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.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 4: Rookhope

If you drive up the steep hill at the top of the East Allen valley beyond the village of Allenheads, you arrive at a watershed. It divides the Tyne catchment from the Wear, and is marked by a mighty cairn. To the north, you gaze across Northumberland where the Cheviot crowns the skyline when it is clear. To the south it is County Durham where the whale-backed hills of the North Pennines roll away towards Yorkshire. I once stood on this watershed one freezing New Year’s Eve admiring a colourful mid-afternoon sunset and thinking of the watersheds we travel in human life as one year passes and another takes its place.

The road winds down the valley of the Rookhope Burn. It’s a sparse, deserted landscape here in the “Land of the Prince-Bishops”, much bleaker than on the well-wooded Northumberland side. The poet W. H. Auden who loved the North Pennines called this valley “the most wonderfully desolate of all the dales”. The Bishops used to own great estates all over Weardale where they enjoyed hunting. Not any more; these days much of this majestic landscape consists of grouse moors. You know it’s the grouse-shooting season by the four by fours you will see parked on the roadside. 
You would think this was a purely natural Pennine landscape, not much interfered with by human hands. You would be wrong. For one thing, the forests that once covered the fells were levelled by the Dale’s first settlers. But later, valuable ores were discovered under these hills: lead primarily, but silver too, and iron, zinc and fluorspar.

The lead seams were known as far back as Roman times, but were most extensively worked in the nineteenth century. There is evidence everywhere of mining activity that has profoundly affected the look of these northern hills. There are lumpy spoil heaps long since claimed back by nature, hushes scarring the valley sides where water from reservoirs was released to rush down and expose the minerals, and there are entrances to abandoned pits and levels into which you walk at your peril.
The first landmark down the valley will be to many a striking and unexpected sight. It’s a mine complete with winding gear towering over the deserted dale. This is Groverake which started out as a lead mine but became a leading source of fluorspar until its closure in 1999. There is something haunting about these industrial ruins in their sombre setting. The pithead buildings are from the twentieth century and others, such as the pit owner’s ruined house, are Victorian. But it’s the most melancholy place I know in England. You realise in places like this how the tides have receded that once drove the “northern power house”.
A couple of miles further on, there is more evidence of how fortunes were made and lost in this dale. A stone arch in a field looks for all the world like a survival from Roman times. In fact, it is a relic of the two-mile Rookhope Chimney that carried poisonous gases from the lead smelting works in the village safely on to the moor. Well, that’s the charitable assumption. We know that in the nineteenth century, young children were sent into the chimney to scrape the walls for valuable silver deposits that had precipitated as the gases cooled. Maybe this was the real reason for the chimney. You dread to think what happened to those children who were forced say by day to absorb the lead-soaked atmosphere inside.
Today, Rookhope is not the industrial village it once was, populated by miners and their families and with a dozen pubs to serve them. It has gently subsided back into its remote stillness, a tranquillity broken only by cyclists travelling on the C2C cycle route that joins the Irish Sea to the North Sea. Many of them stay at the Rookhope Inn at the heart of the village. Here, fortified by a night’s rest, they set out to ride the long incline that ascends steeply out of the village towards Bolt’s Law. This was once a wagonway and then a true railway, powered by a stationary steam engine at the summit that hauled ore-filled wagons out of the valley on to a level track at the top. From there trains would connect with lines that led to the great industrial centres on Tyneside and Wearside. Bolt’s Incline makes a magnificent walk. At the summit you can explore the ruins of the engine house before striding out under great skies across Stanhope Moor. It’s a walk for autumn when the heather moors glow a brilliant purple.
Auden said that he found his poetic voice in this magical setting.

In Rookhope I was first aware
Of self and not-self, death and dread...
We once had a little lead-miner’s house in a terrace above the village (you can see the line of houses through the arch in the photo). You have to reckon with winter weather up there: the only way out of the village is up one hill or another. We have stories to tell about what it’s like knowing that you won’t get out until the roads are opened. But if it’s silence and solitude you’re looking for, you can do no better than the North Pennines. Some would say they are the best hills in England. Here in Tynedale, we are lucky to live on the edge of these fierce but glorious landscapes. 

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 3: Alnwick

 In this series I’m writing about some of my favourite North East places. You’ll understand that I’m especially drawn to those that hold personal memories for me, or with which I have a connection. So this month I want to revisit the town that was our home for five years – Alnwick.

I was appointed Vicar there in 1987, exactly thirty years ago. We had three young children. A fourth was born the following year. We lived in a fine Victorian vicarage opposite the church, built by the Duke of Northumberland in the 1840s. It was a great place to live as a young family. We soon made good friends there whom we still see all these years later.

Alnwick has some of the best countryside in Northumberland close at hand. On one side, the heritage coast is a short drive away while on the other the Simonside and Cheviot Hills are equally accessible. I wrote about Edlingham in the first article. When I went out there across the moor to take services, I could scarcely believe that I was lucky enough to be driving around such glorious landscapes.

These articles are deliberately not focusing on the tourist trail. So I won’t say much about the big must-sees. Most of you will have visited the Alnwick Garden. It came into being after we had left the town but has certainly put it on the map when it comes to tourism. Likewise Barter Books in the old railway station – if this vast secondhand bookshop had been there in my time, would I ever have done a proper day’s work? The great Alnwick Castle, the “Windsor of the North”, historically made the place what it is, the ancient ducal town of Northumberland complete with its own Shakespearian hero, Henry Percy, better known as Harry Hotspur (Henry IV Part 1). Tottenham Hotspur FC is named after him because the Percy family originally owned the land where the club was founded.

Not enough people find their way to St Michael's Parish Church. It’s one of Northumberland’s finest. It’s situated on the northern edge of the town at the end of the fine street called Bailiffgate: that tells you that the outer bailey of the Castle extended to the church yard gate. In that respect it’s similar to Durham where we went to live twenty years later. Like many Northumberland churches, Alnwick has a fortification built on to the south east corner, a kind of vicar’s pele that would have provided a defensive look-out against impending attacks by Scots or border reivers.

There are hardly any churches in the county that were mainly built in the Perpendicular Gothic style of the fifteenth century (but there’s another near Haydon Bridge in our neighbouring parish of Beltingham). It’s dedicated to St Michael, the patron saint of the town (a good name, that!): there’s a sculpture of the archangel on a pant (fountain) in the town centre. The church is grand as befits its ducal status, wide and spacious, a joy to worship in and walk round. Inside you’ll find some remarkable sculptures on the capitals (or tops) of the piers in the chancel, and also what’s said to be one of the finest medieval parish chests in England.

Like Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnwick has a strongly enclosed feel to it, thanks largely to its fortified gateway known as Bondgate Tower. You drive into the town from “Bondgate Without” to “Bondgate Within” – here, the word “gate” means not what we tend to think but a “street” or road. (Once upon the time, all traffic on the Great North Road had to squeeze through this narrow pinch-point causing long traffic jams on either side. The A1 bypass was built only a decade or so before we arrived.)

As you wander round the centre of Alnwick, you might be tempted to think of it more as a Georgian market town than a medieval settlement. Many buildings date back to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The elegant Lion Bridge over the River Aln, from which you get an unrivalled view of the Castle in Capability Brown’s landscaped setting, dates from this period. But look carefully at the street patterns and the long narrow burgage plots behind the buildings. They tell a story of a much more ancient place that originated in Saxon times, even though there are no visible traces of that era now.

Outside the town past the Church, you reach the gate to Hulne Park. This exquisite park belongs to the Northumberland Estates (i.e. the Duke). You are welcome to walk there (between 1100 and sunset – no cars are permitted). A couple of miles inside you come across the lonely ruins of Hulne Friary where a Carmelite community lived in the middle ages. It’s a fascinating muddle of medieval and early Gothic Revival buildings. We used to have parish harvest services and suppers there. They were good days. 

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 2: Monkwearmouth

Last time I took you to a remote corner of Northumberland. This month I want to visit a place that at first sight looks like the complete opposite: the dense conurbation at the mouth of the River Wear that we know as the city of Sunderland.

I am fond of the place. My wife’s family come from Sunderland. We became engaged on the day in May 1973 when the Black Cats won the Cup Final. How could her father refuse me on such an auspicious day? And had they lost, he’d have been past caring anyway. In those days, shipbuilding was still a major industry on Wearside. Now the huge installations are gone, but not the proud memory of North Eastern ships that were famed all over the world.
You wouldn’t think that the city (as it has been since 1993) is one of the North East’s most ancient places. It owes it all to a man named Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian Saxon monk who came to the north bank of the Wear in 674 to found a monastery. He travelled to Rome no fewer than six times to bring back books and manuscripts and the skills to build in stone, sing plainchant and create stained glass. He went on to found the monastery at Jarrow seven years later. But perhaps his greatest achievement was to introduce the Venerable Bede to this “double monastery” and encourage him in his scholarship. Benedict Biscop is now the city’s patron saint.

The mouth of the Wear is well worth a visit. The regeneration of the estuary is impressive and makes for an enjoyable riverside walk. On the north bank the National Glass Centre celebrates Sunderland’s long history of glass making pioneered by Biscop. Nearby is the Monkwearmouth campus of Sunderland University and – best of all – St Peter’s Church, and the remains of Biscop’s monastery.

Not much is left of this great Saxon foundation, but what remains they are! Set in a breezy grassy landscape surrounded by contemporary buildings, you are acutely aware of the contrast between ancient and modern in Sunderland. This to me is one of the delights of the city. The Saxon tower is the jewel in the crown, still standing proud and holding its own against the high rise flats and main roads nearby. Beneath the tower is the church porch through which Bede himself must have walked hundreds of times. It’s moving to walk there. When the sun is setting in the west, the Saxon architecture glows with a golden light.

If you’ve caught the spirit of Bede (and who wouldn’t?), then you’ll want to visit the twin Saxon church at Jarrow a few miles ago, and of course Durham Cathedral where his tomb has been since 1022. I have an interest in Durham, of course, having been Dean there for thirteen years. It was a huge privilege to be the guardian of Bede’s bones. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest people England has given birth to. And not just England, for Bede saw himself as totally connected to European civilisation, both classical and Christian. Sunderland may have voted decisively for Brexit, but at Monkwearmouth you feel you are at the focus of a profoundly European vision of things.

While you are there, take a walk on the bracing sea front at Roker. If you’re lucky, the wind will be in the east and the waves will be hurling themselves furiously against the breakwater that defines the mouth of the Wear. On winter days when it’s blowing a gale, you feel the full force of the North Sea at Roker. It may feel like a quintessential suburb, but there aren’t many suburbs in England where the sea is a force to be reckoned with.

A few streets back from the sea front you’ll find another great church, St Andrew’s Roker. It was built in the early twentieth century and is one of the country’s greatest monuments of the Arts and Crafts period. There aren’t many modern churches of real distinction but this is one of them. Like Saxon St Peter’s, it’s another church for Sunderland to be proud of. I’ve always thought that this city is underrated. Which is why I’ve put it on my personal list of favourite places in the North East.

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 1: Edlingham

This year I am writing a series of twelve short articles for our village magazine Haydon Bridge News. The suggestion was to take a look at some of the less well-known places in North East England, or at some less familiar aspects of places we thought we knew. I know that many readers share my love of the North East, so I've decided to give these modest pieces an audience beyond our village.

Just to clarify. "North East" (with or without the hyphen - I prefer it without) means the land between the Tees and the Tweed. In old (Pevsner) money, that is the counties of Durham and Northumberland. I'm dotting around between the north and south of this region, old and new, urban and rural, upland and coast. There is so much to enjoy in this part of England, so much that is characterful and interesting. There's a fair amount of personal reminiscence in these articles and some photographs to liven up the text.

Here and in the next three blogs are the first four articles from January to April. After that, I'll post once each piece is published. So here goes.


This series of pieces is about byways, not main roads.
I’m not asking you to ignore the great sights of North East England: Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral, Alnwick Castle, Hadrian’s Wall, the Northumberland Heritage Coast, Beamish, the Angel of the North, the Tyne Bridges and many more wonderful places. How could we forget the unforgettable that have so shaped the region and made it familiar to people across the world?

But I want to take you to some of the North East’s less familiar sites, landscapes and buildings. I’m suggesting twelve to start with that are largely off the main tourist routes. And I begin with a remote little place that seems to me to sum up so much of the spirit of this part of England. It’s the village of Edlingham just off one of Northumberland’s most beautiful roads that strides across the sandstone hills between Alnwick and Rothbury.
I was vicar of this parish more than 30 years ago when it was part of a united benefice with Alnwick. Getting out to the church could be tricky on winter days. One snowy January Sunday, there were just two of us in church for the morning service. The other person had also driven out of Alnwick and across the moor, bringing with her the church silver for communion. We had to break the ice on the water cruets that morning, I remember.

This is wild, craggy country, quintessential Northumberland. The views across the Vale of Whittingham as you come off the moor are outstanding, with Cheviot and Hedgehope prominent on the horizon. The tops are often white with snow between November and May – the best time to walk the Cheviots if you don’t want to find yourself knee-deep in mud. You can see the little village below you as you drive towards the turning. 
It’s an enjoyable surprise, then, to find that Edlingham has a fine group of historic buildings: a church, a castle and a railway viaduct. Just like Durham. The viaduct used to carry the North Eastern Railway’s branch line from Alnwick to Cornhill. It barely lasted 40 years and was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. But the viaduct makes a splendid backdrop for the older buildings in front.

What is left of the Castle is an imposing ruin of a 13th century fortified manor house. It was progressively fortified in the following centuries against the ever-present threat of raids across the Scottish border. The tower is not a keep but the remains of the solar or principal living room of a manor house. It has been voted as one of the best three castles in Northumberland.

The Church of St John the Baptist dates from around the Norman Conquest, though the mighty tower, rough-hewn chancel arch and aisle piers make you feel that it’s almost dateless, as if it has simply grown out of the ancient stony hillside. The church’s foundation takes us back indeed to Saxon times when these lands were gifted to the community of St Cuthbert that grew up around his memory (the church of Old Haydon has a similar history). Today’s community is developing plans to use the church as a gateway to the heritage of the area and for village activities.
I said that Edlingham somehow sums up the spirit of the North East. Its remoteness is part of that. But these three buildings between them symbolise the history of North East England: an ancient church connected to St Cuthbert, a castle that speaks of a marcher region that has been fought over for so many centuries, and a viaduct that recalls the huge impact of the industrial revolution on the area. All this in the middle of deep countryside. Go and see for yourself.

To get there: take the A1 to Alnwick, go through the town following the signs to Rothbury (B6341). The road climbs steeply on to Alnwick Moor. The turn for Edlingham is on the right about 5 miles along. Or just north of Morpeth, you can take the A697 towards Wooler and turn right at a crossroads on to the B6341.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Praying for the Election

I've posted this prayer today. As a person of faith, I believe that everything we human beings do, we do before God. So it's important that we pray for the forthcoming general election. Let me try to explain what I mean - and what I don't mean when I say this.

I know that the Church of England has also issued a prayer today. It's fine as far as it goes. It asks that we the electorate may have wisdom at election time, be protected from despair, cynicism and false utopianism, and help make politics "a noble calling that serves the common good of all". I especially like that last bit. And I like the appeal to integrity as we cast our vote. G. K. Chesterton once said that the problem with elections was not that only half the electorate voted, but that only half the elector voted: half-heartedly, without real conviction, not really believing that elections make a difference.

But we make our prayers too narrow by false limits of our own (apologies to Father Faber for misquoting his famous hymn). We should be more ambitious as we lay the issues of this election before God. It's the outcome that matters, not simply the process that leads up to it. And while we mustn't turn prayer into a kind of spiritual manipulation motivated by party politics, I think we can agree that we should crave leaders who are principled, embody healthy values and who will have the courage to make decisions that will put them into practice. Hence my use of words like integrity, courage, compassion, vision, truth, justice, the love of neighbour and the healing of division in our nation - surely a top priority for everyone in public life right now. The Seven Gifts of the Spirit that are set out in the messianic portrait painted in Isaiah 11 might be a good place to begin exploring what we look for in our leaders: this was the text in my mind when I alluded in the prayer to "the Spirit of understanding".

No doubt we won't all agree about what these values and virtues mean in practice. But I believe that to pray with integrity about the kind of nation we want to be also commits us to debating with integrity during the election campaign. The lack of it was what many of us lamented during the EU referendum campaign. To descend to empty slogans (or, to quote Chesterton again, the "easy speeches that comfort cruel men") is to devalue what we mean by democracy. An election debate means listening carefully, evaluating evidence, discerning good arguments from bad, and not personalising matters of principle. (So please let's stop referring to Theresa May as "the vicar's daughter" - she deserves to be heard in her own right as a responsible adult woman, not someone who is still being defined by her father, however good a priest he no doubt was.)

Above all we need to be committed seekers after truth. A good election is one where we don't cling to old political tribalisms, some of which have clearly had their day. On the contrary, we need to take the trouble to think for ourselves as grown-ups who are privileged, in a way not open to everyone in our world, to be able to take part in a democratic election. To listen, to think and to debate in this respectful way is, I want to say, an act of discernment. It asks the question, where might the voice of wisdom and truth be detected amid the babble of human voices that clamour for our attention? Where might we even hear the voice of God? Discernment and prayer are close relatives.

I'm not saying it's easy. Discernment never is. The word diakrisis literally means "making a judgment", coming to a mind. The weighing of arguments, the ability to place them in a larger context, the capacity to inquire what theological or ethical issues might be at stake all demands wisdom, effort and good deal of perseverance. But if we care about our nation and the human family of which we are part - if indeed, we are not only good citizens of the UK but also, in the best sense, citizens of the world (sorry, Mrs May!), then discernment is precisely what we are called to practice in the next few weeks. Amid the clamour of earthquake, wind and fire, we need to listen out for the still small voice. Not just for our own sake, the nation's sake or the world's sake, but for God's sake too.

This is where prayer comes in. If we are people who pray, our concerns will already be engaged towards those who represent us in Parliament and the other institutions of which we are part. But now, as we get ready to make political choices that will have far-reaching consequences, it's especially a time to focus on our common life, and pray for wise and principled leaders who will cherish just, compassionate and humane values. We need to pray for the destiny of our nation as it searches for its place in a changing world order.

Prayer isn't (or shouldn't be) a way of getting God to orchestrate events our way. Nor is it a binary spiritual exercise ("answered" or "not answered"). It's more subtle than that. I believe it is a genuine and heartfelt desire to bring the affairs of the nation into the orbit of God's love and care, to acknowledge that all life is dependent on him, and that we are ultimately accountable to him as our Judge. It is a joyful affirmation that out of his love for the world, God is passionately concerned for the welfare of all peoples. Self-interest doesn't come into it - or, shall we say, ought to become as enlightened as possible by our love of God and our neighbour. Perhaps the best prayers are those that spring not from desperation but from gratitude and that are built on the central petition of the Lord's Prayer, "your kingdom come".

Even if you are not a religious person who habitually prays, maybe you could still think about the forthcoming election in this kind of way? Can we agree to practise "mindfulness" together over the next few weeks and try to raise the tone of the debate? Maybe we can make common cause with everyone of good will who wants to play a part in shaping a healthy ecology of mind and heart during the campaign? Perhaps we can encourage one another to entertain the idea of a more generous political discourse that rises above tired, simplistic formulae and genuinely tries to listen and understand?

There are two direct benefits of thinking about and praying for the election in the way I've suggested. The first is to revitalise our imagination about what is possible, what our society could become. The other is to help us learn the lesson of humility. Our politics could really do with generous helpings of both.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Good Friday Music

Wagner may not be to your taste. He is a Marmite composer: you either love him or loathe him. But he is one of those alongside Bach and Handel whom I turn to on Good Friday. And one of his works in particular, his last music drama Parsifal.

Not to try your patience unduly, here's all you need to know about Parsifal. Its theme is the quest for the Holy Grail, the redemption of the world, and the healing of an eternal wound. Redemption comes through an innocent young man (Parsifal, or as he's better known in the Arthurian Legend, Percival). He is the "pure fool" who is innocent of the world's evil, does not know wrong and can therefore resist the seductions of pride, power, lust and self-interest. The message is: if our destructive human instincts can be transcended by self-giving and purity of heart, everything will be transfigured, universal love will redeem the world, and humanity will be set on a path of wisdom and goodness.

You don't have to buy the entire philosophical package to succumb to the rapturous music. All Wagner's music dramas are about redemption in one form or another, but Parsifal is the most luminous of them all, and the one that most clearly displays its debt to Christianity. Wagner's syncretic mysticism may not strike us as altogether orthodox, but the central role the eucharist plays in Parsifal shows that its the Christian tradition where the composer has sought his primary inspiration.

In Act 3, there is a ravishing interlude known as the "Good Friday Music". It's often played as a concert piece in its own right. At this point in the drama, Parsifal, exhausted by his travels, stops to rest in a beautiful sunny meadow full of flowers. The knight is entranced by the springtime radiance all around him. He learns that this is due to the magic spell of Good Friday when all of nature is glad because it is cleansed from its sin on this day. In this music, a serene sound-world is created that sings of beauty, tranquility, healing, goodness and love. It sets the scene for the climax of this enormous work where the wound is finally healed, humanity reborn and resolution achieved.

Good Friday is a day to think about the fatal wound that pierces our world, and the endless, calamitous destructiveness that comes from it. The liturgy of the day doesn't flinch from exposing us to the innocent victim who was inhumanly murdered on this day. Nor does it flinch from exhibiting the instrument of his execution. We gaze silently at the cross, reverence it, embrace it, kiss it, think our thoughts, shed our tears, lament for what became of this righteous man. We even sing to this horrendous machine of pain and torture in words like those of the Crux Fidelis:

Faithful Cross! above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron
Sweetest weight is hung on thee!

It's extraordinary, when you think about it. And among the many thoughts we bring to our Good Friday worship is that this Jesus who has done no wrong stands for millions and millions of other victims across the centuries who like him do not deserve this destiny. Their innocence, his innocence, was not enough to save them from this hour.

It's right that we think such thoughts, however painful. And not just think them. A vital part of the Good Friday liturgy is to offer the Solemn Prayers from the Cross. At this point in the service, we take time especially to remember the victims of cruelty and conflict in our own day when there seems no end to the terrible ordeals people are intent on inflicting on one another. But we mustn't think our thoughts or pray our prayers hopelessly. Indeed, to turn thought into prayer is precisely to make the decision never to succumb to despair, easy though it would be. It is to resolve that prayer, and the action that flows out of it, will place us on the side of truth against the lie, the side of everyone who intends good for the world, not evil. If we are a people of the Cross, then we want to do everything we can to be a part of the work of redemption, impossible though that may look at times. Or if we can't quite yet want to be part of it, we can maybe "want to want to".

So the serenity of Wagner's Good Friday Music isn't an escape from the turmoil of a troubled world. It isn't in the music drama, and it isn't in real life. It's a promise of redemption where everything is put right in creation and in our human life and relationships. It often feels like hoping against hope, yet that's precisely what we are called to do in the New Testament. So if, at Easter, we decorate the cross with greenery and flowers and make it beautiful, we aren't denying what it is, this engine of death. What we are doing is to make our defiant statement of hope precisely because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The wound of humanity may look fatal, but what flows from the wound in the side of Jesus, the water and the blood, hold the source of healing our world hungers for.

And when we sing alleluia again on Easter Day, it isn't to deny suffering, cruelty and pain but to imagine the cosmos as it will one day be, gathered up in the risen, glorified Christ in whom all things hold together, and when he is all in all.  

This is why, of all the days of the year, this is the one we call "Good". It's why we celebrate the cross as well as lament it. Because we know that at Golgotha, our lives are given back to us, and our hope is restored. It's the beginning of Paradise Restored.

We need Good Friday music and places for quiet hope more than ever. For everyone's sake. For God's sake.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

On Hearing Howells on the Radio

I was listening to Essential Classics on BBC Radio 3 this morning. We have it on every day. There's a daily fixture at half past nine, a light-hearted challenge to test our knowledge and wits in the domain of classical music. I often have a go and tweet my answer, only to find a few minutes later that I'm hopelessly wrong.

However, today Sarah Walker played a piece of church music and under the rubric "mapping the music", asked us which place it was associated with. I didn't need to hear more than a couple of bars to recognise it. It was Herbert Howells' Gloucester Service, his setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis that are sung at evensong in cathedrals and choral foundations across the English-speaking world. Howells' setting of the evening canticles are regarded as among the noblest of the twentieth century. What singer doesn't love his Gloucester Service, Collegium Regale and St Paul's Service? I learned to love them as a chorister myself more than fifty years ago. I shall always love them.

But hearing Gloucester unexpectedly on the radio this morning had an arresting impact on me, so much so that I found myself on the edge of tears. Why was this? Because it was the music I'd chosen for my last ever service in Durham Cathedral as Dean. It is barely eighteen months since we said farewell to that wonderful place. Yet in retirement in our Northumberland village on the banks of the Tyne, it already feels an age away. It's as if it was another life, a distant world far removed from this one, wonderful at the time but now like a beautiful dream that has gone forever.

Like all dreams, memories are partial and selective. I am not rose-hued about my time in Durham: there were joys and ordeals, agony and ecstasy like there are in everything we give our lives to. But as I look back on those nearly thirteen years, they do feel to have been the most privileged of my life. Saying farewell to them and laying them aside was hard when the time came. In my last blog as Dean I tried to put this into words. They were raw then, and as I re-read them, those last treasured days come flooding back. Especially the memory of that farewell service of evensong:

The final service is evensong. There is a great crowd filling the nave. I walk the Lord Lieutenant up the aisle as I would at any big event. Then I think, disconcertingly, they are here because I am leaving. I don't mean they are not here to worship God - of course that is why we are at this service at all, but valediction is what has brought so many people together. I arrive at my stall and find a colourful folder put together by the choristers with pictures, personal messages from each of them, tributes and prayers. The tears in things are real even before the service has begun. As they are several more times during the service: at that amazing leap up to a top 'A' in the Gloria of Howells' Gloucester Service, the paradisal ending of Bairstow's Blessed City, our beloved Coe Fen (How shall I sing that Majesty?'), the beautifully crafted intercessions by Sophie the Canon in Residence, the final hymn 'Glory to thee my God this night', and laying up the Dean's cope on the high altar after the blessing.

This power of music to evoke memory was what was triggered by hearing the Gloucester Service again on the radio today. And listening to it again, I realised how exactly it seemed to fit the occasion. There's an undertow of melancholy in so much of Howells' music. For all its luminous beauty, it feels autumnal, elegiac, plangent, full of wistful longing. For all that his glorious settings of praise and celebration like the Magnificat sweep the spirit heavenwards, it's as if these moments of transfiguration in a major key have to be fought for. When you know something of the personal circumstances of Howells' life, the death of his beloved nine-year-old son Michael from polio, you realise that he "drew glory from a well of grief" for the rest of his life. Every Nunc Dimittis he wrote must have brought it back to him, this song of endings by one who has waited to see the promised Messiah before he dies. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."

Retiring was for me a kind of Nunc Dimittis: recognising what has been glorious and still is, being thankful, laying aside, saying farewell, departing. Every leave-taking is little death. That day was not just for saying goodbye to Durham. I was saying farewell to my working life, forty years of ordained ministry, and to all the people, all the communities among whom I had lived and worked in that time. I knew when we left Durham that it was a real ending, a parting of friends. The Gloucester Service seemed to symbolise that. 

It felt bitter-sweet at the time, this amazing music. How could it not? But life goes on, and is good because it is filled with so many lovely happy things. To live out of gratitude seems to me to be the secret of fulfilment: gratitude for all that has been, all that is, all that is yet to be. Howells' music has the capacity to help me reflect on that broader canvas and remember past days and years with thankfulness. Perhaps that's the task of this stage of life I am now in, growing older, having lived the greater part of my allotted years. The capacity to see things for what they are a little more clearly, and appreciate what is of lasting value in the changes and chances of human experience - I find this is life-giving in a rather surprising way. "Then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose / And the sea where it goes" wrote Matthew Arnold in a poem about the flow of human life that touches me.

In the eucharist, memory is linked with thankfulness for the goodness of God by which we live and that is the source of our hope. Thankfulness is what the word eucharist means. Whatever else I was experiencing as I listened to Howells this morning, wherever those tears came from, his music made me think once again about the goodness of things, how life is always a gift, how we are endowed with a feeling for "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars". Farewells are poignant, and so is the memory of them. But gratitude is all. And if I look a trifle forlorn in the photo of my final service in the Dean's stall, I seem to have cheered up a bit in the final image as we listen to a former Head Chorister's charming farewell speech.

Deo gratias!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

A Sermon in Stone: on being back in Coventry Cathedral

We spent last weekend in Coventry. I'd been invited to speak at the Cathedral on Sunday morning and at Warwick Parish Church in the evening. The Midlands are at their best in spring. The roads were lined with blackthorn. There was a profusion of magnolia in parks and gardens, and dandelions on every lawn.

April 1 was 30 years to the day since we moved to Coventry from Northumberland. I can be certain of that since the date we left Alnwick is recorded on a sampler we have on the kitchen wall. I remember thinking how lovely Shakespeare's county looked that spring. A few weeks later I was installed as a canon of the Cathedral. The abundant cherry blossom was breathtaking seen against the pink sandstones of the city and its churches in the clean washed light of spring. It was the weekend Coventry City won the Cup Final, so there was Sky Blue on every building too.

Last Sunday, then, I preached a sermon at the sung eucharist. The text was the raising of Lazarus in St John's Gospel (11.1-45). Looking back through my sermon archive, I was amazed to discover that I had never preached on this famous story - how could that be in 42 years of ordained ministry? So I welcomed the opportunity to put it right. (It's never too late to learn.)

I was struck by a coincidence of two texts. One was from the story itself: “This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.” The other was inscribed into the fabric of the Cathedral itself, in uneven letters just by the glass wall at the west end, “To the glory of God this Cathedral burnt". They were of course linked by the word glory which is what leapt out of the page as I imagined myself speaking from the Cathedral pulpit. But I was intrigued by an apparent connection of meaning in elliptical nature of both statements. How could you find  glory in either a mortal sickness, or in a mortally destructive act of violence?  

You can read the sermon to find out what sense I made of this intriguing alignment of texts. But I was also aware that it was Passion Sunday. So the placing of the story of Lazarus just before the events of Holy Week in St John is clearly reflected in the lectionary's placing of it on this Sunday of the year, a week before Palm Sunday. So this sermon would need to point forward to the events of Holy Week, the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And of that, both Lazarus and the Cathedral itself are powerful images. Let me speak about the Cathedral. The obvious conception of it is as the new rising, phoenix-like, out of the old. Provost John Petty always said that to walk from the ruins into the new Cathedral is to make the journey from Good Friday into Easter. I don't dispute that. But I think a deeper reading invites us to see how old-and-new belong together inextricably. Physically, this is represented by the way the architect, Basil Spence, linked the new Cathedral to the ruins of the old by an immense porch whose canopy overtops and embraces the north wall of the shattered medieval church. It's a mighty statement of how death-and-resurrection are a single redemptive event as Christian theology understands it.

And when you look out from the west end of the new Cathedral, what you see is the place of ruination and destruction: the bombed out medieval St Michael's of which all that survives are the tower and the walls. You feel a palpable sense of what Wilfred Owen called the pity of war. For Spence, it symbolised the idea of sacrifice. But that isn't all. Above is the great sky, like a huge crack in the fabric running from end to end. When I used to preside at acts of worship out there, I felt I was standing in some kind of vast empty tomb. This was especially true when we would stand before the Charred Cross, a symbol of Golgotha if ever there was one, and pray the words inscribed on the wall behind it, Father, forgive. That ruined sanctuary spoke as much about resurrection as it did about the passion.

Which is why it isn't strictly correct to talk about the old Cathedral and the new. They are one Cathedral whose message is: reconciliation happens when we enter into the paschal movement of God's love which Holy Week proclaims to us. The ruins are still a unified sacred space. Perhaps there's an analogy with the eucharist. In bread and wine, we rehearse and celebrate the whole work of God in Jesus, especially his death and resurrection. It's a feast of the cross but also of the resurrection, the memory of the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died, but also of the Supper at Emmaus on the evening of Easter Day, and of the breakfast by the lakeside a few days later.

In the same way, Coventry Cathedral is a truly paschal cathedral. The whole of it proclaims the three tenses of Christian faith. Love's work has been accomplished in Jesus' death-and-resurrection. It continues to be accomplished in the present as the risen Christ is among us to transform our ordinary days. It will be finally accomplished when "all things are put in subjection under his feet" and his kingdom is finally realised. Every eucharist at the high altar, beneath Graham Sutherland's tapestry of Christ in Glory looks forward to that consummation.

I love Coventry Cathedral for many reasons. But best of all is its capacity to be a sermon in stone about death-and-resurrection, a sermon for these solemn "days of awe" we are about to enter. It's a place where you glimpse the glory of suffering that is healed and transfigured. I think Lazarus would feel at home here.