About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

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 that...is 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.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Am I Being Unpatriotic?

Dear Michael, I begin to feel that your negativity is bordering on the unpatriotic! Don't you think that our leaders deserve our support?

That was an intriguing tweet to receive yesterday, not as a personal message but publicly. She (it was from someone I know) was responding to a tweet I'd posted that contained a link to an article in The Guardian. It was lamenting our political leaders' lack of imagination and sense of history in their handling of the Brexit negotiations, specifically the matter of the Irish border.

In the two years I've been blogging about the EU, I've been accused of many things: being intemperate, ignorant, theologically inept (yes!), and over-confident about being a Remainer. But this is the first time my patriotism has been called into question (though it's a common jibe from people who should know better that Europhiles collectively are not acting patriotically).

So let's go there. First, we need to disentangle patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism means a love of and loyalty to your homeland. In Roman thought, you owe your homeland that much simply because it bore you and nurtured you. It's an act of piety (pietas) to acknowledge your debt to the people and institutions that have formed you. This is not at all the same as saying that your homeland is better than anyone else's. It's simply yours. It's part of your identity as a human being. That's why it's precious to you. At its best, patriotism is a virtue that is liberal, humane, peaceable and beneficent.

Nationalism is different. "Hard" nationalisms survive and flourish because of an innate conviction that somehow, your nation is superior to others. This can be on the grounds of almost anything you care to name, your proud history for example, or your race, religion, intellectual enlightenment, military prowess or wealth. "Soft" nationalisms are more subtle, and not always conscious. But they are expressed by aims and behaviours such as pursuing political or economic purposes that benefit your own nation in preference to, or at the expense of, others. This tends to foster national autonomy and self-determination, where the good of a nation state is no longer understood in the setting of the wider human family. It's hard not to think that agressive flag-waving, hostility to immigrants and rigorous border controls encourage a kind of national egoism that owes more to a romantic notion of "blood and soil" than to a rational idea of what it means to be good citizens.ii

I've often written about my late mother's side of our family. She was a German Jewess who escaped from the Third Reich before the war and was welcomed as a refugee in the UK. She settled here permanently, married my (gentile) father and wanted nothing else than to live out her days in domestic tranquility. She absorbed British ways, learned to speak English free of any German accent, brought her children up to love this country as the civilised, generous nation she had found it to be when she needed rescuing. She became, I think it's fair to say, a patriotic British citizen (she would never have said "English") and encouraged us to be the same. But her keenly attuned antennae abhorred the slightest whiff of self-regarding nationalism. She was a citizen of the world and of her continent, and for this reason was appalled that her adopted country opted to leave the EU just before she died.

For me, this is the nub of Brexit. What was the patriotic thing to do when we voted in last year's Referendum? Part of the answer is surely, to think about what would be in our country's best interests, what would enable it to flourish in the future. I'm sure that most people voted in that way, whether they were Brexiters or Remainers.

But patriotism (precisely because it is not nationalism) doesn't restrict that question only to "what's best for Britain" (to quote the tiresome rhetoric of David Cameron when he tried to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU). It asks how the welfare of our nation sits alongside the welfare of all the nations and of the world as a whole. It plays with the conjecture that what's best for Britain in the long run will also turn out to be best not only for Europe but for the worldwide human family. What if we even entertained the thought that we should start at the other end of the question, so to speak, and begin by asking what's best for others, especially those a lot less privileged than we are? I want to say that that option, too, is a patriotic one because it sees flourishing as mutual. We only prosper in any profound sense when everyone else does as well. It's what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. That Golden Rule should have been right at the heart of the Referendum debate. It grieved me that it wasn't.

So I see patriotism as inextricably linked to our belonging, our citizenship, not only in a national sense but in a global one. Patriotism is certainly not less than loving your country (and why not also your region, your locality, the city, town or village where you live?). If wherever we call "home" is important to us, then we should love it and everyone else whose home it also is. But belonging has concentric circles. I love my European homeland and am proud to carry a passport that announces me to be an EU citizen as well as a British one. I love the planet I have been born on, so broken and divided and carrying infinite burdens of pain, yet for all that still full of beauty and goodness, so rich in the diversity of its peoples with whom it's a joyful mystery of life that we share this globe together. Theresa May was quite wrong to say that if you are a citizen of everywhere, "a citizen of the world", you are a citizen of nowhere. Patriotism means we can be glad and grateful to be citizens of many different "somewheres", all of which we can be loyal to and love, whether it's the world we live in, the nation of our origins, or the particular place that we call "home".

This is why I believe that my vote to remain in the EU was profoundly patriotic. A patriotism for today means that we must continue to strive for a peaceable commonwealth of nations and peoples that transcends national boundaries, in which our own flourishing is part of everyone else's. So was it "bordering on the unpatriotic" to question the leadership of those who are trying to negotiate a Brexit settlement with the EU? I don't think so. A grown-up democracy doesn't blindly follow its leaders, least of all when it fears it may be heading for disaster. Yes, there is a loyalty to democratic choices that is required of all citizens, whether it is the outcome of a referendum or the government we have elected.

But it can never be an uncritical loyalty. To go on questioning, exploring, doubting, challenging, being open to change in the light of new evidence or arguments - these are both the privileges and duties of all of us in a democratic society. When it comes to Brexit, the national conversation was not suddenly closed off on 23 June 2016. On the contrary, each new step forward requires that conversation to be shifted and reconfigured in the light of altered circumstances or newly understood realities. It's patriotic to want the best out of each iteration. And it would be patriotic as well as democratic if, in the light of circumstances, we decided as a nation to change our minds about Brexit. (The "will of the people" refrain trotted out by some of our elected members including many who voted Remain doesn't advance intelligent discourse in any way that I can see.)

So you can call me a member of Her Majesty's loyal "Brexit Opposition" if you like. A twenty-first century recusant even, as Tony Dickinson suggested in response to the first version of this blog. For I believe that it's not only allowable but positively necessary to monitor how such a major decision is being worked out in practice, interrogate it closely, scrutinise the performance of those who are steering it so that we can hold them to account. If I say that I just don't believe that the case has been made for Brexit, and that this year has felt like a catalogue of mistakes, unintended consequences and muddled aims, is that unpatriotic? Not if it's said out of a genuine care for the welfare of my nation. On the contrary, maybe it's those who won't engage any further in the Brexit conversation who don't care enough about what happens to our nation.

I don't accuse the good person (whose tweet started this whole thing off) of not caring. Far from it. But I did think I needed to explain myself and defend what I want to describe as a liberal global patriotism. In these times, we have to learn to construe patriotism in the largest, most international way we can. Our world is simply too small for any of us to imagine that supposedly sacrosanct national borders can still define the limits of our concern. We urgently need to cultivate a good patriotism if all life on the planet is going to be respected and conserved. Nations and peoples need to act together to solve the world’s problems. In partnerships, we can achieve vastly more than we ever can on our own.

As I see it, Brexit is propelling the nation in completely the wrong direction, towards isolationism and disintegration. That’s dangerous. It’s not unpatriotic to say so.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

In Praise of Coffee

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes!
Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
Smoother than Muscatel wine.
Coffee, I must have coffee,
And if anyone wants to give me a treat,
Ah! just give me some coffee!

Doggerel on a morning when we're told on good authority that three coffees a day brings a whole range of health benefits. Those lyrics are by an eighteenth century poet known as Picander. His proper name was Christian Friedrich Henrici. He was one of J. S. Bach's most important librettists, supplying texts for a number of his sacred works including the St Matthew Passion. And for his secular cantata BWV211, the Coffee Cantata, composed in 1734 whose title "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" translates as "Be quiet, stop chattering". Believe me, this nonsense in praise of coffee sounds a whole lot better when you hear it adorned by Bach's glorious music.

As we know from sources like Dr Johnson and Blackadder, the coffee house was a great social institution in eighteenth century Europe. Coffee stimulated the mind and loosened the tongue. Whether they were people of science, music or letters, those who frequented them would spend hours sharing their insights and debating their implications. The Enlightenment might not have flourished so spectacularly if it had not been for coffee. How many of the world's great books owe their existence to it, whether drunk socially or through the long hours of the night in a writer's garret. At university I often used to stay up all night writing essays against a deadline of the following morning. I kept this up, though with declining results, when I taught theology and had to mark essays, and then in the parish when working on my sermons. Not good habits, maybe, but it all depended on coffee (and the Psalter - reading a psalm as each consecutive hour struck).

And now (not for the first time) we are assured that all this coffee brings added value to our physical as well as our mental and spiritual health. A peer-reviewed "umbrella study" published in the British Medical Journal concludes that "coffee drinking appears safe within usual patterns of consumption". Which is careful scientific understatement for the well-evidenced claim that coffee-drinking is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes including heart disease and strokes. It's also associated with a reduced risk of suffering from several cancers including prostate, skin and liver, and also from type-2 diabetes, gallstones and gout.

I've drunk black coffee almost all my life, apart from a couple of periods when I abstained for several months to see whether it made a difference to my quality of sleep at night. (It didn't.)  Black coffee is a virtuous drink because it is calorie-free (the report warns us not to indulge in those naughty-but-ever-so-nice treats stuffed with refined sugars and unhealthy fats like cakes and biscuits - I try not to. "Coffee is safe, but hold the cake"). And we are warned not to claim too much for coffee when the precise nature of the aetiologies is not well understood. "Does coffee prevent chronic disease and reduce mortality? We simply do not know. Should doctors recommend drinking coffee to prevent disease? Should people start drinking coffee for health reasons? The answer to both questions is 'no'."

Well, at this late stage in my life, I can't imagine that I shall stop drinking coffee unless these results are dramatically overturned by new and adverse evidence. Morning coffee - yes, three or four cups - has long been part of my habitus. In retirement, there is the added luxury, which still feels a bit deviant, of coming back from morning prayer with the vicar in church and sitting down with the daily paper over a long and rewarding coffee while enjoying music on Radio 3. I've noticed how many social media personal profiles mention coffee. What would the morning be without coffee, I've often wondered? What is it about this drink whose taste and aroma are as rich and complex as a cup of Lapsang Suchong tea (no milk), a glass of Puligny Montrachet (not too chilled) or a Talisker nightcap (with a few drops of mineral water)? As long as you buy the real thing (fairly traded, of course) and make it properly. Even the best instants are no substitute. If you're going to do it at all, do it with conviction. As Luther said, pecca fortiter! "Sin boldly."

Good old Bach. He has dispensed rich wisdom all my life. It's nice to find he could be playful too, at least when it came to his preferred drink. About coffee and so much else, the great master was never wrong. If you are already an afficionado, listen to the Coffee Cantata. Have your prejudices confirmed and your conscience stilled - and maybe, just maybe, live longer because of it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

We Need Thanksgiving - but not Black Friday

A Song for Friday. "If you go down to the shops today, you're in for a nasty surprise." Or maybe not, if you knew that it's Black Friday, that annual orgy of shopping and spending that is enough to put some of us off shops for life.

The Guardian has an editorial today that makes interesting reading. It reminds us that the Black Friday custom originated in America (where else?) as a way of filling the space between Thanksgiving on the day before, and the coming weekend. You have a great celebration on the fourth Thursday of November. Families gather not only from across the States but from all over the world to be together on this the most important day in the calendar. It's a wonderful way to enter into and keep alive the founding myth of America, express solidarity with generations past and generations to come, and all under the rubric of giving thanks. There is something deeply eucharistic about that, allowing memory to foster gratitude for blessings past, present and future.

So you are gathered by the fireside in your home with those you love best in the world. Like the eighth square in Through the Looking Glass, it's all feasting and fun. And no doubt every American family, aware of how abundant are the gifts they celebrate, will also be sparing a thought and a prayer for the many who are less fortunate, left outside the warm glow of privileged good fortune. It's a time for generosity, large-heartedness, good will. Americans are among the most kind and generous people I've ever met.

But then Black Friday dawns. Everybody, it seems, gets up while it's still dark and heads for the shopping malls. You’re among them, thinking to yourself, “Christmas shopping”. There are bargains galore to tempt you, big budget items offering eye-watering reductions. You find that some people have waited all night to be at the front of the line at store-opening time. In the headlong rush for the best bargains, people get hurt. Sometimes there are fisticuffs. Extra security is brought in. (We Brits know all this if we’ve ever been rash enough to pay an early morning visit to the Boxing Day sales.) It's as if the normal conventions of polite behaviour (such as queuing and holding the door open for others) break down. The crowd acts out unusual (to them) behaviours that in other contexts we would call feral. If you ever wonder what would happen to humanity if civilisation were stripped away, just watch TV news following an eventful Black Friday.

I'd be glad to be told that this is a wicked caricature perpetrated by liberal elites who read broadsheet newspapers and would never be seen dead in a shopping mall on Black Friday. But even if it is, there's a deeper aspect to it that needs airing.

It's what question Black Friday is meant to be the answer to. The answer is that it's a direct response to Thanksgiving. It stands with it, depends on it like a parasite for its very existence. And yet, hard on the heels of the exquisite evening before that so affirms the American founding fathers’ and mothers’ spirit of gratitude, public faith, social and family values, the importance of remembering together, how can Black Friday not be bathos of a particularly glaring kind? On this of all long weekends, who wouldn't want to share memories and laughter in long happy conversations, play sports or games together, enjoy the fresh bracing air, read, make music, indulge your hobbies. Who wouldn't want to continue the spirit of Thanksgiving into the next few days, maybe linking it to visiting someone who is sick, or volunteering for at the local foodbank or sharing your foyer with a guest who would otherwise be alone?

It's hard to see how a shopping spree doesn't trivialise much of what Thanksgiving stands for. The dead hand of monetising everything always has that effect (“knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”). It's as if Americans can't think of anything more creative to follow Thanksgiving than the emblematic cliche of going shopping. But in the UK it's rather worse. We have lifted Black Friday straight out of American culture and reinstalled it in our own country in both its physical and digital forms (except that there's nothing virtual about parting with money: it comes down to the same thing in the end). It has taken off in a big way. But what we didn't import along with it was the day before. Here there is no Thanksgiving to give it even the vestige of a larger meaning. So Black Friday stands alone, revealed in all its overt, rampant consumerism. It is a shameless day of homage to what we have largely become: a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers whose aspirations are to buy and sell, make profits and grab bargains. The infamous Greggs' sausage roll is placed in the manger where the Christ Child should be, and made an idol of for the Magi and all of us to adore.

I exaggerate of course. But The Guardian is right to argue that shorn of Thanksgiving, there is no case for this indulgence of Black Friday. Somehow the very name, a conscious shadowy echo of Good Friday, tells us that it can't be good for us. Among the seven deadly sins are named greed, lust, gluttony and wrath, all of which could describe aspects of the Black Friday Experience. A theologian might argue that the root of all these behaviours is perhaps the original sin of all, envy. (I gave a lecture on this a few years ago in which I made a case for its being the primal sin at the very core of Adam's rebellion against God in the mythical Garden of Eden.)

I don't want to be unduly portentous about this. I'm not one of those preachers whose Christmas sermons are tiresome diatribes against consumerism and commercialism. Let's be positive as Advent begins, and hopes and longings are reawakened. As Christian faith has always understood, it's thankfulness that is the foundation of a healthy, hope-filled way of life. There are more than enough shopping days to Christmas that allow us to go in search of good gifts for family and friends, not in the mad feeding frenzy of Black Friday, but in a virtuous, ethical, thoughtful, happy and above all thankful way. That will add quality and integrity to the precious act of giving to the people we love.

So don't let's encourage the worst instincts of a retail industry greedy for profits. Forget Black Friday. Make it a personal Thanksgiving Day instead. Because that's something we should certainly learn from our American friends. (And to any of them who are reading this, Happy Thanksgiving Day to you all!)

Friday, 17 November 2017

#140: Why has Twitter Changed the Rules?

Forget Brexit, that sausage roll and who's going to win Strictly. If there's one thing that's exercising social media at the moment, it's Twitter changing its rules of engagement. As I presume everyone knows, until this year you were limited to 140 characters per tweet. But now they've doubled it to 280. And some of us are grumpy about it.

I've used Twitter since the end of 2011. I blogged about it when I was very new to it and again at the end of my first year on it. Here's what I said when I was starting out.

I've been surprised how I've taken to it.  It feels a bit like discovering photography a few years ago.  Perhaps it's because they are quite similar.  Photography captures the essence of something by putting a frame around it. Composing an image is to limit the viewer's horizons in ways that 'focus' (pun intended) attention so that we see afresh and perhaps gain 'insight'. In the same way, Twitter imposes the discipline of 140 characters which requires us to put a (pretty small) frame around what we want to share and try and communicate in a sharply focused way.

 Someone once spoke of 'the sonnet's narrow room'.  That means the 'given' shape of 14 lines with rhythms that are set: the poet who wants to write a sonnet isn't free to vary its structure.  The challenge of doing something interesting, creative and beautiful inside that 'narrow room' has fascinated poets since Petrarch.  Shakespeare's Sonnets are like Bach's Goldberg Variations: they show the endless variety that is possible at the hands of a master even when the terrain on which to work is no bigger than a pocket handkerchief.

I think Twitter may appeal to people who are miniaturists.  We like the idea that much can be said in a few words.  We value understatement and reticence, where a wealth of meanings can reside at the margins of what is said, implied by nudges and hints rather than stated openly.  'Tell all the truth but tell it slant' said Emily Dickinson, one of the great practitioners of saying much in a small space.  The truth at the centre of Christianity can be expressed in a tweet: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.

That has all the zeal that goes with discovering something new. Maybe I was a bit over-enthusiastic then. I hadn't seen how social media can damage people who get addicted to it, or - far worse - become victims of online haters, trolls and bullies. We hadn't heard of fake news. I'm the first to admit that an unregulated cyberspace is dangerous and puts people at risk. And not just the young. Think of Jo Cox and Gina Miller.

Yet for all that, I still believe that used responsibly, social media is an immensely powerful tool for doing good in the world. Twitter in particular had an elegance and succinctness that seemed to command attention. No wonder politicians like Donald Trump were quick to spot its potential. To be able to say something striking (whether true or not, whether wise or not) and reach millions of people in just 140 characters offered an irresistible challenge to anyone who saw the possibilities in vivid, focused communication.

Note the past tense. Because that has now changed for the worse. Open your Twitter feed and what do you find? A never-ending stream of ponderous essays of 280 characters. Your screen is crammed with text. Your eye could just about scan 140 at one go, take in the message, tell your brain that here was something worth thinking about, endorsing with enthusiasm, being grumpy about, disagreeing violently with, smiling at. Here was something had bothered to take the trouble to distil for us. When there is so much information out there clamouring for our attention, we love succinctness. But now Twitter is sprawling like Face Book, clogging up the weirs and culverts so that the flow is turbulent and muddied, and we can no longer quickly tell the difference between what matters and what doesn't.

So what has possessed Twitter to change the rules and double the character limit? We loved the discipline of 140 characters and the sharpness it gave to our writing. Dr Johnson once said to a plodding writer something like, "strike out every other word in what you have written: it will do wonders for your style." As someone who is tempted to use too many adjectives and adverbs, I've found it's been a great reminder to try to write plain English. No, the medium wasn't broke and didn't need fixing. Except in the eyes of those who thought that the more Twitter emulated Face Book, the more popular it would be and the higher the advertising revenues. The trouble is that the 140 "brand" was such a distinctive USP. Maybe adjusting it upwards to 160 would not have mattered too much. But to double it (which is to multiply by 8 its "cubic capacity" - hugely more if in my analogy cyberspace stretches beyond three dimensions) is a big risk.

I was tempted to give up half my character allowance next Lent and stick to 140 for a few weeks - like the Lent a few years ago when I gave up colour photography and worked only in black and white. Then I thought: why wait till Lent? Let's start now. So I am doggedly carrying on in the way I've learned to know and love Twitter by continuing with the 140 limit. I've been encouraged by others who've adopted my suggested #140 hashtag in their Twitter profiles. I know that without a numerical counter on the tweet screen (again, why?) it's not so easy. But all we have to do is to stop writing when the blue line hits the bottom of the circle at the "half-past" mark. Sooner if we can.

I won't be obsessive about #140. If I stray over by a dozen characters, I'm not going to worry. But we want to keep the spirit of Twitter alive. Brevity is not only the soul of wit but the soul of Twitter too. So maybe I can encourage you to give it a go? I'll follow you if you let me know you've put #140 in your profile. There's an offer you can't refuse. I'm at @sadgrovem. I've tweeted @Twitter to say I'd be glad to have their comments and to publish them here. You may want to ask them too.

"Always the supporter of lost causes" I hear you say with a sigh. "Always the remainer." Ah well. Put it down to retirement and having too much time to think. And blog. And tweet.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 10: Where the Roman Wall Ends (or Begins)

No-one in this village needs to be told about the Roman Wall that strides above us along the crest of the Whin Sill. Sycamore Gap is beautiful, but we don’t need yet more pictures of it. The same goes for the outstanding Roman sites at Chesters, Housesteads and Vindolanda. (But it’s worth putting a word in for the newly opened National Park Centre “The Sill” at Once Brewed on the Military Road. It’s worth a visit, and there’s a nice shop and a good café-restaurant there too.)

But the antiquities in urban Tyneside offer something a bit different. I’m thinking of Wallsend north of the Tyne and Arbeia on the south bank opposite. You don’t expect to come across Roman remains where there were once shipyards and the tangle of heavy industry, or in the midst of long streets of red brick Victorian houses. Just as the lonely upland setting of the Roman Wall in our area is a great part of its appeal, so it is, for me anyway, in the gritty townscapes where the Tyne nears the sea. What they lack in scenery they more than make up for in urban atmosphere, especially on the sort of grey overcast days the North East does so well.
Let’s focus on Wallsend. If you can, get there by Metro from the city centre. I suggest this for the sake of getting off at Wallsend station. It’s nothing special to look at, but it has the distinction of being the only railway station in the world that has signage in Latin (and in English too, should you need it). A short walk under the tracks brings you to the site itself.
Segedunum (does it mean strongly fortified place?) is dominated by an unlikely looking 1960s tower bearing the inscription “Where Rome’s great frontier begins”. This is the observation tower and it’s worth starting the visit at the top (there’s a lift as well as stairs). From here you can take in the entire excavated site and its setting. You are looking west, up the Tyne that flows alongside the fort. Upstream you can see the remnants of the legendary Tyneside shipyards and beyond, the city-centre where the Roman bridge Pons Aelius once stood. This was the lowest crossing of the river, a key strategic location, and it’s likely that Segedunum was built to protect it.
The Roman Wall has a long history, but what matters at Wallsend is that it was at Pons Aelius that Emperor Hadrian began to construct his wall in 122AD. (Aelius is derived from Hadrian’s family name.) The short four-mile section eastwards, running under what is now Byker and terminating at the fort also included a spur running down to the river. This was completed a few years later. When you walk the site and gaze at the two short chunks of wall that survive, you can’t help pondering this extraordinary monument that stretches all the way to the Solway via our parish about half way along. What was this edge-of-empire wall for? Probably not to defend the empire or attack enemies. More likely it symbolically marked the extent of empire, with its many gates serving as points at which to control traffic and regulate trade between the empire and the peoples beyond it.

But I left you at the top of the observation tower. Come down and visit the galleries on the two floors at the bottom. There are good interactive displays about the history of the Wall, exhibits of excavated artefacts and (what school children especially enjoy), resources to help you imagine what it would have been like to live in a Roman garrison. You are also told something about the history of Wallsend after the Romans left in about 400AD. Its key role in Tyneside’s heavy industry, particularly mining and shipbuilding, is rightly made much of. This characterful area is all part of Newcastle’s hinterland.

There isn’t actually a lot to see above ground when you walk round the site. I’ve mentioned the short sections of wall that survive. The reconstructed Roman bath house is the most prominent building (not open at the time of writing). But as I’ve said, it’s more a case of setting and atmosphere. This close to the river, you appreciate its significance for this part of England, and the strategic importance of a crossing point as near to its estuary as you can. You see why Segedunum was necessary. And if it all feels a little forlorn, think what it must have felt like to soldiers from Syria, north Africa or Spain whose legions served on the Wall at different times. They would have wrapped themselves up against the keen east wind blowing off the North Sea and wondered how they ever came to exchange their azure Mediterranean skies for this bleak and lonely place.   
That’s why I say that atmosphere is everything. If you want to feel the authentic North East in all its ancient, sharp and uncompromising character, Wallsend offers plenty of scope. So does Arbeia, when it opens again in the spring. And if you want to know more about the Wall and those who served on it, the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran and the excellent exhibitions at Vindolanda will give you plenty to think about.

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 9: The Tyne Valley Railway

This month I’ve chosen, not a place but a railway line – ours. As someone who’s loved railways since I was little, I couldn’t ignore this aspect of the North East. I’ve already written about the museum at Shildon, the “cradle of the railways”. But what about the living, working railway that runs through our own village? The Tyne Valley Railway is a daily part of our life in this community – and aren’t we fortunate to have a working railway station, however basic, in our midst? But how many of us have taken in the long history of this line, or some of its fine lineside features?

Our railway is both one of the prettiest in England, and also one of the earliest. Planning began in the 1820s (the legendary Stockton and Darlington Railway began carrying passengers in 1825). While sections of the line were running earlier, the entire length of the route between Carlisle and Newcastle was opened in 1838. And although Haydon Bridge station is now only a shadow of its former self, it’s nice to think that in its way it is the village’s monument to the pioneering spirit that inspired the construction of railways across the country in those first few decades.

You can see why the railway has been branded the “Hadrian’s Wall Line”, though in fact the Roman Wall is visible from only a very few locations along the route. But the Tyne is a different matter. The railway hugs it closely all the way from its eastern terminus at Newcastle Central to Haltwhistle; even then the former Alston branch, now partly reopened as a narrow gauge railway, continues the marriage of river and railway up into the North Pennines not far from its source. (I say the Tyne, but of course I mean the South Tyne. The North Tyne had its own railway, the Border Counties that diverged from the Tyne Valley line just west of Hexham. You can still see the piers of the original bridge that crossed the river at that point.)

As I am focusing on North East England, I won’t linger on the part of the line west of the Pennine watershed around Gilsland (where there is an active campaign to reopen the station, and who’s to say there isn’t a good case for it?). Up here you get marvellous views eastwards along the whin sill crags that carry the Roman Wall, northwards to the Bewcastle fells, and westwards across the Solway and beyond, the hills of Galloway. 

Haltwhistle station has some of the line’s best buildings. My wife and I visited them recently on a heritage open day. We were able to climb up into the splendid signal box and admire the restored ticket office (the cardboard railway ticket as we used to know it was invented on this very line by an enterprising station master at Brampton called Thomas Edmondson). The water tank on its three arches is another fine feature, as is the footbridge in a design you find repeated along the length of the line.

Hexham station always seems well looked after with its air of tidiness and hanging flower baskets. The signal box, poised over the rails themselves, is one of the best on the line. Riding Mill and Stocksfield stations both have their original station-masters’ houses, as does Wylam, another station of great charm. Opened in 1835, it is said to be one of the earliest stations in the world that is still in daily use, an achievement of which the great engineer George Stephenson, born in the village, would no doubt be proud. It even features in Simon Jenkins' recent book Britain's Hundred Best Railway Stations.

Wylam marks the Tyne’s tidal limit. Downstream you leave Northumberland and enter the tangle of industrial wastelands, new commercial buildings, baffling road networks and riverside developments. The urban townscape of Tyne and Wear has created huge spaces for retail on an industrial scale. The Metro Centre, cathedral of consumerism, has its own useful but unlovely interchange where every train on the line is destined to stop. I wonder why?
Our journey has two last hurrahs. The first is the long climb up through Gateshead to join the East Coast Main Line. There’s a breath-taking climax when you realise that you are high up on the south bank of the river perched on the edge of a gorge. From here you cross it either on the King Edward Bridge or the older and more venerable High Level Bridge. This outstanding monument to North East engineering was designed by Robert Stephenson and opened in 1849. If you have never walked along its lower deck, you have a treat in store. Both bridges offer magnificent views up and down the river, and if your train is halted in mid-passage as it often is, you have an unrivalled photo opportunity too. Is there a city in Europe with such a majestic river frontage as Newcastle-Gateshead?
The second hurrah is Newcastle Central Station itself. The river crossing has already created a great sense of arrival, and it required a station to match it. Newcastle architect John Dobson rose to the challenge by creating one of the grandest stations in the country (it merits 5ive stars in Simon Jenkins' book). The vast porch (called a porte-clochère) where passengers would disembark from their horse-drawn carriages is now a pedestrian concourse. The train shed is a beautiful piece of ironwork in its own right, perfectly set off by the curve of the railway line as it comes off one of the bridges at either end and sweeps grandly alongside the platforms.
The Tyne bridges, Newcastle Central Station, the two Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and the (new) Castle make up an outstanding ensemble of historic buildings. Here at the heart of one of England’s great cities, we are a world away from the Pennine reaches of the Tyne in its remote upland valley. But each is a foil for the other. There aren’t many railway journeys that offer so much to enjoy. And all from our own doorsteps here in Haydon Village.
**The Tyne Valley Rail Users’ Group is well worth supporting. Its purpose is to develop relationships between the line and its principal train operator Northern, and the communities they serve. This includes campaigning for better services and facilities. Go to www.tvrug.org.uk 

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 8: Durham Cathedral

I've been a bit remiss about posting articles I've written about some of my favourite places in the North East for the Haydon News, our village magazine.

When I began this series, I said I wanted to explore some less well-known places in the North East. So why have we come to Durham? I don’t suppose there is anyone reading this who hasn’t been to its mighty Cathedral, probably many times. It’s famous the world over as one of the greatest of all Romanesque buildings. It’s often been voted Britain’s favourite cathedral. Bill Bryson called it “the best cathedral on Planet Earth”. Having been Dean there, and lived in its shadow for nearly 13 years, who am I to disagree?
But even if you’ve been to the Cathedral, there may be things you have missed. It would take a lifetime to get to know it in every detail and unearth all its secrets. So here are some corners of the place and its surroundings you may not have taken in. And if you have, let this reawaken enjoyable memories.
1 The Sanctuary Knocker
This fierce monster greets you as you approach the main door. In the middle ages, if you had committed certain crimes such as unintended manslaughter, you could save yourself from the rough justice of the mob by fleeing to the Cathedral and grasping hold of the knocker. One of the monks keeping watch from the room above would let you inside the church where you would be kept safe for thirty-seven days. This would give you time to choose whether to give yourself up to the authorities and face the consequences, or choose permanent exile, in which case you would be escorted to Hartlepool and placed on a ship, never to return. (What you see is a copy of the original twelfth  century knocker which is kept safe from corrosion or vandalism in the Cathedral’s collections.)
2  The Shrine of St Cuthbert
How can you go to Durham Cathedral and not take in the shrine that is the very reason the Cathedral exists? Well, quite easily as it happens. I did it myself on my first ever visit as a schoolboy in the 1960s. If you don’t know it is there, you might miss the stone stairs up to the “feretory”, as it’s called, where the remains of St Cuthbert are buried. Since our churches at Haydon Bridge are dedicated to him, I don’t need to tell how his remains were taken on a long journey around the North (passing through what is now our parish, we believe) until they ended up on the peninsula and the Cathedral was built around them. On the wall outside the shrine, you will see the red Banner of St Cuthbert, a replica of the one that hung there to welcome vast crowds of pilgrims in the middle ages.
3  The Neville Screen
The great screen behind the high altar is one of the jewels of the Cathedral. It was given by the Neville family of County Durham in gratitude for the English victory against the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Unlike the rough sandstone the Cathedral is built from, the screen is made of a beautiful white limestone from Caen in France. If you have field-glasses with you, look at the intricate detailing of the pinnacles, and the marvellous carvings of angels and animals above the canopies on each side. Once, the niches contained sculptures of the saints. These were taken down and hidden for safety just before the Dissolution in the 1530s. No-one knows where they are to this day though that doesn’t stop the choristers from guessing.
4  The Transfiguration Window
If you haven’t been to Durham since 2010, you won’t have seen this magnificent new window near Cuthbert’s shrine. It was installed in memory of Archbishop Michael Ramsey who had been both a canon and a bishop of Durham and who is still remembered with huge affection there. The design is by Tom Denney. It shows the Transfiguration of Jesus, one of Michael Ramsey’s favourite New Testament stories. Light pours down on Jesus on the mountain top, accompanied by the disciples Peter, James and John. Nearby the lonely figure of St Cuthbert stands by the sea saying his prayers, and you’ll also notice the Cathedral itself bathed in light. The window with its rich textures casts a radiant golden light when the sun is high in the middle of the day.  

5  The Cloister
Here’s another part of the Cathedral I missed when I first came as a boy. On the opposite side from the main (north) door, you come out into the cloister. In the middle ages, this would have been the hub of the monastery’s life, because it connected the principal buildings where monastic activity was focused: the church itself, the chapter house, dormitory, refectory, treasury and the kitchen. All these buildings survive and are still in use, making Durham Cathedral the most complete surviving monastic site in England.
6  The Monks’ Dormitory and Great Kitchen
You reach these splendid buildings from the cloister. The size of the dormitory tells you how large the monastery was in its heyday. This majestic room has one of the most remarkable timber roofs in England. The nearby octagonal kitchen is another precious survival from the medieval Cathedral with its remarkable stone vault. Both these spaces now form part of the Cathedral’s new exhibition Open Treasure which tells the story of Christian faith in the North East from Roman times to the present day. The Great Kitchen now houses artefacts associated with St Cuthbert including his famous pectoral cross, his wooden coffin and his portable altar.
7  The River BanksToo many visitors rush away without taking time to appreciate the Cathedral in its gorgeous setting. When you walk alongside the river, you appreciate what a remarkable site the Cathedral occupies, perched unassailable on its acropolis high above a great loop in the River Wear. The gorge was carefully landscaped in the eighteenth century to show the buildings to best advantage above the abundant tree canopy. It is beautiful at all times of year, but I especially love it on winter afternoons when the Cathedral glows through the bare trees by the light of the setting sun. And when you’ve enjoyed the walk, where better to reward yourself with a cup of tea and a cake than in the Cathedral restaurant off the cloister?
Space doesn’t allow me to write about the font canopy, the Daily Bread Window, The Venerable Bede, the mysterious line in the floor, a mason’s mistake in one of the piers, the Durham Light Infantry Chapel, Frosterley Marble and much else. Maybe another time…

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

On All Saints' Eve: Six Best Books from the Reformation Era

Five centuries ago today, Martin Luther posted ninety five theses on the legendary door of the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg. I can't let the day pass without writing something. It's a crowded field with many people contributing insights about the Reformation, not least on Thought for the Day this morning and in a leading article in The Guardian.

How do we get the feel of the Reformation? Best of all is to let them speak to us in their own words. So I thought I would blog about some of my favourite writings from the Reformation era. Amid a plethora of books about the Reformers, I think it's vital to go back to the sources themselves. This was an approach the Reformers themselves constantly advocated. Ad fontes! they would say, don't just read the secondary literature. It's original texts that need to inform our thinking and correct the distortions that inevitably colour so much of the narrative and the commentary.

What you find when you go back to the Reformers' writings is how lively and fresh they are. There's a bracing quality about these books that makes them a joy to read - and often, they are far easier to read than we might have thought. They knew how to write as well as how to think. They understood that they needed to harness the potential of the new media of their day, the printed word. (How they exploited this new "information technology" is a rich study in itself. Parallels with the digital era in which we now live are pertinent and worth thinking about.)


So here are six of my favourite books from the Reformation era. They are all easily accessible (in translation where necessary), whether in hard copy or on the web.  How the Reformers would have loved the idea of online accessibility!

Martin Luther, Commentary on the Letter to the Galatians
There are so many Luther texts to choose from. Why do I go for a biblical commentary? Because his Galatians goes right to the heart of the central issue of the Reformation, how humanity is redeemed by the grace of God. This epistle, along with Romans, is where St Paul sets out most explicitly the insight that we are justified not by any amount of good works we can do, but through faith in a God who accepts us on the basis of what Christ has done for the salvation of the world. Galatians is among Paul's most passionate letters, and Luther's commentary is among the most passionate of all his writings, full of wonderful rhetoric that help us understand not only Luther's thought but his temperament as well. I once listened to one of my theological teachers read aloud from his commentary on the third chapter of Galatians where Paul says that Christ became a curse for us. It was spellbinding.

Philip Melanchthon, Common Places
Melanchthon was Luther's collaborator in the German Reformation. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting, for their personalities were very different. Melanchthon was a methodical thinker who was the first of the Reformation theologians to organise the concepts of Lutheran Protestantism into a coherent body of thought. I have a special fondness for him, having as a student bought for a song three massive volumes of his writings in an edition of the 1560s (which I still have). Sixteenth century writers often compiled "common places" as a way of summing up their thought, and Melanchthon's Common Places or Loci Communes are his own succinct survey of his principal concepts. They have (I think) been in print ever since he wrote them. Deservedly, for here is the quintessence of Reformation theology distilled in a wonderfully accessible and humane way.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion
Calvin gets a bad press in much of the church, partly because his own thought tends to get conflated with the more rigorous "Calvinism" of his followers and successors. We might not have relished living in Calvin's Geneva. But I have no hesitation in saying that the Institutes are among the great books of western Christianity, and one of the most magisterial (and influential) systematic theologies not only of his age but of any. It's not a book you will want to read from cover to cover, but nowhere else will you find the leading ideas of the continental Reformation set out so clearly and with the flair that only a lawyer trained in classical rhetoric could bring to it. Where to begin? Not with predestination and election, I suggest, but with the opening chapters that explore how we come to know God.

Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance the Prayer Book has had for the English speaking world. Along with Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, it did for the English language what Luther's Bible did for the German: gave it a literary sophistication and rhetorical directness that we are indebted to today. Cranmer's Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552 uniquely embody the liturgical and spiritual vision of all the churches that look back to the Reformation. Especially is this true of the Communion Service, to understand which is to have the key to a eucharistic theology that, far from being reductionist as was alleged, is in fact extraordinarily rich and subtle. I have blogged about Prayer Book Evensong before. And we should not forget the Psalms of the BCP whose much-loved translation by Miles Coverdale, another key figure in the English Reformation, has been sung the world over.

The Heidelberg Catechism
This little book was published in one of Germany's most beautiful cities in 1563. It was written for the instruction of the young in the Reformed faith. It is done with a charm and elegance that have never been surpassed, not even in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. It is divided into fifty-two "Lord's Days", i.e. one section for each Sunday of the year. Here's part of the first one to give a flavour. "What is your only comfort in life and death?" "That I, both body and soul, am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood has fully satisfied for my sins and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head...who, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me sincerely willing and ready to live for him." I visited Heidelberg on the River Neckar earlier this year and thought of those cherished words.

Martin Bucer, On the True Care of Souls
To follow two books that focus on Christian formation in the church, my final choice is a classic of pastoral care that deserves to stand alongside the famous books of pastoral theology by Gregory the Great and Richard Baxter. Bucer, a former Dominican, was the leading reformer in Strasbourg (where again this year, I visited his tomb in the protestant Church of St Thomas not far from the Cathedral). His exile in England, where he died, led to his having considerable influence over Cranmer's second Prayer Book of 1552. A man of ecumenical and eirenic temperament, he wrote this endearing book out of concern for the welfare of ordinary church members, recognising the need to  develop a pastoral theology to express through lived experience the Reformation's beliefs about the character of the Christian community.


"Of the making of many books there is no end", even of books about the Reformers. This is no more than a personal selection. But these volumes have in one way or another played a part in my own shaping as a Christian and as a priest. It's been good in this anniversary year to revisit some of them and recognise the debt I owe to these great Christian thinkers and writers of five centuries ago, and indeed to the movement we call the Reformation that has so profoundly influenced our continent, our country and our peoples.