About Me

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

Monday, 5 August 2019

A Memorial Service at Alnwick: Tom Moralee RIP

I got to know Tom Moralee during my time as Vicar here in the 1980s. He was a stalwart of this church, rarely missing a Sunday, always there to help out in whatever way he could. As a new incumbent, I recall thinking: there’s one of those people you instinctively know belongs to the backbone of a place. He was quietly spoken and didn’t draw attention to himself, yet he was a reliable, strong presence who imparted confidence. You are always glad of such people you know you can trust and whose support and friendship you can count on.

Tom was a native North Easterner, Northumberland-born and bred. He had lived in Alnwick since his father’s work brought him here as a teenager. He, Sheila, Brinley, Clare and her husband Steve were - are - a close family. He was utterly conscientious in his work, whether it involved wearing a boiler-suit or an immaculately laundered collar and tie. He was the kind of man we call “public spirited”. He cared about this place and took his citizenship seriously. As a special he was commended by the Chief Constable for his role in connection with a stabbing in the town. Here at St Michael’s he was a sidesman and member of the Parochial Church Council. But he contributed to the social capital in unseen, unsung ways too. If Bailiffgate looked clean and tidy, the chances are that Tom had been there to pick up litter. If the grass in the churchyard looked well-cared for and the weeds kept down, that too could well have been Tom’s work. When elderly parishioners shared Sunday lunch together, Tom was part of the team that did the hard work. He wouldn’t have thought of any of this as exceptional. It’s what you do if your community matters to you and jobs need doing. But goodness doesn’t mean doing extraordinary things. It means doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way. 

He knew a lot of people in and around Alnwick, and it’s not surprising that so many are gathered here today. Whether you are among his family and friends, colleagues or neighbours, you will have your own memories of him. There are many stories told about his kindness and care for people. One elderly woman remembered how at Christmas, he took heating oil round to her home because she had run out of fuel. Someone else said that if you were having a bad day, the one person you would have been glad to bump into was Tom. For a private kind of man with what he would have said were traditional values, he had a wicked sense of humour and was famed for his jokes and stories, though as a vicar I didn’t necessarily get to hear the more risqué ones! 

All this speaks of a sociable, well-respected man who, perhaps without realising it, acted as a glue to the society of our town (as someone how once lived here, I can’t help thinking of it even after all these years as
our town). He helped bind it together in the bonds of friendship, good neighbourliness and citizenhood. Whether in public roles in church or community, or in the intimacies of family and personal life, such good men and women are a precious gift. It’s when they are gone that we become keenly aware of the debt we owe to them. 

Which is why we bring our memories to this place where the people of our town have been named and honoured across the centuries. To remember and pay tribute to someone we have lost reminds us how precious they were to us, and always will be. Not simply because of our treasured memories but because death is not the end of the relationships we cherish. Those whom we have loved and lost are always alive to the God in whom all of human life is gathered up in a Love that is more profound than ours can ever be. Today is a day to remind one another that we are always held by God’s everlasting arms every moment from the cradle to the grave and beyond it.

Our Bible reading reassures us on this point. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” says St Paul in those marvellous words we heard just now, not even the power we are most afraid of, death itself. How could it when Christianity tells us that Jesus suffered, died and was buried; and in rising again at Easter opened the way to everlasting life? In St John’s Gospel, on the night before he died, Jesus bade farewell to his disciples and comforted them. “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” There is room enough for us all: that’s the promise. So he tells us. “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” 

Words like these mean everything in our grief. They bring us strength when we feel lost, confidence when we despair, comfort when fears and doubts assail us, light to see by when we are afraid of stumbling in the dark. We say our goodbyes in tears and sorrow, yet edged with hope because of the promise that God will not abandon us. That makes it possible to release our loved ones, give them back to the God who lent them to us, with hearts full of gratitude for all that they were to us. 

When I knew I would be leaving Alnwick more than thirty years ago, I decided I would visit each member of the church council personally to let them know. I don’t know why I’ve retained such a clear memory of Tom walking me to the front door after our conversation and his saying to me, “Michael, thank you for these last few years. We won’t forget you when we’ve gone.” Now it’s my turn to say those same words to him, which I do on behalf of all of us. Tom, thank you for the life that we have lived together in these years that have now come to an end. We shall always remember you. Go in God. Rest in peace, Rise in glory. And may God bring us all to the eternal mansions of his love.

Alnwick, 5 August 2019

Romans 8.31-end

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Haydn, Happiness & Hope: A sermon at the Edinburgh Festival

When the first Edinburgh International Festival took place in 1947, it was “to heal the wounds of war through the language of the arts” by providing “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. The brief looked for a city with a distinguished setting and townscape that would embrace the opportunity “to make the festival a major preoccupation not only in the City Chambers but in the heart and home of every citizen, however modest”. That’s an aspiration to admire, not least for its idea that the arts need to find a place in our healing and flourishing, and that they belong to everyone, not only the wealthy or well-educated or privileged. An event that was any less generous or inclusive would not be the Edinburgh Festival we cherish.

Among possible festival locations, Salzburg was mentioned as the kind of city to emulate. So how apt to have the city of Mozart represented at this mass through his sublime Ave Verum, and indeed eighteenth century Austria, the homeland also of Joseph Haydn whose Little Organ Mass we are enjoying this morning. In its way, our music from the German-speaking world (including a Bach organ voluntary) affirms a confident Europeanism, our belonging to this continent that has enriched Scotland in so many ways and to which (setting a fine example to England) it remains sturdily committed. Brexit is not a word that’s understood in the world of music, theatre, film, letters or art.

The Haydn brothers Joseph and Michael, both great composers, were deeply religious men. Of Joseph’s Little Organ Mass one of the experts* has said: “in this music, Haydn’s religious character becomes glowingly apparent: instinctive and unquestioning in faith, yet celebratory and reverent, seeking devotion through the contemplation of beauty.” Near the end of his life he was taken to a performance of his Creation to celebrate his birthday. When they reached that glorious C major chord that bursts out of the representation of chaos at the start of the score, “And there was light”, Haydn, it is said, “raised his trembling arms to Heaven, as if in prayer to the Father of Harmony”.

He spoke to his biographer about composing an Agnus Dei for one of his late masses. “I prayed, not like a miserable sinner in despair but calmly, slowly. I felt that an Infinite God would surely have mercy on his finite creature, pardoning dust for being dust. I experienced a joy so confident that as I composed to the words of the prayer, I could not suppress my joy but gave vent to my happy spirits and wrote above the miserere, Allegro. Not at all like the more reflective adagios we are used to at this point in the liturgy. But that is Haydn, always taking us by surprise, not least spiritually. My daughter and I once went to his mausoleum at Eisenstadt in Lower Austria, near the Palace of the Esterhazys he’d served so loyally. Inside they were playing a cd of one of his masses. I needed to honour the great man and thank him for all that he’d meant to me. It was most moving.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want to go back to that phrase I quoted, seeking devotion through the contemplation of beauty. This seems to me to be one of the functions of music and the arts for people of faith. Perhaps a hint of this lies behind the vision of those who created the Edinburgh Festival, a belief in the power of art to bring life back into some kind of beautiful order and ordered beauty. Making contemplatives of us means learning how to see, to pay attention, to be present to our experience and glimpse its inner meaning, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape. And as we are doing the work of God at this eucharist today, we should celebrate the capacity of liturgy to achieve this, help us live in a more contemplative way so that we “see into the life of things” as Wordsworth put it.

So let’s ponder the juxtapositions within our worship today. Into the words of the mass and the music of Haydn and Mozart, the lectionary inserts readings that ask questions that are among the most fundamental we can face. Where does meaning lie, asks the preacher in Ecclesiastes, exhausted by the ever-circling years that bring no age of gold, only vanity and ennui. Psalm 49 examines the futility of living only for your power or wealth or fame or reputation, for death is the great leveller that will bring us all down to the grave like the beasts that perish. The gospel reading about the rich fool warns that there is no gospel of prosperity and we can take nothing with us when we die. Even Colossians, so radiant with the spirit of Easter, warns that we must put to death our self-serving behaviours and “set our minds on things that are above”.

I wonder whether we can set up a spiritual conversation between these readings and the Viennese mass we are enjoying. On the one hand the readings underline the realities of living and dying. They belong to the world of a series of medieval paintings in Hexham Abbey where we often worship, that show the “Dance of Death”. A skeleton brandishing a scythe comes up to different kinds of people and engages them in deadly waltz that tells them that their time has come. These sombre readings call on us to face our mortality and ask what it means to become wise in the light of our human condition.

On the other hand, Haydn’s music is shot through with a God-given happiness. Not I think because “Papa Haydn” was cheerful by temperament (though he was remembered for it), but rather that his music evokes the confident faith in which it was composed. The gospel reading ends with a striking turn of phrase. It speaks of those “who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God”. Might we experience the liturgy, enriched by the arts of the church and especially Haydn’s music, as one of the ways in which we might become “rich towards God”? Seeking devotion through the contemplation of beauty we said. That seems to me to be one of the God-given paths to wisdom because it enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, “frail and feeble, doomed to die”, yet in Christ raised from the dead, given back our lives, put together again, transformed, discovering the wisdom that teaches us how to be “rich towards God”.

The sixth century writer Boethius authored a famous book called The Consolations of Philosophy. He wrote it in prison as he faced death at the hands of his political enemies. It calmed his spirit and brought him peace at the last. Medieval theologians loved his writings because of their message that through wisdom, the soul attains to the vision of God. I believe music and the arts bring consolations too when they find their place in liturgy, prayer and a contemplative outlook. In this sacred space, in the environment of the holy, Haydn’s music is a source of grace and wisdom that strengthens us, steadies our gaze, comforts us and gives us confidence at the grave and gate of death. We lift up our hearts in gratitude, and find ourselves once again caught up in the movement of God’s everlasting love towards creation. And here’s the miracle, that we are risen with Christ, learning to seek the things that are above, discovering how to be rich towards God.

Old St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh, 4 August 2019
Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 18-23; Psalm 49.1-11, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21


*H.C. Robbins Landon & David Wyn Jones, Haydn: his life and music, 1988