Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Dark and Dreadful Death

This is the sixth in our series of sermons on St Mark’s passion narrative. Throughout Lent we have walked the via dolorosa with Jesus. Today we have arrived at its awful destination: Golgotha, crucifixion, darkness, desolation and pain. It is a world away from Palm Sunday with its hosanna acclamations and royal expectations. If ever you needed a reason not to trust a crowd, it is Palm Sunday. For look what has become of this king! The mob has bellowed for his crucifixion. He cannot, will not, save himself from this destiny, St Mark’s three fateful ‘musts’ that have pointed to this journey’s end. Today, on this Sunday of the Passion, we contemplate him as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

If we are honest, part of us does not know what to make of him hanging there. The trouble is, we know this story too well. We know, or think we know, what lies beyond the end of it, which is next Sunday’s theme. We also know how the other three evangelists tell it and they colour our reading of St Mark. If we only had this first among the gospels, it would both appal and baffle us. We would be baffled because Mark does not explain why the innocent Son of Man should undergo such suffering. We would be appalled because Mark does not spare us the agony: the darkness that falls on the scene, the desperation of this man’s last cry, the hopelessness of this death. And worst of all perhaps, he endures all this alone, taunted and mocked on every side, deserted by his friends, abandoned by God. This is a narrative of dread. We should tremble to read it.

Let me explore some of the themes in this part of the story. The first is the darkness. Forget about eclipses, even though they are recent memory this year. Mark’s darkness is altogether deeper than a mere shadow. It’s the darkness of judgment in our lesson from Amos which Mark quotes earlier in the gospel in a famous apocalyptic passage. ‘In those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and that stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken’ (13.24-5). Jesus is speaking just before the passion narrative begins. He says that the kingdom of God cannot come until there is an utter collapse of the present world order: the great stones of the temple will be toppled, human communities and relationships will disintegrate, the entire cosmos will fall in an instant like a house of cards. Mark expects us to remember that saying, so that when we hear of the sun’s light failing in the middle of the day, we recognise what it represents. It is the end of the world, and it is the end of Jesus’s world. He must be extinguished like the sun. He must collapse and die as everything dies round him.

That is dreadful enough. But my second theme is darker still: Jesus’s last word from the cross. Was ever a cry more desperate and more desolate than this awful cry with which he dies? Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? We must tread carefully here, for we are on holy ground. Our Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle captures something of it: the figure of Jesus whittled down to its bare essentials like the skeleton of a dead tree, his back arched in agonising pain. ‘Was ever grief like mine’ he seems to say to us. But this is more than physical suffering. There is a godforsakenness of the soul as the world ends for him and his existence is snuffed out. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The quotation is of course from Psalm 22, one of the psalms like 69 that so profoundly influenced the way in which the evangelists shaped their passion stories. These psalms end on a note of hope that God does not forget his suffering children and will bring them to a place of deliverance and thankfulness. Does Jesus anticipate the rest of the psalm when he cries out in its opening words, as if he can envisage his own resurrection? I doubt it. I believe that as the abyss opens up beneath him, he takes to his lips the words no doubt learned from childhood that so aptly echo his despair. God has handed him over, betrayed him. He has turned his face away. He may cry, but there is no answer. Elijah will not come to save him.

At the instant of his death, an extraordinary event takes place not far away from Golgotha. This is my third theme: ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’. For the evangelists, this was remembered as deeply significant on that terrible Friday afternoon. But what did it represent to them? The ‘veil’ hid the holiest part of the temple where only the high priest was allowed to go once a year on the Day of Atonement. Does this violent tearing symbolise the passing of the old religion with its worn-out dependence on rituals and ceremonies? For now a new and living way to God is opened up through the blood of Jesus.

And Mark sees this as another scene in the apocalyptic drama acted out on the cross. Like the darkness at noon, like Jesus’ wrecking of the money-changers’ tables in the temple precinct, the rent veil stands for judgment on Jerusalem and its religious institutions. The old must be swept away before the new comes. When Mark wrote, probably in the 60s of the first century, the temple was about to be destroyed by the Romans. The unthinkable would happen. Was this not a sign of the end of days? In his description of the tearing of the temple veil, Mark uses a word he has already used early in his Gospel. At Jesus’ baptism, he says that the sky is ‘torn open’ as the dove descends and the voice from heaven speaks, and Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The rending of sky and curtain is linked to a new world order we call the kingdom. But this can only happen if he drinks the cup we heard about early on in this series, this cup that will not pass from him. He must drink from the pressed grapes of the vine-press of the wrath of God. If he is to save the world, he must be utterly crushed.

What strange work is set before us in Holy Week at Golgotha! But what do we need to do as we watch these events unfold? Mark answers his own question. Forget the crowds shouting hosanna one day and crucify the next; forget the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled, forget the cynics who hail him as king, or the thieves and soldiers who mock him. There is an individual who stands out from the crowd and sees differently: the centurion. Maybe he is in charge of the soldiers who have crucified Jesus. Watching, this gentile Roman, this Jew-hater, this military man whose trade is power and cruelty, has an epiphany. ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’ Not just innocent, not just a good man, but the Son of God. The centurion isn’t a bystander now. He has become a participant whose words form the climax of the entire Gospel in one of the Bible’s great recognition-scenes. Mark sees this not just as one man’s confession of faith but as speaking for all humanity, for us as we acknowledge the majesty of this crucified Messiah. Bach took it this way when he gave these immortal words to the full chorus in his St Matthew Passion, the two greatest bars of music ever written. The only reason Mark is writing his Gospel is to make believers out of us, to draw us from being bystanders to participants as we become subjects of God’s kingdom and follow the crucified Lord. In last week’s preacher’s words, God renounces all power but the power of love, yet faith is possible in the teeth of suffering and ridicule. In the darkness, we can still believe.

Which means that we cannot simply watch him hanging there, but must summon up an act of faith that acclaims him as our Lord, and puts right our perspective on the world as God’s, with ourselves as loyal followers and subjects. To mould the church’s faith and our own in this cross-shaped way is the only reason we observe Holy Week with such care and devotion. By remembering in this way, we place the cross at the very centre of our lives, this everlasting sign of God’s ‘tender love towards mankind’, this saving death that sets us free to live again, this life freely poured out for us. Yes, indeed. ‘It is a thing most wonderful’.

Durham Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2015
Amos 8.9-12, Mark 15.33-41

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Lifted Up

I want to say something briefly about the paragraph I put in the notice sheet today. There was never going to be a good time to tell you that Jenny and I will be leaving Durham when I retire later this year. It will be hard to say goodbye to all of you and all of this when September comes. But that is not for another 6 months, and that’s still two equinoxes and many festivals away. As we celebrate 12 years here this coming Friday, St Cuthbert’s Day, we are deeply thankful for all that it has meant to live and work among you. Thankfulness is what matters most. That’s why we are here at the eucharist. So let me press on with my sermon.   

‘So must the Son of Man be lifted up’ says the Gospel.

In the New Testament, height is exhilarating and it is ominous.  As an exhilarating word, it means victory, kingship, or simply being near to God.  Jesus ‘ascends’ to take up his throne; he reigns on high; he is ‘above’ all things.  He is transfigured on a mountain; he ascends to his Father from a hill top; he goes up into high remote places to be alone and pray.  The New Testament calls him our ‘high priest’ who has passed through the heavens and has the skies beneath his feet. As an ominous word, however, height can stand for anxiety, threat, even evil.  When the devil tempts Jesus, he takes him up a high mountain, and then up on to a pinnacle of the temple. He has to climb up to do battle with Satan and triumph over evil. One New Testament letter refers to the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places; today’s reading speaks about the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. In the gospels, there is a turning point when Jesus must leave Galilee and ‘go up’ to Jerusalem to face suffering and death.  In the Old Testament, the Hebrews always ‘went up’ to the city and its temple for the joyous pilgrim feasts. When you fly El-Al to Tel Aviv you are ‘going up’: that’s what the name means. But for Jesus at Passover time, ‘going up’ will mean not living but dying. ‘I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord’. But for Jesus it will be his death sentence.   

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of height in a striking way.  ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. What is this ‘lifted up’?  Jesus goes on to hint at what it means. ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’  He gave. In St John, this means the incarnation, the Word made flesh. But it means more than that. It means giving to the fullest extent, loving ‘to the end’.  And if we still do not understand, we need only go to the next occasion Jesus speaks about being ‘lifted up’ when, St John adds: ‘he said this to indicate by what death he would die.’  To be ‘lifted up’ means being crucified. It means toiling slowly and painfully up another of those gospel summits, the hill of Golgotha.  It means being strung up in the sight of heaven and earth.  It means ropes and nails and mocking soldiers and sour wine.  It means the passion of the Christ, his dying and death.  The phrase comes three times in St John’s Gospel, just as three times in St Mark, the Son of Man must be betrayed to sinners and be put to death.  These are the things we begin to think about as on this Refreshment Sunday, Lent moves towards Passiontide as inevitably as Jesus moves toward the cross.

In the crucifixion, Jesus’ ‘hour’ has finally come. At one level it’s the ‘hour’ of disgrace, dishonour. To be lifted up on Golgotha is, paradoxically, to be abased, like humankind in the psalm becoming ‘lower than the angels’, so low as to share the fate of bandits, thieves and murderers; a suffering servant ‘despised and rejected by men’.  Yet in this terrible degradation St John sees something else.  He speaks of it as a kind of splendour, a transfiguration. It’s the paradox only the eyes of faith can discern.  Jesus is ‘lifted up’, he says, because in his humiliation he is exalted as a king on his throne, the one who reigns in triumph on the tree as the ancient passion hymns put it.  St John speaks often about Jesus being ‘glorified’ – and if we were to ask him where most of all we see the glory of the only begotten Son, full of grace and truth, he would not hesitate to answer: here, at the cross, where love is poured out, where God’s self-emptying, begun in the incarnation, is complete.  So the last word of Jesus from the cross is very different from the other gospels.  It isn’t the desolate cry of St Mark, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’; nor the trustful, obedient prayer of St Luke, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’.  It’s a single word in Greek, tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’: a shout of victory, for the work of God is finished, and the salvation of the world is assured.

Today we stand near the threshold of Passiontide, and begin to contemplate ‘this thing most wonderful’, Jesus lifted up on the cross for the world.  What does God want of us as we tell once more this strange and wonderful story that will take us through Holy Week and on to the day of resurrection?  I think there is only one thing God wants of us. It is that we should recognise who and what we are by recognising who and what Jesus is.  I mean that we must acknowledge in a new way that we are the subjects of the Son of God who hangs there, and give him our allegiance as our king. Passiontide is a time to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be his disciples, to walk in the way of the cross, to bear witness to the man of sorrows? We need to recall the ashen cross on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent and how we were reminded to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.  It’s time to look forward to renewing our baptism vows at Easter and reawaken the memory of how we were marked with cross when our Christian journey began.  As the earth is renewed at springtime, it’s time for us to renew ourselves as God’s people who belong to the King of love and truth.

We know that it was not the nails that kept him hanging on the cross, but only love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ ‘Rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us’ says Ephesians of God’s infinite grace towards us. So love must beget love, his love drawing out of us our belief, our faith, and most of all our love for the One who first loved us: On Mothering Sunday, this rich language carries a particular association: the sheer cost of begetting and birthing and nurturing the bundle of life that is each of us. Our mothers carry all their lives the marks of what it cost to bring us into the world. Julian of Norwich knew this when she famously said: ‘Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother; I am the Light and the Grace which is love, I am the One who makes you love’. ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ is what good mothering means in both its agony and ecstasy. This is how God is, in the wideness of his mercy.

So we gaze on the One we have pierced, high and lifted up in majesty on the cross; we place our hands in his wounded side, and are thankful: for ourselves, indeed, but also on behalf of all humanity, this ‘world’ that God so loved. We shall hear in next week’s gospel how Jesus says: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’. One day that great expectation will be fulfilled. The cross seems a strange and lowly place to begin – or do I mean accomplish? - this project of salvation. But the weakness of God is stronger than mortals, his foolishness is wiser than our human wisdom.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

Love has its reasons of which reason knows nothing but faith understands everything. For as Julian said, ‘Love awakens our desire, and then gives itself to us as its ultimate fulfilment and goal.’ And as we come to desire him with all our heart, we learn to be God’s people once again and give our life, our soul, our all to this ‘love so amazing, so divine’.

Durham Cathedral
Lent 4, Refreshment/Mothering Sunday, 15 March 2015 
Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Cup of Pain and Mercy

This is the second in our Lenten series of sermons on the Passion Narrative in St Mark’s Gospel, Christ our Passover. Today we find Jesus in the upper room eating the Passover meal with his disciples, and afterwards, in the garden of Gethsemane where, as he faces his last ordeal, he prays to his Father. This part of the story is framed by two of Jesus’ most portentous sayings. Last week’s passage ended: ‘the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born’. Now, the same word shatters the silent agony of Gethsemane, when the disciples are heavy with sleep. ‘Arise, let us be going. Behold, my betrayer is at hand.’

We heard last week how at supper, Jesus foretells that one of his friends will betray him. This word has already featured in Mark’s Gospel near the beginning, when Judas Iscariot is introduced as a disciple. Literally it means ‘hand over’. It is not by itself a sinister idea: in Greek, paradosis simply means that which is ‘delivered’ or ‘handed on’, the same as the Latin traditio: the church’s ‘tradition’ is what is received from others and passed on to the next generation. In St Paul’s own account of the last supper, he uses the same word: ‘I received from the Lord what I am handing on to you’.

However, in the passion narrative, two things give this innocent word a darker nuance. The first is that it is now carrying the sense of Jesus being passed over from one kind of power to another. Up to now, he has been obedient to his Father’s purpose as the one announced in his baptism and then his transfiguration as God’s Son, the beloved. In his freely-chosen submission to God, he lives out the prayer he has taught his followers: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. But now he is handed over to a different authority, the ‘principalities and powers’ of this age who have quite other purposes in mind for the Son of Man. He becomes the passive victim, no longer the agent who goes around doing good, but now one who is ‘done to’ by others. And the first act of these others, as we shall learn next week, is to arrest him, not with the weapons of truth and justice but with violence, seized by bandits who are armed with swords and clubs.

But there is a bigger context here. For St Mark sees paradosis, this ‘handing over’ as nothing less than the act of God himself. Three times in the gospel Jesus has foretold that the Son of Man ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and after three days rise again.’ Why this necessity? This is the great mystery the Passion Narrative draws us into. The sheer length and detail of the story in all four gospels tells us that the evangelists saw the crucifixion as inescapably central to the gospel. It was not an accident. It was not mischance. It was intended all along within God’s purpose of redemption. ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ says Jesus earlier. In the upper room, the cup of wine that is ‘my blood of the covenant poured out for many’ is the way to the promised future he has taught his disciples to pray for. ‘Your kingdom come.’ ‘I shall never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ In the gospels, without the cross, there can be no kingdom, no future when God’s passover people will be freed from all that enslaves them. He must suffer. Es muss sein.
This cup of destiny features in both parts of today’s text. At the last supper, the cup of wine, along with the broken bread, is a living symbol of a death that is like the passover lamb. It heralds the day of salvation in which a redeemed people ‘pass over’ from death to life. It is both a memory and a future promise. It looks back with gratitude for a redemption that has been won, and looks forward to the kingdom of peace, that messianic banquet where people will sit and feast in the presence of God himself. At the passover meal, the cup is a symbol of a people’s destiny. And this is the destiny Jesus takes upon himself as the true Israelite looking forward to the long-promised day when God acts, and he drinks it anew in his kingdom.

And the same is true in the garden. After singing the passover hallel psalms of redemption, they go to a place whose name means ‘pressure’, Gethsemane where olives grew and their oil was crushed out of them. Here the life of Jesus begins to be pressed out of him as he faces the inevitable end that he has spoken about for so long. ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I will but what you will’. I said just now that for Mark, for Jesus, there is no question but that the passion is intended by God all along. And this is both the reason for his agonised prayer and the answer to it. Jesus does not dispute who it is who holds out this cup to him. Did he have in his mind Psalm 75: ‘In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed’. These are the grapes that are crushed in the vineyard of the wrath of God. ‘He will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.’
Can this be what his Father is holding out to him commanding him to drink it and die? No wonder he begs God to take it away. St Mark will tell of how on the cross, Jesus prays Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Gethsemane is the first stage of a terrible godforsakenness. Jesus takes upon himself the fate of the wicked of the earth from whom God turns his face away. They and he have no choice but to drink. As St Paul says, Christ became a curse for us. It is the hour of darkness. Nevertheless, in the midst of this mental and spiritual agony, Jesus’ obedience does not waver. He hears the echo of his own words: he must undergo this. ‘Not what I will but what you will.’ Once more it is the language of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. What he prays, and teaches us to pray, he himself lives out in his steadfast obedience. If ever the words of this prayer were fulfilled, it is here in Gethsemane: ‘lead us not into temptation’, or rather, ‘save us from the time of trial’, peirasmos, that ordeal at the end of days that makes or breaks the human sufferer.

In Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘sit here while I pray’. I see in this an echo of the story in Genesis that the evangelists will have had in mind as they told of the passion of Jesus. When God commands Abraham to take his beloved child Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountain far away, he tells his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Here is Jesus walking away from his young men, his disciples with only his trusted intimates. Does he hope against hope, does he pray that like Isaac, he will avert the fire and the knife while a ram caught in a thicket is offered instead? Here in Gethsemane, he learns that there is no escape. He too is a Son like Isaac, an only Son of a Father’s love yet that makes a terrible claim upon him. He too must ascend a mountain, Golgotha, be offered on that altar and submit to the will of the Father who requires this awful act of obedience.

So the cup means both pain and mercy. In being ‘handed over’ by God and man, by his submission to his Father’s will, by drinking of the foaming wine and becoming a curse, by his cry of despair in the darkness, by all that he endured, we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Because he does not refuse the cup the Father offers him, it passes from us. And yet, a cup is still held out to us. We remember it at every eucharist. Only now, it is gift. It is salvation. It is life. It is the promise of the kingdom. And even when the cost of walking the way of the cross is that we shall undergo our own Gethsemane ordeals, we know that they are endurable because Jesus has walked this via dolorosa before us and transformed the cup of destiny. George Herbert gives us the words in a meditation called ‘The Agonie’. It looks on the cross as the place where the cup of pain and mercy is filled to the brim and offered.

Love is that liquor, sweet and most divine
Which my God tastes as blood, but I as wine.


Durham Cathedral, Lent 2, 1 March 2015 (Mark 14.22-42)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

At the Dangerous Edge of Things

Robert Browning spoke about ‘the dangerous edge of things’. Today’s New Testament lesson speaks about events that take people to the extremes of their experience, and it does indeed feel edgy and dangerous.  The disciples in their boat on Galilee struggle against the storm.  The waves crash over the flimsy craft and it threatens to capsize. The Lord, asleep in the hold, is woken by terrified cries of panic: ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ He rebukes the chaotic wind and waves and there is a great calm. Safely on dry land, it’s the same story in another guise. Jesus takes on the chaos in human life: the Gadarene man and other victims whose lives are being possessed by demons, or by disease and disability that reduce their victims to chaos. As on the lake, mortals clamour desperately for help, beg to touch even the hem of his garment.  Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, demons, sickness and death and they obey him?
 
Just before the reading from Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, we learned how ‘the earth was a ‘formless void’: tohu wavohu, a rare moment of Hebrew rhyme.  That first creation story in Genesis 1 tells how shape and order emerge out of the chaotic deep: light and dark, sea and dry land, vegetation, the different orders of life in earth, air and water; and humanity as the crown of God’s achievement.  This patterning of time, space and the material world is fundamental to a cosmos that is stable and trustworthy.  In this universe that is ‘very good’, chaos has no place. And although the lesson we heard from Genesis offered us a much earlier story of creation, what scholars call the Jahwist’s version, with the Bible as it now is we can’t help but read the second story in the light of the first. When we do, it echoes the same primordial pattern. God is at work to shape a world like an artist or craftsman. When Michaelangelo forged a sculpture, he said that the shape was already there in the stone; it was simply a matter of revealing it. I like the idea of God chipping away with infinite skill to bring out the fundamental shape and structure of reality from the undifferentiated chaos of matter.
 
In the ancient world, order was experienced as precarious. There was an ever-present fear that the chaos might return to overwhelm hard-won civilisation.  In the psalms, Yhwh is king over cataract and flood who has crushed the heads of the monsters of the deep; in today’s, he ‘stilleth the raging of the sea: and the noise of the waves and the madness of the people.  And that madness tells that the threat is not only natural but human.  The raging of the enemy is personified as an overwhelming force which only the mighty power of Yhwh can subdue: ‘why do the nations rage so furiously together?’  In a bleak vision of Jeremiah, the formless void appears again:  ‘I looked on the earth and lo, it was tohu wavohu, waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no-one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger’.  This is Genesis wound backwards from cosmos to chaos, its artistry unravelling to a terrible, anarchic collapse. 
 
If once, people doubted that atavistic fears like these had been banished by the onward and upward march of progress, this last century surely dispelled the fantasy. Tohu wavohu does not only belong to the ancients.  A century ago, an unsuspecting world sleep-walked into a Great War. Seventy years ago, the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau were opened to reveal the unspeakable horror of what had gone on under the Nazis. I was brought up under the shadow of the Bomb: the Cuban Missile Crisis taught me how deeply untrustworthy the world is. I learned to be afraid. Now we have Al Qaida and Boko Haram and Isis, not to mention climate change, human trafficking, the abuses that drive asylum seekers to our shores. They all point to tohu wavohu as a present reality for us, both as nameless fear and felt reality, consequences most of them of what the Prayer Book collect calls ‘the unruly wills and affections of sinful men’. 
 
The history of this Benedictine cathedral reminds us how in the 6th century St Benedict set about creating communities of stability and order when the Roman Empire was in its final descent into anarchy.  Perhaps his Rule saved Christian Europe from the dark ages.  His enterprise could be a model for mission today: intelligent religion marked not by easy successes or showy drama but by the sustained spiritual imagination and commitment to live with complexity.  In his book A Staircase for Silence Alan Ecclestone offers clues as to how we might set about this.  He says that only a radical deepening and broadening of our vision is equal to the task of bringing to birth and nourishing a spirituality strong, generous and inspiring enough to help men and women…. grow up as truly human beings in the immensely complicated world that lies ahead. That spiri­tuality must provide a disciplined way of living in which growth to the fullest possible stature of each is made the concern of all. It requires a spirituality [that] relates the creativity, the humanising and the unification of mankind in one growing experience of mutual love. The world may well be entering a yet darker age than any known before. The demands laid on the spirituality needed during such time will be correspondingly greater.

So we must not be paralysed by the storm, hide in the bowels of our ship, never venturing on deck to get the measure of the tempests that rage outside and within. At those times when we stand on some dangerous edge of things – in personal life, in world crises, the first thing is to imitate the mariners at the start of the Tempest and cry out, ‘to prayers, to prayers!’: like the disciples, the vessel we are sailing is so tiny and the sea is so terrifying and big. But as we face our fear, assess the danger, say our prayers and help one another to find strength, we find that Christ was hidden in the darkness all along, and is there beside us, rebuking but also cheering us: ‘where is your faith?’

The tornados and tsunamis of life put hard choices to us that call for hard decisions. When the crisis comes, do we have the spiritual resources to respond?  Even in the storm, especially then, we need to keep the doors of perception open so that God can come anew to us, as he did to the possessed man by the lake and to the disciples in the boat. The Lord’s Prayer that we utter every day has as its focus how we fare in the time of trial, how we endure Gethsemane when we cry in despair, ‘let this cup pass from me’. When it comes to our great ordeals, what would we do? What shall we do?


This is where Christian character is tested. And I wonder, as I hear the news day by day and feel profoundly despondent about it, whether my Christianity is being called to some test of resilience and maturity it has never had to undergo before. This is no time for easy religion, play-acting our Christian profession. Our faith needs to go to the heart and change us. This is why we need those Benedictine virtues of stability, obedience and conversion of life in our churches and our personal lives.  They shape us to live by the values of the gospel, so that life is transformed and we begin to make a difference in the world: as Benedict did, holding on for dear life as the world fell apart around him, yet never despairing of the mercy of God. Which is why, when big storms break against the shores of our complacency, and we are shaken by earthquake, wind and fire, we need to hear the voice that calls out to us, ‘where is your faith?’, the still small voice that gives us the strength not to be afraid. And then, God willing, we shall live to praise his name, and tell how much he has done for us.

Durham Cathedral, 8 February 2015, Genesis 2.4a-end, Luke 8: 22-39

Friday, 6 February 2015

In Memoriam Michael Perry: a funeral sermon

I only knew Michael Perry in his retirement. I first met him after evening prayer one night in the Cathedral. I had been installed just a few days. The choir was away so the service was said, not sung. There were only a few of us in the quire stalls. I had noticed an elegant white-haired man further along on my side, decani. He was reciting the psalms with vigour – and fast as if trying to arouse us slow clergy out of our languor. In the crossing afterwards, he headed in my direction. He made as if to walk past, but stopped by my right ear. An arm curled round; a hand took mine and held it very firmly. A voice said something like this. We haven’t met, but I am Michael Perry. In days of yore I used to be a member of the Cathedral Chapter. I have retired now, but they are very good at bearing with me while I go on coming to evensong because I can’t bear not to. You will come to love this Cathedral as I do: there is nowhere in the world like Durham. I shall never meddle or give advice as yesterday’s man, but if you ever need help, I am there. I am so glad you have come. God be with you. 

This was Michael: modest, courteous, immensely kind, a shrewd man of few words and wry humour, wickedly so at times. He was a highly intelligent man who, you sensed, could see through your fancy speeches: when you were talking rot, he knew it and could say so. He was not one for lingering: his attitude to the psalms was true of his whole life until illness forced a change of pace. There was work to do, things to get on with: new lamps to be lit, new tasks begun. When he came to rely on oxygen to survive, life went on. He would come to evensong carrying his cylinder in a large plastic bag. I expect he reckoned that it was good for all us to be reminded every day of our mortality.

Michael was ordained in 1958. In 1970 Bishop Ian Ramsey, a man whom Michael revered, appointed him Archdeacon of Durham. It came with membership of Durham Cathedral’s Chapter, its governing body. There is a photograph of a Chapter meeting in the Deanery in a 1970s guide book. By then it was led by Dean Eric Heaton. Michael is there at his right hand, the youthful canon who was said to be the youngest archdeacon in the Church of England. A forward-looking man, he approved of Heaton’s reforming views and once said to me, apropos of developments in the Cathedral today that they were exactly in line with what the Chapter was beginning to do in his day. At the same time, as Archdeacon and later, as the Bishop of Durham’s Senior Chaplain, he earned a respect and affection in the diocese that lasted. He knew and cared deeply for his parishes and clergy, an outstanding listener in hard times, a wise counsellor and a pastor who was trusted completely. His sermons were, and still are, remembered.  He did not believe in the charm school doctrine of niceness for its own sake: he could be astringent sometimes. Like Ian Ramsey, he valued ‘disclosure’ because it was part of the pursuit of truth, and this called for honesty in personal and professional relationships. This is all part of understanding why Durham was lucky in its senior clergy. He contributed much to a leadership that was enterprising, visionary and theologically intelligent and that lived out the Anglican ethos and values he cherished. 



Michael’s long interest was in parapsychology, the investigation and study of paranormal and psychic phenomena. He believed that it was important to shape a proper Christian understanding of it and not banish it to half-crazed practitioners with bizarre and even dangerous opinions and practices. He became editor of The Christian Parapsychologist in 1978 and president of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies in 1998. Asked what had most influenced him, he quoted a writer who had explained how poltergeist phenomena were usually caused, not by external spirits, but by inter-personal tensions amongst the people at the scene of the disturbances. ‘That revolutionized the way I dealt with poltergeist cases, and has proved enormously helpful.’ He applied these insights into his practice of what we now call deliverance ministry. He did not believe we should make a song-and-dance about strange psychic events but draw on the insights of theologians and mental health practitioners (of whom Margaret his wife is of course one). When he was honoured with a Lambeth DD in 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about ‘understanding questions of faith without devaluing spiritual experience, and most of all by studying Christian writings through prayer, meditation, and regular worship’. Michael valued this honour: it gave recognition to an aspect of pastoral theology and ministry that he believed was badly neglected.

In our best moments, our faith and our humanity are one. You can’t separate a person’s Christian identity from their human character and personality. Michael lived this in both his personal and professional life. His generosity and warmth, his intelligence and humour, his zest for living, his curiosity about God and about life, his love of music especially Beethoven, these were all part of the rich hinterland out of which he worked as a priest. His family, of course, were at the heart of this human flourishing in the life of God. He and Margaret were married for 51 years. She and Michael, Andrew, David and Gillian made for a lively family where a great love abounded, though Michael did not wear his heart on his sleeve. He was convivial but also valued solitude. You sense that he knew himself, was comfortable in his skin. ´Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. says St Paul in our reading, but when they are truly alive and wholesome they bear witness to it. Michael did.

In that great chapter from 1 Corinthians, Paul is speaking about the resurrection of the dead. How many have had hope restored, found the darkness lifting at those words ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory: where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’. They transfigure life’s lesser deaths, and finally this last enemy we all have to face, as Michael did with sturdy equanimity, as Margaret and their children must do, with their families and all  who loved him. When Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, it must have helped him face his own death too, and to understand what lay beyond it. 

Michael had made the resurrection his special study. His first book was called The Easter Enigma: an essay on the resurrection. He knew better than anyone that a funeral is an Easter liturgy, especially when it is a Requiem. Here at this altar, the risen Christ comes among us to keep us thankful and expectant, to set in a larger context the loss of God's gift in the man he loves whom he has now taken back to himself.  We see him held within the memory of God’s own son, lost in death, found again in resurrection. It is the heart of our eucharistia, our thankfulness. It changes everything, gives us back our lives, renews our solidarity with all whom we love, living and departed in the Lord Jesus. ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ says Paul. 

Here are some words of Michael that celebrate Easter as the truth by which he lived and died. He was speaking about the church and parapsychology, and how important it is to deal wisely and lovingly with departed souls. Our service here is, in a similar way, work we do both for and with a beloved departed soul. ‘Christians know that the resurrection of Jesus turned the whole world upside down. The Resurrection showed us that God is the God of earth and hell and heaven, and his rule knows no bounds. The communion of saints is not bounded by earthly, physical, parameters.’ Here at this eucharist, living and departed are one in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. Even at the grave, we sing alleluia.

St Oswald’s Durham. 
At the funeral of Michael Perry, 6 February 2015

Thursday, 29 January 2015

A Dean's Dozen: 12 Years living and working in a World Heritage Cathedral

Just over one hundred years ago, in 1912, a book was published with the title The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912. Its author was George Kitchin. He had been dean since 1894. He was the author of works on, among other things, Francis Bacon, John Ruskin, the history of France, and Winchester where he had been dean before Durham. He was a friend of Lewis Carroll who had photographed his daughter. He was the last Dean of Durham to have oversight of the University, and was its first Chancellor.

His book on the Deanery was his last, and he never lived to see it published. It is a striking, large-format volume with many photographs and drawings, an invaluable record of the Deanery as it was in his day. While well researched, it does not pretend to be a work of scholarship. Rather, it is his tribute to a house he loved. In the preface, he describes himself as a passing hermit-crab who must soon leave this shelter he has enjoyed for rather longer than my own decanal 12 years. He says that he wants to ‘express my own thankfulness for being permitted to dwell in this shelter for an old man’s last days. The record of the ancient chambers makes the past live again and will, I hope, be an inspiration for all who may hereafter have the good fortune to live in this Deanery.’[1] So it has proved for this dean. My only regret is that I did not get to revise the book for its centenary in 2012, for there is a great deal about the Deanery that Kitchin did not know about that is now revealed, including the miraculous 15th century wall painting in the entrance hall, what was once the Prior’s Chapel.

My subject in this lecture is Living and Working in a World Heritage Cathedral. I begin with the Deanery because the ‘living’ part of the title belongs there, as does much of the ‘working’ too. It is a relatively little-known part of the World Heritage Site, so I hope you will allow me to say something about my own experience of living there before I broaden the perspective to take in the more public and visible aspects of my role. In both, I want to try to reflect not on the built heritage itself, wonderful though it is, so much as on its interaction with human buildings, the symbolism and meanings it holds for us. I want to explore how in my experience, heritage functions to enrich and shape not only the lives of the people fortunate enough to inhabit it, but more specifically, the mission of the institution to which this acropolis is home, this Cathedral at the heart of this peninsula.

It is not the first time we have lived in a house that warrants an entry[2] in Pevsner’s Buildings of England. In the 1970s we occupied the medieval Hall of the Vicars Choral in Salisbury Close, so we had some experience of the interface between heritage and human living. Indeed, you get to know a building’s personality in a unique way when you begin to fill it up with children. Here in Durham, with children having long flown the family nest, we share the historic Deanery with student lodgers in the eyrie upstairs, and Godiva the cat. And, it seems, a visitant. This genius loci, whoever he is (and I am reliably informed that it is a ‘he’), makes himself known mostly to women on the north side of the house where it looks out on to the Chapter House. He is benign, but even I have known doors close and lights be switched on or off when I have known for certain that I have been alone in the house. Who is to say what guests these old buildings entertain unawares?

The Deanery was short-listed in a Country Life article in 2003 as part of a quest to find Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited house.[3] It was reluctantly disqualified on the grounds that before the Reformation, the Prior’s Lodging was not strictly speaking a private residence. But the evidence of hundreds of years of continuous occupancy is indeed one of its features. When I show visitors round, I tell them that every century from the 11th to the 21st has left its mark on the building. This is not the place to linger on the details which are a lecture in themselves. However, it is worth mentioning the contribution modernity has made to this, one of England’s greatest clergy houses. Dean Waddington had converted the medieval library into a Victorian gentleman’s study complete with fitted bookcases, tall sash windows and his own heraldic achievement above the great fireplace. For centuries deans still slept in a Tudor tester bed in the famous King James Room, so-called because the Scottish monarch had occupied it during his southward progress on acceding to the English throne in 1603. Kitchin’s book has photographs that record the house as it was at the turn of the 20th century with its heavy over-furnished late Victorian and Edwardian interiors. The biggest transformation to happen after his time was Hensley Henson’s introduction of the colourful Chinese wallpaper that adorns the solarium, the room in the Deanery that everyone remembers, which Dean Spencer Cowper had converted from medieval solar to fashionable salon in the mid-18th century. The story is that Ella, Henson’s wife, found the prospect of living in this vast and dreary Deanery unsupportable without colour. This the solarium abundantly provided. On sunlit days I doubt there is a more beautiful room in North East England.

The imminent arrival in 1974 of Eric Heaton as Durham’s first modernising Dean launched large-scale alterations to the Deanery. The Priors’ Hall was separated off for use for Cathedral use though it is still legally a part of the house. A new internal staircase halved the time it took to get from one floor to the next. A striking new entrance was created by George Pace with a spiral castellated stairway and a new front door opened up in the west wall of what had once been the Priors’ Chapel where there had once before been a door. The magnificent 15th century paintings were uncovered on the north wall of the chapel, together with evidence of 13th and 14th century decoration and an array of medieval graffiti which continue to be recorded and studied today. The tantalising glimpse of the Virgin Mary’s skirts at the east end of the series tells us that there are more paintings that have yet to be exposed. In this period the interiors were extensively modernised for 20th century family living. Finally, in 2011, we dedicated the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the 13th century undercroft, a beautiful space with a Cistercian feel to it, lovingly furnished by local Durham woodworker Colin Wilbourn. Hensley Henson had created a chapel there in his day, and the Cathedral choristers famously slept in it during the war because its stone vault offered the best air-raid shelter in the College.

All this gives you a sense of the Deanery’s art and architecture. But what is it like to live there? You may not think this is worth lingering on: your home is your home, whether it is a medieval building in a Cathedral precinct, a Victorian vicarage, a 1930s detached house or an Edwardian villa in an elegant suburb – to summarise the clergy houses we have lived in for the past 40 years. However, if you are interested in the interaction between the built environment and human life, how we have configured our surroundings and how they to some extent configure us, then it is worth reflecting on the experience of living in such a remarkable house as the Deanery. Furthermore, because the Deanery is attached to the cloister and therefore to the Cathedral itself, living and working in the Deanery is almost an encapsulation, and maybe also a metaphor, of how I have experienced the Cathedral too.
 
The first thing to say is that like George Kitchin, I am not sure that even after 12 years I have fully taken in what it is to live in a house such as the Deanery. The experience of putting on hat and coat by the wall-paintings, answering emails in a grand Victorian library under its mellow 15th century ceiling, chairing meetings in the King James Room surrounded by portraits of deans from the 16th to the 19th centuries, watching TV against the backdrop of 13th century lancet windows with evidence of Islamic-inspired decoration, walking to evensong along the length of a rococo-gothic corridor created above the space where the original monastic dormitory latrine drains ran, celebrating a family Christmas in front of a big homely fire in the priors’ solar – I could go on and on. The chief thing, I know, is never to take any of this for granted. To occupy such surroundings is to realise the need to be more present to them, pay attention to their artistry, their memory, and indeed their spirituality. You should not live in a house such as this without becoming more of a contemplative, someone who in Thomas Hardy’s words ‘used to notice such things’. This is part of what I call ‘inhabiting’ the house.

I do not want to leave you with the impression that it is always straightforward to occupy a part of the nation’s heritage. It belongs to many more people than simply the family who live there. A deanery or a vicarage is always to some extent not entire your own, but you feel the sense of guardianship when it wears its history so palpably on its sleeve. Then there is the price you pay: the easy conveniences of modern living. In winter, we (and I include Godiva the cat in this) scuttle from one warm space to another along long, unheated corridors. The wifi won’t penetrate the great medieval walls beyond the office. Mobile phone signal is patchy because of the way the bulk of the Cathedral just yards away vastly distorts the aether like a huge star influencing space-time in general relativity theory. If you forget that your freshly laundered pyjamas are in the airing cupboard in the undercroft, it is 53 steps down and up again from the bedroom. If you burn the toast, the ultra-sensitive smoke alarms go off and the fire brigade is outside before you can say mea culpa. When the west wind blows fiercely, bits of sandstone drop off the eroded exterior like meteorites, sometimes outside the front door where people go in and out. I could go on. Life in a medieval deanery is nothing if not eventful.

There is one aspect of life in the Deanery that is almost (not quite) unique in England. This is its physical attachment to the Cathedral itself. When people who don’t know Durham ask me where I live, I often reply that it is in an end-of-terrace or semi on the south-east corner of the cloister. This is architecturally the case, despite the Deanery’s character as a medieval manor house complete with hall, solar, chapel and library all constituting the required piano nobile. This means that the Dean of Durham lives not so much above the shop as in it. This has its convenient aspects: I can be in my stall for matins and evensong in less time than it takes to get to the College gate, let alone to the shops. What is more, I have a dry decanal foul-weather route to prayer while my Chapter colleagues are exposed to wind and rain on the way across the precinct into the cloister. But it also raises questions about where ‘work’ space ends and ‘personal’ space begins; inevitably, the boundaries are porous much of the time. The medieval priors who once occupied the house would not have understood the concept of ‘personal’ or ‘private’: there was no such thing when a Benedictine community lived together under rule. Every parish priest faces the same dilemmas if his or her house is close to the church and perhaps connected to it by means of a dedicated path through the church yard. So the ‘attachment’ of the Deanery to the Cathedral symbolises something that is deeply embedded in the concept of vocation: a dean belongs to his or her cathedral in an inalienable way, tied to it by an inviolable umbilical cord.

And this leads me on to what is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the ‘living’ dimension of my title ‘living and working in a World Heritage Site’. This umbilical connection to a sacred space, that is, the Cathedral, has affected the way in which I have felt about the Deanery. In a sacred space, behaviours are modified, calibrated to what is appropriate to a place dedicated to encounter with the divine, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans as Rudolph Otto famously called the ‘idea’ of the holy. To be architecturally, psychologically and ethnographically connected to a shrine like Durham Cathedral poses questions about the meanings attached to this house, the symbolism it carries. It speaks to the soul, fertilises the imagination.  But the paradoxes are even sharper than that. For one thing, the north side of the house where benign presences have been felt and reported, stands on or near the site of the place where Cuthbert’s coffin may have been placed from 1093 to 1104 when the new shrine, sanctuary and quire of the Romanesque cathedral were being built. If this is right, then plausibly the house holds a memory of being inhabited for a while by a saint, indeed, for the same length of time – a dozen years – of my own occupancy. In its more recent history, the present hallway and PA’s office occupy what was once what was once Prior Melsonby’s Chapel, as I have mentioned in connection with the wall paintings. It was probably Thomas Comber, the dean installed in 1691 to replace the nonjuring Denis Granville who had been ejected in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, who is said to have ‘improved’ the Deanery and converted the obsolete chapel into living quarters[4].

So the dean and his family live, not adjacent to a sacred space, but to some extent inside one, or the memory of one. Where the chapel once was, family and guests come in and out. My PA works on her computer and manages the Dean. Upstairs, the family entertain, relax, watch TV, enjoy a late night whisky, shower, bathe, dress, undress and sleep. Too much information, you may say. But it raises interesting questions about the interface between sacred and profane, especially when it comes to the functions associated with a bathroom situated in what was once a place of prayer. Sacred memory and secular reality intersect intriguingly. I don’t want to become obsessive about this, but I do believe that an important aspect of heritage is the honouring of memory. How to do this responsibly and well is a question has never been absent from my mind for very long. It’s one dimension of living and working in this World Heritage Site.

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Let me turn now to the Cathedral itself. Here again, as with the Deanery, I want to reflect on the personal experience of ‘living and working’ in Durham Cathedral and how my own persona has been to a great extent shaped during these dozen Durham years.

I have been fortunate in the ecclesiastical buildings I have worked in over four decades of public ministry. I was ordained 40 years ago this June beneath the Romanesque chancel arch of St Andrew’s, Headington in Oxford. Then followed six years in the Close at Salisbury where, in addition to lecturing in Old Testament studies, I was an honorary vicar choral at the peerless 13th century Cathedral. After this came five years as Vicar of Alnwick in Northumberland, a sturdy late-gothic building near the Castle, complete with ducal emblems on the capitals of the elaborate chancel, and a mini-bastle above the sanctuary, a look-out against Scots raids from the north. I then enjoyed eight years at Coventry Cathedral as Precentor and Vice-Provost, followed by another eight as Dean of Sheffield. Thence to Durham. All fine buildings of many different epochs and styles. If you know your geology you will recognise in this list more than 30 years of sandstone of various hues, from the lovely pink-red of Warwickshire to the blackened millstone grit of South Yorkshire, and the golden but friable sandstones of Northumberland and County Durham. When it comes to cathedrals, I am wholly a sandstone dean. I have a distant memory of finely-wrought limestones in the south. But I am now a habitué of the north of England’s rougher-hewn sandstones: always beautiful to look at, always responsive to the changing seasons and the shifting light, always lovable; but there is no denying the conservation challenges they pose. More of this towards the end.

I first visited Durham in 1966 as a schoolboy applying to read maths here. Out of the recent experience of having been baptised a Christian, I was awed by the Cathedral, even on that bleak November day under the kind of sullen, steely sky the North East does so well. Could I have even entertained the thought that my future lay here? Hardly, given that on that first ever visit, I managed somehow to walk right round the Cathedral without discovering St Cuthbert’s shrine. Perhaps after 12 years here it is time to own up to this extraordinary and shameful omission. But in my defence, there is something ‘apart’ about the feretory, like a little Farne Island set in the great sea that is the 13th century Chapel of the Nine Altars. In 2003, I asked to be installed on St Cuthbert’s Day, and perhaps this went some way towards saying sorry to our saint.

As we know, the Cathedral, the city, the University would not be here were it not for the travels of Cuthbert’s Saxon community who arrived on this rock in 995 and erected the first shrine to house the relics of their saint. In my book about the Christian heritage of this part of England, I described the Cathedral as the ‘mystic heart’ of the North East.[5] I believe this to be true as a matter both of history and of what I have called sacred geography. On reflection, there is another more personal level of meaning in this phrase in that I have discovered how the Cathedral is the ‘mystic heart’ of my own spirituality and Christian identity.  I don’t mean this to sound like the kind of purple prose clergy resort to in the pulpit. I mean that any great building has the propensity to mould and shape the people whose life and work is intensely focused on it or in it. When the building is a sacred space like a cathedral, church, mosque, temple or synagogue, then its symbolism, history, memory and a great deal else becomes enfolded in those people’s worship and prayer. Some of it is conscious, as in the worthy if undistinguished hymn ‘We love the place O God / wherein thine honour dwells’. Much more, I suspect, is subliminal, unconscious. A lot of it has to do with our psyche, the Jungian ‘soul’ where the archetypes reside and which is the seat of our projections and transferences. A cathedral is heavily freighted with symbolism for everyone in a thousand different ways. When it is Durham Cathedral, and when the core of the job entails being present at the twice-daily prayers in addition to the countless other engagements in and around the building every day brings, you will see why I use this elevated language. And living as I do in a Deanery whose northward, westward and eastward prospects are all dominated by the huge bulk of this immensely powerful presence, it is understandable that it comes to shape the life of the person who is the head of its foundation.

That phrase ‘mystic heart’ focuses on what Christian discourse calls ‘spiritual formation’. In this building that is beyond words when we try to capture what we love about it, this formational dimension of the cathedral is one of its charisms, a gift of grace. It touches all of us for whom it is our place of work. For example, when I sit down as I always do with the cohort of choristers who are leaving us at the end of their time in the choir, I ask them what effect the building has had on them. What comes across is that it has become something extraordinarily precious to them. There is much that is hard for them to leave behind at the summer choir farewell service, but the prospect of losing the easy familiarity with a great building that they have come to feel at home in is one of the aspects of this, and of course it symbolises so much else that this rite of passage represents for them. For me as dean, this ‘mystic heart’ has shaped my practice and language of prayer in the ways that have been prominent in the long spiritual history of Durham: the intense discipline of Saxon Christianity as embodied by Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede; the ordering and patterning of human life according to the Rule of St Benedict that was followed here throughout the monastic centuries; and the catholic Anglicanism of the post-Reformation settlement especially as it was lived out by Durham’s greatest bishop, John Cosin. It is not that these aspects of spiritual ‘character’ were not already present when I came here as dean. But they have all become a lot more explicit, better understood, and I hope more intelligently integrated into this particular person’s life as a Christian and a priest of the 21st century.

I want to say something about liturgy in Durham Cathedral. As in all great Romanesque cathedrals, you find in Durham a sense of ‘massive enclosure and strong verticality’.[6] Whereas the gothic cathedral, inspired by the Abbé Suger’s vision at Saint Denis and embodied in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, is a casket of light that embodies heaven itself[7], Romanesque suggests the fortress, a place safe from the assaults of demonic principalities and powers. In some places, Romanesque churches provided a safe place where people could gather for protection against threats posed by a human enemy closer at hand: ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’. The ancient right of sanctuary at Durham was an example of this protective function. This ‘defensive’ character of Durham serves to demarcate its sacred space with particular clarity. This is why, I think, the Chapter of Durham has always been careful to protect the church from inappropriate use: the idea of the sacred may be more generously defined now than in the middle ages, but it always carries the danger of violating it, consciously or unconsciously. To the Chapter, charging visitors for admission would imply such a compromise. This is why, in my time, we have not wavered in our resolve to maintain free access to what is not, after all, our space but God’s.

Worship is a kind of theatre, a Wagnerian Gesammtkunstwerk or ‘total art form’ in which dramatic action, words, silence, music, colour, space and audience interact in a way that is always unique to a particular time and place. If you asked people why they worship at the Cathedral, many would speak about the character of the building itself as the setting for liturgy. ‘The place is almost as much the thing as is the play’ says one writer on theatre design. He is wholly correct but for the word ‘almost’[8]. The Cathedral was built by Benedictines whose central vows focused on the words stability, obedience and conversion of life. You would expect their church, constructed when English Romanesque had reached its maturity, to embody those values. So the sense of solid enclosure echoes the change of attitude and aspiration implied by crossing the threshold into the sacred space; the hierarchical structure of the west-east axis from Galilee and font to bishop’s throne, high altar and saint’s shrine speak of obedience; and the huge drum piers and stone vault of stability and permanence. This, at least, is the way I have come to ‘read’ the church not as an architectural masterpiece so much as a building replete with many layers of spiritual value and significance.

It’s impossible for me to do justice to the ways these insights have touched me personally. But here are a few themes. First must come the divine office, celebrated twice daily in the monastic quire every day in the year. We occupy Bishop Cosin’s stalls each weekday morning and evening, just as the Priory monks gathered in the same place during the Benedictine centuries. In the evening the office is sung by the Cathedral choir. I can’t stress enough the significance of this thousand year continuity of prayer. It has been broken only once, when there was no Cathedral foundation during the Commonwealth. People sometimes ask me what I think is the most important thing I do as Dean. My answer is always: the lead the Chapter and community in its rule of daily prayer as the head of the Foundation. And if there is one gift that I can barely contemplate living without after these decades of cathedral ministry in four different places, it is choral evensong.

Daily prayer on weekdays is often an intimate occasion. You may be surprised to think that prayer as an intimate community of laity and clergy is possible in a great cathedral, but it is. And intimacy is a word I use to describe how I have become more familiar with it, even at large-scale acts of worship. For example, I have got to know the 14th century Neville Screen that separates the sanctuary from the shrine quite well through presiding at the high altar at close proximity. It is likely that the greatest of high medieval architects Henry de Yvele built it: for the Nevilles, only the best would do. There are angels carved into the Caen limestone that were spared the destructiveness of the 16th and 17th centuries. One in particular, right in the centre, has a seraphic smile that I have come to love. I love the way the light plays on the nave vaults in midwinter at the Sunday eucharist, and the pillar above the Precentor’s stall that glows with a golden light at matins on sunny solstice days.   I love the symmetries of the Cathedral that are palpable when you stand at the nave altar at the intersection of all three axes in the crossing and sense that you are at the still centre of an extraordinarily dynamic building. I love the great liturgical processions up the central nave aisle, particularly at Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Easter, or at the Miners’ Gala Service and Matins for the Courts of Justice, when the piers and high vaults suggest a noble avenue of great trees with their canopy spread out above. I love the screens that mark thresholds that we cross on our long march from west to east, the journey that recalls the pilgrimage to the shrine and that speaks of the spiritual journey from our beginnings at the font to the vision of God at the high altar and shrine. I could rhapsodise about stained glass and floors and textiles and sculpture and much else. I think you will get my meaning. 

However, there is a shadow side to everything. When your work is almost wholly bound up in an institution with a high public profile, when its building is emblematic (I do not say iconic) to millions of people across the world, I can experience the Cathedral as demand as well as gift. I think every dean will say the same, but not all deans live in umbilical connection with their cathedral I have talked about, or are faced with its profile rearing massively and sometimes darkly up just outside the kitchen window. I need to analyse what I am and am not saying about how this ‘mystic heart’ exercises a pull on this dean that he does not always welcome. It is to do with its thereness. It never goes away. Its requirements are never ending: it is insatiably greedy in its hunger for money, resources, time, energy, engagement. Your commitment to it has to be all or nothing. I say to myself: this is like Christian discipleship itself. If it is worth giving yourself to it, you don’t hold anything back. It is for life. It is life.

The history of Durham tells us that this mighty Romanesque cathedral was not always welcomed as a benign presence. To the Saxons, it represented the naked power of the invader, erected as it was in the brutal aftermath of the Conquest. Its defensive position next to the Castle reinforced the message of political hegemony, a Northern clash of civilisations. The hitching of St Cuthbert’s ensign to this mighty Norman battleship was a shrewd political move and in time had the desired effect of winning over the Saxons to accept the new regime. But I doubt that the Saxons ever loved it. We can confidently say, given Cuthbert’s reported unwillingness to be buried even on Lindisfarne, that he would have been baffled if not profoundly dismayed at the idea that he would be entombed in the Norman Cathedral. What it later became for the Counts Palatine (as we should call the Prince-Bishops) simply reinforced the distance Christianity in the north had travelled from its simple beginnings on Iona and then Lindisfarne.

To my mind, this history of ambivalence is a necessary corrective to an unduly romanticised notion of Durham Cathedral. Necessary, because we are not true to buildings, including cathedrals, if we do not acknowledge the less endearing features of their history and name their darker aspects. To the Saxons, the Cathedral represented a power and control which there was no negotiating. In the high middle ages and well into the industrial period, the Cathedral’s enormous wealth was perceived as alienating and even corrupting. To the Scottish prisoners incarcerated inside it in the winter of 1650-51, left there by Cromwell’s troops to make do without food, drink, fuel or even rudimentary sanitation, it was a terrible place of hunger, disease and death. I am not saying that these memories should unduly colour our perceptions today. But when William Blake said, famously, that ‘joy and woe are woven fine’, this is as true of places and buildings as it is of human life. There are tears in things as well as joy. And sometimes, the Cathedral can seem to re-exert a more primitive kind of power, a more insistent and uncompromising demand, over us who inhabit it than our millions of visitors and pilgrims perhaps imagine. It is especially important that we who worship and work in cathedrals should not collude with rose-hued fantasies about them. Whatever else it is, Durham Cathedral must be a place of truth. Without personifying it, I believe that only when we are in an entirely honest relationship with it can it perform this heart-work of shaping human and Christian character.

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This experience of living and working in a World Heritage Site has helped to shape my thinking about the place of heritage in today’s world. A dean has to give a great deal of time and effort to his or her Cathedral as part of the nation’s heritage. You have to love your cathedral for its fabric, architecture and art as well as for its community, its liturgy, its music, its outreach and everything else it represents. If you don’t relish this task, if you don’t care for ancient buildings, if you see them as a distraction from the church’s mission, don’t become a dean. Trust me.

In Durham, I have wanted to lead the Chapter and community in asking the question, how can we make much more of the outstanding heritage we have in this cathedral, whether its medieval buildings and spaces, its incomparable library and collections, its music and arts, and, intangibly, its history and significance in the development of Christianity in the North East? During the past 12 years, we have, I believe, added to the ‘legacy’ in ways that I hope will prove not only important but enduring. In terms of the ‘heritage’ you can see, I should highlight the Paula Rego painting of Queen Margaret of Scotland that stands by her altar; the window given by the Friends in memory of Bishop Michael Ramsey, representing the transfiguration of the Lord; the Pietà by Fenwick Lawson which, although it has been in the Cathedral for many years, has now been bought for us, thanks to the Friends; the Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle by Kirill Sokolov, the Deanery Undercoft Chapel of the Holy Cross, the nave choir stalls, the Laus Deo organ and the Lenten and ‘New Creation’ hangings and vestments. All these are motivated by the belief that the church needs to speak to today’s and tomorrow’s generations in the discourse of the present as well as the past.

Meanwhile, conservation of the fabric has continued throughout this time, and will increase significantly in pace as we follow through the latest quinquennial inspection report by the Cathedral architect. As every dean will tell you, it is like painting the Forth Bridge. The job is never done. I could say much about that; and I could also speak about less tangible heritage that has added to the Cathedral’s mission: the girls’ top line in the choir, commissions for new choral music, putting Cuthbert back into the legal title of the Cathedral five and a half centuries after Henry VIII had summarily excised it, the return to the library of medieval manuscripts and early printed books that had been lost at the Dissolution. There has also been a spate of books and writings about the Cathedral culminating in the great volume just published that will be the definitive survey of its heritage for decades, Durham Cathedral: history, fabric and culture.

But one development has dwarfed all the others. It was with the prospect of the Lindisfarne Gospel Book visiting Durham in 2013 that we embarked on the development we have called Open Treasure. The aim has not been simply to open up the marvellous claustral buildings and display some of the best artefacts we have to exhibit. It has been to try to say something significant about what it has meant to be Durham Cathedral in past generations, and in the present. In an era that is increasingly distanced from organised religion, baffled and often alienated by what it represents, and not well informed about even the simplest aspects of Christian belief, we need to present ourselves as more than simply a place of heritage. We could put it this way: the challenge is to identify and interpret the ‘intangible assets’ of this piece of Christian heritage, the values which are to do with the religious character of the Cathedral as a living, working, breathing building: who and what this community of faith has been, and is now, and aspires to be in the future. This, briefly, is Open Treasure. We have already reconfigured the beautiful undercrofts where the restaurant and shop are housed. The monastic dormitory, the great kitchen and a new gallery linking them are being transfigured as we speak into exhibition spaces that will take our guests along a timeline that will present our heritage as best we know how. You will see for yourselves when they open to the public in 2016.

So why this extraordinarily costly investment into heritage? In a perceptive essay, the former Dean of Christ Church Oxford considers the relationship between religious faith and heritage.[9] He warns against three abuses of heritage. First, heritage can be used to tell a story selectively, editing out those aspects of it that are ambiguous or with which contemporary concerns and attitudes are out of sympathy. This has been a particular challenge to us at Durham where we have tried to interpret our remarkable religious heritage intelligently in a secular age and persuade (successfully) the Heritage Lottery Fund and other agencies to support us. Then heritage can obscure the ‘sheer pastness of history’ so as to make it accessible and marketable. It can be presented in a nostalgic way that may reassure the public but which also obscures its truth. What I have learned at Durham is that the past is indeed another country where they do things differently. The Benedictine period, and still more the Saxon era of St Cuthbert, are worlds that it takes a great deal of intellectual effort and spiritual imagination to envisage. We should not cut corners, nor think that in all respects these pasts are to be imitated by us today. Thirdly, Lewis warns against the innate conservatism of attitudes to heritage that require it to be for ever fixed in the form in which we inherited it or imagine it once to have been. The presumption against change, especially in a heritage asset as prominent and universally loved as Durham Cathedral, is a complex matter when the building also represents a faith that is always renewing itself, as the history of the building itself evidences.

A sacred building is of course very much more than a physical edifice. It is a rich cluster of symbols, metaphors, meanings, transferences and projections. It holds value for people who may never worship there or anywhere, yet who are responsive to its complex human, aesthetic and spiritual texture. It is, in the proper use of the word, ‘iconic’, a physical entity that is ‘written’ into not only a particular landscape and cultural environment but on to the hearts and souls of human beings. It is a sacramental quality, a ‘mystery better articulated by poetry than rational argument.’[10]And as John Inge says, this can never be fully described or analysed: ‘places have a “personality” as a result of people’s interaction with them…. As with a human personality, [it] will defy analysis.’

The opportunity, for all of us who care for our spiritual heritage, is to cherish this uniquely precious symbol that is not only extraordinarily beautiful, and not only indispensable to the history of the North East, but is, as I have said, its mystic heart. It is not the building and its environment, but the inhabited entity and the experience of the people who come here that make it a living part of our heritage. It belongs to us all. And when the time comes for me as dean to move on from this hermit-crab’s shell I have occupied for a dozen years, it will not belong to me any less than it does now. If I have learned one thing in my time here, it is that the World Heritage Site is a gift for life to treasure, to honour and to love, and to go on ‘inhabiting’, if not in the way I have been privileged to during these wonderful twelve years, then always, till I die, in memory, imagination and thankfulness.



[1] Kitchin, G. W., The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912, Durham 1912, 9-11.
[2] Pevsner, N., revised Williamson, E., The Buildings of England: County Durham, London 1985, 206f.
[3] Goodall, John, ‘As Old as the Halls’, Country Life, 28 August 2003, 38ff.
[4] Hussey, Christopher, ‘The Deanery, Durham’, Country Life 26 November 1938, 526ff.
[5] Sadgrove, Michael, Landscapes of Faith: the Christian heritage of North East England, London 2013, 61.
[6] Seasoltz, R. Kevin, A Sense of the Sacred: theological foundations of Christian architecture and art, London 2006, 120.
[7] Male, Émile, The Gothic Image: Religious Art In France Of The Thirteenth Century 1899, ri New York 1958.
[8] MacKintosh, Iain, Architecture, Actor and Audience, London 1993, 4.
[9] Lewis, Christopher, ‘Christianity as Heritage’, Theology CVII/835, 2004, 30ff.
[10] Inge, John, A Christian Theology of Place, Aldershot 2007, 85-6.