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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.


  1. A great tribute to your former colleagues and friends that they have done so much for you. Yes, tears and emotions are permitted as is sadness and longing for that which is ending.

    I'm praying that your next few days will be as restful as possible, given the trauma as moving, which is sometimes described as a bereavement and another a divorce from your previous life and identity.

    But you have been an inspiration for someone living in North Kent, whose only Cathedral experiences are Canterbury or Rochester, Chelmsford or Winchester in recent times, although having been raised in London, The Abbey, St Pauls and Southwark were once trodden. Holy Places, each subtly different in character and atmosphere, but all Houses of God like Durham. One day, I will make the pilgrimage north as I also want to go to Lindisfarne as well.

    Prayers as you move on and for your family, perhaps, having you around much more :)

    1. Thank you again for wisdom and kindness. Divorce, bereavement and relocation all at once - taking us well over the safe limit of crisis points. I hope you make the journey north one day. When you do, I know you'll find a true North-Eastern welcome here, as we did when we arrived 12 years ago.

  2. Replies
    1. Honoured, as a southerner blown into North East England years ago, to be reckoned among the natives in their inimitable patois! Thank you.