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

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Dean's Last Blog

Not my last blog ever, just the last in the role of Dean. I'm writing on my final day in Durham. You'll forgive me if it's a trifle longer than usual.

I am sitting in the medieval library of the Deanery that has been our home for the last twelve and half years. One eighth of a century. That's a mere blink of the eye in the long history of this Cathedral, but it's a significant chunk of my own lifetime. I can honestly say I have never been more fulfilled or happy. As I look at the Cathedral glowing in autumnal sunshine on a beautiful Michaelmas Day, I am profoundly grateful for the privilege of having served here and lived here during these years.  

During these last few days we've been given a truly wonderful send-off. I blogged last time about what was coming up but hadn't anticipated: the extraordinary warmth and generosity of everyone who has been part of it. You'll allow me, I hope, to say a bit about it because it's one way I can begin (but only begin) to say thank you.

On Friday night, we are dined out by the Cathedral Chapter together with our spouses. We always enjoy these convivial occasions, whether it's to welcome or say farewell to our colleagues. I've never needed to be reminded of how much I owe to a Chapter that has been outstanding throughout my time. I'm not forgetting the tough times, when it's been vital to have a strong sense of common purpose and shared values. The Vice Dean offers a beautiful (and funny) tribute to us both that leaves us deeply moved. Among many other things, the Chapter presents me with an exquisitely tooled and bound book containing all my sermons preached in the Cathedral since I arrived in 2003. (Actually, that's volume 1. Volume 2 will arrive now that my final sermon on Sunday can be included.)

Saturday is largely Sabbath. But I'm delighted that one of my last acts is to admit seven new choristers to the Cathedral choir at evensong: a case of avete atque valete. And also to have the family here and celebrate my daughter's engagement, announced today after the proposal has been put on the roof of the Deanery and her father courteously spoken to by the young gentleman. We like the proper formalities to be adhered to.

Something deep inside me does not, really does not, want Sunday to dawn. I find myself queasy and sad at the thought that it has finally come, a case of 'most things may never happen, this one will' as Philip Larkin puts it in his brilliant poem about death, 'Aubade'.

But it is the most marvellous day. The Precentor and Organist (for once) have allowed the Dean a free rein with the choice of music and hymns. Inevitably they carry a deep symbolism - perhaps unwisely because they awaken powerful memories and strong emotions. 'Live this day as if it were your last' says the first hymn at matins with an accuracy I haven't foreseen when I chose it. I preside at the sung eucharist when we enjoy a Haydn mass and a Mozart motet. The Precentor preaches on the gradual psalm (19 - 'the heavens declare the glory of God'). He draws out of it some of the themes of my ministry at Durham. You'll be able to read it on the Cathedral website. I would have urged him not to do it if I'd known what he planned, but it is a beautiful and loving sermon that I'll always remember.

At the reception afterwards, the Cathedral Community celebrates and says goodbye. We are taken aback by their extraordinary generosity. Jessica, who leads it as their representative on the Cathedral Council, eschews the spoken words and instead sings a tribute to us both to the tune of Maccabaeus (a gentle humorous poke at me for re-writing the words of 'Thine be the glory' to try to do more justice to the original French). Close friends from the past, together with the Vicar who first trained me as a curate forty years ago, are there to share in it. In my response, I pay my own tribute to the community of this Cathedral which is endlessly kind, humane, generous and forgiving. I tell them the truth of today, that it's hard to contemplate saying farewell.

The final service is evensong. There is a great crowd filling the nave. I walk the Lord Lieutenant up the aisle as I would at any big event. Then I think, disconcertingly, they are here because I am leaving. I don't mean they are not here to worship God - of course that is why we are at this service at all, but valediction is what has brought so many people together. I arrive at my stall and find a colourful folder put together by the choristers with pictures, personal messages from each of them, tributes and prayers. The tears in things are real even before the service has begun. As they are several more times during the service: at that amazing leap up to a top 'A' in the Gloria of Howells' Gloucester Service, the paradisal ending of Bairstow's Blessed City, our beloved Coe Fen (How shall I sing that Majesty?', the beautifully crafted intercessions by Sophie the Canon in Residence, the final hymn 'Glory to thee my God this night', and laying up the Dean's cope on the high altar after the blessing.

There are speeches and presentations from four people who have all become good friends. Lilian Groves, an octogenarian Cathedral guide and worshipper with a passionate love for the Cathedral, speaks for the community in another demonstration of the sheer goodness that characterises Durham. Isaac Walton, a former Head Chorister just starting out at university, is lucid and generous about my love of the Cathedral's music and my relationships with the choristers, and speaks playfully about the decanal 'glide'. Somebody was bound to. Margaret Masson, Acting Principal of St Chad's College, is kind about the outward-facing aspects of my role in her college, University, City and County. She reminds us it was she who first persuaded me to join Twitter. (Some of you may wish she hadn't.) And Mark Bryant, the Bishop of Jarrow whom I've known most of my working life, finds gently subversive but warmly affectionate things to say about my 40 years in ordained ministry and role in the Diocese.

I have heard a lot of eloquent farewell speeches in my time, but I don't think I have ever heard better. I am deeply touched. It's hard to find the words with which to respond, but for better or worse, they are on my blog together with my sermon (http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk). At the very end, the choir sings the psalm sung at chorister dismissals each summer, Psalm 84. It is incredibly hard to listen to these treasured words for the last time. But grandson Isaac, aged two and a half, comes to the rescue. He invites himself on to the platform ('I want to see Opa') with an uncanny sense of timing. Because of him, and his laughter and happiness, all is well.  

Today has seen my last ever public act for the Cathedral: to bless the Virgin East Coast electric locomotive 91114 now in its bright new red livery, 'Durham Cathedral'. I love the thought that this strikingly beautiful engine will carry the name and image of the Cathedral and Cuthbert's Cross up and down the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. The choristers sing, and I get to do the train announcement welcoming passengers and explaining the significance of the day. At Newcastle there is a short ceremony. The media love the tribute paid personally by Virgin in including my name on the design at least for today - surely every train-loving clergyman's dream. It's a terrific send-off.

I have planned to go to evensong today, my name day, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. A wise friend has told me that I need to say my own intimate farewell to the Cathedral and its worship and he is right. So I creep unnoticed into the nave and join in the prayer of the church from near the back. It's a lovely service. The Cathedral is golden in the equinoctial light, its vaults illuminated by the setting sun. It has never looked so beautiful. I lose myself once more in the glorious music that floats in the air like sweet incense. At the end I leave with a heavy heart. One of the vergers notices, and is gentle and kind with me in these last painful but precious moments. He embodies the best of this beloved place that will always be written on my heart.

The Vice-Dean and his wife invite us for a last supper. We share memories and thank one another for what these years have meant to us. Then it back among the packing cases and getting ready for life in rural Northumberland. I've loved being Dean of Durham. It's been the supreme privilege of my life. Now it's time for more ordinary days. We shall see what they bring. It feels like a great unknown. But we know that God will be as present to us in them as he has been during these wonderful years in Durham.

This isn't my last blogging word. I'll keep this site live for now, and begin a new blog after a while with a new name for a new life. But for now, a fond farewell from this wool gathering Northern Dean, and thank you to all readers for prayers, stimulating company and good friendship.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

So That is That

Well, almost.

I'm on the last lap. Almost everything is done for the last time. Files are closed, documents archived, thousands of emails deleted. The books have undergone a painful triage: when it comes to downsizing, many are called but few are chosen. Keyboard music and my Wagner scores have gone to a talented young musical friend. Our much-loved pine kitchen table with its memories of family meals, happiness, laughter and love has gone to the sale room with other furniture of less symbolism. Pictures are off the walls. Possessions are piled into desultory heaps. On the floor is a pile of ecclesiastical robes (old, worn, nothing beautiful, and not much that is useful) lies on the floor awaiting the Precentor's advice. Linda, our wonderful housekeeper with the gift to be cheerful on wet Monday mornings has gone away on holiday so we've had to say our farewells early.

On Sunday I preach for the last time at the sung eucharist. My theme is the child whom Jesus brings into the circle of disciples to teach them about simplicity and humility (see http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk). I spend Monday meeting Chapter members and senior colleagues one by one to say thank you and goodbye - exit interviews, only it's my exit, not theirs. I owe so much to my superb team here. Whatever the achievements of the last twelve years, I need to say we, not I about who has enabled them to happen. Next day I do a radio interview about my years in Durham, what I'm proud of and what I shall miss most. That evening we launch my new book of Durham sermons Christ in a Choppie Box, a farewell offering to the worshipping community of this Cathedral.

On Wednesday I take the Chorister School Sixth Form pupils round the Cathedral on a pilgrimage. I have led many of these spiritual journeys, and always enjoy them, but it's a particular joy that my last one should be with these lively, intelligent children. At we come to the end, I speak about the Galilee Chapel as a place of beginnings and endings, and mention my own imminent departure. We say a prayer together that I love:

Lord God, you call your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden; give us faith to go out with a good courage, not knowing whither we go, but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us; to the glory of your name.

Today we have a final round of business meetings. People say kind things when you are leaving. Their genuineness is moving. At evensong the New Testament reading is St Paul's farewell to the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20). I've always found this story moving, but never more so than when I have to read it in the service tonight. My voice catches at the end where it says that Paul knelt down with them and prayed with them, and there were tears and embraces when they heard him say that they wouldn't see his face again. The music is Walmisley in D Minor, the very first canticle setting I sang as a chorister in 1961. It brings back a lifetime of memories. It's possible that but for that experience, I might not be a cathedral dean now.

Tomorrow it's my final Chapter meeting - business as usual. In the evening they will host a farewell dinner for Jenny and me. 'Dining out' members who are leaving (not in quite the same sense as the armed services use that phrase) is an old Durham Chapter tradition. It is always hugely enjoyable to spend an evening with Chapter colleagues and their partners, but tomorrow will be bitter-sweet for us.

On Saturday our children will join us for the weekend ceremonies. Words like 'celebration' and 'thanksgiving' are being used but they could just as well be called obsequies. There is a gathering of the Cathedral community after the morning service at which I shall preside at the altar. At evensong I preach a farewell sermon. It's one of the most difficult I've ever had to prepare because it marks the conclusion not just of 12 years in Durham but 40 years of public ministry. I can't predict the state of my emotions at that service, for which we have chosen all the music and hymns. There'll be a party afterwards in the Cloister. And then we shall be gone.

Actually, it's not quite the end. On Tuesday, I shall perform my last ever public act for the Cathedral. It's to all to do with the flanged wheel - I've blogged before the love affair many clergy have with railways. 'Our' East Coast class 91 electric locomotive 91114 Durham Cathedral now has a beautiful new Virgin Trains East Coast livery. It has flowing patterns drawn from the drum piers in the Cathedral, and a prominent St Cuthbert's Cross. There's to be a ceremony of blessing on Newcastle Central Station. It will be fun to go out on that note. But it will make a serious point about 'public faith' too, and the Cathedral's relationships with our many external partners who support us and wish us well.

More on this when it's happened, in a final decanal blog.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: September

It's the equinox. The trees, still mostly green, display yellow highlights. The vegetation looks tired. The rose garden that has brought a burst of late-summer colour to the Deanery garden is looking tired now. Leaves on the trees are tinged with yellow. Curtains around the College are drawn in the early evening. There is a chill in the night air. The heating clicks on; there is the scent of an open fire somewhere nearby. The year is closing in on itself. Before we know it, it will be winter.
I have always loved this time of year with its unique mix of experiences: endings and beginnings intertwined with one another as summer's lease runs out, and the annual cycle of activities starts up again, and children go back to school, and it's students rather than tourists who are now walking these ancient streets.
The rhythms of Cathedral life haven't quite been paused during the summer, as readers of my August blog will recall. But the pace changes with September. On the last weekend the Cathedral Choir is on holiday, we enjoy our annual visit from the Buxton Madrigal Singers. As usual they are here for the last big festival of the summer, the Translation of the Relics of St Cuthbert. On the Sunday nearest 4 September, we commemorate the day in 1104 when the first phase of the Cathedral's construction was completed. The sanctuary and quire were finished, and in an elaborate and carefully documented ceremony, Cuthbert's body was placed in his new shrine. Today the whole congregation processes to the shrine where incense is swung (yes, it's still permitted despite worries about 'legal highs'), and prayers are said. It's a high day in the calendar, and for Durham people marks the threshold between summer and autumn.
The Cathedral choir returns, and the rhythm of daily evensong resumes. How good it is to see and hear them again. We are grateful for all the choirs that visit over the summer, but there is nothing like your own Cathedral choir. At first, we miss the old familiar faces in the choirstalls: last term, a larger cohort than usual reached their top year in the choir and left to go on to other schools. We always wonder how the survivors can possibly reach the standards of last year...but they always do, even if the first evensong or two are a trifle more tentative than we are used to. I say to the choristers that confidence is all they need. Everything else is there.
This year there is a major service on Day 2 of the new choir term. This is the day when The Queen overtakes Queen Victoria as the longest-serving Monarch in British history. The Lord Lieutenant has summoned the county to celebrate at the exact time (5.30pm) this threshold is reached. The music includes music used at the Coronation including Zadok the Priest, sung at every coronation since George II's. The choir distinguishes itself magnificently in front of a large and appreciative congregation.
The pattern of Cathedral meetings resumes. Agendas and minutes are sent out, and non-urgent business laid aside during the summer is dealt with. A flurry of emails follows the opening of bulging inboxes. Out-of-office notices are turned off, things not done attended to. There is an air of Busyness around the campus. You're reminded that the Cathedral is a significant organisation that employs over one hundred staff to serve it. The departments include finance, property, development and fundraising, music and liturgy, library and collections, marketing and communications, the shop, the Chorister School, development and fundraising, governance and administration, volunteers, vergers, cleaners, the 'yard' which includes the Cathedral works team and the gardeners. The restaurant is run as a franchise but it still needs oversight.
Another way of putting this is to say that the Cathedral is a business with a gross turnover of more than £7 million. Some people don't like a Christian church to be described in that way. I don't shy away from using that word, as long as it is complemented and informed by other words like faith, spirituality, worship, mission, learning and heritage. Our purpose and values statements are important here. If we are also a business, I say: let it be a good business that is efficiently run, and above all, an ethical business.  
I said that with the advent of September, the year feels as though it is drawing itself in for the winter. This is true for me personally. We are just a week away from our farewell service at evensong on 27 September. I have 168 hours of deaning left. After that, retirement. Already there have been farewell dinners and parties, and some beautiful gifts, and many, many kind letters and cards to thank us for the past twelve years and to wish us well. Perhaps you only appreciate the sheer goodness and generosity of people when the time comes to say goodbye. I have done valedictory interviews for the local radio stations and the press. I'm asked: 'What are you most proud of?' 'What do you regret?' 'What will you miss most?' How could I not miss the unique and wonderful place that is Durham Cathedral with its amazing beauty, its unrivalled heritage, its quintessentially northern spirituality, its procession of holy saints and its limitless capacity to inspire? How could I not miss daily choral evensong? How could I not miss this ancient Deanery that has been our home for twelve years? 

But when I think back to this morning's eucharist, and administering communion at the altar rail, I feel an especial pang for the people of this place: the colleagues with whom I have worked here, this warm, forgiving, generous community in all its richness and diversity. They transcend the boundaries of Cathedral, Diocese and wider community. They include the many who have become, we are sure, friends for life. How privileged these years here have been.

We now face negotiating this difficult ending gracefully. But whatever other emotions surface in the next few days, I know that at the heart of it all will be a great and lasting gratitude for these Durham years. So this is the last of my twelve blogs on 'Seasons of Durham Life'. Another year has passed, and with it, our time here at Durham. Thank you for reading. I'll blog once or twice more under the Northern Dean banner. After that.... who knows? 

Friday, 4 September 2015

A Job is Advertised - Mine!

Today I got a web alert to tell me that a job has been advertised on the CofE website. Mine. DEAN OF DURHAM it says in big letters. That it should appear today, 4 September, is something to note. This is the anniversary of the day in 1104 when the relics of St Cuthbert were laid in their new shrine at the east end of Durham Cathedral. It was a great festival in Durham in the middle ages. Please don't tell me it's just a coincidence that the world learns today that Durham is looking for a new Dean. Especially when this one was installed in the Cathedral on the other St Cuthbert's Day, the anniversary of his death on 20 March 2003.

It's odd, staring at an ad for your own job before you've even left it. (I should say that I was asked months ago if I was happy for the appointment process to begin while I was still in office, and I readily agreed to it: it's in everyone's interests to see the next Dean in post as soon as possible.) But seeing the ad in cold print and reading the detailed documentation that went with it made me stop and think. A bit like stepping on your own grave. My first flippant thought was: if I applied for this post now, would I even make it to the short list?

Enough said. I am going to be scrupulous about not commenting on matters to do with the succession. Except to say that whoever is appointed will find him- or herself in a truly wonderful place inhabited by an equally wonderful community. It's been hugely rewarding to complete my full-time ministry by serving these dozen years at Durham Cathedral. I can honestly say that I have never been happier.

But it's my next thought that has haunted me all day. This is actually happening, I realised. It's real and irrevocable. The die is cast. In less than a month I shall become part of history, the thirty-ninth Dean whose name is engraved on the Bishops, Priors and Deans board outside St Cuthbert's shrine. It's not quite in memoriam. The name board is not a grave slab - yet - though it will be one day. Of all Durham's Priors and Deans, only two of us are still alive.

But when I stop and muse in front of it as I regularly do - because I enjoy lists and names and dates - I don't think morbid thoughts. On the contrary, I'm reminded that the recollection of the past is always a vital aspect of our sense of place and belonging. These servants of God still live on in our collective memory. This grand alabaster tablet is a celebration of so many honourable and good people who have given their lives to this place and left their mark on it, some of them heroically. Even after twelve years, I still feel keenly the privilege of seeing my name among them. I have tried not to take it for granted.

As I look back after the end of this month, I want to be able to say, 'This was the best of me'. Pray God that I shall be able to. Each step in this long drawn-out rite of passage called 'retirement' is an opportunity not for regrets but for thankfulness: to contemplate the past with a deeper awareness of the goodness of God, and to look forward expectantly to the days that lie ahead.

Yes, sunt lacrimae rerum: there are tears in things too, and no doubt they are permitted when we come to say farewell. As I've blogged before, leaving Durham is going to be a big wrench. But I shall - from afar - share the celebrations that will surround the appointment and arrival of the fortieth Dean. This Cathedral is the focus of so much prayer, affection and love across the world. It will give to the next Dean as generously as it has given to me. It's that kind of place, that kind of community, like its saints, especially beloved Cuthbert whom we honour today. And ultimately, that is how God is, for love is his nature and his name.

You can find the papers about the post at https://www.churchofengland.org/clergy-office-holders/aaad/vacancies/dean-of-durham.aspx