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

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? 

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