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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Summer on Lindisfarne

Our readings on this summer Sunday are of St Peter whose festival is tomorrow. It’s moving to be here on this particular day. Tomorrow I shall have been ordained forty years, so it’s a special time of thankfulness. Also, this is my last sermon as Dean of Durham outside the Cathedral at an ‘away match’. Where else was I meant come but back here on my beloved Lindisfarne, Durham’s mother house? And today is significant for you because the monastic church that St Aidan’s successor Finan built here on this Island in the seventh century was dedicated to St Peter. So on this festival Sunday we celebrate the centuries there has been a church, a Christian presence, in this wonderful and numinous place.

And that is the first of three themes I want to mention today. Aidan’s monastery founded nearly fourteen centuries ago, and the Priory that was re-founded by the Benedictine monks of Durham in the twelfth century, were at the heart of this island community. As was this church of St Mary which has its own long story to tell. This building was here to serve the islanders, while the Priory served the monks and their mission across Northumbria and beyond. But they belonged together on this one holy site. Today, the one is a romantic ruin loved by tourists and sea-birds; but the other continues to do what it always has: be the home of a living Christian community and a sign of God here among us.

Great monastic churches were often dedicated to St Peter, or to Peter and Paul. Finan’s church would not have been large, but it was ‘great’ in its significance, for from here the mission of those Irish monks, and the native Saxons who joined them, spread far and wide, not only across Northumbria but across England. Canterbury may claim to be the mother church of English Christianity, but you and I know better, for Lindisfarne has a stronger claim. Its reach was right across England: the North of course, and the Midlands too, and East Anglia and as far south as Sussex. You can see how appropriate it was for the headquarters of a great mission enterprise should be dedicated to Peter. In our gospel, he is the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed one. He is the one, Petros the rock, on whom Jesus promises to build his church; he is the one he gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to, charging him to take the gospel to the world and to bind and loose in his name. So we honour and celebrate the great apostle whose influence was so far-reaching, just as the influence of Lindisfarne’s own Apostle Aidan who perhaps took him as his model and touched countless lives six centuries later.  

But the Christian presence on Lindisfarne is about more than simply the life of the Priory and this parish church. Churches and priories, even when they are in ruins, stand for the truth that God is in the midst of the whole of our life, not simply the churchgoing part of it. We call it ‘common grace’, and we need to recognise it. It’s another of the Bishops of Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, who symbolises it for me (and I can hardly come here from his shrine at Durham and not mention Cuthbert who is so cherished by us all). This is my second theme. What people loved in Cuthbert and remembered him for among many other things was his love of the natural world, his closeness to animals and birds, flowers and vegetation, the land, the soil and the deep salt sea. He was England’s St Francis, or rather, because he lived so many centuries before him, we should say that St Francis of Assisi was Italy’s St Cuthbert. For us who also love the seascape and landscape and natural history of this Holy Island, it is difficult not to be reminded of Cuthbert who loved these things as well.
Common grace means celebrating the presence of God in all creation, and in the life and activity of human beings. So your music festival in which this church is taking an active part is a way of honouring the goodness of God at the heart of things, and perhaps making it a little more conscious to us all so that we can give thanks for it. But there’s another aspect of common grace that comes to my mind this summer. Pope Francis has just issued his courageous encyclical on climate change and the threats it poses to all of life on our planet. It’s clear in the way he writes that he has St Francis very much in mind. He says, for instance, that we need to get away from the old idea that humankind exercises ‘dominion’ over nature, which has been taken as a licence to exploit it, and instead recover St Francis’s friendship with the natural world, his courtesy towards it, how he saw the good earth as a home to all living creatures, not just to the human race. Pope Francis could have said all this of Cuthbert too. So a festival that celebrates God in our midst helps create an environment, an ecology if you like, in which we are more open to seeing nature’s gifts for what they are and reverencing them, whether it is in the beauty of this island or the beauty of music and the arts, or the beauty of human character and community and our closest personal relationships.
My third point brings these two themes together. Today we are dedicating a new frontal for the Fishermen’s Altar in the north aisle. This aisle is a much-loved space within a much-loved church. It symbolises the sea that is all around us, and the lives of those who derive their living and indeed their very identity from the sea. St Peter was of course a fisherman, one of those Jesus summoned to leave their nets and follow him and become fishers of people instead. The Sea of Galilee plays a big part in the gospels just as the North Sea dominates life on Lindisfarne. You can’t get on or off Holy Island without taking account of the tides, a daily reminder of primordial rhythms that were familiar to every ancient society but of which most of us have become almost unaware in modernity. That too is one of Pope Francis’s pleas, to reconnect ourselves once more to the patterns of the seasons and the days, dusk and dawn, the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of tides. Cuthbert, who regularly plied the sea between here and the Inner Farne, knew all about these. So should we who come after him.
So the altar in this sacred place with its beautiful frontal that we dedicate on St Peter’s Day joins it all together: God’s grace that abounds in nature and in human art and craftsmanship; this island community that is so dependent on the sea, and this ancient place of prayer at the heart of England’s Holy Island where all of life is offered to God in praise and prayer. We are here this morning to celebrate the eucharist. That word means thankfulness. It’s the most important word in any celebration and the greatest word in the life of faith: gratitude to God for his goodness and lovingkindness to us and to all people; gratitude to him for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, whose apostle Peter we celebrate today. And gratitude too for our life and work as a community on this island where we recognise in one another’s creativity, talents and dedication the God-given gifts that keep us alive and sustain what we are and do, and delight us with glimpses of the One whom the Gospel calls Immanuel, the God who is with us always in his risen and ascended Son.
Lindisfarne, 28 June 2015. Matthew 16.13-19

Sunday, 21 June 2015

What Makes a Good Leader? Sermon at the Mayor's Civic Service

In an age with a love-hate attitude to celebrity, leadership has never been more demanding than it is today. My imminent departure from Durham has exercised my own mind on what I think I have tried to be and to do as a spiritual leader in the last twelve years; my colleagues are asking the question, what is needed in the next Dean of Durham? Today, our thoughts are focused on a new Mayor of Durham who steps into this role as Chair of the County Council. I am sure I speak for all of you when I say at the outset that our prayers and good wishes are with Jan as she begins her mayoral year. We shall all want to support her mayoralty in every way we can.

On the 9th September, we shall mark the day when The Queen becomes the longest reigning English monarch, overtaking her predecessor Queen Victoria. We shall honour this remarkable achievement at a special evensong that day. I have been looking at her Coronation Service to see what hopes and expectations surrounded her when she was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Here are some of the prayers from that day.

Strengthen her, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost the Comforter; Confirm and stablish her with thy free and princely Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and government, the Spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill her, O Lord, with the Spirit of thy holy fear.
The Lord your God endue you with knowledge and wisdom, with majesty and with power from on high; the Lord clothe you with the robe of righteousness, and with the garments of salvation. May wisdom and knowledge be the stability of your times, and the fear of the Lord your treasure.
The Coronation rite asks many things for the Sovereign: peace in her times; stability so that her realms may flourish, a fruitful reign, the capacity to serve well and to oversee the administration of justice. These are all good aspirations for the exercise of every kind of power, prayers we can all echo for those who undertake public roles on behalf of other people. But if ask what was uppermost in the minds of those who, centuries ago, composed the coronation service, I think we would have to say: wisdom. It is a theme that runs through so many of the prayers for a young sovereign on her coronation day, because it is the secret of sound leadership, as Solomon knew when he prayed for the gift to govern his people wisely. There is nothing that so adorns a leader as his or her embrace of wisdom, or as we might say, insight and awareness, discernment, understanding, and sound judgment. These are the qualities that inculcate a sense of trust and confidence: you believe that those who possess them are in it not for themselves, not acting out of self-interest or aggrandisement, but for the sake of others. And there is nothing that so corrupts leadership and discredits it as the lack of those hard-won qualities.
By coincidence, in this year that we reach a milestone in the history of the monarchy, we also celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Last Monday, I was in that sunny meadow at Runnymede with thousands of others to witness the ceremony that commemorated this event. Her Majesty was there, lineal successor of King John; and the Archbishop of Canterbury too, the spiritual successor of the great Archbishop Stephen Langton who, we believe, contributed to the drafting of the text. I wondered whether The Queen was thinking about her 63 years on the throne, and the nature of our constitutional monarchy whose carefully defined relationships with Parliament and the body politic go back ultimately to Magna Carta. For the checks and balances that discipline leaders, so signally lacking when an autocratic sovereign collided with recalcitrant barons, are essential to the good ordering of a modern state. It took many centuries to get there: 1215 was the start of a long journey. But we now take them for granted, not only in the monarchy but in every other aspect of public life. It comes down to the fundamental principle of our freedoms, that all of us are equal under the law, and no-one is privileged, however ancient their office or exalted their powers.
We might think these constraints, these limitations on power make it easier to lead. On the contrary. They make leadership an extraordinarily subtle art that calls for the kind of wisdom I have been speaking about: the insight and discernment that enable us to understand the gears that synchronise our roles with the complex and intricate systems and processes of our public institutions.  This is true of leaders in government; it is true of leaders in the church (take my word for it), and of leaders in every other sector of society. You, Madam, are a constitutional mayor. I am a constitutional dean. In our more sinful moments we may wish we had more power than we do. In our better hours and days, we are profoundly grateful that it is as it is. And so I come to my fundamental question. Where does it come from, this gift to be wise?
Our Old Testament reading speaks about wisdom as the gift of the Spirit, ‘a breath of the power of God, an emanation of the glory of the Almighty’. ‘She is more beautiful than the sun; against wisdom, evil does not prevail.’ The Wisdom of Solomon is one of a number of texts written to instruct those who being prepared for leadership. Wisdom in the Old Testament means many things: a shrewd knowledge of the world, the capacity to read human life and behaviour, the ability to manage oneself well and order the affairs of the institutions we are responsible for, a moral compass that is orientated towards what is good and right, and more than anything else, a reverence for God who alone is wise, in whose name we mortals exercise leadership. All this is part of wisdom’s ‘admonition to rulers’. You could sum it up like this: know your role; know what you are responsible for; know your place in how the world is ordered; know your people; know yourself. If we want to clothe wisdom in contemporary dress, the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life that people in public life sign up to nowadays do a good job: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
But there is one more dimension that we who lead must always remember. Our New Testament reading spells it out in a marvellous paradox. ‘Where is the one who is wise?’ asks St Paul, ‘has not god made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ So it depends on what kind of wisdom we cultivate. He tells us that it is not human wisdom or intelligence in itself that we should aspire to, nor the crude coercive force of naked power that we find so seductive. Rather it is to trace both power and wisdom back to their God-given source. Where do we find this? It is ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’.
Which is why we hold this service at the start of the each mayoral year. It is to worship and acknowledge our dependence on God from whom all good things come, among them the best gifts and virtues we aspire to. And it is to pray for our Mayor and all who lead that they may be equipped with everything they need to inhabit their office with the wisdom and justice, the compassion and humanity that will serve and build up the common good. In one of the psalms, a blessing on the city goes like this: ‘May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, no cry of distress in our streets. Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall. Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.’ Indeed so, God only wise in all places and in this place, our beloved city and county, this northern land of saints.

Durham Cathedral
At the annual civic service, 21 June 2015
Wisdom 7.22b-8.1; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: St Paul on vocation

This is a strange month for me. On this summer solstice it is just 100 days until I retire and we say farewell. The nights gradually drawing in will have a poignant significance this year. June also marks the twentieth anniversary of my becoming a cathedral dean, and the fortieth of my ordination. When I lead the retreat for this year’s new deacons and priests and preach at their ordinations, I shall recall how I started out in public ministry all those years ago and think with amazement how swiftly this chapter of life is coming to an end.

St Paul too is looking back in that colourful passage we read as the epistle today. His matchless rhetoric brings four incomparable chapters in his second Corinthian letter to a marvellous climax. He has been speaking about the ministry of reconciliation that it has been his privilege to serve, proclaiming ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. He has offered some glimpse of how fragile it all is, the risky way God is taking in making him known, entrusting to frail human beings this ‘treasure in earthen vessels’. He has explained how ‘knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others’,  which is what Christian mission means, how in all things we are ‘ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us’.
This vocation to be an apostle has brought him difficulty, frustration and pain. Paul catalogues his ordeals in today’s passage: afflictions, hardships, calamities... the list seems endless. Yet through it all, he has not lost his focus, his clear-eyed grasp of how ministry is God’s work, not our own. He lists the virtues he has coveted: ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God’. In all these things, he has told us earlier, he does not lose heart. It is a ‘momentary light affliction’ compared to the glory that is being revealed. If only all of us could look back on our decades of service in the church and say that!

But there is something Paul says that I want, indeed need to say too as I look back like him and ponder these forty years of public ministry. I hope you will not misunderstand the spirit in which I say this. ‘As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way so that no fault may be found with our ministry.’ How do I have the temerity to identify with that claim? Paul is not, I think, claiming perfection in everything he has done and how he has done it. As I read this, my favourite of all Paul’s letters, I see a man courageously laying bare his own flaws as a human being, knowing how even the best that he can attain to is always compromised, always needs to be redeemed from the corrosive taints of self-interest, envy and the sin of pride.

And that applies not only to achievement and performance in ministry, but also – and especially – to our motives. To serve God well is to be keenly aware of our brokenness, the shame of not living up to the very ideals that inspired us to offer for ministry in the first place, the peril of hypocrisy or ‘play acting’ that can haunt even our best moments. Archbishop Michael Ramsey has a beautiful prayer about this: ‘Jesus, Lord and Master, who served your disciples in washing their feet; serve us often, serve us daily, in washing our motives, our ambitions, our actions; that we may share with you in your mission to the world and serve others gladly for your sake’. I doubt there is a priest in the church who does not pray that prayer often, if not in those words, then in their own. Motives are everything. They make all the difference to who and what we are, and whether or not we are trusted safely to undertake this project of ministry and hold the sacred charge laid on us in ordination.

Paul had taken the advice of the oracle at Delphi. Perhaps he had even visited it and seen for himself the famous words written there: gnothi sauton, ‘know yourself’. He knew where he was strong and where he was weak. He knew the tendencies in his own personality, his passion, his alacrity of spirit, his irascibility. He knew about the thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, that so disabled him. He knew how storms rush down unbidden upon our calm and placid seas and need to be stilled, as in our Gospel reading. And yet he still made this appeal to his readers to honour his integrity as an apostle. I think he means that in his heart of hearts, he has always wanted the best for the people, the churches and the God he is serving. I hear myself say ‘always’ and wonder if I am right. Did he want the best for poor John Mark over whom he had a fierce falling out with Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles so that they could no longer work together? I happen to think that Barnabas was right and Paul was wrong in that dispute. Nevertheless, the matter that split them was precisely how the church and the mission should best be served; and if for a moment, Paul wavered, it is still true that he always longed that the church should flourish and that nothing must get in the way of God’s work of reconciliation.

Each of us in ministry can only speak for ourselves here. But here is my perspective on it. Despite my failures in ministry: the errors of judgment, the fallings-out, the mistakes, the compromises, the easy speeches, the lazy short-cuts, I hope we can always say that we longed, in Paul’s words, ‘to commend ourselves in every way’. I hope we can always say that despite everything, our motives have been honourable, and as pure in heart as we can make them, and that in this respect at least, ‘no fault may be found with our ministry’. It means having had God’s interests and the church’s interests at heart, not exploiting people, not acting out of self-interest. 

I was talking to someone last week who is researching what is called ‘dark personality’. This means Machiavellian tendencies, narcissism and psychopathy. It seems that people with such traits are often attracted to leadership. It made me think hard! Serious dysfunctions like these cause a lot of damage to people and institutions, as some of us know. But even when through cowardice, or dejection, or ill health, or lack of sleep, or sheer exhaustion we did not live up to our ordination vows, when some relief from this burden of ministry would have been welcome, I want to believe that we can say (in another echo of Michael Ramsey) that if we have not always wanted the best, we have at least wanted to want it. In that lie the seeds of forgiveness, redemption and the gift to begin again. During the past forty years of ministry, twenty as a dean, twelve as the Dean of Durham, how many times have I had to throw myself once more on the mercy and compassion of God, and his patient, kind, understanding and forgiving people!

As I near the end of this stage of the journey, I come back to Paul’s words and am strengthened by them. ‘As sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ – this is how he sums up his apostolic career. This is what I pray will always inspire my colleagues here in this Cathedral and Diocese. This is what I want this year’s ordinands to know as they stand at the threshold of public ministry. Is there any other vocation more privileged than this – our apostolate as Christ’s ambassadors, bringing the gospel’s entreaty to all whom we serve, ‘be reconciled to God’?

This is not yet a farewell sermon. But retirement offers the chance to do some summing up, try to trace patterns and meanings in our life’s work. Ministry, like human life, is a work of art. We collaborate with God in designing and shaping it, co-creating something beautiful we can celebrate when it is done. Like Jesus on the cross in St John, we can never say tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished’ until our dying breath. But we can perhaps begin to see it for what it is.

On the score of his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar wrote: ‘this is the best of me’. I might wish in some grandiose way that my ministry had been a masterpiece. However, most of ministry is unspectacular, ordinary, workaday. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, nor should it. Yet as we see in this eucharist, God takes what is commonplace and makes something extraordinary out of it when it is offered with love. So, not a masterpiece. But before God and his church, I have still wanted it to be ‘the best of me’. It was all I had to give.

Durham Cathedral, 21 June 2015
2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-end

Friday, 19 June 2015

A Toast to St Chad's: the Rector's Feast

The first thing I want to do tonight is to pay tribute to Dr Margaret Masson for her outstanding leadership of this college following the death of our Principal. We all owe her and her colleagues whom she has already paid tribute to a huge debt of thanks. Her wise, steady and inspirational presence are exactly what is needed at this demanding time. Margaret: we salute you. 

The last time I got up and spoke at a dinner in St Chad’s was at the Domus Dinner in March. I was sitting next to Joe Cassidy. The conversation was lively as it has always been at countless formals here. We talked quite about retirement, and he tried to persuade me to stay on as Rector here for a while after leaving the Cathedral. I laughed and said that this would be to break the rule of a lifetime. When you leave a place, you leave, I said. I also told him how much I liked his new portrait in this hall – one of the best, I think. I think he was proud of it.  

On my other side was an alumnus of the college who has been remarkably successful in his chosen profession. Nothing unusual in that, of course – it’s what we expect of Chadsians. We got talking about the college as it was in his day, and as it is now. He was full of praise for the way Chads has been led during the past decade and more. We agreed that Papa Joe needed to hear this. So we both paid tribute to him and the warm applause that followed showed that we had accurately judged the mood in the hall. Not long after that, he was dead. I shall always be glad that he lived long enough to hear not just the praise and admiration of all who were in the room but, I hope, the real affection of all whom we represented, that is to say, every generation of Chadsmen and women who owe so much to the way he touched our lives. I don’t often say that someone was ‘much-loved’ but it was true of Joe and continues to be.

This was coming through yesterday when I was privileged to join in part of the College Council’s strategy day. We had a fascinating discussion about what make this college what it is, what we cherish about it, what makes it distinctive among Durham’s colleges - the best indeed! - and what we believe its central purposes and values are. It’s important to do this work thoroughly as we think about what we look for in our next Principal. But it was clear yesterday how deeply Papa Joe had influenced the shape and character of this college. His name frequently came up in our discussions, not because we should or could look for another Joe, but because we wanted to distil from his era an enduring legacy as we look to the future. 

I have to say that I am full of admiration for the way St Chad’s has come together and forged ahead during this past term. Yes, of course the college has been grieving deeply in a time of sharp loss, and grief can’t be put away in a matter of a few days. There’s a Jewish saying about this. As you know, one of the marks of grief in Judaism was to rend your clothes as a sign that in some deep way, life has been torn apart. Someone asked a Rabbi whether, after a period of mourning, it was permitted to sow them up again and carry on wearing them. Yes, said the Rabbi, but the sown-up tear must always show. You mustn’t pretend it isn’t there, because even though life must go on, it’s never the same when someone you care about dies. 

St Chad’s has handled this really well. You have supported one another marvellously during a dark time. Life has gone on, the college is flourishing, our exam results are the best ever, and as I've said that’s a tribute not only to Joe's achievement but also to Dr Masson and her colleagues, all who share the leadership of the college. I want to include in that the three common rooms and their leaders. What I saw yesterday was a college that is in excellent spirits, vibrant, forward-looking, embracing a future that is filled with possibility and promise. I have been privileged to be a small part of that.

‘Have been…’ When Joe died, the Chair of the Council asked if I would stay on as Rector for a year even though I shall have left Durham. So this is not my final Rector’s Feast that I thought it would be. I am looking forward to being back during the coming year and to seeing you all again.  

Let me finally say three things. 

First, a thank you. Thank you for all that you put into this College.  Thank you if you are leaving, and thank you if you aren’t just yet. You receive so much from Chad’s because you give so much.  There is a wonderful loyalty among Chads people past and present. It has moved me to hear you speak about your love for this place and its community. It’s right to recognise it and applaud it.

Secondly, a thought for those of you whose days at Durham are drawing to a close. I hope you don’t dwell on the word ‘leaving’. What you have been given here is just a part of a journey: your learning, your personal development, the way your citizenship and your values have been shaped, maybe too, faith and friendships that will last a lifetime.  St Chad’s will always be a permanent part of that journey. You can take people out of Chad’s, but you can never take Chad’s out of the men and women who make up its worldwide family.  I hope you’re as proud as I am to belong to this great extended family.  I know you are. 

Thirdly, an invitation. Come back often: you will always be welcome. Stay connected as alumni.  Let me wish you the very best for the future, wherever life leads you.  And because this is a Christian foundation and we are allowed to speak in these ways, I am going to add, may God bless you and keep  you always.

Here’s to your future.  Here’s to the College’s future.  The toast is: ‘St Chad’s’. 

18 June 2015