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

Saturday, 19 September 2015

North East Chamber of Commerce 200th Anniversary

The North East Chamber of Commerce is a great institution in this region of England. This week we celebrated its bicentenary. Seven hundred guests from across the North East and beyond came to the Cathedral for a reception and speeches, followed by a gala dinner in a marquee on Palace Green. The Cathedral Choir sang Parry's I Was Glad and Handel's Zadok the Priest. The NECC asked me to welcome the guests from the pulpit and speak about the Cathedral's ambitious development project 'Open Treasure' which is nearing completion. (Go to www.DurhamCathedral.co.uk to learn more.) There were envelopes on every seat so that guests could make donations there and then if they wanted to. Here is what I said.

It’s a great privilege to welcome you all here tonight. First of all, let me congratulate the North East Chamber of Commerce on reaching its bicentenary. For 200 years you have promoted the North East’s business because, as you say in your promotional material, we are stronger together than we are separately. This collective voice for the region and its business has been influential since the early nineteenth century. The North East would not be what it is without your boundless vision and energy. 

Your aim is to make the North East a success and help it reach its potential. What has a place of worship like this Cathedral got to do with that? The answer is, everything! Our own purpose statement says that we want to do all we can to contribute to the flourishing of North East England, this wonderful part of the country where it is such a privilege to live and work.

The NECC has asked me to say something about how we are doing this. As some you know, I am about to retire after more than twelve years as Dean here at the Cathedral. It always seemed to me that the Cathedral had limitless potential to function as an emblem of the North East: the mental picture of the towers of Durham perched on this acropolis next to the Castle and almost surrounded by the river is one of the most familiar images of England and one of the best-loved. Nearly three quarters of a million people come here to find enjoyment and inspiration every year.

This is part of what we contribute to the visitor economy in this region. All the evidence is that ‘heritage’ and ‘religious tourism’ is a growing industry. Our region is extraordinarily rich in ancient Christian sites: Wearmouth, Jarrow, Hexham, Auckland Castle, Durham Cathedral and the mother of us all, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. We are glad to add value to the economy of the North East both directly and indirectly through visitor spending in shops, hotels, pubs and restaurants across the area.  
As some of you know, I am about to retire after twelve wonderful years as Dean. When you leave a place, all the talk is about ‘legacy’. When I announced my retirement, the Durham Times ran a generous leader saying that perhaps these years we have been in Durham should be remembered not for anything we had done but for something we had not done: charge visitors for admission. It has always been a point of principle to the Chapter that you do not levy a charge to enter a place where we come by God’s own invitation. And when most large medieval cathedrals now charge, our resolve not to do this has been admired well beyond this region.

When you are Dean of a great cathedral like this, your love of the heritage makes you want to promote it vigorously and see it work for the mission of the place. This is what Open Treasure is all about. We are heading towards the culmination of a £10.5 million project to reconfigure the buildings round the cloister as world-class exhibition spaces for our priceless early books and manuscripts (including our three copies of Magna Carta), the precious relics of St Cuthbert such as his coffin, his pectoral cross and his portable altar, the oldest extant church vestments in England dating back to Saxon times, and much, much else.
Why are we doing this? Fundamentally, to welcome more visitors to the Cathedral by opening up the treasures of which we are guardians, the magnificent spaces in which they will be housed, and above all, the treasure that is this Cathedral community in its history of Christian life and worship across the centuries up to the present day and into the future. So this is about welcome and hospitality as we help guests understand the Cathedral by walking a time-line of its long and wonderful story.

But we need to be hard-headed about this too. By charging for admission to the exhibitions, we can continue to offer free admission to the Cathedral itself, and the income will help stabilise our precarious finances. In terms of the capital costs, we still have a funding gap to bridge. The substantive development project costs of £7.5 million have been met, thanks to a splendid Heritage Lottery grant of nearly £4 million and grants and donations from many generous individuals and organisations some of whom are here this evening. But unforeseen conservation requirements on the buildings that came to light during the later phases of the project have added a further £2.5 million to the project cost.

So I am asking you: please will you support this project? When you are in your last ten days of a job, you can ask for anything without fear or embarrassment! And whatever your religious faith, I am asking you because you wouldn’t be here if you did not support enterprises that promote the economy of North East England. If you care about the North East, I believe you will care about this Cathedral that is one of its emblems.

If you would like to help us, you will find information about giving on your seats. Please be imaginative in thinking about how you might respond to my plea. Our Development Office will be more than willing to talk to you about giving possibilities. Those donations received tonight will be represented on our '3-D totaliser': an extraordinary LEGO model of the Cathedral whose current construction already contains over 180,000 bricks, each representing £1 donated to the Open Treasure appeal. This LEGO Cathedral, a great talking point round Durham, is proving in its own way that by coming together we can achieve great things.

‘Legacy’ of course is much more than fine buildings and beautiful stones. I am proud to be leaving behind this project on which so many have worked so hard. The legacy that matters ultimately to me is what our project, and the whole life of this cathedral symbolise: giving people back some hope and confidence in the future, touching the lives of men and women, playing a part in the transformation of this region that we love. Durham Cathedral is a place of the human spirit. But much more, it's a place of God's Spirit, the living source of all that gives us hope.

Thank you for listening tonight, for your generosity towards this place, for being fellow-travellers and friends during these past dozen years. God bless you all.

17 September 2015

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