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

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.


  1. You are comfort, guide and inspiration all in one.
    Big shoes to fill.

  2. I've been following your countdown to retirement with interest as I have commented on previous posts. The last few days, events and farewells are the hardest. The words of Paul that you quote are powerful ones in your contextual theology of goodbye.

    But this ending is also a new beginning and as you adjust (and you will) to be basically your own boss, the freedom of choices will probably dazzle you - you will continue to be in demand as a speaker, preacher and writer, because I'm sure that you still have something to contribute in these spheres, perhaps from a different viewpoint of public ministry - as one of the retired, so often described by the media as OAP - the voice which is so often unheard, ignored or abused.

    Speaking for all of us who can be treated as if we don't exist. When carers and medical staff speak about us, but not too us. When they hide things they think that we shouldn't or don't need to know.

    Or perhaps the voice of the active retired, giving time and service in different spheres to those we've lived with. Building the Big Society and the Kingdom of God, hand in hand with others of a like mind or vocation.

    Prayers for you and you pass through the final rites of passage to freedom.

  3. Thank you very much for this and your reflections on earlier blogs. As you say, we are 'in via' and there is much we cannot yet know about how life will be reconfigured in retirement. 'The voice of the active retired' - well, yes, I have a bit of energy left in me and want to be useful to the church and the wider community in Northumberland. I have learned a lot having been dean in two cathedrals, and it would be good to think that some of this learning was transferrable to new situations and needs. Thanks for your good wishes and prayers.