Saturday, 17 March 2018

Lent with St John's Gospel

I'm working on a series of Holy Week addresses that I'm giving at Chester Cathedral. Once again I'm immersed in the Gospel of St John. Not specifically the Passion story this time (I preached through it a few years ago, which is how my book The Eight Words of Jesus originated). This year I decided I would offer addresses on the seven "I am" sayings in the Fourth Gospel. In the order in which they occur, they are: the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Door, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, the Vine, and the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Believe it or not, I have never preached specifically on any of these great sayings, though I've often alluded to them in sermons on St John - you can hardly avoid it when they illuminate so much of his gospel. (Actually, that's not quite true. I did once write a sermon on the Way, the Truth and the Life,  but had to abandon it when some big event in the parish supervened and I needed to preach in a different way.) So this has been a voyage of discovery for me. It's been inspiring and stimulating to research the Greek text of St John with the commentaries, something retirement gives me time to do (even if it also brings the despondent reminder of no longer possessing key books I'd have been glad to consult because they were left behind in Durham when downsizing my library).

We've been companions for half a century, the Fourth Gospel and I. I blogged about the St John Passion a few years ago and said something about the part it played, together with the music of J.S. Bach, in my coming to conscious faith. In that blog, I wrote about the last word from the cross in the gospel, "It is finished" and how significant that single Greek word tetelestai is for the author. The cry of accomplishment, triumph even, because Jesus has completed the work God gave him to do, strikes an entirely different tone from the last words in the other gospels. There, it's much more a case of abandonment and desolation ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" in Matthew and Mark), or resigned trustfulness ("Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" in Luke). In John, Jesus is not the tragic victim who is "done to" by others. He is the sovereign Lord who lays down his own life as an act of the will. It makes all the difference to the way we hear the story.

My challenge this Holy Week is to show how the "I am" sayings point towards the cross - and towards the resurrection as well, for in John, the cross-and-resurrection is a single hyphenated event as Jesus "goes to the Father" as John puts it. The ancient liturgies of Easter celebrated the cross and resurrection, not as two separate moments in Jesus' career, but as a unified redemptive event, the Pascha, the Lord's Passover. As it happens, at Chester they were keen that my addresses should remind congregants that Holy Week represents the last phase of our Lenten commitment to prepare for the celebration of Easter. That seemed to fit well into the way St John handles and interprets the "I am" sayings.

To do this properly, we need to look carefully at each saying's background in the Hebrew Bible. Take for example the saying "I am the bread of life" (John 6.51). This was the obvious text to assign to Maundy Thursday evening and the liturgy of the Last Supper. Here is John's key eucharistic text ("Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them"), this in a gospel that unlike the others does not record Jesus breaking the bread and sharing the cup in the upper room. That's already a substantial sermon in its own right. But I couldn't do it justice without noticing how Jesus' feeding of the crowd that introduces this saying is intended to remind them of how God fed their ancestors in the wilderness with manna from heaven. Much is made of this in the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd that forms the substance of this chapter. Once we grasp the significance of Jesus' saying "I am the bread of life" at Passover time (John 6.4) when that wilderness journey was remembered in a ceremony of the breaking of bread, we realise how profound the symbolism is.

In a way I find miraculous, this is how the text of the Fourth Gospel works from start to finish. It is the most densely textured of the four gospels, with layer upon layer of symbolism, key words and phrases (including the "I am" sayings), and references to the Hebrew Bible not only through direct quotation but by allusions that trigger associations in the mind of the reader. These are a bit like Wagnerian Leitmotiven - musical themes that associate to particular characters, objects, events or destinies. Their role is subliminally to enable listeners to navigate a long and complex story by reminding them of the past, foreshadowing the future or setting the appropriate mood. In St John, certain words function as archetypes that are present throughout the text: explicitly here, implicitly there, for example light, life, love, glory, work, end (as in purpose), ascent (being "lifted up"), way, king, water, bread, wine and so on.

And I am is one of those. As I shall try to explain during Holy Week (no easy task!), those words derive from the story of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.1-15). As he takes off his shoes (for this is holy ground) and gazes into the fire that burns without being consumed, he hears God addressing him. The voice discloses God's name: "I AM WHO I AM....Thus shall you say to the Israelite, I AM has sent me to you." This is the origin of the divine name in Hebrew, YHWH, or in its debased English form, Jehovah. What does it mean? That God can only be spoken about or described in terms of himself. For he is the essence of what it means to exist, to be alive. The theologian Paul Tillich spoke about "the ground of being". So when Jesus takes the emphatic Greek words ego eimi on his lips, "I am", John takes him to be identifying directly with the God worshipped by the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus does this explicitly in a passage that records an argument with the community's leaders who accused him of blasphemy. He makes the extraordinary claim, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8.58). No wonder they tried to stone him there and then!

Enough for now. In this blog, I only really wanted to point to the infinite richness of this wonderful Fourth Gospel. I'm looking forward to being in Chester Cathedral for Holy Week and preaching through the "I am" sayings as a small act of gratitude for what has felt like a lifetime of friendship with St John. I'll publish the addresses as I give them (at and put the links on social media.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

At Sycamore Gap

Yesterday, with two dozen others, I stood beneath one of the most famous trees in England. We spent the best part of a breezy hour at Sycamore Gap, a location on Hadrian's Wall that is instantly recognisable from a thousand photos such as this one. Like the Angel of the North, it has become one of the emblems of North East England.

We had trudged there from The Sill, the Northumberland National Park's new visitor centre on the Military Road not far from two of England's best Roman sites, Housesteads and Vindolanda. (I say trudged because the thaw had left the path exceedingly boggy; indeed, one poor woman measured her length in the mud and had to be pulled out by three of us who were with her.) Above us, the rugged whin sill carried the Roman Wall on its long march eastward from the Solway to the Tyne. Across the valley, the high fells of the North Pennines still bore snowy evidence of the recent blizzards. Closer at hand, frogspawn proliferated in an unpromising muddy puddle. A herd of Hereford cattle, presided over by a noble bull, gazed dolefully at us as we passed among them.

I mention these details because our promenade was the centrepiece of an event focusing on the church's ministry in the countryside. Branded as a "contextual practice workshop on landscape and faith", it was designed as the first in a series of study days on the rural strand of the Diocese of Newcastle's strategy. (I did wonder whether the title of my book Landscapes of Faith had been plagiarised. If so, it was in a good cause.) Our speakers shared insights into the aims of the National Park, its geology, land forms, flora and fauna, the effect of human activity on the natural environment, the rural economy, and the role of memory and storytelling in giving depth to the texture of centuries of human interaction with the landscape.

Beneath the sycamore tree, the conversation continued more informally. We noted that here by the Wall, we were standing at the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire, a place marked by its historic character as a threshold between different domains "inside" and "beyond". This led to a discussion about the relationship between built and natural heritage, how we conserve both and promote them for the public to enjoy and learn from. We explored how the Park managed the tension between tourism and conservation. As we talked, a few stalwart walkers passed by. Most people walking Hadrian's Wall Path pause at Sycamore Gap for a break. With our group populating that cherished spot, its members wearing the intentional look of being there On Business, a few ramblers were curious and wanted to overhear.

I spoke up and - greatly daring - asked if I could theologise for a moment. This was permitted but one of the organisers (our parish priest as it happens) was looking at his watch. Well yes, I can talk for Tynedale, I suppose. I made two points. The first was that we were standing in our benefice (now known as "Parishes by the Wall"). As we looked south across the Tyne, we should notice (I said) that running through our parishes were no fewer than three key institutions in our county: a national park (Northumberland), a world heritage site (the Roman Wall) and an area of outstanding natural beauty (the North Pennines). Was such a confluence unique? Well, if not, then almost.

My second point was to link this landscape to the northern saints. For we were standing in the Tyne Gap corridor through which Cuthbert would assuredly have walked on his journeys between Hexham and Lindisfarne (of which he was successively bishop), and Carlisle where Bede tells us he used to preach. Ancient churches dedicated to St Cuthbert such as at Carlisle itself, Upper Denton (probably), Beltingham, Old Haydon and other places plausibly preserve the memory of the travels of the Community of St Cuthbert as they wandered across the north of England in search of a permanent home for the Lindisfarne bishopric, the saint's relics and the Lindisfarne Gospel book. Indeed, cultural geographers of the north speak about how those sacred journeys helped create the very "idea of north". I suggested that we were looking out at a landscape of faith where meanings were inherent not only from prehistoric and Roman times, but from the Saxon and later medieval periods as well.

Back at The Sill, we drew together some of the many threads of the morning. We asked one another how we might discern God in these landscapes, where we found meaning in them, and what kind of faith was formed among them. I kept coming back to the Wall and the tree in their liminal setting. I conjectured that perhaps this tough landscape suggested a spirituality of solitariness, like the Irish hermits or the desert fathers. Their craving for eremitical solitariness (like the sycamore itself) was not at the expense of living in relationship, or their belonging to monastic communities. But the askesis of aloneness, its discipline, called for spiritual qualities of a distinctive kind. We know that Cuthbert craved this kind of life, which is why he created his own hermitage on the remote island of the Inner Farne where he was to die.

Maybe local church life and mission in these upland valleys needs to ponder how it reflects these and other insights suggested by the landscapes in which they are set. The suburban model of the gathered Sunday congregation won't easily translate into this tough Northumbrian environment. Parish, meaning the entire population who "live around" (as the word paroikia literally means) is everything in these places. You catch it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas who himself knew "the solace of fierce landscapes" intimately, and immortalised the rocky "skull beneath the skin" in his work. I wonder whether northern theologians and church leaders shouldn't join forces with the artists, the storytellers,  the poets, the local historians and the social geographers who have taken the trouble to get to know and love these places with passion. Such an engagement with this wild northern terroir could be extraordinarily fruitful. Could that be an idea for future workshops on ministry and mission in the remote countryside of the far north of England?

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Billy Graham - A Personal Reminiscence

I was one of those who went forward at a Billy Graham Crusade. It was the early summer of 1966, at the Earl's Court Arena. He preached there for a month. Close on a million people must have heard him. I was one of about forty thousand who responded to the "altar call" (though I don't think that phrase was being used any more in the 1960s).

There. I've come out and admitted it. I won't say it changed my life. I'd consciously become a Christian earlier that year, thanks to friends in the school's Christian Union. Before that I'd been a chorister. I hadn't been brought up in a church going family. My parents told me on my first day as a chorister not to bring any of "that religion" back home with me. It was for the music that they were encouraging me, that alone. So they were not best pleased when I announced my conversion, though they did come to my baptism and confirmation a few months later.

So yes, 1966 was an annus mirabilis, a year of joyful wonder, no doubt about that. And Billy Graham was part of it. I went with friends to hear him several times. I didn't care for the musical style of Cliff Barrows and George Beverley Shea - I'd have preferred O worship the King and There's a wideness in God's mercy to Blessed assurance and To God be the glory (still do). But I remember admiring the sheer professionalism with which these vast events were managed. I also recall being impressed by the diversity of people sitting on the platform - Anglican bishops, civic leaders, some black faces I didn't recognise. All in all, it was great theatre. You couldn't but be impressed.

He was a master of rhetorical technique. Where had he learned it, I wonder - from the study of classical Greek and Roman rhetors, or from American politicians or the great preachers of previous ages? Maybe he was one of those natively gifted people who come to realise they have power to sway human minds and hearts. He knew how to work a crowd. And he knew exactly how to speak in such a way that you would think it was directly and personally meant for you. To achieve that calls for charism of a high order.

But most of all, I was drawn to the man. It wasn't so much the content of his addresses (none of which I can now remember), but the way he gave them, the kind of human he came across as being. (I wonder if this is true of all of us preachers most of the time?) What struck me more than anything was the sense he conveyed of a profound personal integrity. He seemed to have no "side". It was hard to suspect hidden agendas or imagine ulterior motives, though the cynics tried hard enough. He believed every word of his own message, and as far as we the audience could tell, lived by it. All the obituaries I have read confirm the impression that he was a genuinely humble man who "loved his Lord", as Donald Coggan would have said, who never regretted giving his life to the gospel.

I think, looking back, that it was his essential goodness that impelled me to go forward that evening. I craved innocent, unselfconscious goodness (and still do), that singleness of mind and purpose that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls "purity of heart". I was already aware as a teenager that I fell well short of it myself. I wanted, so to speak, to nail my colours to that mast. It was an aspiration. Perhaps I knew in some obscure way that this would be a life task, that conversio is never a once-for-all decision, but a lifelong turning away from what is destructive or corrupting or evil towards all that is good and true and beautiful. "Think on these things" says St Paul. I believe Billy Graham was one of those rare people for whom this was a daily habit.

I met him once, briefly. This was in May or June 1984 when he came to the original Sunderland FC ground at Roker Park to preach to the North East. Nearly twenty years older than when I'd last seen him, he had not lost his good looks. I'd been sent to report the event for a newspaper. By then I'd moved away from conservative evangelicalism into a more catholic and sacramental spirituality. So I perhaps went to Sunderland prepared to be critical. The stadium was only half full: maybe it was the keen wind blowing off the North Sea that night, or maybe the people of County Durham and Northumberland were just worn down by the miners' strike that had begun a few months earlier.

I went to the press conference. You could tell that Billy Graham understood how to engage with, if not a hostile, then a suspicious media. (The press mostly don't care much for religion until a significant exemplar of it dies - today's obituaries strike a very different, and far more positive, tone from the press commentary of thirty years ago.) He was courteous, direct and shrewd in his answers. He wouldn't get drawn into debates about American politics, what he thought about Viet Nam, Watergate and so on. I asked him a question, possibly about race relations in US; or was it about Nicaragua? I don't think it was the miners, though that would have been interesting. I was probably trying to be clever. But he played a straight bat, and you couldn't quarrel with that. He looked me directly in the eye as he spoke. His gaze was piercing, questioning, placing me under scrutiny. I thought: here is a man who deserves to be taken seriously.

So why didn't the Billy Graham brand of evangelicalism "stick"? I was asked a similar question by George Carey once, when he was Archbishop and came to preach at Sheffield Cathedral. "You were on course to be an evangelical leader, Michael. What went wrong?" I said I didn't accept the premise that anything went wrong. But it would take a long series of blogs to explain. Maybe I don't entirely understand it myself, though as I get older and look back on my life, things gradually fall into place, even if gathering the fragments is always a work in progress.

I suppose that as the prophets said to Elisha, "the place where we live is too small for us". I don't mean this unkindly. We all move home many times in our lives, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. I have good evangelical friends whom I honour for their faithfulness to Christ and their loyal witness to the gospel. But I found the evangelicalism of those days too talkative, too busy, too extraverted. There was not enough silence in it, not enough space to contemplate, not enough imagination or playfulness, not enough awareness of the place of beauty in religion. And it didn't seem to reach into the complexities of the human heart (well, mine, anyway). No doubt a lot of it comes down to temperament. But I have to say that I became increasingly at odds intellectually with the way conservative evangelicalism did theology.

But I want to think (and pray) that I haven't lost what has been most precious in my evangelical formation: a love of the scriptures and a belief that they must be central to Christian life and thought; a conviction that personal relationship with God is the essence of all religion if it is to mean anything; and not least, a spirituality that is ardently focused on Jesus' cross and passion. As a student (at Trinity College Bristol!) my tutors told me to read the radical New Testament critics and John Henry Newman's Apologia. Oh, and to try to grasp the principles of liturgical prayer. I realised how much bigger the Christian world was than I'd imagined. That's it, really. The rest is history.

There are many mansions in our Father's house. God not only moves in mysterious ways himself, but moves us in ways that are just as mysterious when we try to make sense of them. I know that on many matters, Billy Graham and I would not have agreed since those heady days of the 1960s. He probably wouldn't have been comfortable in my liberal catholic, inclusive-church world, nor I in his. Except for this. I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have honoured my stumbling attempts to walk my Christian faith journey with integrity, just as I want to honour his. For what matters most is the same, to "turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ" as the Ash Wednesday words put it. Discipleship is as simple as that, purity of heart. Billy Graham helped me to start out on that path. For that, I'm grateful and glad.

Farewell to a great Christian man. RIP.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Lent - 40 Shades of Gratitude

If you follow The Archers you’ll know that Alan the Vicar has put forward a novel idea for the village’s Lenten observance. Let’s give up complaining, he’s proposed, and every time we offend, let’s put a fine in the sin-box and give the proceeds to charity.

I quite like that idea, though it needs a bit of calibration. Does “complaining” only cover what we do publicly, or what we are overheard doing? Does it only cover what we say or write, or should it include what we think as well? Does it only apply to named people or organisations (“The Vicar doesn’t visit enough”; “Bridge Farm yogurts have lost their taste”) or also to the ubiquitous “they” (as in “Why don’t they mend the potholes in our roads?” or “They don’t care that our trains never run on time”)? And when is a negative comment not necessarily a complaint (“Our bins haven’t been emptied this week: that’s going to cause problems, so we’d better phone the Council”)? And are Ambridge folk still allowed to talk about “bad weather” or a “poor wi-fi signal”?

Maybe the casuistry of complaining is too complex. And to rub your nose in negativity doesn’t exactly lift the spirits. That’s the trouble with Lent. It’s not that giving up things isn’t often very good for us - fasting and self-denial are important aspects of a healthy spiritual (and ordinary human) life. But so much depends on our attitude, our motive for undertaking whatever Lenten exercise or discipline we opt for. So I’m much more encouraged by a tweet from one of my favourite Twitter clergy, @sallyhitchener. “This year I'm taking up #GratitudeForLent - 40 days, 40 thank you notes to people to whom I'm grateful, for small or great things. Want to join me?”

I think Sally gets right to the heart of Lent. For a start, she accentuates the positive, always a good antidote to the negativity of complaining. But she isn’t calling for the kind of generalised goodwill clergy are so proficient at while never sacrificing their gift of vagueness. She sets a clear objective that is, as business-speak has it, SMART: Specific, Measurable (she’ll know if she’s achieved it or not), Assignable (clear about whose task this is, in this case hers), Realistic (it can actually be achieved) and Time-related (in this case, 40 days). The Muslim month of Ramadan is characterised by smart objectives for the fast which makes it all the easier to get a handle on (I don’t say easier to observe). I believe a Lenten observance that sets smart goals will be helpful in at least contemplating the journey that lies ahead.

But much more important is the content of Sally’s Lenten resolution. “Gratitude for Lent” - what could be more true to the spirit of Christianity than that? You could say that gratitude is where Christian discipleship begins, as we acknowledge with thankfulness the tender mercy of the God who has loved us in Jesus Christ and called us to be citizens of his kingdom. So to practise gratitude in Lent is to go back to the very foundations of faith. The clue is in the principle of eucharist. That word literally means “Thanksgiving”. So to live eucharistically doesn’t only mean participating in the service of worship at which we celebrate together the great acts of God. At a deeper level, it means cultivating thankfulness as a habit of the heart, training our deepest selves to respond to life in a spirit of gratitude and praise to God our Creator and Redeemer. In Lent, that gratitude is given a paschal shape as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the redemptive event from which our very identity as Christians is derived.

I used the word “training” just now. Training is what the Greek word askesis means. An ascetic is someone who takes their training seriously, reckons that it’s something worth investing in. Yes, the three great disciplines Jesus speaks about in the Sermon on the Mount, prayer, fasting and giving alms, are basic to the classic Christian understanding of askesis. But motivating them all, I think, has to be a sense of thankfulness, the eucharistic acknowledgment that these disciplines are not ends in themselves, but are meant to deepen our engagement with God whose goodness has invited us into the adventure and challenge of discipleship. The ascetic journey is to travel more deeply into God’s heart of love. It both draws on our thankfulness and enhances it as we discover how infinitely indebted we are to the Love that moves the sun and the stars.

So Lent, this annual season of renewal, this springtime of the Christian year, invites us to find new ways of practising the habit of eucharistia. Where do we start? Sally gives us a practical suggestion. Her forty thank you notes will get us thinking about forty ways in which we need to be grateful - to other people, and through them, to God himself. And alongside these forty shades of gratitude, why not pray the General Thanksgiving each day? I don’t know a better way of seeing off our tendency to complaint and negativity. Indeed, I believe we shall discover that thankfulness is truly life-changing because it transfigures our perspective on life. The Thanksgiving Prayer says that we should be grateful above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Which is what we look forward to celebrating at Easter. Here's the General Thanksgiving in its original, magnificent form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Report on Cathedrals: Further Thoughts

Last week I blogged about the report on cathedrals produced by a working group under the chairmanship of Bishop Adrian Newman and now published as a draft for consultation. I warmly welcomed the report as a real attempt to get to grips with cathedral governance in the light of the recent difficulties experienced at two cathedrals, Peterborough and Exeter.

I need to say a little more, not least following discussions I've had since the publication of the report. The first point is a general one. Several times the report asks us not to cherry-pick the recommendations but accept them as a package. I think they will (in the words of a well-known politician) have to whistle for it. It's not realistic to imagine that the reviewers will have got everything right, even when the consultation period is over and their final report written. It's true that some of the recommendations inevitably have implications for others, but that's the way of things. No text is so perfect that it can't be improved in the light of wise and patient discernment.

A central theme of the report concerns accountability. In particular, there has been a lot of discussion about the proposed direct accountability of residentiary canons to the dean (and of lay cathedral staff through the chief operating officer). I have to recognise that what follows is inevitably the perspective of a retired dean - though before serving as a dean in two cathedrals (Sheffield and Durham), I was myself a residentiary (at Coventry), one of its two full-time "Commissioners' canons". It may be a case of "well he would say that, wouldn't he?" But let me try to be as objective as I can.

I regard canons residentiary as senior roles in a cathedral, and agree with the report that exceptional gifts and talents are needed in those who are going to lead in key aspects of a cathedral's mission such as worship and music, education and learning, pastoral care and outreach. I was 37 when I became canon precentor at Coventry. That fitted the profile of the report that wants to see younger men and women appointed to these posts because they offer unrivalled opportunities for the formation and development of future leaders (not only as deans, I should say). But at Coventry, my fellow Commissioners' Canon was an older, more experienced man from whom I learned a great deal as I tried to understand the Cathedral and my role within it. So I don't buy the apparent implication that residentiary canonries should no longer be offered to those who, through their long years of parish or sector ministry also have distinctive insights to bring to cathedrals.

Indeed, perhaps only an older ordained colleague on the Chapter will have the confidence (or do I mean courage?) to challenge the dean when necessary. No team leader should be exempt from this. "Challenge" does not mean behaving seditiously or subverting the leader's authority. It means asking necessary questions so that decisions are properly scrutinised and the best outcome achieved. My experience of working with Chapter colleagues who in age have been more or less my peers was that even when their exacting questions ("challenge” is not too strong a word), were uncomfortable, they were for the best. I encouraged colleagues to speak up. I strongly discouraged deference (not that my colleagues were much given to it!). Our debates were robust at times. But because we were all trying to act in the best interests of the cathedral, I believe we were working together in an essentially healthy culture.

However, a team will only function well when roles are clearly defined and understood (this is a subtext of much of this report). This applies to its leadership. To me it is clear that the dean must be allowed to lead. He or she needs to be acknowledged as the head of a religious foundation, that is, the body corporate of the cathedral, and therefore as the leader of the senior "ministry team", i.e. the dean-and-residentiary-canons, as well as chair of the chapter as the governing body. The accountabilities flow from this. In day to day terms, I don't see how the canons could not be accountable to the dean as members of his or her team. Provisions about ministry development review (MDR) flow from this (though not necessarily exclusively - for it remains the bishop's prerogative to review anyone who holds his or her licence, including the dean and canons).

But this needs to be understood in quite a sophisticated way. Because according to the Cathedrals Measure, the ultimate accountability of both dean and canons is to the chapter itself. So the day to day relationships of canons to the dean expresses their common loyalty to the chapter. The dean has no authority independent of the chapter (except in the very limited ways spelled out in the Measure). His or her role is to be its guardian, its representative and its mouthpiece. Which is why a dean is always primus inter pares presiding over a governing body and a ministry team that are collaborative in every aspect of their work. If this is the presumption (and how could it be otherwise in today's church?), residentiary canons have nothing to fear from the new arrangements for governance and management that are proposed in the report.

However, as I've said before, no system of governance is better than the human beings who inhabit it. The best structures in the world won't protect cathedrals from abuses of power and status - and unfortunately, these don't simply reside in the pages of the Barchester novels. Only virtues like wisdom, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, married to a shrewd reading of human nature, can ensure that it all works as it should to serve the cathedral's mission. This highlights the importance of having a values statement as well as a purpose statement so that it's clear not only about what the cathedral exists to do but how it will behave in pursuit of that purpose.

But there does seem to me to be an anomaly in the report. I alluded to it in my previous blog. The review is very hot on accountability within the cathedral institution, and it is right to be. Yet when it comes to the chapter's own accountability, it weakens it considerably. It's true that it recommends that cathedrals are brought into the regulatory framework of the Charity Commission, and that make sense to me. However, top-level oversight of that kind can never be enough. There is a need for rigorous scrutiny to which executive bodies in every institution should be subject, if only to provide public assurance reports that all is as it should be. This is where the council comes in at present. I have to say that particularly in Durham, we took this very seriously (not least thanks to the quality of the council chair who had (has) wide experience in the corporate world). The discipline it imposed on the chapter was invaluable.

So while not all deans agree, I remain puzzled that the report removes the legal requirement for the council to hold the chapter to account on behalf of the bishop, diocese and wider community. Audit committees are necessary for scrutiny, but as committees of the chapter they don't have the necessary independence. The report wants to see a "quinquennial inspection" of the cathedral's operations, and this is welcome, but that too doesn't provide for continuing oversight and answerability. Bishops' visitations remain an option but because of their complexity and cost they tend only to be invoked when problems arise in cathedrals. (In nearly 30 years of cathedral ministry, I never experienced one.) So to write the legal functions out of the council's brief seems to me to be a mistake. It could open the way for a badly led chapter to behave autonomously and even recklessly in the way some were famously accused of doing before the Cathedrals Measure of 1999. And if (God forbid!) a cathedral ever suffered under a mad, wicked or incompetent dean, who, in the absence of the council (for which this is one of its statutory functions) would petition the bishop to instigate a process for his or her removal?

Enough for now. There's another big question that continues to exercise me and it's this. Running a cathedral well, even a small one, is a big assignment. And while the chapter is the body legally responsible for the life of its cathedral, it takes a special combination of spiritual wisdom, theological insight, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, organisational ability and leadership skill to equip a dean to lead such a complex entity. My question is, what do we look for when deans are appointed? What is a good dean? I'd be sorry if deans ended up as no more than ultra-competent CEOs of their cathedrals. If they did, what would be the point of deans being ordained at all? Discuss!

Monday, 22 January 2018

A New Report on Cathedrals

The eagerly awaited Cathedrals Working Group Draft Report was published last week. It is now out for consultation. I'd like to offer this blog as a contribution to that process.

I confess I had misgivings about setting up yet another review of cathedrals. My worry was that this process was a clear consequence of the much publicised crises at Peterborough and Exeter Cathedrals. It would have been so easy for the Working Group's debates to be driven by anxiety towards quick-fix solutions that would, hopefully, deal with the "problem" of cathedrals once and for all. Such imagined solutions, applied to institutions centuries old, would at best have been premature, and very probably, entirely wrong.

As a former cathedral dean, I am mightily relieved that this report, far from succumbing to those easy temptations, shows a great deal of theological intelligence and common sense. And it's good that the report starts out on a robustly positive note. These amazing places" (writes the Chair of the Working Group, Adrian Newman, himself a former dean) incorporate everything the Church of England aspires to be in its best moments: congregations are growing and visitor numbers are remarkable; people on the edge of faith experience them as safe spaces to explore Christianity; they have become a focus for enquiry and activity in the public square, gathering places for communities at times of national crisis or celebration, and a crucial source of ‘bridging’ social capital at a time when darker forces threaten to fracture the social landscape.

There isn't space for me to comment on every aspect of this wide-ranging review, so let me restrict myself to two key themes.

1 Mission, Role and Ecclesiology
The Report makes a real attempt to offer some theological reflection on the nature of a cathedral as a church. It develops the idea of a "gathering place" in the sense that it is in the cathedral, the "seat", that the bishop symbolically gathers the people of his or her diocese whether to celebrate the liturgy, teach the faith, care for the diocese and lead in mission. It recognises too that the cathedral has its own presidential "gathering" role in times of local or national celebration or lament, to bear witness to "public faith" and to keep memory alive. A mind tuned to Benedictine nuances might offer a word to complement this gathering function, hospitality.

But I don't think this introductory section quite cracks the ecclesiological question, what is a cathedral? It's good that it doesn't fall for the "parish church plus plus" idea that a cathedral is simply a local church on a bigger scale. Here and there it uses the word congregation, for example in relation to one area of growth in cathedral life, midweek services. But this is precisely where congregation is not a helpful idea. Many, and in some places most, of those who attend midweek services such as evensong are not remotely part of a resident assembly of worshippers, a congregation; rather, they are transient, visitors who happen to be in the building at the right time, or pilgrims who have made the journey specifically to attend a one-off act of worship. Even those who assemble for the principal Sunday service, attended as it often is by guests from other worshipping communities, not to mention visitors who have stumbled unexpectedly on an act of worship and stay for it, is not really a "congregation" in the parochial sense.

What word might we use then? I've suggested elsewhere that we might liken a cathedral to a religious community or monastery, one of the six ecclesial identities explored by Peter Atkinson in a recent book and referenced in the report. This emphasises the role of the foundation whose primary calling is to perform the cathedral's daily cycle of praise and prayer through the offices and the eucharist. So those who attend these acts of worship would be more like a community of oblates or a third order belonging to the monastery. They associate to the cathedral's rule of life and, to the extent that they wish or can, make it their own. This model needs a lot of drawing out, but I'm persuaded that it would free the cathedral from having to fulfil the expectations of a parish congregation and instead, live out a different ecclesiology that, alongside parishes, would enrich the life of the whole church. Maybe the next iteration of the Report might explore this.

2 Governance and Management
The problems at Peterborough were largely explained as a result of poor governance and management. I blogged about this a year ago when the Bishop's visitation charge had just been published. I pointed out how the Cathedrals Measure already provided an ample framework for good governance, safeguarding both the principle of chapter accountability and the participation of the bishop in the governance structures. It was not a question, I wrote, of revising the legislative provisions but simply of making sure that those with responsibility tasked by the legislation were doing their jobs properly. No governance structure is better than the people who have to implement it.

I feared that this report might be over-hasty in increasing the powers of both bishop and cathedral council in the direct "ordinary" governance of the cathedral. (The bishop's role as visitor remains unchanged.) But it has done neither. Indeed, to my surprise, the jurisdiction of the council over the chapter as holding its accountability is abolished, and its role reconstituted to that of a stakeholder body of friends and advisors. (The statutory role of the college of canons is also written out, other than for the election of the bishop.) So the cathedral's "corporate body" or legal entity is reduced to the chapter alone (which is as it was before the Cathedrals Measure, though then, unlike now, chapters did not include lay people, whereas in the new proposals there will always be a majority of independent lay members, one of whom will be the bishop's appointee as vice-chair).

I am clear that it has always been right to see the chapter as holding formal legal responsibility for every aspect of the cathedral's life, and to regard members as holding trustee responsibility for it. Many of my fellow deans never liked cathedral councils and found that they contributed little to the flourishing of the cathedral. I have to say that this was not my experience in the two cathedrals where I was dean. Especially in Durham, the council took its accountability and scrutiny role very seriously, and this was a good discipline for the chapter when it came to preparing the budget, the annual report and accounts, and the strategic plan. Without a council to report to, where will the chapter be accountable, I wonder? I guess that in practice, the audit committee would perform the role of making sure that there is an effective internal dialogue in the cathedral, and the capacity for rigorous self-criticism. But it will be harder for a committee of the chapter to do this than for a body that sits above it, whose chair is the bishop's appointee and at which the bishop is an attender.

I want to add that I am pleased with the recommendation that cathedrals should be subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commission. The role of the Church Commissioners in relation to cathedrals' legal financial framework has always been unclear, not to say anomalous. I am also pleased that parish church cathedrals will at last be brought fully into the legislation, a task that the Cathedrals Measure left unfinished. I argued the case for doing this in 2006, in an essay in Dreaming Spires: Cathedrals in a New Age (edited by Stephen Platten and Christopher Lewis). But be warned! It may be a lot easier to hold the aspiration than deliver the reality.

The Report proposes a senior executive team to perform the management functions of the cathedral, thus freeing the chapter to focus exclusively on governance, leadership, strategy, risk and managing change. In Durham, we worked hard on this; indeed, one of my chapter colleagues would alert us when we were sliding into operations by asking grumpily, "what is this doing on the chapter's agenda, and why are we discussing it?" However, even if the senior executive team met monthly, I doubt that a chapter could get away with meeting only once a quarter. The university governing body I belonged to met every two months and this seemed about right. The executive met each week. With the degree of legislative compliance that now falls to every public institution, not to mention the sheer complexity of cathedrals, I think the pattern of meetings will need to be very versatile according to circumstances.

The Report has helpful recommendations about finance, major building projects and safeguarding. Maybe I'll return to those in a future blog. For now I simply want to underline one recommendation that could be in danger of getting lost in the detail. It's number lxiv (yes, Roman numerals!): The NCIs (National Church Institutions) and AEC (Association of English Cathedrals) should work jointly on an approach to Government and large philanthropic organisations with the aim of establishing a significant, possibly endowment-based, cathedral fabric fund for the UKWhile cathedrals are grateful for the funding that comes their way through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Chancellor's two recent tranches of funding to mark the centenary of the Great War, it is nowhere near enough to safeguard and develop these marvellous buildings that belong to the built heritage of the nation. If cathedrals are to be realistically supported in the future, and continue to open their doors to millions of visitors, this is an essential requirement. There is a clear need for a strategy to deliver such an outcome. I'd hoped that the Report would take this further than it does. So a great deal of work (and I'd say, urgent work) needs to be done to take this recommendation much much further.

And finally, will the phrase Dean and Chapter, that historic, familiar and much-loved phrase in England, be restored as a legal designation of the cathedral's governing body, please? It was unkind and unnecessary of the Cathedrals Measure to excise it.

Thank you to those who are serving on the Review Group and have worked hard to present these well thought-out proposals. They deserve to be welcomed by cathedrals. I look forward to what will emerge from this consultation period and hope that this is a helpful discussion-starter in respect of some of the matters covered in the Report.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Mozart in Mono: on rediscovering a childhood LP

In my last blog I wrote about the loss of hearing in my left ear following a Christmas virus. I wish I could tell you it’s been restored. It hasn’t - it feels as lifeless as a withered arm. The doctor is reasonably sure that it’s just a matter of time. So I’m trying to get used to life in mono. Maybe it’s a bit like black-and-white photography. You sacrifice the colour in order to discover other riches in greyscale. I’m listening to music in a different kind of way. It’s more intentional, as they say, perhaps more aware of the shapes and textures than before.

I’m also aware that I’m cherishing what hearing I still have in my right ear. It makes every piece of music that much more precious, something I tried to put into words last time. And with a good set of headphones that give a full rich sound, my mind can even begin to imagine that all is as it used to be. By chance, since writing my last blog, I’ve found in a charity shop Oliver Sacks’ remarkable book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. In it he describes the experiences of people who have lost their hearing function in one ear. One person, a composer, found that what he could hear with his ‘bad’ ear was out of tune with his ‘good’ one, as I found myself when this all began. Sacks talks about how the human brain has the extraordinary ability to make up for the loss of function in one ear (or eye). It can’t heal it. But it can, so to speak, begin to reconstruct your sound (or sight) world, restore some sense of spatial awareness so that in time, the loss is partially compensated for.  

It’s funny how the right book falls into your lap just when you need it. And in another strange way, as I browsed classical music recordings on the web, I came across an album cover that was so familiar that I exclaimed out loud, even though I hadn’t set eyes on it for fifty or more years. It’s Joseph Keilberth’s recording of two Mozart symphonies with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Actually I’m cheating slightly. The image I found on ebay (above) is of the 1960 stereo recording. Ours at home was the 1956 mono disc, but the scarlet Telefunken covers were identical. I think it may have been the first LP my parents owned. If it wasn’t that, then it was Beethoven’s Eroica or Schubert’s Winterreise. 

At the age of six or seven, I fell in love with the Mozart disc, especially the 39th. It’s still my favourite Mozart symphony. I think it was the slow introduction that seduced me. Those few portentous bars, full of rich brass and woodwind, seemed to presage something miraculous. E flat was a key that brought forth some of Mozart’s most wondrous music - think of The Magic Flute or the Gran Partita whose slow movement Salieri so envied according to the film Amadeus. The solemn rising violin scales of the symphony’s introduction, together with one of the sharpest and most sustained discords in all of 18th century music captivated me. And when the clouds finally parted and the sun broke through in some of the happiest music in the classical repertoire, it was a revelation. 

Today I’ve found the stereo version online, thanks to the ever-obliging Spotify. Listening to it for the first time in decades, I’m aware that it’s probably not among the greatest of Mozart recordings. The Bamberg play with tremendous conviction, but tuned as we are to the delicacy of authentic performances on period instruments, it now sounds a bit rough in places. Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968) was the Bamberg’s chief conductor at the time, but he was best known for his opera interpretations, especially Wagner. His Wagner performances were famous; poignantly he died in the middle of conducting Tristan und Isolde. I doubt if you can be a truly great Mozartian and a Wagnerian conductor, though in modern times many conductors have made a convincing showing of both. Some might say you can’t really love Wagner’s music if you love Mozart’s, but that’s a different question. It would be some years before I came to Wagner but when I did, the revelation was as unforgettable as my childhood discovery of Mozart.

But now that I’ve rediscovered it, I shall treasure this recording till I die. It represents so much that was joyous in my childhood: parents who loved me and encouraged me in everything that fascinated me, whether it was riding my tricycle and not long afterwards, my 18 inch pavement bike, my first Brownie camera, my Hornby ‘0’ gauge model railway (which would be worth a fortune nowadays), reading Alice, Pooh, the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales (I always preferred them to Andersen’s - they were darker and more complex and didn’t always have happy endings) and - I admit it - Enid Blyton. 

But before all these, my parents wanted me to love music as they did. My grandmother would sit me down at the piano and we would pick out Schubert melodies like Heidenröslein. It was probably thanks to her that Winterreise found its way into our home because it was she who told me about Schubert’s unhappy wanderer as we sat and listened. Piano lessons must have begun about then, though I was too lazy to practise very much (and regret it even today). I was not too young to have a go at Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena, my introduction to the other great musical passion of my life. 

So many musical memories to be thankful for. I’ve written about some of them before on this blog. But today they have been rekindled afresh as a result of seeing that LP sleeve on the web and hearing once again that much-loved disc. I suppose that when we grow old, such glowing memories become all the more precious, of remembered childhood days and the people who loved us and our awakening to God’s wonderful world as it seemed to blossom all around us. 

And maybe too, early inklings of pain and mortality in the music I was learning to love? I don’t know. I hear them now clearly enough in the introduction to Mozart’s 39th. And in adulthood, it does make me feel for the many whose memories of childhood are far from happy, whose upbringing has been occluded by pain, abandonment, cruelty or illness. How innocent and protected, how secure and happy my early childhood was, and I never knew it at the time. There is so much to learn about the world and our own selves as we grow up. What matters is that we don’t unlearn what was important to us in childhood, that we don’t, as a psychoanalytic writer once put it, lose the capacity for flowering and instead find we are unripening, shrivelling to a bud. With my one good ear, I’m trying to reflect on that for a while too.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Losing an Ear: a Winter's Tale

Last week I lost an ear. Not severed like Van Gogh, I'd better add. Yet in a sense, that is what it feels like. Thanks to the virus that so many of us have had at Christmas time, this one has left me unable to hear anything very much in my left ear. The doctor is pretty sure it's labyrinthitis, an infection of the inner ear. Partial hearing loss is only one of a number of symptoms...but I'll spare you too much information about those. He says it will almost certainly go away with time and I'll have my hearing back. But that's not yet.

On the first day, I could still hear in that ear. By which I mean that the volume was properly "turned up". But the sound itself was alarming. Not only was my tinnitus louder than I've never known, there was also a continuous roar as if I were standing by a waterfall in spate, or a motorway in rush hour. Worst of all was that the sound itself had broken up, "pixelated" you might say. The music playing on the radio sounded jumbled, confused. Even the tuning had gone awry, my left ear sounding half a semitone flatter than my right.

We were listening, as we usually do over our coffee, to Essential Classics on Radio 3. They were playing a Bach cantata, the magical motet-cantata 118, O Jesu Christ, Mein's Leben Licht (O Jesu Christ, the Light of my Life). It was heartbreaking to hear this wonderful music broken into pieces like this. I imagined Michelangelo's PietĂ  shattered into fragments never to be put back together again, or Rembrandt's Presentation in the Temple criss-crossed with angry knife wounds too deep to repair. I ran to the radio player, turned it off with a vehemence that took me by surprise, and burst into tears. I remember crying "What if I can never hear the music of Bach again, ever? Rather than that, I think I'd want to die".

That day felt like a bereavement. Loss isn't just to do with the people we love whom we no longer see. We can experience it just as powerfully when we move away from a place where we've been happy (leaving Durham Cathedral is still a recent enough event for me to feel a sharp pang from time to time, especially when Choral Evensong is on the radio). Or when we lose something precious to us, like a childhood toy or a wedding ring that has carried the symbolism of a cherished relationship for a lifetime. And we feel it when we lose a bodily function that's vital to our wellbeing. This is my first experience of that. I've been reading Robert McCrum's fine memoir about suffering a catastrophic stroke in his 40s (the book is called A Year Off). He speaks about losing all sensation in his left leg and arm in just this way, as a major bereavement he needed to work through.

It's made me think about disability in a new way. On the spectrum of impairment, what I'm experiencing is as nothing to those who have lost all their hearing. This happened once to a senior priest-colleague of mine called George. One day, without warning, his world fell silent. I can't begin to imagine the shock. Yet as far as possible, he wanted life to continue as it always had. His commitment to worship never faltered. I never saw him frustrated, angry or desperate. In time, he learned how to communicate with the help of some very smart gadgetry. And this wonderful man said to me: "Yes, Michael, to lose your hearing is a terrible thing, especially when you love conversation, music, theatre and all the ordinary little sounds, often unnoticed, that give colour to our daily lives. But I have the memory of them. I can still replay people's voices and my favourite music in my head. And for a lifetime's enjoyment of the gift of hearing, I shall always be thankful."

Last week, there suddenly came into my head a conversation I'd had with my mother when I must have been about five or six. She asked me, out of the blue: "If you had to lose either your hearing or your sight, which would you want to keep?" Some question for a little boy, like one of those dark choices that recur in fairy tales. I remember answering: "my sight, of course. It must be incredibly hard to live without it". She said: "But what about talking to one another? What about music? And what about the ways our hearing helps us find our way around, keeps our balance, protects us from dangers like road traffic that we can't always see but can definitely hear?" If I learned anything from that exchange, it was to try to cherish all the senses I was lucky enough to have been given. Among our close family friends at that time were a woman who had lost her sight as a child, and a man who'd been born without hearing. I'd admired how they had come to terms with such profound disability and had learned to live with it, without bitterness, as people who were as alive as I was. Just like George. Just like so many others.

Last summer we cruised up the Rhine. At Bonn, we visited the Beethoven House. My mother had been brought up in that part of Germany, and perhaps because of it, Beethoven had been her favourite composer. She told me about how the loss of his hearing, how it drove him to near-despair, how he wrecked his beautiful pianos as he tried to hear the sound of his playing. She told me about the late quartets he composed entirely out of his head. I was moved to be in this house where these tragic personal dramas had been played out. I've been thinking of him too, these last few days, and wondering how, if music were my metier, I would cope. Yet some of the greatest music in the world came out of the silence into which he was progressively and irreversibly immersed. That's true heroism in the face of adversity.

Today I listened to a marvellous broadcast in the Soul Music series on Radio 4. The chosen piece was Bach's seasonal Cantata 82, Ich Habe Genug ("I have enough"). It was, I think, the very first cd I ever bought in the incomparable recording made by Dame Janet Baker. Its theme is the Presentation of Christ soon after his birth, when the infant Jesus is brought into the Temple to be offered to God. The aged Simeon has been waiting for this moment all his life; now he sees the promised Deliverer for himself, takes him in his arms and blesses him. "Now Lord, you can let your servant depart in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation." Contributors reflected on how this music had touched their lives. I loved the thought of infancy and age encountering each other, of living long enough to see what has been the focus of your hopes and longings all your life. My mother experienced it in hospital a few days before she died, when she met her tiny great-granddaughter for the first, and final, time. It was a radiant moment, a real epiphany.

I want to keep this in proportion. What I'm going through is a very light affliction compared to the health ordeals so many others are facing this winter. But as I listened to the programme in my personal mono, I experienced a little Nunc Dimittis of my own. It was this. If I lost all my hearing irreversibly, I'd still have my memories of that luminous Bach cantata, of the hundreds of times I've played it, and of the comfort and reassurance it has brought over the years. It would always be there, among the music I've found to be both life-changing and life-giving. I hope with all my heart that I'll be given back my lost ear. But whatever happened, I'd try to be thankful for what had enriched me so much in my lifetime. It would be a big loss, certainly, but I'd try not to see it as an inconsolable one.

I'm not saying I'd succeed. I know myself too well. But I would try to cultivate the gift to be thankful, what the New Testament calls eucharistia. Gratitude, says Christianity, is the only foundation of the good life, our prime duty as human beings, because of the great love with which God loves us and gives himself to us. So I'd try. And I'd also try to find new ways of being attentive to this wonderful world, and the people whom God has given me to love, and the voices of need that cry out for us to listen, and to whom our ears must always be turned in compassion.

Monday, 18 December 2017

No Crying He Makes

Was ever a Christmas carol so maligned?

I'm thinking of Away in a Manger. At this time of year there's always a steady stream of people, mostly carolled-out clergy, who share their grumpiness about this sweet, innocent and much-loved carol. Special opprobrium is reserved for the middle stanza:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

Here, for example, is a blog I read over the weekend. What a load of nonsense is written in some Christmas carols. Of course, many are excellent. But along with the gold there is a lot of dross. Take the line in 'Away in a manger' which asserts boldly: 'Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes'. Really? On what basis is that stated? It's certainly not in the Bible. The author then turns his wrath on I Saw Three Ships before majoring on We Three Kings of Orient Are. What have they done to deserve it?

It's a depressing take on a familiar aspect of Christmas, this proscribing of what generations of children and adults have loved singing and found to be strangely heartwarming. So let's think about no crying he makes. The usual criticism is that the infant Jesus would hardly be a normal (or "real") human child if he did not cry. So the line questions (it's alleged) whether this nativity would be a true taking of our humanity into God. Moreover, it hints that goodness consists in being seen but not heard, as in another popular and sometimes maligned hymn Once in Royal David's City where the author writes: Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he.

I find this logic faintly absurd. For one thing, every parent knows that all but the most distressed children do, from time to time, wake up but do not cry. Especially is this likely when his or her mother is at hand to offer comfort, reassurance and nourishment. So in the picture language of the carol, the Holy Child lying in tranquility is emtirely consistent with what we know about the behaviour of our own children in their infancy. But the image takes us beyond this. It seems to say to us that this Child knows himself to be in a completely safe place. He is in loving communion with his parents, with his guests, with the animals. His little world is one where the song of the angels is already being fulfilled, because here, in this intimate circle of the nativity scene, there is “peace on earth, goodwill to all people”.

Let’s pursue what this no crying represents in the way the Christmas story has been told down the centuries. It echoes a very long "apophatic" tradition that sees in the incarnation a mystery so profound that silence is the only way of doing it justice. So almost universally, the old master paintings of the Nativity depict a scene full of a peaceful, restful, quietness. Angels and shepherds, and often magi as well, revere the new-born King in a carefully composed atmosphere of stillness. Often, the Child is depicted as asleep, but if he is awake, he is gazing peacefully on his parents, or the shepherds, or the animals among whom he is born. “No crying he makes!” And even when shepherds journey and angels hover, their movements are gentle as befits this great mystery. There is no dissonant commotion or harsh noise to shatter the restfulness, the serenity of the scene. At the crib, human hearts are stilled. We are silenced because no words could do justice to the glory we behold.

In terms of visual art, these nativity scenes probably go back to St Francis who is credited as having created the first Christmas crib as a kind of icon to inspire the devotion of the faithful. But the tradition that links incarnation with silence goes back even further. The key text is in the Wisdom of Solomon (18.14-15): For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half-gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne into the midst of a land that was doomed. The early fathers loved that saying. In the development of the liturgy, it was quoted, almost word for word, in one of the antiphons for Christmas morning. In wisdom literature, the "word" was the logos or mind of God, so it was only a short step to read back into it the Christian meaning of incarnation, the "word" or "wisdom" of God becoming enfleshed in the person of the Child born at Bethlehem.

We could almost say, in the imagery of the carol, that the little Lord Jesus is awake yet silent in the face of the mystery of his own incarnation. It's the kind of thought you find in the poetry of Thomas Traherne who imagines a new-born child wondering with joy at the realisation of being alive and inheriting the world. Who's to say that new-born babies don't experience this kind of wonderment at suddenly finding themselves outside the womb and gazing at a loving mother's face? That at least is the direction taken by psychoanalytic writers who regard the bond of love established between a mother and her child as determinative for the whole of human life.  Or we could think of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen where he imagines the ox and ass kneeling in front of the manger as midnight strikes on Christmas Eve. Are these poetic images "biblical"? Hardly, if you're looking for texts to justify them explicitly. But are they biblical in the more profound sense of being completely true to what the scriptures want us to hear, understand and cherish? Undoubtedly!

So it's not surprising that we find this gentle silence that enveloped all things referenced in our Christmas hymns and carols. Think of these well-known, oft-sung examples:

The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!

Silent night, holy night...

Of course, silence is not the only Nativity motif. Just as important in the spirituality of Christmas are the themes of carolling, exultant celebration, joyous music-making, heaven and earth joined in praise of the God who comes among us. Nor should we neglect the "noise" and pain of the Nativity story: that it happened in a cave because there was no room at the inn; Herod's massacre of the innocent children, the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. These represent some of the realities of the suffering world into which Jesus was born. The Coventry Carol is just one medieval example that recognises the painful realities into which the Infant comes. It's important that we don't repesent the mystical silence of the Nativity as some kind of escape from the real world (a perennial Christmas temptation, whether in liturgy, consumerism or partying).

But it's also important not to worry away at the detail of the poetry and art that adorn the Christmas message. To read Away in a Manger and object to its imagery is to read poetry as if it were cold prose, and confuse symbolic language with material fact. That's the trouble with a lot of religion today: it has lost touched with the imagination because it has forgotten the kind of language it's handling. So what's required is not to demythologise our Christmas carols but to re-enchant them, or rather, allow them to re-enchant us. In this respect, children seem often to be closer to the truth of Christmas than adults, to grasping the essentially symbolic, metaphorical, poetic character of religious language. Is this one of the reasons that Jesus spoke about becoming like little children if we are to enter the kingdom of God? And could our children and grandchildren help us celebrate a more childlike Christmas if only we paid attention?

Maybe as we grow older, we become more relaxed with the symbolic register of Christmas language. Perhaps that's because our conception of "truth" is enlarged as we reflect on what life has meant for us, and we realise that "truth" is a far bigger thing than we once dreamed. Perhaps the memories of past Christmases become stronger with age, especially those of our own childhood or our children's. Once, decades ago, I sang Away in a Manger at a funeral on Christmas Eve. I've never forgotten how poignant it was, the contrast between infancy and old age, gift and loss, happiness and grief. Above all, the carol spoke of the Christian hope we glimpse in the Christ Child:

Be near me Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
close by me for ever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

It was one of the most moving funerals I can remember. Even Victorian poetry can work miracles. So if I find myself on my deathbed one Christmas time, I'd love it if some little children could come and sing Away in a Manger for me. I would try to join in if I could. It would be immensely comforting. It would bring happiness and hope. But as for no crying he makes, I can't promise I myself would get through it without shedding a tear or two.

**Image: the east window of St Cuthbert's, Haydon Bridge by Charles Kempe (1837-1907), created at around the time "Away in a Manger" was written.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 11: The Farne Islands

As I write this, all the talk is about offshore business deals and tax havens. So let’s go out to sea this month. But not (this time) to Northumberland’s most famous offshore island, Holy Island. It’s at its best when the tide is in and the causeway covered, and the day trippers have gone home and it’s truly an island again for a few hours. There isn’t a Christian site in England that I love more than Lindisfarne, unless it’s Durham Cathedral.

But how many have taken one of Billy Shiel’s boats from Seahouses and made the crossing over to the Farne Islands? Even the outermost islands are barely five miles from the mainland, yet the waters around them can be decidedly choppy. Don’t be surprised if there are no sailings, or if there are, landing on the Inner Farne or Staple Island (the two where public access is permitted) isn’t possible.

There are about twenty-eight islands all told (I say “about” – it depends whether you are counting at high tide or low). They are formed of the same dolerite rock that we know so well in Tynedale through the Whin Sill on which the Roman Wall was built. The Farnes are now owned by the National Trust, though until 1844, the freehold belonged to Durham Cathedral which leased them to a succession of adventurous people. (When I was Dean of Durham, I was relieved not to have to manage an extensive North Sea archipelago on top of everything else that crowds into a Dean’s in-tray.)

Three things make the Farnes a must-see for Northumberland people: their rich wildlife, their close connection with Saxon Northumbria and the northern saints, and the story of Grace Darling.
Let’s take nature first as she has been around on the Farne Islands the longest. The amazing variety of bird and marine life you can see and enjoy is what draws most visitors. Everything depends on when you decide to sail there. May, June and July are good months because you can land on both the islands that can be visited. Grey seals are a big attraction, either in the water or stretched out on the rocks. The bird life is extraordinarily prolific.

Arctic terns pose a hazard during the breeding season (from late May to July they will dive-bomb humans to protect their young, so make sure you take a hat). The puffins are justly famed for their beauty while the throngs of eider ducks, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and shags crowding the cliffs are a real education in bird life. Outside the high season, the islands revert to the brooding loneliness that somehow captures the essence of this bleak and windswept North Sea coast. A boat trip in winter can be a bracing and thought-provoking experience.

For all who admire the saints of the North, especially Aidan and Cuthbert, the Inner Farne is a place of pilgrimage. When Aidan founded his monastery on Holy Island in the seventh century, he began to seek retreat and solitude there, a habit that was famously followed by St Cuthbert. Bede tells us a great deal about his longing to live the life of a hermit, his frequent visits to the Inner Farne, the cell he built there, his habits of daily prayer and his cultivation of the island.  
He died in his hermitage on 10 March 687, for ever after kept as St Cuthbert’s Day. He hoped to be buried on his beloved island. But he correctly anticipated that his brothers would want his body returned to Lindisfarne. There it was interred, soon to become a shrine for pilgrims until the Viking invasions forced his community to leave in search of a safer resting place. The little chapel on the Farne dates from the fourteenth century and was built for the tiny monastic cell (usually just two monks) established there by Durham Cathedral Priory after the Norman Conquest. The furnishings date from the seventeenth century and once belonged in the Cathedral, hence their unusually rich decoration. The medieval pele tower was also built by the Cathedral Priory and is now home to the National Trust rangers who live on the island for much of the year.
Grace Darling is one of the North East’s best-known women. She was born at Bamburgh in 1815. The Darlings had lived on Brownsman Island since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1826 they moved on to Longstone Island where Grace’s father William Darling was the keeper a newly built lighthouse. On 7 September 1838, Grace looked out of a window and realised that a ship had foundered and broken in two in rough seas on a nearby rocky island, Big Harcar. The Forfarshire had been carrying 62 people.
William and Grace, realising that the sea was too turbulent to allow the Seahouses lifeboat to reach them, took their Northumberland coble and at great personal risk rowed out to them in the lee of the rocks. They were able to rescue seven survivors (nine others had managed to float a lifeboat and were picked up by a passing ship). Grace died at Bamburgh in October 1842, having become the archetypal Victorian heroine and a household name. She is commemorated in Bamburgh Church where St Aidan had died in 651. There is a museum in the village that tells her story. It’s worth noting that although the Forfarshire is by far the best-known ship to have sunk off the Farners, there are in fact scores of wrecks around the islands that demonstrate how treacherous these waters have been – and still are – to shipping.
While you are in north Northumberland, you’ll want to visit Bamburgh with its beautiful church, its grand castle, its museum and its marvellous beach. And after an invigorating sea voyage, what could beat fish and chips at Seahouses before you set off for home?

Friday, 8 December 2017

Well done Coventry!

30 years ago this year, Coventry won the FA Cup Final. The city went wild with delight. It was said that a quarter of a million people were out on the streets to welcome their team home. Coventry was awash with sky-blue. The newly-hung cathedral bells, not yet formally dedicated, rang out for the first time to celebrate. No-one who was there will ever forget that weekend.

It's also 30 years since our family moved to Coventry. I went there to take up a post as residentiary canon at the Cathedral. I was installed on 10 May, the Sunday before the Big Match. In my sermon I wished the Sky Blues well at Wembley. There was hollow laughter, I recall. Who'd have thought that I of all people would be aware of an upcoming football event? And who'd have thought that Coventry had any chance of defeating Spurs who had won the trophy twice in the previous seven seasons?

And now, exactly three decades later, Coventry is once again walking tall. The city has been named UK Capital of Culture 2021. It deserves the honour. I can say that as someone who has known it well. We spent eight happy years there. It's where our children mostly grew up, so we have always thought fondly of the city as, in a sense, still "ours". (That's also true, by the way, of another of the 2021 candidate cities, Sunderland, where we have lots of family connections. They too put up a first-rate bid and it's a pity that when it comes to the Capital of Culture, it can't be a case of Alice's oft-quoted words "all have won, so all must have prizes".)

A few years ago I blogged about going back to Coventry. That occasion was the golden jubilee of the consecration of the "new" Coventry Cathedral in 1962. As I wrote then, I'd been one of the millions who'd visited the Cathedral that year. I was twelve when my parents took me. I can vividly recall my impressions on that late spring day, most of all of Graham Sutherland's huge tapestry of Christ in Glory, John Piper's marvellous coloured glass in the baptistery, and not least, looking down at my own reflection in the black mirror-like surface of the nave floor. I was not a religious boy in those days, but I was both stirred and moved by that great building. It seemed to speak beyond itself to something bigger and more expansive than I think I'd ever known. Looking back, I guess it was one of my early spiritual experiences, an intimation of resurrection. Twenty-five years later, one of my first jobs at the Cathedral was to organise the silver jubilee celebrations.

Living there, I became fascinated by this city of paradoxes. There was something homely and familiar about its medieval streets, so Warwickshire, so quintessentially England. Yet the pre-war planners (quoting Tennyson's "the old order changeth, giving place to new") had already laid waste to Butchers' Row, what we would now regard as a priceless piece of heritage townscape comparable to the Shambles in York). And what they didn't destroy, the Luftwaffe made swift work of on that terrible night of bombing on 14 November 1940, codenamed "Operation Moonlight Sonata". What does it do to a city to have been reduced to ashes, to be the only one in Britain whose cathedral was destroyed by enemy action?

After the war, a brave new city arose like a phoenix. Ancient and modern stood inextricably bound together in both the way the city was re-engineered, and in the experience of its citizens. So much was symbolised by the old and new cathedrals standing side by side, or rather, in these two physical expressions of one single Cathedral. With the exception of the Cathedral, the architecture of the 1950s and 60s has not fared as well as what survives of the middle ages. Perhaps Coventry was rebuilt in too much of a hurry. These days the city is not the gleaming emblem of modernity it once was. Its industries experienced a steep decline from the late 1970s so that by the time I was living there, unemployment was high and the future of its manufacturing industries looked bleak.

Yet somehow, the spirit of Coventrians was not broken by this turnabout in its fortunes. Yes, they could be good at looking west to Birmingham and envying the seemingly unstoppable success of their near neighbour. (Coventry is to Birmingham as Sunderland is to Newcastle and Bradford is to Leeds - these pairings of cities with very different characteristics are an intriguing aspect of modern Britain.) But look at what the new Commonwealth immigrants who came to work in Coventry after the war brought to the city. I found I was living in one of the most vibrant, multicultural places I'd ever known. My suburban assumptions about what it meant to be British were challenged like never before or since. We loved visiting the places of worship of other faith communities and getting to know our warm-hearted, hospitable hosts. I think that it was there that I consciously began trying to think of myself, in a famous if much maligned phrase, as a "citizen of the world".

It's important that "City of Culture" is interpreted in the widest possible way. Hull has demonstrated this most successfully in 2017 and we salute that city. Culture is a slippery word that can quickly take on a whiff of elitism if we aren't careful. The point about culture is that it is essentially demotic in character. This is because it is about what has formed and made us to be the people, the societies, the communities we are, how we have been grown. That's much more than simply a matter of museums and libraries, literature and poetry, art and architecture. Somehow, I have a hunch that the people of Coventry will be very good at sharing who and what they are, and how they have travelled together as a city across the centuries and through the recent past into the present.

As for what we call culture in the more traditional sense, there is more than enough to make the trip to Coventry worth while. Many have pointed out that Hull and Coventry (together with my own village of Haydon Bridge) have in common the poet Philip Larkin. One of the best twentieth century English poets, while he lived and worked in Hull, it was in Coventry that he was born. I have to say that in my time, Coventry had not done nearly as much as Hull to honour him, so I hope 2021 will put that right. Similarly, though less noticed, the Nuneaton-born Victorian novelist George Eliot, as great in her century as Larkin was in his, also lived in Coventry. Her greatest novel Middlemarch ("the magnificent book one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" said Virginia Woolf) is very probably based on Coventry.

I could go on to write about the legendary Leofric and Godiva, Coventry's history as one of England's great medieval cities, its industrial heritage, its Herbert Art Gallery and Motor Museum, to say nothing of the Cathedral itself which constitutes one of the best expressions of mid-twentieth century artistry and craftsmanship in England. I could mention the rich diversity of performing arts in the city in both dedicated venues and in the streets and squares. I could write about the two universities that contribute so much to Coventry's intellectual and cultural landscape. And I could write about how Coventry has become a symbol of international reconciliation and peace-making that has evoked the admiration of people across the world.

But most of all, it's the people who make the place. When it was announced that Coventry had won their bid to be City of Culture, I was touched to hear ordinary Coventry people speak about their city and why they loved it. I'm sure the citizens of all five shortlisted cities would have said the same of theirs. Perhaps Coventry, with its cosmopolitan and internationalist outlook, can represent the best of what they would have contributed to this celebration of all that we cherish and are proud of in the culture of these islands.

A final thought. Why can't we have a UK City of Culture every year? The quality of this year's bids shows how much potential there is across the nation to promote art, heritage, tourism and regeneration. We need more local celebrations like this to shine a light on the cultural riches of the UK's towns and cities outside London - not just on places but on their communities. It would be a modest enough claim on central funds. Thanks to the enterprise of their citizens, Hull and Coventry show how a little can go a very long way. Let's go for it, and let Sunderland have the next turn in 2022.