Thursday, 22 September 2016

Gathering Fragments One Year On

It's the autumn equinox. Night has overtaken day. Up here in Northumberland, the leaves show little sign of turning. But the rose-hips are swelling in the hedgerows and the rowan glows bright red alongside the magenta hawthorn and deep purple elderberries. The scent of coal fires re-lit in village hearths now hangs in the still September air. Golden stubble fields are ploughed chocolate-brown ready for winter. The new academic year has begun: children file past our front door morning and afternoon chatting excitably on their way to and from school. 

The year has come full circle. This time last year, I was in my last few days in office as Dean of Durham. It was a week of high emotion. I was filled with real sadness at the thought of leaving a place and people we loved. I blogged about it here: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-deans-last-blog.html?spref=tw. At the same time, we were looking forward to our new life across the hills in the Tyne Valley. It would, we imagined, be quieter and gentler than Durham. Cathedrals are wonderful and exhilarating but they are fast places. You need to be intellectually and spiritually agile; you need plenty of stamina. It's not that I was running out of steam (whatever Mrs S says), but I did think I should retire before it became apparent to me and to everyone else that I was overstaying my welcome. And I wanted to be able to have something to give to church and community in retirement, try different things, volunteer in new ways.

It has turned out to be an eventful, not to say turbulent, year. If you've followed this blog you'll know about Storm Desmond and how it invaded our home last December at precisely the same time as one daughter gave birth to our second grandchild and another was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation. Having fully recovered, she sensibly got married in the spring and is now expecting a baby. But then in the early summer my 93 year old mother fell ill and died a few weeks afterwards. All this on top of laying aside a life's work, moving home and beginning again in a new place in an entirely different role, that of being "retired". Oh yes, and the EU referendum campaign and the awful prospect of Brexit.

It's the first anniversary of my farewell in Durham Cathedral next Tuesday. By coincidence (is there such a thing?), I am giving two addresses to a clergy conference that day and the next on "Ministry for the Long Haul". I asked the Bishop why he thought I was qualified to speak to his clergy on this topic. After all, I had never lived or worked in the demanding urban environment that is mostly the setting of their ministry. He replied, "Well, you've completed the long haul. Tell us what's kept you going and sustained you over forty years. Tell us what's been important to you". Fair enough I thought a year ago when we spoke. I'm now trying to work out what to say to these good people. No spoilers! You never know who is reading this blog. I'll post the talks next week. If they've gone well, that is.

But it's been valuable to have to undertake the exercise of thinking about forty years of public ministry as I look forward to the anniversary. I might not have done it otherwise. I had never tried to articulate to myself, let alone to anyone else, what I'd found to be central in inhabiting the vocation to be a priest, though I suppose some of it got expressed in the ordination addresses I gave a few years ago that later became my book Wisdom and Ministry. So I went back to my farewell sermon in the Cathedral on 27 September 2015 (how hard I'd worked on that one!): http://michaelstalks.blogspot.com/2015/09/all-in-end-is-harvest-farewell-sermon.html?spref=tw. The clues are all there, I realised, for I'd intended the sermon to be a valedictory not only to Durham but to all the places where I had served as a priest. My text was the words of Jesus in St John after he has performed another of his "signs" and fed the crowd: "gather the fragments so that nothing may be lost" (John 6.12). So that is what I've tried to do in these two addresses, share some harvest gleanings in a way that I hope is helpful and finds echoes in what others have experienced in ministry. 

It's always important in life to do our best to make sure that "nothing may be lost". I believe it to be a key spiritual task, and especially in later life. One of the gifts of retirement has been to have time (even amid the dramas of the past year) to look back and ponder. I've blogged under the "woolgathering" title for some years but this is the first time in my life when it feels as though it can mean something creative because proper time and thought, reflection and prayer can go into it. 

But the more wool I gather, the more I realise that what I think and say on this first anniversary is still provisional. At this early stage, my musings on the story of my ministry are no more than a ballon d'essai, a first go to test whether I've got it even partially right. Who knows what themes may emerge later on in retirement when the foreground has receded a bit and distance lends perspective? 

That last bit was a photography-inspired spoiler, by the way....

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Bishop David Jenkins: in memoriam with great affection

Bishop David Jenkins' death has been announced today. I want to begin by sending my condolences and prayers to his family. 

David was, I believe, one of the great bishops of modern times. There will be many obituaries and public eulogies that survey his career more formally as a theologian and especially as Bishop of Durham where his influence was deep and lasting. I simply want in this blog to pay my own personal tribute to him as someone I got to know late in his life, long after his retirement.

I was one of the great crowd in Durham Cathedral at his enthronement in 1984. To my surprise, the Church Times had asked me to cover it: as a Northumberland parish priest I was relatively local. Proudly armed with my press pass, I took up position in the crossing with a grandstand view. Next to me, I remember, the artist in residence was sketching the occasion. 

None of us could have foreseen the impact the sermon was going to make. The service was already newsworthy because of the lightning strike on York Minster where he had been consecrated not long before. (What a lot of theological nonsense was talked about that disastrous fire!) But when David spoke about the bitter miners' dispute from a pulpit positioned at the heart of the great northern coalfield, the effect was electrifying. I can't recall any other sermon quite like it. It wasn't just the unforgettable phrase about the "elderly imported American". It was the conviction with which he preached, the passion with which he was ready to "speak truth to power" as we say now. If I didn't write in my report that we had a prophet among us, I certainly felt it. We all did. And as we know, as he started, so he continued. The voltage never faltered.

I didn't know then what, as a superannuated preacher I know now, which is that preaching in this way takes a lot of effort and real courage. I don't know what it cost him. But I do remember, working as I did then at the northern tip of the coalfield, how much this sermon was talked about. And not just in church. The working people of the North East loved the thought that once again they had a "miners' bishop" as Westcott had been at the turn of the century, whose prophetic fire burned for social justice. 

But as we know, this was just as true of the way David did theology. As a former professor at Leeds, he knew what he was talking about. In this he was one of a long line of scholar-bishops of Durham. And like them, he knew that theology needed to be done in and by the whole church as a community of faith, not just by academics in their libraries. He looked for a church that was not afraid of asking theological questions, of finding a language that would articulate and celebrate its own inheritance of faith in an intelligent and contemporary way. 

He was much maligned for this, and it was cruelly unfair. I remember at the time that I met up with a well known conservative evangelical theologian. "All this slanderous nonsense being put around about David Jenkins" he said. "It's quite clear to me that the man is a thorough incarnationalist who firmly believes in the resurrection." These controversies can't have been enjoyable for him and his family. But they did serve the church well, if only because they got people taking about theology in the unlikeliest of places. I think David saw this as an aspect of mission. I got into trouble when I preached about his latest contribution about Easter. But the (then) Duke of Northumberland rang me up shortly afterwards and said: "Sadgrove, I want to know more about this new Bishop of Durham. Come across to the Castle for a malt and tell me all about it." I obeyed, as you do. After two hours of discussion he said: "Well, it all seems very sensible to me. What on earth is all the fuss about?" I've often wondered why the search for a genuinely contemporary language in which to express faith was, and still is, so threatening to so many. 

I came back to the North East in 2003 which was when I first met David personally. He was always up for theological discussion and I wish I'd responded more readily to his invitations to come down to Teesdale to see him. But I treasure the memories of the times I did. And I also relish a story told me by Martyn Percy, now Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Martyn wanted to send a gift to mark my installation. David had published his book The Calling of a Cuckoo - Not Quite an Autobiography not long before. An ideal present, Martyn thought. He want to a book launch, bought the book, explained to David that it was gift for the new Dean of Durham, and would he like to write a message in it? Martyn says that David thought for a few moments, then said: "all I can think to write is: God help him! But I'd better not. He might take it amiss." So he simply signed his name. Very understated. Very Durham. Very David too, I think. 

As I got to know the parish clergy of Durham, I was seriously impressed by the reputation David had built up in the diocese. Many of these middle-aged and elderly clergy could not speak highly enough of him. "You knew you were cared for and loved by him" some of them said. "You knew he would listen carefully to you, take an interest, support you if you got into difficulties." That is high praise indeed. And unusually, it was also coming from more than a few clergy of a very different theological or political stamp. It's not too much to say that he was very much admired, respected and loved across the diocese.

One more charming reminiscence. Once, we found ourselves standing robed next to each other at a big service. He was always well-behaved in public as behoves a retired bishop, but he never lost his wicked sense of fun. We turned over a page in the service sheet and saw that a worship song was coming next. He looked at me and grimaced. "Terrible theology" he remarked. "What is one to do with this jejune kind of stuff?" And then he said, "I won't if you won't." So we maintained a dignified silence and thought our own theological thoughts. 

The last time I saw him was when he summoned a colleague and me to talk about his funeral wishes. It was a lovely conversation in his flat in Barnard Castle. He had aged considerably but his acuity and good humour had not left him. He had chosen readings and hymns but, with typical humility, wanted to know what we thought. He changed his mind about one or two things. Above all he wanted nothing pompous or grand, just an act of worship that would be true to the values he'd tried to live by. Above all it must be true to God's love as we see it in the face of Jesus Christ.

As Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins stood in the succession of Cuthbert the Bishop of Lindisfarne who is interred in Durham Cathedral. I write this on his feast day. David might have smiled at the timing of his death. But I am one of very many who are profoundly thankful to have known him a little and to have seen the spirit of Cuthbert and of Cuthbert's Lord alive in him. May he rest in peace.