know that I've not been around in Durham for much of August. We have been in Haydon Bridge beginning to inhabit our new home and getting the feel of what life in 'retirement' may be like in this lovely village.

I think of August as a dreamy sort of month. It evokes glowing suns, afternoon heat haze, balmy evenings, and if the climatic reality is cooler and damper than this, an aestival chimera still lingers on in the mind. The year seems to be at its still point, finely balanced as if on an edge from which it's about to fall. It feels like a time of endings. Bank Holiday weekend is its final rite of passage. After Monday, it will be September, a lovely month, but indisputably autumnal. The nights will draw in and the day's warmth will quickly dissipate. The school year starts up again and the movement of the seasons gets back into gear. Soon it will be the equinox. August is a month to savour while there is still time: 'summer's lease hath all too short a date'.

I recently came across a poem called 'The End of Summer' . It's by the American poet Stan Kunitz. He speaks about how the year turns on a hinge even when the sky is still glowing azure, 'blue poured into summer blue'. The poet has a moment of recognition: 'I knew that part of my life was over'. That's especially the case as I contemplate the last month of my full-time working life that begins the day after August ends. A forty year era, a big part of my life, is coming to an end.

But what of the Cathedral in August? It's both busy and not busy (or should I say #notbusy?). The 'not' bit is that the schedule of formal commitments and business meetings slows right down. It ought to have stopped altogether in my opinion: only workaholic Cathedral chapters hold meetings in August, surely. This year, we had to break a rule and hold one in order formally to approve the annual report and accounts. But it's always a relief not to be chasing paper and answering hundreds of emails for one month of the year. It's the nearest we get to a corporate annual sabbatical. Wonderful for catching up, writing, preparing, pondering, woolgathering. And for getting round and spending valuable time with people whose paths you don't normally cross except at meetings and events.

The other side of this is of course that August is the peak of the visitor season. The Cathedral is thronged with families on holiday, guests from every corner of the globe, groups from cruise ships docking at the Port of Tyne, overnighters taking a breather on the way to Scotland and pilgrims following the path of our Saints. The Cathedral keeps late opening hours to welcome evening visitors. Our front-of-house staff and volunteers work their socks off. The Education Department runs activities for children. The Lego Cathedral team promotes our wondrous achievement in and around the Cloister. The Durham Photographic Society holds a summer exhibition in the nave. There are concerts and informal recitals. There's a wonderfully lively atmosphere in the church all day long. And if you want a quiet place to pray in, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is open every day as a cool, contemplative space that is kept silent for our visitors' needs.

And of course, the liturgy goes on day by day and hour by hour like a Christian prayer wheel. Visitors are sometimes annoyed, often delighted to find that their visit coincides with the daily midday eucharist or shrine prayers, pulpit prayers for peace and justice or choral evensong. And August brings a rich crop of local northern festivals. On St Oswald's Day, 5 August, we joined up with St Oswald's Church across the river to celebrate evensong in honour of the saint who was the midwife of the Northumbrian mission in the seventh century. The Blessed Virgin Mary, honoured with Catholic Christendom on 15 August, is one of the three patrons of the Cathedral along with Christ and St Cuthbert. On 25 August we honour St Aebbe, Prioress of Coldingham and a friend of St Cuthbert. And tomorrow is St Aidan's Day, another high day in the Cathedral calendar. And that's on top of the Transfiguration (6) and St Bartholomew (24)!

The Cathedral choir is of course on holiday but visiting choirs from the UK and all over the world spend a week in residence working extraordinarily hard to sing the eight choral services of the week, including no fewer than three on Sunday. Sometimes they have booked their visits three years in advance. Our visiting choirs love the experience of making music in this Cathedral and of living in such a beautiful environment. We do our utmost to make them and their supporters welcome so that they know how much we value their contribution to the liturgy.

Tomorrow we go back to Durham for September. There is a lot of sorting out and tidying up to do in the Dean's office. There is the round of final meetings to chair and farewell interviews with each of my senior colleagues. There are valedictory events both formal and informal. And then there is the last service of my Durham years and of all my years in stipendiary ministry on Sunday 27 September at 1530. I can't pretend to be looking forward to the deep emotions that will be stirred up within me: in some ways it's a day I wish did not have to dawn.

But I know that good farewells are important for those who leave and for those who are left behind. God will be in our bitter-sweet partings as he has been in everything else down the years. Life is always gift. The end of summer is a passage to the rich autumn harvest of the abundance of the year and the years. For all that has been, thanks. To all that shall be, yes!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Retirement: an interim report from Haydon Bridge

Six weeks to go, give or take: retirement is charging down the slipway. 40 days - the same as Lent. But the prospect sometimes feels more like Lent wound back in reverse, as if retirement day, far from being some kind of Easter, is more like Ash Wednesday, a day to mourn and give things up.

No point in pretending: there will be so much to lose. It's not just the life and worship of this wonderful community here at Durham Cathedral. It's the end of forty years of full-time stipendiary ministry as 'clergy'. Not the end of priesthood, of course - that vocation is till death us do part. But it will mean the end of the way I have been called to exercise it over four decades. And that's symbolised by the names of the places where I've been privileged to minister during that time - Oxford, Salisbury, Alnwick, Coventry, Sheffield and Durham. So many memories. So much learned. Such a rich time of gifts. Yes, there have been periods of struggle and pain too. But at such dark times, these places and their people have been compassionate, wise and forgiving. They have been wise teachers. I owe them a great deal.

But as we always say at Lent, 'giving up' creates space to offer life in new ways, be open to new opportunities. 'New lamps be lit, new tasks begun' says George Bell's hymn. That's the entire point. And this weekend I've begun to glimpse this in a new way. We've spent 48 hours in Northumberland, Haydon Bridge where we shall retire, beginning the long process of turning a house into a home. It's hard work to dismantle one home, especially when you've been happy there, and start to build another. But for the first time I began to glimpse what new gifts await us as we let go of the old.

I'm thinking of simply homely things. A neighbour invites us in for coffee. The Vicar and his family call in with a bottle of wine and a welcome card. Locals help us out in all kinds of practical ways. The folk at the pub are genuinely interested in who we are and when we'll be arriving. The church clock chimes the hours reassuringly - reliably five minutes late, just like Christ Church in Oxford. Local trains trundle over the level-crossing fifty yards away. We take a late stroll and linger on the ancient bridge across the Tyne enjoying the warmth of a summer evening. Sunlight pours into the front of the house each morning and lights up the rear each afternoon and evening. We sit contentedly on the patio drinking coffee.

As it's Sunday we go to church. It's even nearer than the railway station, indeed every bit as close as Durham Cathedral is to this Deanery. It's dedicated to St Cuthbert because his body probably lay on the site of the little Romanesque church up the hill on its long journey to Durham. Cuthbert has been our constant companion and guardian these twelve years so it's a comfort to know he is here too. Jenny and I sit together in the nave as we look forward to doing for many years to come. It's good to be 'lay' as well as 'ordained'. The Vicar presides at the liturgy with care, and preaches thoughtfully about the Living Bread and how the eucharist should shape our life together as a Christian community. Afterwards there is coffee and we meet a lot of warm-hearted friendly people. No-one needs to be told who we are or where we live. The village grapevine has done that long ago.

These are simply glimpses of the future, hints of horizons that are yet to come fully into view. Who knows what life is going to be like after September? I've learned the wisdom of Woody Allen's famous joke. 'How do you make God laugh?' 'You tell him your future plans.' On the other side of this threshold, so much is unknown, inevitably. There's no way to discover what lies beyond except by crossing it - that's the nature of a rite of passage.

We need to have good travelling companions when we cross boundaries. That's why we have farewell rituals, however much of an ordeal they are. They are a chance to say thank you, and maybe sorry, but above all to affirm the relationships that have meant so much to us and will continue to do in years to come. I won't deny that my last Sunday, 27 September, is not a day I look forward to with eagerness. My emotions will no doubt be in turmoil. But as we have all found, when our lives are offered within the life of the people of God, loss has a way of being transformed into gift, even if we don't always see it that way at the time.

So to have eaten our first meal, and slept our first night, and worshipped on our first Sunday in our future home feels like a big step forward on this strange but rather wonderful journey. Because Ash Wednesday always looks forward to Easter when life begins again.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Songs of Praise in The Jungle at Calais

I admit it: I'm not the biggest fan of Songs of Praise, though my wife and I watch it most weeks after cathedral evensong over a cup of tea. Put it down to my getting old and grumpy, but I find myself irritated by its relentless feel-good tone, its love of the bright, shiny and can-do, and the often jejune melodies and lyrics of its hymns and songs (and I don't just mean the contemporary ones). Sometimes it feels perilously close to religion-lite.

However, we all know that it has a devoted following. And the programme has at times achieved real depth. This has often been when it has explored the darker side of human experience such as human pain whether physical or emotional, relationships that are undergoing stress, remembrance of war and conflict, and death and bereavement. Such themes have brought out the best in presenters who show how good they are at interviewing people who are suffering with real sensitivity and insight.

This is why I was pleased to read yesterday that Songs of Praise is visiting the Jungle migrants' camp at Calais. I first read about it on the front page of The Sun. (What was I doing reading that particular newspaper? Answer: I was at our new house to see how the decorators were progressing. There it was in the kitchen. I couldn't resist the temptation to pick it up - it made a change from Friday's Guardian.) I tweeted: 'It's not often that mainstream Christian faith makes it on to the front page of The Sun'.

Then I looked inside. True to form, the paper fulminated self-righteously about what a wicked thing it was to do this. The BBC sending Songs of Praise to the Calais migrant camp amid the current chaos is like something from Monty Python. Will we get to see migrants wrestling with riot police and storming lorries as a choir stands at the Channel tunnel welcoming them with a rousing rendition of Jerusalem? The BBC is showing its trendy lefty colours once again. It shouldn't be supporting the migrants and making a political point out of them. It's the police and border personnel who are protecting our shores from migrants who are the real heroes and who deserve our support. The migrants must be stopped from trying to get into Britain. And so on. I've paraphrased.

So I want to applaud the BBC's decision to cross the Channel and broadcast from The Jungle. I have no doubt that SOP will do it compassionately and sensitively, but also intelligently and fairly. The Church already has a presence in The Jungle where a tent has been set up for migrants to gather and worship in. I'm glad that SOP can be there to give the migrants air-time in a broadcast forum where it would be so easy to pretend they don't exist. We need to hear their voices in other contexts than daily news reports.

What's the answer to the scornful Pharisees at The Sun? It's pretty obvious. Just ask what Jesus would do. He would be in The Jungle, of course, just as he kept company with a lot of other people the establishment of his day found it difficult to tolerate. It's not that Jesus didn't maintain a clear head about the weighty matters of the law such as duty and justice. Nor is it that he didn't grasp the endless complexity of human life. It's simply that where he saw people in need of touch, tenderness and a listening ear without the threat of sanction and exclusion, he was there with them.

'I am for the suffering people' said Mother Mary Pilenko, a Russian nun who championed Jewish victims of the holocaust. She herself was to die at the camp at Ravensbrück because she stepped in to take the place of a frightened woman who was waiting to go into the gas chamber. The church must always be for, and stand with, all who are victims and who are the suffering people of our time.

I'm very glad that Songs of Praise has made the courageous decision to be there too. Three cheers for the BBC once again.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A Dean is Captured on Video

Now less than eight weeks to go to retirement. It’s coming up so quickly….

I’ve been clearing out the study, deciding which books to keep and which to discard (many are called but few are chosen!). It’s a thankless task but occasionally it throws up something that makes you stop and take stock. Today I came across a historic video of one of my predecessors. He too was retiring and this short documentary was put together by Tyne-Tees TV to mark his eight years in Durham. I needed a break so I sat down to watch it.
Some of you will remember Peter Baelz who was Dean of Durham from 1980 to 1988. He had been Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, so another in the line of distinguished theologians who have held this office down the centuries. (His predecessor had been Eric Heaton who had taught me Old Testament at Oxford in the 1970s.) But it's not an aristocratic bookish don who comes across in this endearing TV portrait but a wise, kind and thoughtful priest who had evidently relished his years at Durham and come to love the Cathedral and its people.
The film follows the Dean round the Cathedral and its environs. As he walks, he chats amiably about what it means to be Dean in such a place. Interestingly, he begins not by rhapsodising about its history or heritage, its music or its liturgy, but by telling us that the Dean’s role is like being the managing director of a small business. He points out that the Cathedral gives employment to nearly 100 people engaged in a whole variety of tasks. We meet some of them, including a young stonemason who explains what he’s doing and why it is so important.
You sense that the stones of Durham have come to matter to the Dean in an almost mystical way. But not as an end in themselves. They exist to serve a higher purpose, and this is about human beings, communities, ultimately God himself. He speaks lovingly about its saints as his companions: Cuthbert at one end of the Cathedral and Bede at the other. A cathedral, he suggests, travels through time as a symbol of the enduring values of religious faith. (He is dismissive of the ‘Land of the Prince-Bishops’ signs at County Durham’s gateways because, he says, they suggest a backward-looking church whereas Christians today must always look forward to the future in hope.)
He has a lot to say about the choristers and the Chorister School where they are educated. (I recently came across a delightful photo of Peter Baelz in the cloister on the day of his installation as Dean, surrounded by a gaggle of laughing choristers.) He shows off the newly-constructed sports hall with pride, explaining how tricky it is to build well in such a sensitive historic environment. It sounds as though the Cathedral’s daily choral worship gave him special pleasure and inspiration.  
Having watched this delightful piece, I tweeted that I wish I’d seen it twelve years ago when I arrived here as Dean myself. Someone asked me why, and what I drew out of this documentary.
It’s not so much what he says about cathedral life and Durham in particular. I’d already worked full-time in cathedrals for a decade and a half when I arrived here. No, it’s much more to do with his personal style. There is so much to admire in the way he goes about his business, something refreshingly ordinary. There is not a trace of self-importance in him: witness the little touches like waving to people as he cycles past them in the College, his personal interest in the people he meets, his curiosity in the way he talks to that young stonemason about his work, his affectionate relationships with the choristers, his personal enjoyment of his home, 'the best house in Durham', where my wife and I have lived during these years. 
Even late in our working lives, I suppose we all invoke our role models to help us make sense of our roles. I’ve always believed that the essential priestliness of a Dean lies close to the heart of what makes him or her credible as the head of a religious foundation. In Peter Baelz, the Cathedral had a Dean who understood from his own experience of parish life what it meant to be the leader of a faith community. On the basis of what I had read about him, I had already spoken about him some years ago in a lecture on Durham’s Deans as one of the wisest and the best. Today I have come to see why that instinct was right, why I recognised in him a true 'reflective practitioner'. Which is why I couldn’t have done better than to watch the video twelve years ago.
‘How are you feeling about retirement?’ asks the interviewer. He replies that part of him will be glad to be free of the burdens of the role, but another part will be hurting for all that he has come to love in Durham and that he is going to miss sorely. Well, I still have a couple of months’ ministry as a Dean to go. When Michaelmas comes, part of me will be relieved, it’s true, but another part - a very big one - is going to hurt badly. How could it not when I've been privileged to live and work in such a marvellous place and with such wonderful people?

But watching the film, I thought to myself: it’s never too late to learn from the people who inspire us. These last few weeks could still be a time to learn and to grow as a priest. God willing.