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.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Great Exhibition of the North

The Great Exhibition of the North opens on 22 June in Newcastle-Gateshead. It lasts until 9 September. It's a "summer-long celebration of the North of England's pioneering spirit and the impact of our inventors, artists and designers", says the exhibition website. "It's a chance to show how our innovative spirit has shaped the world and is building the economy of tomorrow." To mark the launch of the Exhibition I've put together a selection of some of my favourite images of the North East that I've taken down the years.

I'm sure everyone at this end of England welcomes this opportunity to put the North back on the map. Having worked in the northern Province of the Church of England for exactly two-thirds of my working life in public ministry, I've seen how the large parts of the North can fall into despondency at the decline of its traditional industries, its economic challenges and how far away it can feel from the centres of decision-making in London. For example, the North East receives only one tenth of London's share of the nation's investment in public transport infrastructure. During the Great Exhibition, we shall continue to watch Pacer trains rumble in and out of Newcastle Central Station and squeal round the curves on the Gateshead loop across the river. Our southern guests might be intrigued to see these archaic trains still running up here, a phenomenon to make them wonder whether the Northern Powerhouse is reality or fantasy.

I believe it can and must be a reality. We should be glad that throughout the summer, the North of England will be girding up its loins to accentuate the positive. It will present itself to the nation and the world as a forward-looking place of enterprise, originality and innovation where people love living and working in its resilient, lively and colourful communities. When we consider how the North has influenced, changed and enriched the world's industry, enterprise, heritage and arts, it is out of all proportion to the narrow geography on which we sit here in England. Its achievements are truly astonishing - and let me emphasise the tense - it's not that these achievements were once astonishing, it's that they still are today. Newcastle and Gateshead will demonstrate this in abundance this year in all kinds of ways. It's good news that heralds a great summer of celebration.

However (there was bound to be a but), I hope this ambitious vision of a Great Exhibition of the North is big enough. Let me explain.

First, I hope that words like "innovation" and "enterprise" are understood as referring to a history that long predates the twentieth and twenty first centuries, indeed the industrial revolution whose cradle this part of England largely was. For instance, the Roman Wall that runs right across the far north of what we now call England was in its time (and still would be today, Mr Trump) a huge project that called for topographical, engineering and construction skills of the highest order. Antiquity has left its visible mark on our northern landscapes in a way that is unique on this island. I hope many of our visitors find their way into Tynedale to admire the Wall and thereby set modernity into a larger context. Every generation has made its contribution and left its imprint on our landscapes, towns and cities. It's good that history puts us in our place.

Secondly, Northumbria's "Golden Age" of Christian civilisation in the seventh and eighth centuries is an essential part of the North's heritage. You can't really "get" the North's rich character and identity if you airbrush out of its legacy the profound Christian influences that shaped it and gave it the strong sense of place that endures today. Spirituality comes into things. In 2013, when I was Dean at Durham Cathedral, we welcomed back to the city the Lindisfarne Gospels for the first residency of what is hoped to be a regular cycle of visits to the peninsula where that "Great North Book" once lived. That summer, we all learned a great deal about how precious this Christian inheritance from Saxon times still is, and how it has the power to inspire and motivate people of faith even to this day. Will all this feature in this summer's activities? I hope so. Once again, I hope our guests will find their way to Lindisfarne, the "cradle of English Christianity", or if that's too far from Tyneside, venture inside our cathedrals at Newcastle and Durham, or Bede's churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, or Wilfrid's at Hexham Abbey. They are full of design innovation, full of spiritual enterprise. All this belongs to the North's spiritual and cultural capital.

Thirdly, I hope that the many poor and marginalised communities of the North will feel that this Exhibition is for them too. The North East has some of the most needy and deprived communities in the country, many of them within a stone's throw of the beautifully developed Tyneside waterfront. Parts of Tyneside and Wearside, as well as South East Northumberland and East Durham, are severely challenged in terms of economic growth, public services, housing, education, community facilities and, less tangibly but no less importantly, in their sense of collective wellbeing, confidence and hope.

These places of poverty and need, where people are "just about managing" or not managing at all, are often hidden from public sight and attention. These are the worlds of the TV series Broken, and films like I Daniel Blake, Billy Eliot, Purely Belter, Brassed Off and The Full Monty - all set in the North of England. I am sure that the Great Exhibition is intended to be a genuinely popular event, a ten week celebration for all the people of the North. Tyneside knows how to party like nowhere else in the country! The question is, how to take the Great Exhibition out into these communities and create events that affirm the local and the particular, that say loudly and clearly: this is for us all?

You can't do everything of course. But unless there's a strong sense of inclusion, even the best of intentions can have the effect of reinforcing the perception, no the experience, of disadvantaged people that they are on the edge of developments that are not really for them. I want to believe that this summer's events could be a wonderful way of invigorating and empowering fragile communities by offering visions of a better future. What will count is how the Great Exhibition of the North is followed up, what its long-term legacy turns out to be. It could be hugely positive. But it needs to be more than midsummer feel-good if it's to make a real and lasting difference to human lives.

Let me conclude on a personal note. I first came to live and work in the North more than half my lifetime ago when I became the vicar of a Northumberland market town in my early thirties. It was challenging to find myself in a culture so different from the one I'd been brought up in, that of suburban north London. But how enriching it was! It shaped me in ways beyond my imagining at the time. And when I went south again for a few years, I couldn't shake off my newly acquired feeling for "North". And didn't want to. I took groups annually up to Holy Island to introduce them to Northern Christianity. In due course, I returned - first to Sheffield for eight years, and then to Durham for nearly thirteen.

Now my wife and I live in retirement in rural Northumberland once more. I wouldn't live anywhere else now. I shall always be a Londoner, of course, and recognise that however much I want to "go native", we are always children of our origins. But the North has been extraordinarily good to me. Which is why I'm delighted that the Great Exhibition of the North will display the best of the North to people who may never have ventured into these (to them) far-distant lands. In today's Guardian a travel feature suggests some of the best places in the North East to enjoy a day out during the Exhibition. When I read it, I felt proud and glad to have lived and worked in this great region, and still to be a part of it. I've come to care deeply for it in all its variety. I want to champion it if I can. Hence my tribute in photographs. Hence this blog.

Come and see us. Discover the riches of the North. Bring your friends and make new ones. Experience living in a different way. Celebrate. Share our life for a while. Be inspired!

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Seascapes: a retreat for those being ordained.

In a fortnight's time I shall be conducting a retreat for those who are being ordained deacon this summer in my home Diocese of Newcastle. They will be ordained in Newcastle Cathedral on Saturday 30 June. That's the day after the anniversary of my own ordination as a deacon in 1975. I shall give the sermon at that service. It goes without saying that I am looking forward to it. It's always a privilege to be with ordinands as they cross this crucial threshold and take up their new roles in public ministry.

The retreat will be at Alnmouth Friary on the Northumberland coast, just down the road from Alnwick where I was Vicar in the 1980s. I got to know it well at that time. Before my institution as incumbent, I spent a few days on retreat there. I made regular visits to speak with one of the senior Brothers who was a wise, kindly spiritual director. Every Friday my curate (who belonged to the Franciscan Third Order) and I would attend the midday office and eucharist there and then stay on for lunch with the Brothers. The Friary was, and still is, a real foyer, a place of warmth and hospitality.

"Thin" places where we spend times of spiritual significance often provide their own symbols and metaphors to help us reflect on whatever experience we are undergoing. I vividly remember my own priest's ordination retreat during the hot summer of 1976. I stayed with a Benedictine community, and apart from prayer times, meals and sleep (when it came), spent the entire time sitting under a lime tree in the beautiful grounds. The grass was already parched in the fierce heat, but not under that tree. There I read a lot, wrote a little, pondered much and stumbled around in my personal prayers. The community left that sunny patch of England many years ago now. I have no idea whether the tree is still there. But its shelter during those three days has remained an important grace-filled memory. It's felt like a symbol of God's care and protection, especially when the realities of public ministry kicked in as they always do eventually, and sometimes it felt hard and (here's where the metaphor of shelter is important) exposed. Like Jonah and his gourd, perhaps?

What metaphor could the Friary offer this year's candidates as they think and pray about their ordination and the lifetime of public ministry that lies ahead? It's not for me to do more than make suggestions - they must do their own search look for whatever images and symbols are there to recognise them. But an obvious one is the sea itself. What everyone loves at the Friary is the chapel which looks out on the beach at Alnmouth. At high tide you see mostly sea. At low tide, there is a broad expanse of beach, beautiful glowing sands like the ones we remember from childhood seaside holidays. Sometimes I've almost wanted to cry out in that chapel like the ancient Greeks on their long march home, ecstatic on their first sight of it: "The sea! The sea!"

The sea is the chapel altar's backdrop, its reredos if you like. Inevitably, it is always changing and this is its glory. The rhythms of the tides, the changes of weather, the alterations in the light with the ebbs and flows of the seasons - all these add their own dimension to the spirituality of the chapel where we shall gather for the daily prayers of the community and for the eucharist. Your eye is constantly drawn to what's happening out there in this magnificent seascape. It could so easily be a distraction from prayer and meditation. And I'll admit it sometimes is, the magic of what takes place when the sea meets the land. When Cuthbert created his hermitage on the Inner Farne twenty miles up the coast, he built the walls of his cell high enough to cut out the views of rock and sea - for this very reason maybe, so that he could focus more intently on God?

That's the via negativa at work, understanding the spiritual path in terms of what God is not. On the other hand, and more accessibly for most of us, we can train ourselves to try to discern where God is in what we see around us, or at least find in the world of our experience images of what God could be like. I don't mean only blue skies or glowing sunsets or cute animals or fine landscapes and seascapes, though these are all gifts of God. I mean taking in what surrounds us in all its vicissitudes: dark as well as light, storm as well as stillness, rough seas as well as calm, monochrome as well as a vibrant colour. (I've found photography to be a great teacher here in helping me not simply to see but to notice, try to see into, feel for what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls the inscape - but that's for another blog.) For me the vista is a vision of the real world as if viewed through the lens of the eucharist, glimpsed as God sees it. It draws us back into its beating heart because we are learning to see not simply with our eyes but in our souls. That makes it a living icon, written by God himself.

Here, the Friary chapel can help us integrate what we see and touch and experience with how we pray. For if the reredos, this east seaward window is not to be a distraction, then it must provide us with spiritual food for thought to inform our prayer, whether corporate or personal, and our celebration of the eucharist. All of us will find our life-experience mirrored in that window from time to time, in the ever-changing conditions of land, sea and sky. Sometimes the alterations can be so subtle that we hardly notice them, like the tide creeping in over the sand on a calm day. At other times there will be dramatic changes whose suddenness takes us by surprise, as when a storm breaks unexpectedly, or a sunburst emerges out of a sullen lead-grey sky.

And if the window is a symbol of life, it is also a symbol of the tides of ordained ministry. The seascape is always changing. Sometimes those changes seem charged with promise, at other times laden with threat. As men and women in the public ministry of the church, our calling is to enter into human life in all its variety, and in God's name help people to make sense of it, even glimpse where God might be in it all. It calls for solidarity in both storm and sunshine, troubled seas and still, perilous journeys into the unknown as well as calm sea and prosperous voyage. Our new deacons have no idea of where their ministries will take them even in a few days' time, still less in the years of their lifetimes. How can they? How could I, sitting under that lime tree more than forty years ago?

But what we can and must do is offer the path ahead to God. "Lead kindly light" were words often in my thoughts as I stood in that chapel as a parish priest and pondered on my ministry in the parish a few miles inland; and even, in a highly symbolic way, "for those in peril on the sea" when things felt rough. There's a poem by William Blake, one of England's great "see-ers", that I shall quote in one of my addresses:

Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,

Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.

Those words are embroidered on a sampler the parish gave us when we said farewell. It still hangs in the room where we spend most of our daylight hours at home. They remind me of that window at the Friary and the years of stipendiary ordained ministry I have now laid down. And now, it's time for a new generation of clergy to pick up the baton in turn. I can promise them that Blake speaks the truth, not only of human life and discipleship, but of ministry too. And it's all there, in that window and in what they will recognise as they gaze into it and say their prayers and offer their lives as God's deacons.

It goes without saying that my prayers will be with them too. And with all those who are being ordained in the coming weeks in churches and cathedrals across the country.