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.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 5: Wallington

Hexham-Wall-Chollerton-Thockrington-Kirkharle-Rothbury-Alnwick-Alnmouth. It sounds like a list of stations on some sleepy Northumberland branch line before Dr Beeching’s axe fell. In fact, these places all sit on a historic road that linked Tynedale to the coast. It was called the Corn Road because in the eighteenth century, maybe before, the harvest of Tynedale was carried along it to the port of Alnmouth from where it could be transported up, down or across the North Sea. It was also known as the Alemouth Road, a street name that still exists in Hexham.

If you want to avoid the main roads, it’s a pleasant scenic way to drive to the north of the county. And among many points of interest along the route is Wallington Hall. It’s one of my favourite places in Northumberland, famous on no fewer than three counts: the house itself, its marvellous garden, and the family who lived there.

Let’s start with the family or more accurately, families. There were two big Northumbrian names associated with the estate’s early history: the Fenwicks, and then the Blacketts who acquired it in the late seventeenth century. It was they who created the house as we now know it. But the name that is indelibly linked with Wallington is not theirs but that of Trevelyan. Originally from Cornwall, the Trevelyans came into ownership as a result of a marriage into the Blackett family. The nineteenth century saw them rise to a position of remarkable political and intellectual dominance in the nation. Many will know the name of G. M. Trevelyan (George Macaulay T who died in 1962) through his writings on history and biography. I remember the four volumes of his English Social History in their colourful dust jackets lining my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood. I still have them.
And what is so enjoyable at Wallington is the sense that this is still essentially a family home. The Trevelyans bequeathed it to the National Trust during the war, and it was opened to the public in 1968. It is undeniably a grand house, but it is modest with it, genuine, humane. It feels lived in, hospitable and for me anyway, the kind place you not only admire but love. This may be to do with the Trevelyans’ politics. They were a forward-looking family who believed that inherited wealth and privilege should not be used selfishly but should benefit wider society. Which they did in support of a number of important social and political causes such as the universal franchise.
They also had a strong sense of their place in history, not least in North East England. One of the best of the many splendid rooms at Wallington is the arcaded sitting room created by the Tyneside Victorian architect John Dobson by roofing over the central courtyard. To decorate the walls, the Trevelyans commissioned a series of eight murals by the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott. They depict scenes from Northumbrian history including the Roman Wall, St Cuthbert being offered his bishopric, the death of Bede, Grace Darling’s heroic sea-rescue, and heavy industry (“iron and coal”) on Tyneside. The colours are as fresh and vivid as when they were painted.  The saloon, dining room and library are splendid too, as is the famous collection of dolls’ houses upstairs.

But for many visitors, best of all is the park that surrounds the house. A good way of getting a sense of it is to follow the waymarked path that takes you right round it. It includes extensive woodland (with snowdrops and bluebells in profusion if you time it right), a stretch of the infant River Wansbeck complete with James Paine’s beautiful little hump-bridge that you will have crossed if you approached from the south (“sound your horn” warns the sign: this elegant bridge is steep-sided and narrow by any standards). Not far from the house is a hide, popular with bird-watchers. And if you are lucky, you may glimpse red squirrels too (though I haven’t yet).

Even if you don’t visit the house, or do the long-ish walk, on no account must you miss the much-loved walled garden. It is the star of the show, possibly (Alnwick notwithstanding) the best garden in Northumberland if you treasure naturalness and a sense of intimacy. You reach it by walking back from the house under the beautiful cupola gateway to the courtyard, crossing the road (carefully) and following the signs through the wood. What makes this walled garden so beautiful is not simply the array of colour that adorns it throughout the year, but how it has been cleverly landscaped to follow the contours of the land as it drops away from the house. A stream flows from west to east down the centre of the garden. This provides south-facing slopes that in this sheltered environment support a marvellous variety of plant life.

The terrace above is overlooked by an owl perched on top of a pavilion. Inside the conservatory is a marble fountain with an inscription drawn from a Roman sarcophagus: “When wearied or overwrought by study and affairs of business, repair to these haunts and refresh your mind by a stroll amidst the flowers”. It’s good advice for anyone looking for physical and spiritual renewal amid the stresses and strains of twenty-first century life. We are fortunate here in Tynedale to have it so close at hand. And our very own Corn Road to get us there.
Wallington is a National Trust property. For opening times, consult the NT website.

Should Theologians take a Hippocratic Oath?

I was intrigued to see a letter in The Guardian last week suggesting that scientists should swear an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath. That oath, or a version of it, has traditionally been taken by physicians and medical practitioners in the west ever since the fifth century BC when it was first penned in ancient Greece. Here are three of its central clauses.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.

Patrick Butterly the letter-writer argued that it is not just the medical profession that should undertake to "do no harm". Like physicians, the knowledge scientists hold gives them huge power to do good and enhance human life. But they also have the capacity to damage and destroy. So scientific knowledge should be used not out of self-interest, personally or collectively, and especially not for destructive ends, but for the common good and the welfare of humanity. Like medicine, science needs to practise to the highest ethical standards. And a public vow to hold to those standards would be a reminder to everyone of what the purposes of good science ought to be. Here's the letter's suggested text: I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognise that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace.

I thought to myself, why not theologians too? Theology at its best is a life-enhancing science (scientia = knowledge) because its concern is to reflect on our human condition and experience in the light of religious faith. Fides quaerens intellectum said Anselm, "faith seeking understanding". Good theology adds to the spiritual and intellectual capital of the human race. We are the richer for it, and the wiser and the healthier. To borrow a metaphor from John Calvin's Institutes, it's like putting on spectacles so that things are brought into focus and we see clearly. (He used the analogy specifically of reading the scriptures, but it surely applies to every way in which truth-seeking brings clarity to the way we think.)

Theology, the "study of God", is a matter of finding a discourse with which to speak about God and his ways in the world. It's important to qualify this working definition. For one thing, good theology is prayed as well as thought. Worship and spirituality are as much a source for theological understanding as every other aspect of our experience.

For another thing, it is of the essence of being divine that God transcends human knowability and language. We don't expect mere words to penetrate the ineffable, that which is incapable of being expressed in human terms. The best we can do is to be silent before a mystery we cannot fully know or speak of. And then to recognise that when we resort to language, it's as much about saying what we do not mean as well as what we do. The via negativa puts us in our place as theologians, teaches us to be humble about claiming too much for the statements we make. Before God, everything is provisional, a work in progress. And even when theology finds a more confident register, such as in the liturgy and the creeds, so much of its language is analogy, poetry, metaphor, more susceptible to being sung than said. Even the simplest of utterances like "our Father in heaven" or "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again".

Yet words are among the primary tools of theology. That straight away gives them enormous power. And here's where the capacity to do harm comes in. Words create allegiances and inculcate behaviours. We all know this as we listen to politicians' speeches during election campaigns. In particular, familiar words and formulae come to function as badges or codes that articulate our belonging, where and how we place ourselves on the political or theological map. (Compare Mrs May's oft-repeated "strong and stable leadership" and the debate around the Archbishops' election letter in which they commend the virtue of "stability".) Words have the capacity to divide people. The tribes of politics and religion coalesce around the words they agree about, and the words they collectively decide to dissent from.

There is nothing new in any of this. History shows how theological words have become rallying cries that have led to huge destructiveness. The troubles in Northern Ireland are a recent example of how Catholic words and Protestant words divided communities and fostered bloodshed. In the year we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation (or more accurately, of Martin Luther pinning his Ninety Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517), we see how Europe was torn apart by theological slogans bandied about on both sides. Sola fide! ("by faith alone!") cried the Reformed. Semper eadem! ("The Church is ever unchanging!") affirmed the Catholics. Princes took sides. On the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever your ruler is, you follow their religion), Europe was partitioned along religious fault-lines. What began as a war of theological words (or a clash of theological civilisations?) began to claim human lives. The Reformation changed Europe for ever.

Religious words and ideas underlie one of the most pressing challenges of our times, the violence that is inspired by radicalised religion. I'm thinking of the kind of theology that characterises Daesh and groups like them. Not all originate in Islam though it's those that come out of fundamentalist corruptions of that great faith that are the most familiar to us in the west. The cry Allahu Akbar, "God is most great" frequently shouted as acts of terror are committed illustrates how even the most noble of theological words can acquire a blasphemous destructive power. Yes, in all these instances, we are probably talking more about the abuse of words than the words themselves. But it's the words themselves that get shouted.

Philosophers talk about "speech acts". J. L. Austin wrote a famous book called How to Do Things with Words. He was exploring how language changes situations, often irrevocably, such as a judge passing sentence on someone who has been found guilty, or a couple saying "I will" to each other on their wedding day. You can effect lasting change just by saying something. This is the whole point of preaching and political speeches. When words evoke strong attachments and feelings, as the words of politics and theology do, they can easily slide into becoming speech acts that change things, often permanently. That can be (to go back to the marriage analogy) for better or for worse.

So wouldn't it be good if theologians and preachers took a kind of Hippocratic oath? We would promise only to use words for good. We would undertake not to speak in ways that destroy and overthrow but only to build up and plant, to borrow a phrase from the Book of Jeremiah. We would vow to practise theology and talk religion ethically for the sake of human flourishing and to serve the common good. We would help our faith communities to speak in ways that promoted what is wholesome and would decry the hijacking of religious language in the cause of conflict and violence. There's a special responsibility for preachers here, the local theologians who do so much to shape how communities of faith not only think but behave.

It is heartening to know that theologians from across the world's faith communities are increasingly meeting together to explore how to speak about God in ways that build understanding, friendship and alliances of hope. The shared study of one another's scriptures is one way; visiting one another's places of worship is another. It all helps to build up "religious literacy", a real need at a time when religion is proving an increasingly divisive force. And if we can do this locally as neighbours and friends who come from different faiths but share a common vision for a more peaceable world, who knows what a difference it may make?

Here is a draft text for theologians and preachers with acknowledgment to Patrick Butterly. If you are a theologian or preacher, try it for size and suggest how it could be improved.

I promise that my study and practice of religion and theology will always seek to be with integrity. Conscious of the power of religious language, I undertake to use it responsibly and ethically for the building up and flourishing of communities and individuals. I will resist all attempts to exploit religion for destructive purposes that cause harm to human beings, society or the environment. I promise to be a reflective practitioner who has regard for the ethical implications of my public words and actions.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Discerning Vocation in the Third Age: more from the retirement front line

Every now and then I try to take stock of this still new stage of life called retirement. In this blog I want to reflect on where Christian life and ordained life belong in it.

The first thing to say is that I am writing entirely personally. Every one of us has to negotiate this threshold into retirement in our own unique way. For clergy, it can be especially problematic because a vocation is so much more than the kind of job you can step in and out of. To have been a priest for more than forty years is to inhabit a way of life that forms you, shapes you, confers its own "character" on you, is intimately involved with your personal identity. As priests we "become what we are" just as we do in baptism and marriage. This is as true of our personal interior lives as well as our visible public roles. Which is as it should be.

I recall very clearly the experience of entering the priesthood as a young man. What we now call vocational discernment was accompanied by a vast amount of prayer, conversation, reflection, study and scrutiny. A great many other people were involved in helping me approach and then cross this threshold into ordained life. At that time I was in my mid-twenties and had been a student all my life up to then. Being ordained coincided, for me, with taking up my life's work, or if you like, taking responsibility and earning my own living. It felt like a rite of passage into adulthood.

At around the time I turned sixty, memories of that earlier vocational journey became much more vivid. I knew I had four or five years in which to prepare for retirement (not long in the sweep of a lifetime). There were inevitable practicalities to think about. Where would we live? What were our housing needs likely to be? What financial resources would we have? (I learned from older clergy who'd come to me for regular spiritual guidance that it's never too soon to ask these questions, and in today's less certain economic climate, the earlier the better.)

But I wasn't expecting these pre-retirement years to prove once again to be a time of vocational discernment. But that is precisely what they turned out to be. At the end of those four decades of ordained work, and now as an older if not wiser man, I found that the prospect of leaving stipendiary ministry felt remarkably similar to my memories of entering it. In other words, both seemed to have discernment at their heart. I found that for me, retiring was as much of a vocational issue as ordination had been. So it's important that the church "accompanies" its retiring clergy spiritually and emotionally because as every retired person knows, it's one of the biggest thresholds we ever have to cross in our adult lives. I think we are getting better at this, and that's heartening.

Discovering who we are in retirement and what we could become is a journey, of course. I am not even in media res. As yet, if I'm spared for a while, I am probably nearer the start than the finishing line. I have a lot to learn. But for what it's worth, here's my interim report on where I'm getting to.

For me (and again I stress that this is just one person speaking), I did not feel in my waters that retirement ministry could simply mean more of the same: taking services, preaching sermons, continuing in some form or other to participate in the church's public leadership. As I started to think and pray about it, I came to see how the coming years could offer all kinds of new and untried opportunities to contribute to both the church and the wider community. Some of these I have explored and begun to embrace. Some are as yet simply possibilities to be thought about. One or two have not led anywhere. But pushing at a few doors and testing volunteering opportunities has felt very much to be the stuff of discernment. I've wanted to discover if, and how, these different conversations might coalesce into a single answer to the question, "what could my life now become, what does God want it to become as I embrace the potential that comes from being released from day to day work responsibilities?"

At the core of this new vocation, and rather to my surprise, there emerged more and more insistently a desire to live and worship as a lay person once again. I mean that I wanted to play my part as a Christian not through preaching and presiding at the liturgy but as a worshipper, sitting with my wife in a church nave among the laos, the people of God. This isn't a nostalgic harking back to the first year of our marriage when this was what "churchgoing" meant. But it is to rediscover as a couple this communio in sacris, a "sharing in holy things". I'm one of those strange clergy who has always enjoyed churchgoing (even on holiday!). It's been good to find ourselves once again in that place of community where the holy-common people of God gather. I know that has always been true, whatever my role as a deacon and priest in the church. But to experience it in this new (i.e. old) way on the Sundays of our lives feels like one of the best gifts of retirement.

We are fortunate that in this village, our parish priest understands this and allows me to live out my vocation in this way. I've made it clear that if there is a need, and especially an emergency, I shall of course step up at once and help along with other retired clergy colleagues in the parish. I value the invitations to take part in special services and preach in and beyond the diocese when an invitation comes. I have the Bishop's permission to officiate. But if asked why I am comparatively rarely to be seen in a surplice or a chasuble, I try to give as honest an answer as I can along the lines I've explained. And I find that people not only understand what I'm struggling to articulate, but respect it.

What does this say about vocation at this stage of life? There's an important theological principle that I've needed to revisit. It is that the fundamental vocation of every Christian is conferred at baptism. For some of us, ordination flows out of that vocation to discipleship as a consequence. But I'm clear that the "normal" way of being a Christian and a member of God's church is the lay state. Deacons, priests and bishops do not renounce their lay-ness on ordination (nor the orders that have already been conferred on them). All the ordained continue to belong to the laos. I think it's not only good but important for us to express this from time to time. For me, retirement is - for the moment anyway - such a time.

I'm aware that this could be misunderstood. (I also recognise that other retired clergy will see it differently, and of course I respect that.) It may sound as though I have renounced my orders - as if it were possible to renounce an indelible "character" conferred by the church at ordination. Or that I am no longer interested in playing my part in helping the church to flourish. Or perhaps that I'm just not aware of the pressures local churches are familiar with through the relentless decline in the numbers of stipendiary clergy. None of these is true - but maybe it needs explaining.

(Excursus. I happen to think that our present patterns of church life, especially in the countryside, are not likely to prove sustainable beyond a few more decades, and the generosity of retired clergy should not protect the church and its dioceses, bishops and archdeacons from recognising that reality and engaging with it. I know they are already doing so. I am simply suggesting that the future of organised religion will look very different from the past, and one day there will not be enough clergy whether stipendiary or non-stipendiary, active or retired to maintain it in something like its present form. I say this with deep sadness because I believe with all my heart in parochial ministry and am uneasy that others, including some in senior leadership roles, seem to sit more lightly to it than I believe is good for the national church and the people it is here to serve.)

My response is to say that I am trying to re-express the lay aspect of my baptismal vocation - or, if you like, to live as a priest in the local church in a new kind of way. I am glad to be alongside so many good lay people in this parish who give such time and effort to supporting it. It makes me appreciate all the more how much all the cathedrals I served benefitted from our teams of volunteers. No cathedral, no parish, will go anywhere nowadays without its committed lay people. Now that I largely live as one, I see this more from the inside than I used to.

At the same time, I am glad to go across to the church on weekdays to pray the daily office with the vicar. I hope that by doing this I can offer him spiritual companionship. Reciting the psalms, hearing the scriptures read, offering intercession for parish, church and world all connect me in a deep way with the whole church and my own priesthood within it. All of this is what we call the opus dei, the work of God. Whatever form our ministry takes, whether as laity or clergy, it's our privilege to bear witness to the reality of God and do his work in the world.

How we undertake this, for people of faith, is the question that matters at every stage of life. In retirement, it's good to report that it still gets me up in the morning.

**These images are all taken in the Benefice of Haydon Bridge, Beltingham and Henshaw in Northumberland where we have made our home in retirement. Maybe there are appropriate metaphors in some of them?