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

Sunday, 6 November 2016

King Solomon's Mines...of Wisdom

I was looking forward to being back in my old college to preach tonight. I am very sorry indeed that an infection prevents me from travelling at the moment. I’m grateful to the chaplain for reading it to you instead.

The High Court ruling about Parliament’s role in Brexit, Guy Fawkes’ Night yesterday, and Tuesday's American election make for an interesting constellation of events. In their different ways they all make us think about political authority: what it means and how it should behave towards the citizens it governs. For people of faith they pose the even larger question about where God belongs in the structures of human society. In the language of our New Testament reading, what does it mean to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”?

The story in our Old Testament reading doesn’t answer these questions. But it does shine a light on the nature of leadership. The young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign, goes into the sanctuary, the place he senses he will grow wise in.  God appears to him, and asks what gift he should give him.  It’s an annunciation moment: when the angel comes, what will he say?  Like Mary, he rises to the test.  He asks for the only gift worth having: wisdom.  How else can he govern this great people?  There is a divine sigh of relief.  God is pleased with his prayer, and gives him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honour, glory.  And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’

But things are more ambiguous than we might think.  Is Solomon cynically praying for what he knows God wants him to ask for, calculating that in a world where outward show counts for so much, God will give him riches and victory and power anyway?  It would be churlish to be too suspicious. The natural reading of the story echoes our instincts when we begin any new task we know we are ill-equipped for. Helplessness has a way of concentrating the mind. I prayed just such a prayer on the day I was ordained in this very chapel forty years ago this year. At least Solomon is wise enough to know that he must ask to be wise.  It’s only when we know what we don’t know, the ‘known unknowns’ in Rumsfeld-speak, that we begin to be wise.   

No, what is intriguing is how the author introduces his reign at the outset.  He could so easily have begun with Solomon’s noble prayer. Instead, he embarks on the new king’s career with some not very subtly disguised hints that all is not happy and glorious.  First, there is his marriage alliance with Pharaoh’s daughter. Egypt is the place Israel had left behind in the exodus.  To marry into Egypt would be a betrayal of history. It anticipates what the text says later on about how Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh, who ‘turned away his heart after other gods’.

Then there is the reference to his building ‘his own house, and the house of the Lord and the wall about Jerusalem’.  We might say that this is precisely what kings do. But think about this: whereas it took just seven years to build the temple, no less than 13 years were spent on his own palace with no expense spared.  In Solomon, a king had arrived ‘like all the nations’, just what they had so misguidedly asked for in the days of Samuel.  And notice the order in which these grands projets are listed: his own house first, then the house of the Lord, then the city walls: king first, shrine second, the people and their safety last of all.  There is already a hint of the forced labour with which Solomon realised these achievements and the heavy taxes he levied to pay for them, something for which the northern tribes of Israel never forgave him, and which after his death led to the kingdom’s fatal schism. Was God still king in Israel? – that was the big question.

So Solomon is introduced to us, not altogether as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships.  In this, he is his father’s son, for the story of the golden days of David is also one in which the conflicts of his private life threaten to subvert his public role and destroy both the kingdom and its king with it.  The storyteller is unsparing in his scrutiny of how Solomon’s reign ended badly. His huge wealth, his taxation policies, his exploiting of slave labour, his comprehensive harem of women from across the world and his toleration of their gods all betrayed the promise of his early years.  No doubt the story is reading the ending back into the beginning: the overture is warning us that we must prepare to be disappointed in this man. 

So Solomon’s prayer is the petition of an already compromised ruler. It suggests that the king is not so much the innocent child as the young man who knows about the ambiguities that could lure him from the path of wisdom. He can glimpse his demons, the conflicted desires that could get the better of him, the seductions of money, sex and power that corrupt even the best of leaders.  And he can also see that good leadership calls for real integrity of mind, heart and motive. Is this why he prays for wisdom?  If it is, we should admire Solomon for his emotional honesty.  What else can purify his ambitions, wash them of the corrosive instincts for self-aggrandisement and the pursuit of pleasure that a king in the ancient world would have to be superhuman to resist? 

Our society likes leaders who can be either heroes or villains.  It’s good at erecting pedestals but enjoys it when they are fallen from. We find it hard to accept that our leaders are flawed, that their failings could be forgivable, and that even their brokenness could be the raw material of greatness or at least dignity.  This is precisely the drama being acted out before our eyes in America: whose personal story makes them more fit to be Commander in Chief? The scriptures don’t regard Solomon as unambiguously good; perhaps he is more of a tragic figure brought down by the flaws in his character, and in this he is of a piece with so many in public life we could name. 

But I like to think that Solomon never forgot how his best instincts led him to ask for the wisdom to know not only how a king should govern his people but how he should govern himself.  The oversight of ourselves is a task we all have to face, leaders or not.  We know how we fall short of what the psalm calls ‘truth in the inward parts’.  But our exemplar is not any human king, not even Solomon in all his glory.  It is the one who is God’s wisdom incarnate, who comes to forgive our failures, and mend our broken lives and make us fit to serve him.  In him, our Redeemer, a greater than Solomon is here.

Balliol College Oxford, 6 November 2016 (1 Kings 3.1-15, Matthew 22.15-22)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England

I have been preparing this lecture at my desk in the window of my study. We live in the Tynedale village of Haydon Bridge a few miles upstream from Hexham. Appropriately enough for a superannuated clergyman, our road is called Church Street. If I look to the right I can see across the road the Georgian parish church where we worship every week. If I look to the left, beyond the railway line, the valley side sweeps majestically down from the ridge where there is a clump of trees marking an enclosure. They are still rich with foliage, but in winter, I can glimpse what lies behind them: the little “old” church of St Cuthbert, now all but abandoned when the medieval village of Haydon migrated down the hill to the more sheltered location where we live, the ancient river crossing where, as the border reivers knew, there has been a bridge across the fast and turbulent South Tyne since time immemorial. Here the Greenwich Commissioners built a new church in 1791 in unadorned village Georgian with a pretty pagoda on the west tower. It too was dedicated to St Cuthbert. The Victorians found it too plain so they gothicised the windows and put coloured glass in, some of it by Kempe and very good. It has some pretty arts and crafts furnishings. 

But although it is a push up a steep hill to get there, and there is no electricity so no heat or light, the old church remains the spiritual and emotional heart of the community. It lost its nave in the eighteenth century when its stones were used to construct the new church. But the chancel remains, an exquisite early gothic jewel in a lovely walled churchyard screened by trees, a haven for wildlife. Inside is a Roman altar that now serves as the font, a reminder that we live in the borderlands of a once vast world empire whose wall stretches across Britain not five miles to the north, and just a mile or so south of the Roman road called Stanegate. It was a moving experience to baptise the Vicar's daughter in that font this year. Once a month the candles are lit and we gather in the Old Church for evensong in muddy boots wrapped up in cagoules, and enjoy hot tea or wine and canapés afterwards before tramping back down the hill and homewards across the fields. 

Much of the North East’s Christian heritage is encapsulated in that view from my window. For Haydon Old Church marks one of those sites where, it is believed, the Saxon monks of Cuthbert’s community stopped on their long journey around the north with his body and the gospel book written in his honour, the great volume we now call the Lindisfarne Gospels. Some villagers will tell you that in his lifetime, Cuthbert himself travelled along Tynedale and stopped to preach here on his journeys between Hexham or Lindisfarne and Cumbria where Bede tells us he regularly went. There is a chain of Cuthbert churches scattered across Tynedale and Redesdale. I think we can safely say that wherever you find a medieval church dedicated to him, you can presume a direct link either to the saint himself, or to his community and the estates they possessed.  

Looking out at these two Cuthbert churches, I am inevitably made to think of journeys. In comparatively recent history as things go, church and village migrated downhill, a journey that was no doubt associated with early industrialisation in the Tyne Valley, for lead was mined all over the North Pennine dales, and in places coal too: we live in a house that was once the home of the pit manager at Bardon Mill. It was named after a Tyneside colliery ship that went down with the loss of all hands in the 1880s. The North East was among the first places in England to embrace the industrial revolution. It did this with real enthusiasm, as the nineteenth century confidently committed itself to vast enterprises in railways, ship building, steel making and coal mining. In 1789, the painter John Martin was born in Haydon Bridge. His huge canvasses are well known: you can see some of them in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and at Tate Britain in London. Much of his work echoes the steep-sided hill country of his native Tynedale. But in his most famous apocalyptic paintings such as The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and The Last Judgment, you seem to see in those vivid oranges and reds the fires of the North East’s blast furnaces, the colossal engines of locomotion and mining, a landscape whose appearance has been transformed by the revolution the artist was living through. That he turned to the medium of industrial landscape to depict scenes from biblical narratives is itself a metaphor of how faith was needing to be re-forged in the fires of an entirely new social environment. This is a central part of the North East’s religious history because it sets the scene for how faith has been and is still experienced and expressed in our own bewildering, and sometimes apocalyptic, times.  

John Martin was baptised in Haydon Old Church. What did he know about Cuthbert and his wandering community, I wonder? For that tiny church takes us back to a memory a thousand years old when Cuthbert’s community travelled this way in the ninth and tenth centuries. So inside it you feel the pull of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where Cuthbert had been prior and then bishop and where, after his death in 687, his shrine was set up and honoured. It was from there that his community set off in 875 in search of a permanent home. But Haydon also points us forward in time to Chester-le-Street where the community settled for more than a century on the site where the lovely church of St Mary and St Cuthbert with its octagonal spire now stands. And you inevitably feel the pull of Durham up there too, for from Chester-le-Street, they migrated to the peninsula called Dun Holme where they arrived in 995. There a Saxon cathedral was constructed, to be succeeded by the great Romanesque church we know and love today. But the important thing about Durham is that in essence, it’s no different from Holy Island, or Old Haydon, or Chester-le-Street. In these places and many others, a church was built to house a shrine, built around Cuthbert and the memory his community preserved. Durham is not a church with a saint’s shrine inside, but a shrine around which a cathedral has been built. 


I have served as a priest in North East England for a significant proportion of the 40 years since I was ordained. In the 1980s I was vicar of Alnwick for five years, the first time I had lived outside London and the south where I was born and brought up. It was eye-opening to discover the wealth of the North East’s Christian heritage. I had read about the northern saints of course: I bought my first copy of Bede’s great History as a teenager new to Christian faith and how glad I am that somebody told me that it’s a book every Englishman (and woman) should read often. But reading even the incomparable prose of a great writer like Bede is not the same as walking the landscapes he writes about, inhabiting them for yourself, reflecting and praying in these ancient holy sites. It profoundly shaped my spirituality and ministry at a highly formative time in my life. Sixteen years later we came back to the North East when I was appointed Dean of Durham. There I found myself in the role of guardian not only of a building that the whole world loves and the north is immensely proud of, but also of the shrines of no fewer than three of the founding saints of the Saxon church: Oswald, Cuthbert and Bede. To spend twelve years in Durham was the greatest privilege of my life.

I learned a lot about heritage and how we promote it during those years. When we think of the legacy of Christian faith in this region, we tend to call to mind the headline sites associated with it like Holy Island, the Inner Farne, Hexham, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Hartlepool, Auckland Castle and Whitby. And of course Durham Cathedral. The late and much-missed development agency One North East ran an imaginative campaign to promote the region in the UK and overseas. You’ll recall the strap line Passionate Places, Passionate People that accompanied beautiful images of these places and enticed southerners to try the North East out for themselves. They were on to something that caught the spirit of the North East. I’m not sure I ever understood what a “passionate place” really was, yet the epithet felt right. Tourism-speak uses words like iconic to describe them – a little too freely perhaps, though who is going to argue that anyone who is serious about getting to know the area needs to put them on their “must-see” list? 

But if you want to touch the soul of the North East, you have to venture off the main tourist routes and explore the by-ways. The little church at Escomb, for instance, in its circular churchyard in the middle of a housing estate in a County Durham pit village. It’s an intact Saxon church, one of the very best in England. It was there in the time of Bede and it is still there fulfilling its original purpose as an ordinary working church where people worship and pray. Or Lady’s Well, a secret little place at Holystone in Upper Coquetdale where there is a pool overhung by trees and a stone cross that marks the memory of many hundreds of convert baptisms there. Or the little medieval church of Edlingham next to its ruined castle and railway viaduct set among the lonely heathery sandstone hills of Northumberland with mighty Cheviot rearing up behind: I was vicar there too and sometimes in midwinter (if I even succeeded in getting out there across the snowy expanse of Alnwick Moor), I had to break the ice in the cruets for water at the Sunday eucharist. Or the Norman chapel secreted deep within the keep of the fortress at Newcastle where the Victorians drove the East Coast railway line right across one of England’s mightiest military monuments. Or the church at Newbiggin-on-Sea perched in splendid isolation on the edge of the North Sea where the east winds howl around its precarious gothic fabric. Or Arts and Crafts done to perfection in the early twentieth century church of St Andrew’s Roker, a building of national importance that far too few know about. I could go on. 

In my book Landscapes of Faith I talk about the religious “sense of place” the North East has. What is unique about it is not how well marked the region is with the traces of Christian faith across the centuries. Cornwall, Ireland and Brittany can claim as much, as can the sites on the great pilgrim routes of Europe such as the roads to Santiago da Compostela across France and Spain. It is, I think, that the lives and stories of its Christian communities are so well documented from Saxon times right up to the present. This is a peopled heritage. It carries human memory and lived experience. And this is the next point I want to make about how we respond to the wealth of religious shrines and sites that we are fortunate enough to inherit in the North East. 

One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing in most of the places where I’ve ministered has been to write a guide book. There is no better way for a new priest to get to know his or her building, the place where it’s set, the story of the community for whom it has been a cherished symbol of hope and aspiration usually for many centuries. When I came to Durham Cathedral, the guide book was up for review. I’ll have a go, I offered, a trifle rashly I now think. In the introduction I wrote about what I thought were the three great emblems of the North East: Hadrian’s Wall, the Angel of the North, and Durham Cathedral. If you live in the region, you set your eyes on any one of these and think to yourself, this is home; this is where I belong. 

Not long after the new guide was published, a visiting Czech professor of architecture asked if he could see me. He wanted to discuss my claim about these three regional icons. He said: you’re not comparing like with like. You haven’t considered the human dimension of these sites apart from their emotional impact on people. Durham Cathedral has a dense human texture. People have worshipped here, worked, studied and prayed in and around this building for a thousand years. They still do. By contrast, Hadrian’s Wall lost the human texture it once had as a working fortification when the legions left Britannia in the fifth century and it became merely a memory. And as for the Angel of the North (I sensed a slight sniff at this point), it has no human texture at all, no community for whom it has any existential significance. It is just a piece of public art – fine enough in its brutal way, but nothing more than a huge weight of rusting iron stuck in a hole in the ground.

I have thought about that conversation a good deal. He overstated his case, of course. People who live in Gateshead near the Angel of the North like my friend the Bishop of Jarrow tell me that this remarkable sculpture has spawned a great deal of surprising human activity. Couples come there to pledge their commitment or renew their marriage vows. Children’s naming ceremonies take place there. Mining communities honour the memory of the pit that once stood there and to which the Angel is a conscious homage by Anthony Gormley. Churches hold faith events round it. Similarly, Hadrian’s Wall has become the backdrop of an astonishing variety of activity along its length, some of it scholarly and archaeological, much of it tourism-related, promoting its wonderful landscapes for the enjoyment of walkers, heritage enthusiasts and nature-lovers. 

But there’s still a truth in what my Czech friend had to say. It’s that neither the Angel nor the Wall is home to a permanent community in the way in which the Cathedral is. Like the vast majority of our built religious heritage, the Cathedral is still what it was constructed to be, a living, working, praying community of men, women and children. I call this the human texture of heritage and it is immensely precious. I think I am right in saying that what fascinates people when they visit palaces and country houses is not only their architecture, art and landscape setting. It’s the human texture of these buildings. They were once the homes of real people. The best of them still are. Compare two of the castles of the Dukes of Northumberland, Alnwick and Warkworth. Both are splendid. But while one is an empty shell, the other is the family home. Compare the noble ruins of Lindisfarne Priory or Rievaulx Abbey with the parish church on Lindisfarne, or with Durham Cathedral. Ruined heritage is hauntingly beautiful, as the Romantics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries discovered, so much so that they created faux-ruins to adorn their landscape parks and gardens. But heritage that is “inhabited”, that has a living human texture, has an altogether different quality. It has “soul”. 

And this is vital for the way in which we interpret and promote it. I think it is only in our generation that we have begun to recognise the importance of this. The evidence is striking. In the 1950s and 60s, when my parents took me round our great national monuments, cathedrals, abbeys, castles and stately homes, I used to collect Pitkin guides as souvenirs. They were immaculately produced and illustrated but the photography studiously avoided including human beings engaged in ordinary human activities. There would be images of people prominent in the history of the place, usually the great and the good. You might have pictures of royalty ceremonially visiting, or a cathedral chapter posing in their chapter house. But quotidian activity of people doing ordinary things, or guests enjoying their visits was something you glimpsed only very rarely. The effect was to construe these places as museums and inculcate correct behaviour proper to such places. You could look across ropes or through glass, but it was at a distance. You were deferential, told not to make a noise, not to touch, not to intrude on the hushed sanctity.

Now all that has changed, and vastly for the better. You only have to look at today’s guide books to see how lively and populated they are. Gone is the formal distance that was once evoked between observer and observed. People are enjoying themselves! Interactive engagement is the name of the game. Children are not just tolerated but invited and welcomed. Heritage and history have been humanised. And this is all part of the welcome emphasis placed nowadays on what public funding bodies call “access to heritage”. Accessibility is not simply about making physical access feasible for as many as possible, though that is immensely important. It’s about humanising the past so that it can be experienced as a present reality. Human texture has the effect of making it tangible to people so that they are drawn into something that they belong to and are part of. It affirms what is central to understanding and caring for our heritage, that it is for everybody. It is not for the privileged few but for all. It’s about inclusion. 

Inclusion means two things in particular: hospitality and interpretation. How we welcome people to heritage sites, and how we help them to be drawn into their stories and all that they mean, are vital for all who open up heritage to the public. But it is especially important when it comes to religious heritage. This is because the “religious” is already replete with meanings and associations, memories and aspirations, longings and fears and hopes. So the quality of the welcome at the porch of a cathedral or church matters as a theological and spiritual statement of what a sacred building stands for – its purpose, its values, its way of treating people. 

As a theologian, I see Christian hospitality as an expression of how God is towards his creatures. You can picture the act of creation as God opening the door and standing back behind it, as it were, so as to create “space” for the universe to spring into being and have its own existence. This is how we open our own front doors to our guests: we invite them to occupy our space and make it their own. In the training we gave to the hundreds of volunteers in Durham Cathedral whose privilege it was to welcome visitors and help them find their way around, we would say: you are the human face of the Cathedral to those who come through the door asking to share its space. How you welcome visitors makes all the difference, for good or ill. And because Durham had been a Benedictine priory in the middle ages, we would quote from the Rule of St Benedict which offers the other face of that theological insight about “making space” by saying: “receive guests as if they were Christ himself”.  The point about a sacred place is that it is God’s before it is ours. Therefore if it is going to receive guests with genuineness and authenticity, it needs to embody the values that matter to God himself.

Putting it that way makes it sound portentous and grand. But it has very practical consequences. Take one example that you will all have thought about. It’s the vexed question of admission charges to cathedrals. Everyone who works with heritage knows how very expensive it is to maintain. On top of the crippling expenses attached to keeping the fabric in good repair, you have the costs of making the visitor offer as excellent as it can possibly be so that people experience it in ways that are unforgettable and life-changing. So we have to factor in signage and interpretation, staff salaries, electronic and print guides and materials, the hard infrastructure of toilets, restaurants and shops and the wages of those who run them, advertising and promotion, and finally the burdens of compliance, especially safeguarding, and health and safety. You learn a lot about all these things when you are a dean. And you lie awake at night worrying about how you can possibly balance the books in the light of them. It’s not surprising that admission charges are now the norm in the big medieval cathedrals. No cathedral chapter has wanted to impose them, but the annual accounts are facts on the ground that can’t be evaded. Besides, people value what they pay for. What is more, in places like St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury where there is a huge footfall, over a million people a year, the admission charge helps to “calm the nave” and preserve the fabric from erosion by consciously limiting the numbers. 

In Durham, the Chapter steadfastly refused to go down that road. Our footfall was around 700,000 annually. We didn’t ask whether people had come as worshippers, pilgrims or sightseers, to enjoy the music and the arts, to shelter from the rain, to meet their friends in the restaurant or to take the short cut to and from the city centre. A guest is a guest is a guest. And, we argued, because the Cathedral is God’s space, and because God’s welcome is unconditional, generous and free, we should not impose a charge. Now, admission charges are not in fact something new. In the nineteenth century, if you wanted to visit Durham Cathedral, you knocked on the north door, and if you were lucky, a verger heard you and would let you in for the price of sixpence. But charging does raise questions about the contract that is set up between visitors, worshippers and pilgrims on the one hand, and the space on the other. When you pay, you have different expectations of the place and its resources and facilities, possibly even of God too. It’s a tricky marriage of idealism and pragmatism that charging cathedrals have to manage if they take their sacred space seriously and guard it from the corrosive effects of monetisation. Putting a price on everything, a habit that is endemic in our culture, can blind us to what is of true and lasting value. Church heritage could model something different, point to another set of values and invite people to think about them. Hospitality can challenge us to new ways of seeing things.

I said that “inclusion” means both hospitality and interpretation. Let me say something about the part interpretation plays in how we help guests make sense of what they are experiencing. Speaking again as a theologian, I believe that the entire task of Christian ministry, scholarship and outreach comes down to interpretation. Pilgrim’s Progress features “the House of the Interpreter” where the journey is made sense of and the destination understood. As a preacher, my responsibility is to handle the ancient text of the Bible and Christian tradition by asking not only what it meant but what it means today, and not only in generic terms, but specifically, to this community in this place at this time in our history. Heritage is just such a text that comes to us out of the past, whether it’s the recent past or antiquity. The ancientness of a sacred building like Durham Cathedral is part of what is both enticing and alienating about it. We love it because it has endured for so long, yet its very age can puzzle us. Why is it here at all? What did it mean to those who built it? What did it represent to the generations of pilgrims and worshippers who came to pray within its walls and reverence its shrines? And what does all this say to today’s guests, many of whom come from other faith traditions than Christianity, or have had no experience of organised religion in any shape or form?

As soon as we try to respond to these questions, we recognise that they are far from simple. At one level, it’s obvious (and true) that the Cathedral was built to bear witness to the reality of God. The worship of God has always been its primary role. But then, as I’ve said, its origins lie with St Cuthbert and the quest of his community for a permanent shrine. And then again, think about its position and landscape setting. It is so clearly a fortified, defended space, perched on its acropolis next to William the Conqueror’s castle, appearing for all the world to be one great defensive structure to keep the enemy at bay, those wayward Northumbrian Saxons and marauding Scots. I often used to say to visitors that Durham was as much a statement of brutal Norman military might as it was a shrine to a humble saint and a temple to the Almighty. Despite its celebrated beauty, Durham speaks volumes about political hegemony and the uses and abuses of power. Sacred space has its shadow side and we must tell the truth about that too.

But we owe our visitors more than simply an historical perspective. The “text” of a sacred building is not only its past but its present. I spoke earlier about the human texture of heritage that is alive. I have found that usually, people are genuinely interested to know what goes on in a cathedral, just as they are when they visit a stately home that is still lived in. When we stand in the Cathedral quire and tell them that each day, morning and evening prayer are celebrated in this space, precisely where the Benedictine monks gathered for daily prayer in the middle ages, they are fascinated and even moved. And even when casual visitors who have not checked the website turn up to find that they can’t walk round the church because a service is going on, they are often content to stand at the west end, or if they are brave enough, sit in the nave and witness it for themselves. 

But as I have said, it needs explaining and interpreting in a secular age. You can’t assume that visitors will know what the font is, or the altar or pulpit, or a saint, a bishop, a monk or a dean. When I was a minor canon of Salisbury Cathedral in the late 1970s, the then dean wrote what he called a “reflective guide” that didn’t simply describe the building but pointed to some of its meanings, and the significance of each particular part within it. It invited the visitor to become a participant, even for a few minutes, that is to say, not just to observe, but join in, feel the spiritual grain of the building, align his or her story to its own and perhaps understand themselves in a new way. Nowadays, all cathedrals talk readily about “turning visitors into pilgrims”, a phrase I find a trifle manipulative if I am honest. Good hospitality doesn’t require guests to conform against their will or be required to take a particular view. But I like the notion of “seeing in fresh ways”. I like the invitation, “This is how we see things. Maybe you can too?” This is surely part of the transformative effect that all heritage can have, and sacred heritage in particular. 

And this is where, in Durham, we made an important link between interpretation and hospitality. If admission to the church was going to be free, how would we balance the books? Our answer was to create the facility called Open Treasure about which I’m sure you have all heard. Better still, I’d love to think you have visited it in this first summer it’s been open to the public. I want to end by saying something about it because this project seems to me to embrace so much of what I believe about religious heritage and what we do with it. And as I do this, I want to recognise how much activity is going on across the North East to do creative things with sacred heritage. I’m thinking of the new exhibitions at Hexham Abbey, for example, and the eye-watering developments at Auckland Castle with Kynren having proved such a success in its first season. 

Durham Cathedral is a world class building in a world class setting. This was recognised by the grant of World Heritage status to this unique site more than thirty years ago. I don’t approve of rating cathedrals by stars, but I am glad that in his book England's Cathedrals which has just been published, Simon Jenkins gives Durham the five it deserves. But the building, its arts, furnishings and its landscape setting, marvellous though they are, are not everything. Its collections are world class too. And it was becoming clear during my time as dean that we needed to do more justice to our infinitely precious artefacts from Cuthbert’s era, our books and manuscripts, our Saxon fabrics, our Roman, Saxon and Norman stones, our treasures that span two thousand years of northern history. What is more, we needed to do justice to the equally cherished spaces around the cloister that constitute the best surviving set of monastic buildings still in use for their original purpose anywhere in Britain. Open Treasure is the result. I am immensely proud to have been part of its story. 

That name "Open Treasure" says precisely what we believed about our sacred heritage: that we needed to open up these marvellous artefacts and marvellous spaces to as wide a public as possible. We wanted to extend an invitation to come in, discover, learn and enjoy. But we also wanted to say that there was more to “treasure” than simply spaces and artefacts. These represented an intellectual and cultural history, and above all, the spiritual history of a community of faith, so the people of the place were a vital part of its “treasure” too. We wanted to help people grasp this, not simply as a past reality but a present one too. So the timeline through the monks’ dormitory and the great kitchen takes guests through a display that presents the community of the Cathedral and Diocese as they are today and invited them to think about how they too fit into this long story that continues into the future. 

But more than that, the phrase “Open Treasure” evokes two sayings of Jesus in the gospels. One is about how the wise steward brings out of his treasure “things old and new”; the other reminds us that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. And that takes us back to the task of interpretation which is what Open Treasure is all about. For we cannot interpret the past without also recognising the present tense of our lives and the future tense that lies ahead. We can only look back from where we are today and hope to be tomorrow. So to tell the story of a faith community is inevitably to pose questions about its identity and purpose now. The hope is that by opening the treasure, there will be discoveries not only about history and heritage but also about human life as we live and experience it today. We would have failed in our interpretative task if we had evaded that requirement.

How does all this speak into the financial challenges our stewardship of heritage inevitably poses? Well, the origins of Open Treasure were not simply the need to rise to the challenge our collections posed and present them in the best possible way. There was a hard business case that said: if we are going to maintain free admission to the church, we need to earn income in some other way. Paid admission to the exhibitions was our answer: to make our heritage work for us by using it to help fund the costs of the sacred space itself. (Under the same rubric of letting heritage pay for heritage, we were glad to send one of our copies of Magna Carta on tour to Canada during the 1215 celebrations, a project that proved exceedingly exacting but which did earn a welcome six-figure sum for the Cathedral at a time when we were under particular financial pressure.) 

It is too early to tell what benefit Open Treasure will bring to the Cathedral’s bottom line. The Cuthbert treasures will not be installed until next year when the environmental monitoring of the Great Kitchen will be complete. His pectoral cross, coffin, portable altar and comb are always going to be the big draw - they are of cultural and spiritual value beyond compare. The hope is that in the future, when the Lindisfarne Gospels return to Durham as has been promised every seven years by an agreement with the British Library worked out before the 2013 residency, they will be exhibited in their historic home, the Cathedral precinct where they belonged to the monastic library throughout the medieval period. To bring Cuthbert and his gospel book back together again for three months in the very place indelibly associated with both of them would be marvellous. It would of course bring thousands of people through Open Treasure as genuine pilgrims for whom it would offer a profound spiritual experience. We shall have to wait and see. But we know that the secret of successful visitor facilities is to maintain ever-changing exhibitions alongside the permanent displays so as to bring visitors back again and again. That is the ambition. If it works as we hope it will, it should make a real difference to the Cathedral’s financial sustainability. 

But above all, it will have demonstrated the Cathedral’s belief in the importance of hospitality and interpretation. As the National Trust knows better than anyone, you can never invest too much in these. For each is a part of the other, and without them, heritage will never find a voice with which to speak into human life today. This always matters for our self-understanding, knowing who we are and where we come from. But as a person of faith, I want to suggest that it matters most of all when heritage has an explicitly sacred dimension. “They being dead yet speaketh” says the miners’ banner that hangs in the south transept of Durham Cathedral alluding to the Letter to the Hebrews in endearingly confused grammar. It’s our responsibility to make sure the capacity of the past to speak is as articulate and persuasive as it can be.

I began with the view from my study window 40 miles away in Haydon Bridge, and the journeys of Cuthbert and his community. Open Treasure has brought us back to Cuthbert and to the long and wonderful story of Christian faith in North East England. I have only been able to touch on a little of it. But I’ve wanted to try to say something about the importance of religious heritage in telling a story not only about where we have come from in this region, but who we are now, today. 

We know that “church heritage tourism” is on the increase. Why this should be in an increasingly secularising society is worth speculating about. I am no sociologist of religion, but I wonder whether the dwindling of commitment to organised religion isn’t being misread in some circles as a decline of interest in the realm of what we can call the spiritual and the sacred. My lifetime in public ministry suggests to me that these elusive, mysterious aspects of life continue to fascinate and engage people very widely indeed even if they are increasingly disinclined to resort to organised religion to pursue them. “Believing, not belonging” has become the catch-phrase of those who recognise this phenomenon. No doubt nostalgia for a lost era of religious belief comes into it too; as Matthew Arnold’s great poem pictures it, we stand on Dover Beach watching the sea of faith recede. Some welcome the tide going out, but I suspect that for many, it’s a matter of wistful regret even if they remain observers rather than participants. Perhaps church tourism offers them the chance to touch the sacred without the entanglements of “belonging”, signing up to organised religion. If so, then it is all the more important to make sure that those of us who have the oversight of our magnificent religious sites help our guests articulate and respond to whatever it is they are experiencing: not to require that their experience takes this shape or that, but simply to make sure that they remain open to the possibilities of living with a deeper awareness as a result of having crossed our thresholds and – who knows – find themselves experiencing a transformation scene. 

Lecture to the County Durham division of the National Trust, 6 October 2016

Sunday, 2 October 2016

A New Cohort of Chadsians: Welcome!

First of all, I want to welcome you all tonight. Welcome to the UK if you are from overseas. Welcome to North East England if you are from another part of the country. Welcome to Durham, this precious little city with its wonderful cathedral that is loved by people across the world. 

And welcome to Durham University, so much a part of this ancient place, shaped by a long history of scholarship and learning in the city yet a hugely successful and forward-looking institution. You have done well to get into Durham: its standing among world universities has never been higher. You are among the privileged few and you will have had to beat off a lot of competition. So you're allowed to feel proud of yourselves. You have arrived. You are here, on the threshold of what may be the most important and formative time of your life. You are now Durham people.

And most of all, welcome to St Chad's. I'm proud to be the Rector of this college, and I want to say to you tonight that you could not have chosen a better Durham College. Chads is famous for its achievements academically, in sport, music, the arts, and for creating a wonderfully warm and generous community of students and staff. I hope you've already begun to feel that as you've been welcomed in the last few days. 

Perhaps you are wondering who our college is named after. St Chad was one of the Christian saints of seventh century England. He began his career up here in the North East where he was educated by the great St Aidan on Holy Island. He soon travelled across the country with the gospel he had given his life to, bearing witness to his faith in words and actions. He founded Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, so if you are from the Midlands, then you'll feel especially at home at St Chads.

Not everyone in this college comes from a Christian background. We pride ourselves in being an inclusive college for people of every faith or of no faith. Whatever your beliefs, they will be honoured and respected. But it's good to debate and learn from one another. That's one of the primary values of this college: listening, reflecting, intellectual curiosity, being open to new insights. So is the awareness that life is about more than simply achievement or success - though I am sure you'll enjoy lots of that. I mean the softer values of being human: integrity, awareness, sensitivity, kindness, and a real passion for social justice in our community and in our world. All these things would have mattered to St Chad, I think. As our college motto puts it, it's not what we have but what we are that matters. Non vestra sed vos.

The Rector is the titular head of St Chad's (we are the only Durham College to have one, so there's a unique selling point already!). It's the Principal Dr Masson and her colleagues who lead the life of the College, and the Council that sets its direction. I'm simply an honorary senior member. But as a friend and champion of the college, I'm here to wish you all well from my heart as you set out on this great adventure. 

So let me end by assuring you that you will be in the best possible hands during your time at St Chads. Seize the day. Make the most of the opportunities you will have here. I hope you flourish here and enjoy every minute of your time in Durham. It will change your life - be sure of it. And when you leave (and how soon that time will come, believe me!), you will be ready as tomorrow's leaders to make a difference in a world that so much needs the gifts and expertise and skills you will bring. 

God bless you. 

The Rector's Address at St Chad's College Matriculation Ceremony, 2 October 2016

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Ministry for the Long Haul 2: Inhabiting the Stories of Ourselves

Yesterday I spoke about how we are constructed as ministers by the stories of our faith, our churches and the communities we are embedded in. I focused on how, after feeding the crowd, Jesus orders his disciples to “gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost” and linked this to the harvest festival of Sukkoth or Booths with its five themes of thankfulness to and dependence on God, living close to the earth, remembering where we come from and solidarity with the poor. I see these as five marks of ministry for the long haul in terms of both our collective and our personal stories.

Gathering the fragments is a task we all have to do for ourselves as well as one another. In post-modern speak, our human stories are put together through bricolage which is French for DIY – pottering around with bricks and mortar so as to make something that is beautiful or useful or both. I thought of that when we embarked on building the now legendary Lego Cathedral at Durham. It took 300,000 bricks. People were invited to pay £1 per brick. At one time we thought it would take longer to build than the real thing. It proved to be a marvellous tool for interpretation and outreach. Children and adults felt they were part of creating something special. For a long time all you could see was a footprint. Walls, arcades, piers, doors, windows began to reach up uncertainly like plants in early spring – painfully slowly it seemed. But after a while, the building began to take recognisable shape. It started to resemble the cathedral so many people loved and admired, even if it was only in outline, a ghost that would still need tens of thousands of bricks were still needed to complete it. Like the Romanesque cathedral itself, this building project required much time and patience, real commitment and perseverance.

Lego Cathedral was a great conversation-starter. We did real evangelism by helping guests articulate what they thought they were doing by helping to construct a building of faith. Each brick was itself an act of faith, of belief and hope in the finished work of art. But it was intriguing to hear a number of people talk about it as a metaphor, as if they were laying another brick on the edifice of their own life. And this does seem to me how our stories are built up over a lifetime. I spoke yesterday about being artists of our own lives, collaborating with God in shaping our stories, framing our lives. Brick by brick, you could say, event by event, encounter by encounter, experience by experience. The footprint may already be there laid out for us to glimpse – or it may not. But somehow, in the providence of God, it happens. And as we grow older and can look back, as I am now doing in retirement, we can see more of it for what it truly is, and – despite the mistakes, despite the false starts, despite so much to regret and repent of, still be thankful. As I said yesterday, eucharistia, thankfulness, does seem to me to be right at the heart of a good journey, be it a long haul or a short one.

There are some episodes in life that you know you’ll never forget because they seem to shift your way of seeing things in some decisive way. One of these happened just as we moved into the vicarage when I became an incumbent. At the age of 32, even I could see that I had a lot to learn, though it’s only now that I realise how much. My predecessor in the parish had died suddenly of a brain tumour in his mid-fifties. He had only been inducted six months earlier so it was a terrible shock to his family and to the parish. His widow was still in the vicarage when we arrived to look around. She spoke about John’s life and ministry, how happy they had been as a family, how much they were looking forward to getting to know the parish and serving there. I asked how she thought she would carry on in the coming weeks and months. She said: “the one thing John kept on preaching, and living out, was the importance of gratitude. If we can be thank-you people, he said, even in the darkest times life can begin again as something wholesome and beautiful and good. I’m now trying very hard to learn that lesson. Time will tell how well I learn it.”

That could come straight out of Thomas à Kempis. In his Imitation of Christ he says: “Be thankful for the least gift, so shall you be ready to receive greater. Let the least be to you even as the greatest, even the most contemptible gift as something of special value. If you consider the worth of the Giver, no gift will seem little, or of too mean esteem. For that cannot be little which is given by the Most High God.” Translating the Imitation for Penguin Classics was the last project my training incumbent undertook in old age. I think that without knowing it, he taught me good habits of reflection that foster a thankful attitude. He still is. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Edith Cavell, the English nurse (daughter of the vicarage) who was executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping allied prisoners escape occupied Belgium. She had the Imitation with her in prison and wrote in it on the night before her execution, as if to say: my life has been offered to God. To have done my duty is all I could have asked. I am thankful for that privilege. 

I believe this is one of the most important lessons life has been trying to teach me. Gratitude seems to me to have an absolutely vital role, if not in directing our stories (for so much is beyond our control), then at least in framing the way we tell them. I’ve found this to be essential to the long haul. Embedding my personal story in the big Christian story is a vital part of that, as I said yesterday: through sacrament and scripture and the life of the church, learning that eucharistia is the foundation of everything we are as the people of God. 

You would expect me to say that at the core of my career as a priest has been daily prayer and worship. Of course that is right: my priestly identity and story are very largely shaped by it. It’s a truism to say that a stipendiary minister is “paid to pray” but it’s an accurate perception all the same. I wasn’t schooled in it during training, so when I discovered this habitus in my first years as a priest, I found in it the church’s answer to my daily struggle to pray. I suppose I was an intuitive Benedictine who, long before I got to know the Rule of St Benedict, instinctively recognised in the office the celebration of the praise of God. For most of my ministry I’ve enjoyed the wonderful privilege of celebrating the divine office in incomparable surroundings and to beautiful music. In particular, the psalms of the day, sung or said, have been an irreplaceable source of strength in good times and bad. In the psalms you witness a community of faith living, praying, celebrating, praising, struggling, lamenting, trying to make sense of life as it is lived under God, asking just such questions about their story as we’ve been looking at. 

But as I look back, I’m clear that the rhythm of what Benedict calls the Opus Dei, the “work of God”, was formed not in cathedrals but in the parish. Here is where the shaping of each day by morning and evening prayer seemed to me to be adding brick by brick to the edifice. Each morning my colleagues and I would go across to church, ring the bell, and say the office with whoever turned up to join us. Next door to the church there was a sheltered housing complex. Elderly women would sit in their rooms looking out over the churchyard. Once I was in the town and someone came up to me to ask me if I’d been unwell. “No, why do you ask?” I replied. “O, my aunt said she hadn’t seen you going over to church for prayers the other day.” I reassured her and said I’d had a few days’ holiday. But it taught me about how public is the priest’s role, and how parishioners take a deep interest in the spiritual habits of the clergy. “Say one for me” isn’t always a jokey aside from those who know little and care less about God. I realised that daily prayer was a duty, not just a privilege. It was part of my job. I only glimpsed then what I know more clearly now, which is that these habit-forming spiritual disciplines are very much an aspect of the long haul. And duty can keep us going even when inclination or desire have given up.

But what the Imitation says is that even lesser gifts are of estimable value and call for gratitude. How do you compare the greater and the lesser? - a gift is a gift. And that is precisely Thomas’s point. If I’ve even begun to learn this, it’s been the hard way. I’m thinking of the gifts that have sustained me particularly during the dark phases of the journey, the arid stretches, the tears. The point about the so-called lesser gifts is that they are very specific. They are unique to each of us. I’m thinking of the people who love us and the intimate relationships that sustain us; the books we have read; the music we have enjoyed; the pursuits that bring us joy, the landscapes on God’s good earth that give renewal and lift our spirits. The longer the haul, the more important these gifts become.

I believe that attention to the details that give texture to our stories is more significant as a sustaining spiritual discipline than we often realise. I’m of the personality type that loves the big picture, the grand narrative, symbols, images, stories, poetry, metaphors, the imagination. I happen to think that this is the world Christian theology inhabits, so they are prized gifts in our proclamation and our life as ministers. Everything is bigger than it seems, more mysterious, more wonderful, more bursting with possibilities, more charged with the grandeur of God than what we can see and touch and handle. But the danger for us INFJs, type 4 on the enneagram, is that we sit loose to precisely those things, the ordinary stuff of life. Detail matters if we take Incarnation seriously, for Jesus was born as a specific human being at a specific time in a specific place. We need to notice it, pay attention to it. We need to feed our curiosity. When Dr Johnson said: “bury yourself in a dictionary and come up in the presence of God” he was on to something profound. 

In my long haul, I’ve found this to be more and more important. In the parish, as I said yesterday, I began to be absorbed by the specifics of the place in which I was a parish priest: the history and fabric of the church building, the town it had served for so many centuries, the physical and cultural environment of its locality, and beyond it, life in North East of England, one of this country’s most characterful and fascinating regions. This belongs to what I was saying yesterday about knowing the story of the place and understanding its grain. But I also found it to be enriching personally to peer beneath the surface, try to grasp what made it what it is. I felt I wanted to become more indigenised, inhabit this strange and beautiful place, become part of its story. I was oddly proud when my children quickly acquired Northumberland accents, started speaking in the patois of the school playground. When we moved south again, they just as swiftly shed the evidence of having been northern for a while but then there was another story to discover and become part of and that was good too. 

When later on I read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda a paragraph leapt out at me. She says: “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the future widenings of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours....may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.” It’s related to what I said at my farewell sermon about living close to the earth. I’m certain we can’t be effective ministers unless we cherish and love the places where we serve. I’m saying that for me, developing a sense of place, discovering, getting to know, belonging to that “spot of a native land” has been more significant as I look back than I realised at the time. Each place to which I have belonged has become part of who I am, like the soldier looking ahead to death in Rupert Brooke’s poem, “A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, / A body of England's, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.” 

Let me go on to say something about human relationships and intimacy. Why do I speak about people only after I’ve spoken about place, you ask? For the simple reason that first among the gifts of place are the people who become central characters of our stories, either for a while or forever. My family, my close friends, colleagues past and present, teachers, mentors and guides, all belong to particular times and places in my story. And while we must live and love in the present, they all have the capacity to evoke the past. Kierkegaard said in words beloved of analysts and psychotherapists, “life must be lived forwards but understood backwards”. I think this is especially true of how through shared memory our relationships inform the way we look back and how we tell our personal stories. In these recent weeks following my mother’s death, I’m particularly aware of the importance of this. 

(Perhaps this is why I find the notion of virtual friendship through social media somewhat suspect. It lives in an eternal present that sits loose to time past and time future. It doesn’t seem to be rooted in the specifics of place and time in the way that enduring relationships do. Of course, the virtual can lead to the embodied, and embodied relationships can be and are expressed in the digital world, so I’m only asking a question about the Facebook language of “friendship” and what this can really mean if you have hundreds or thousands of them. As an avid Tweeter, I find the concept of “following” one another more honest to the flickering character of cyberspace; but I recognise that we are all learning to find our way around social media and in particular how to bring wisdom to bear on these fascinating but seductive worlds. For even if social media is “of the moment”, the eighteenth century spiritual writer de Caussade reminds us that the present moment is itself a sacrament where we should expect to encounter God. So the question is, how do we humanise, indeed divinise, the worlds we inhabit in cyberspace? How do we follow à Kempis and imitate Christ there? For another day, I think.) 

I have found the cultivation of intimacy as a basic need in the long haul. It has sustained me in ways that nothing else could. I’ve glimpsed the passion at the heart of God’s way of loving by being loved that way myself.  Especially has this been true at times when I have felt lonely or desperate, where I’ve messed up, where I’ve caused hurt or damage, where I’ve needed to be forgiven and reconciled – and sometimes, though less often, when I’ve needed to forgive. You don’t need me to elaborate on this point because it’s a basic part our flourishing as men and women. “It is not good for us to be alone” is a basic fact of human living. But it’s a central aspect of our priestly formation too. It’s not only a question of how our intimate relationships nurture and sustain us, how we are perhaps never closer to life as sheer gift than we are in the presence of people who truly love us. I believe it’s about living the reality of priesthood in the circles of intimacy we belong to and discovering that we have not lost hold of our capacity to be human. risks to our stability and integrity as ministers and as men and women. 

I have found that being in the role of a public representative of God’s grace and love can pose risks to my capacity for personal intimacy. As with anyone in a caring role, how we express care and compassion can become professionalised. We show love and care because it is our job to, R. S. Thomas’s “willed gentleness” that I mentioned yesterday. I don’t disparage that. We cannot be everyone’s intimate friend even if we sign off our parish letters “with love” or “your sincere friend and vicar”. But we can find ourselves to be seriously lonely even when at the core of elaborate networks of ministerial relationships. So I want to follow the hunch that it’s the richness of our personal intimate relationships that sustains warmth, humaneness and joy in the way we are with everyone else. During the long haul, intimacy has not only enriched me and held me personally, but has been crucial in enabling me to do what we are all invited to do as we collaborate with God in reaching out to his world: to inhabit and model being as fully human as I can be. It’s trying to be an exemplary disciple, or perhaps I mean human being, before the world, not only in virtue of public office but because of what we are in our deepest selves. I use that word crucial deliberately. It takes me back to the crux, the cross where we see self-giving love demonstrated in all its precariousness, fragility, vulnerability and infinite generosity. In this theological sense, passion is always an aspect of love. 

So what has sustained me personally over the long haul? As I’ve prepared this, I realise that I’ve fallen into unwitting alliteration in my answers: prayer, place, and people. And I only have to state in this way to see how obvious it all is. I am speaking to you as peers in ministry. My only possible qualification for standing here on these days is that I have been practising it a little longer than some of you. Let me conclude with a fourth ‘P’ that sums up some of what I’ve been trying to say. I am thinking of our capacity to stand back and take in our story, reflect on where we have come from and what it means. It’s the word perspective. 

The longer the haul, the larger your perspective – at least, if you bother to take in the view. In the early years of ministry, everything is in the foreground, inevitably: vivid, sharply focused. The beginnings of any new aspect of life ought to be like that: etched on our consciousness and engraved in the memory because they are so alive, so intensely lived. When there is ecstasy it is fierce and joyful; when there is agony it is desperate beyond words. With every privileged success you feel you could fly; with every mistake you wish the earth would swallow you up. It’s like William Blake looking into the sun and seeing angels of every hue in the universe, both dark and light. It’s true of the first stirrings of love and friendship; of faith coming to life; of the leap of insight as we grasp some truth or wisdom for the first time. And it’s true of being ordained. I can remember the first fine careless rapture as if it were yesterday. 

“If only it could last” said Augustine as he gazed out of the window in a rapturous moment with his mother Monica one day. But it’s a mercy that it doesn’t, I think. It’s not just a truth for photographers that while foregrounds matter a great deal, they are not the whole picture. With the years comes depth of field, to stay with the analogy of photography: things lie both in front of and beyond the plane where once we saw everything in just two dimensions. The long haul brings perspective, the capacity to see the landscape in a larger way, and as part of it, the path we ourselves have trodden in our journey thus far. The foreground isn’t everything. Someone once said, don’t trust foregrounds: they flash by so quickly when you are on the move. 

I’m thinking particularly of our experiences of disappointment or failure in ministry. For yes, there are tears in things. How have they not broken me over four decades? I spoke yesterday about being men and women who are ourselves formed by the mercy and grace that we hold out for others to discover. In one of his ordination addresses Michael Ramsey speaks about the need for grace to wash our motives, aspirations and ambitions in ministry as well as our words and actions. In the harvest feast of Succoth as we’ve seen, the Israelites were taught to learn the lessons of dependence on God, which is the other side of gratitude. 

I clearly recall what my bishop said to me in our personal interview on the night before I was ordained deacon. “Michael” he said, “you will make mistakes in the years that lie ahead. Many will be short-lived in their consequences; some may be serious. When you stumble or fall flat, there’s no point in wishing you hadn’t. Seek God’s mercy, get up if you can, dust yourself down and carry on. If you are seriously injured by your fall, make sure you find the help you need and take the time it takes to stand upright again and start walking.” I have recalled that advice gratefully times without number. But I would have added: in the early years of ministry, every mistake feels huge, possibly irrecoverable from. They squat there in the foreground, loud and ugly, mocking everything you hoped for, everything you pledged. It’s having travelled a certain distance that puts them in perspective. Mostly they are the result of simply being human. 

Let me remind you of what I said yesterday about the necessity of having spiritual guides, mentors, confessors who know us and can read us, who are there to hold up a mirror to ourselves and help us deal with the shame and the failure, the envy and the guilt, all that poses threats to our ministry and our humanity. They help us to make connections, see our narratives in new ways, and lend perspective. The decades undoubtedly bring the comfort of a longer view, the kind of wisdom that enables us better to see things as they are. There is something necessary and strangely reassuring about being in a role or a place long enough to have to live with your mistakes. Cultivating depth of field has had a stabilising effect on my journey through ministry. I think I am more trustful and less anxious than I was when I started out. The tears never go away as long as we truly care about what we are doing. But their effect, especially when penitence is involved, is to heal rather than to destroy. Is this why the desert fathers used to speak about “the gift of tears” as a kind of baptism?

What gives us this depth of field, this perspective? Is it just that we have travelled? I think it has to be more than mere distances clocked up on the milometer. It comes back to something I said earlier about “noticing”. The foregrounds we journey through inevitably leave their mark on us. They change us. We would not be what we are if we had not walked that particular way. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” says Robert Frost in his endlessly quoted poem but it is not any less wise for that. So the capacity to pay attention to the roads we travel, notice the landmarks, learn how to read the landscape, all these play a part in shaping the stories we tell about ourselves as our way of remembering where we have been and what we have been given. As reflective practitioners for whom this kind of attention is a life habit, we not only become emotionally and spiritually intelligent but are given degrees of insight that equip us to be good, wise guides and pastors of others.   

Let me go back to the idea of being artists of our own lives in collaboration with God our maker and redeemer. So much in our story was unforeseeable at the outset. I don’t so much mean the big narrative about the privileged lives we lead, being affluent by any standards, well educated, giving our lives to do something we love. Nor do I mean the greater wealth of loving and being loved by others, or knowing and loving God, though there is nothing inevitable about any of these things in an uncertain world. I mean the contingencies of life, how we find ourselves in this place rather than that, in this particular role carrying these particular responsibilities. The twists and turns of the journey can baffle us sometimes. We may wish that things had turned out otherwise. We may have discovered that what we thought we would be giving most of our time to in ministry has turned out to be very different. 

For example, I became a dean twenty years ago believing that my primary task was to be a spiritual leader working closely with the bishop, the head of a religious foundation and faith community called a cathedral. The reality was more like being the CEO of a medium-sized business. Looking back, I can see that dilemma foreshadowed in my incumbency when “running a parish” felt not altogether to be the same as reaching out to the community, caring for people in their need, proclaiming the gospel, pursuing social justice, and offering spiritual accompaniment to the faithful. I have had to make friends with an institution as well as undertake a mission and practise a way of life.

So the narrative of our journeys has had to incorporate a great deal of nimble footwork on the way. You could call it improvisation, not in the sense of an organist meandering across the keyboard while the collection is taken, but as jazz musicians know it, that essential ability to seize the moment and do something creative and beautiful with it within the setting of a musical line that has its own direction of travel. When you travel, you develop an instinct for good spontaneity, what will enhance and enrich the journey, when it is good to turn aside to eat, drink or sleep or follow your curiosity, or where there is a need to attend to, even if it was not planned in advance. I think of Moses turning aside to see the burning bush, and the Good Samaritan not passing by on the other side when a wounded man needed his help, and the risen Jesus accepting hospitality on the Emmaus Road when he was making as if to travel on. Sometimes to “turn aside” is for the moment only, and we soon find ourselves back on the road we had taken. Sometimes the change of direction is permanent: but for that fork in the track, we would by now be in another place entirely. I said that jazz has its direction of travel, but who ever knows precisely where this musical adventure will end up? And not only is the journey different from what we imagined, and the story we tell about it, but we are different too because of it. You never know what the long haul of ministry is going to entail. As John Henry Newman said, “to live is to change, and to live long is to have changed much”.

I wanted to end on this note of seeing in perspective, having depth of field. Where is the long haul taking us? The other night we watched a beautiful film called A Late Quartet. I had seen it before but it was on TV and I said to my wife that it was not to be missed. It’s about a string quartet one of whose players, the cellist, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The fallout among his colleagues threatens to break up this group of musicians who have invested their entire lives in making music together. The piece they are working on is one of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Opus 131 in C sharp minor. The film explores how the music is a metaphor of the human relationships and vice versa. But it also showed me how, as the totally deaf composer comes to the end of his life, Beethoven is striving for a new depth, a new purity and simplicity, not composing to please the crowd but for the sake of achieving perfection in the art itself. You find this is true of the late works of so many of the greatest artists. While I was watching, I thought of you the Stepney clergy and what I might bring to you in this conference.

I think it’s this. Thomas à Kempis says in the Imitation: “Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which we soar above the earth and all that is temporary in nature.” By purity he means the virtue Jesus is speaking about in the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” That’s not just resisting temptation, keeping ourselves uncontaminated. I doubt if that’s it at all. It’s something altogether more profound and more demanding, to practise singleness of mind, heart and purpose so that we are intent only on one thing, which is to do the will of God. Simplicity means the same thing, being stripped of all extraneous distractions so that we are focused on God and what he desires for us and of us.  

So late in life, I am trying to learn this lesson. I am not very good at it, though having to downsize in retirement, shed a lot of things that once mattered, lay aside the roles that have defined me for so long and live like everyone else behind an ordinary untitled front door are important as outward signs of an inward development that I hope may be to grow old gracefully. The narrowing of our horizons in later life can help us focus on what we really need to see, what ultimately matters for all our living and dying. Purity and simplicity are two words that sum it up for me. And if I have a regret, it is that I didn’t cotton on to the importance of those words a lot earlier on in my life. If I had, they would have helped me to come to terms more realistically with the failures and disappointments, with the unexpected and not always welcome surprises that are part of what it means to be on the road. 

But although I have retired, there’s an important sense that the long haul is not over yet. Ministry goes on in new ways. Life goes on in new ways. There will be surprises, ordeals maybe that will test faith in ways that can’t be foreseen. But retirement is like every other stage of the journey: filled with the promise and hope that whatever it brings, God will be there, even in the shadows. There is still time to learn, try to be a better disciple and a better person, aspire to a greater simplicity and purity of heart, a wiser, more generous way of being human and being Christian. What St Luke says of the youthful Jesus should be true at every stage of life, that we grow “in wisdom and stature and in the favour of the Lord and of human beings.” Matthew Arnold has a poem where he pictures life as a river flowing from the mountains to the ocean. He says that we are fortunate when there comes a moment of insight about what it was all for. “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose / And the sea where it goes.” The imitation of Christ is the clue, to attain to our full humanity which is “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” – this is the long haul as it reaches its God-given destination. 

September 2016

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ministry for the Long Haul 1: Inhabiting the Stories of our Communities and Churches

When your Bishop invited me to speak to you about “Ministry for the Long Haul”, I asked him why he thought I might be at all qualified to do this. It’s true that I am a Londoner, though not from the Stepney Area (even if my son now has a flat in Bethnal Green, so I suppose that gives me a demonstrable connection). Most of my ministry has been in cathedrals, and although I have been an incumbent too, it was in a market town in the far north of England, nothing like the densely urban multicultural sector of London that you minister in. He replied, “well, you’ve completed the long haul, so share some of your experience about making that journey. It’s the human and spiritual insights we are looking for”. I couldn’t argue with that, and indeed today marks the first anniversary of my retirement. So here I am. 

I was ordained in my mid-20s. At that age, you believe you could do anything. But after the first decade and beyond, ministry can feel like a long haul as you look forward and, as I am doing now, back. And as the age of retirement stretches ever further our working lifetimes, it is getting longer than ever, though our forebears would have smiled at the idea that you ever “retire” from the cure of souls. But I have a hunch that for reasons we are familiar with, the sheer intensity of the demands of ministry is greater than it used to be for most clergy. Athletes know that the long haul calls for stamina and survival skills as well as fitness, the hunger to do well and the will to stay the course. That image is familiar to us from the New Testament. That image is about discipleship, not ministry specifically, but that itself tells us something obvious about public ministry, that we must never divorce it from our fundamental identity and vocation given to us in baptism. As disciples it’s our lifelong vocation to live in Jesus Christ, to become like him, and therefore – an important point this – to become more fully human, the men and women God made us to be. And that helps set our vocation as the ordained alongside every other vocation and human endeavour: whoever we are and whatever we do, our purpose is always to be good human beings and good disciples, faithful unto death. Life itself, if we are spared, is a long haul. 

It sounds like a strategy for survival, getting to the finishing line in one piece. That’s how I initially heard the Bishop’s suggested title. And I don’t deny that sometimes, maybe often – we are in survival mode in ministry. We have to be when crises and challenges threaten to overwhelm us and we wonder if are ever going to live to tell the tale. The set texts in these situations are the Psalm laments, the Book of Jeremiah and the Passion Narrative, especially Jesus in Gethsemane. 

But as I thought about it, I realised that this phrase "the long haul" was actually inviting us into a deeper kind of exploration. As I looked back at my farewell preached exactly a year ago today, it began to dawn on me. What I mean is this: that ministry for the long haul has to have shape, design, a sense of purposefulness and direction. I’m not going to reduce it to the corporate language of objectives and goals because that somehow makes ministry a mere function or set of tasks within an organisation. It’s not that I’m denying that ministry often comes down to “jobs”: every vocation is “work” in both a profound and an everyday sense, and activity needs to be purposeful if it is to be effective. In St John’s Gospel, to do the “work” of God is the same as doing the “will” of God. There is a rich theology of vocation there. Because of this, I believe it’s fundamental to a ministry that has depth, that is lasting in its effects and that is fulfilling for us who practise it, that it needs to have an architecture. 

Someone said that we should all become “artists of our own lives”. To which of course a person of faith adds the rider “under God”. To live wisely is, I think, to enter into this process of artistry and design more consciously as literally a “once-in-a-lifetime” collaboration with God as we become the people he meant us to be. I see this as an aspect of being created in God’s image. So if this is true of human life, it must also be true of vocation, of every ministry we exercise, and of public ministry in particular. My experience is that it’s at those times when I’ve been most aware of this that I’ve been happiest, because most fulfilled in what I have been and done as a priest – in the sense of doing the work of God. Though I also know from my experience how God can work through us in our dark times when, perhaps, the light more easily breaks through precisely because we are broken vessels.

But before I say more about this, let me sound a caveat. I can’t do better than quote from a book by Ruth Burrows, To Believe in Jesus. “God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity; all this God values most highly. Into the making of this vase, then, we put all we have, our whole self. It is for God we are fashioning it, we tell ourselves. When it is finished we begin our journey up the mountain. When we reach the top… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry, common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain… We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.” Beware of Pelagianism!

Nevertheless, whether we have completed many decades of ordained ministry or are just setting out, God invites us into this project of collaboration. So how do we become artists of our own ministry, set about designing ministry for the long haul? Ministry, as we all know, has its outward and inward facing aspects. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual equilibrium are vital for our good health as clergy, and this requires us to pay attention to both the inward and outward if we are going to sustain ministry over many decades. Tomorrow I want to say something about inwardness and attitude. Let me today explore this outward-facing aspect of the long haul.

At my farewell service in Durham Cathedral, I preached from the feeding of the crowd in St John’s Gospel, “gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost”. (You can read it on this blog site at 27 September 2015). I linked it with a beautiful line from a poem by Edith Sitwell, “Nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest”. It was harvest time, and the week of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, Booths or Tabernacles which, says St John was precisely the season Jesus performed his great sign. So I looked back over 40 years of ministry and, so to speak, gathered some of the fragments of those four decades, their harvest. They seemed to me to echo the themes of Sukkot as the great pilgrim feast looked back over the 40 years of Israel’s desert journey from the standpoint of being settled in their own land.

Here, I said, is what has mattered to me over the long haul. “Thankfulness to God because to praise Almighty God, to practise gratitude, eucharistia, is the first principle of religion and the foundation of all it means to be human. Dependence on God because it is as we turn back to him and acknowledge his reign over us that we understand how he made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him. Living close to the earth because reverence for life, treating the world with courtesy and charity is to discover our true place in God’s creation. Remembering where we came from because the story of the great acts of God is the foundation of all Christian life, mission and the pursuit of truth and justice. And solidarity with the poor and needy such as the desperate and voiceless, the refugees and asylum-seekers, because as the sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral door announces, God’s household is a place of refuge, safety and care.”

Those five marks of the long haul belonged to a celebration of a journey. Israel’s wilderness journey to the land they believed was promised was celebrated in all three great pilgrim feasts. It called a community to reflect on its past story, inhabit it in the present in a dramatic ritual way, and allow it to bring expectation and hope to the life of faith and human experience. For us as Christians, it’s precisely the same dynamic that we are familiar with in the eucharist as the three tenses of past, present and future coalesce in a single rite. For the eucharist is a liturgy, the great liturgy in which we act out what we have been as a people, what we are now, and what we shall become in God’s time. Christian faith is to embrace the story of a redeemed community and own it personally in baptism by confessing that we belong, we pin our destiny to that of God’s people, we acknowledge its Lord as ours. “This is our story. This is our song.”

Let’s ask what this means for us as we undertake the journey of ministry purposefully and give it shape. For me in parish ministry, it was eye opening to attend a week’s workshops at the Grubb Institute and learn the distinction between person and public role. Never despise the transforming potential of good training! For all I know, this person-role distinction is obvious to all of you. But what made the difference for me was how it helped made sense of what a parish priest is there to do. I was learning how, as a priest, you are expected by many people to have special knowledge of divine mysteries, a hot line to God, and that at the very least I would be competent to say something intelligible in the face of human suffering and pain, whether brought about by natural disaster, human wickedness, or most often, in the personal lives of parishioners through serious illness or pain, the break-up of an intimate relationship, or bereavement.

My role in these situations, I began to grasp, was to be an interpreter of peoples’ stories. It was my calling to attempt to bring insight to shed light on human experience by looking at it in the light of faith, relating it to the big story of God’s coming among us in Jesus Christ. (I tried to write something about this drawing on the wisdom writings of the Old Testament in my book Wisdom and Ministry.) So when people speak about clergy being “religious professionals”, this is one aspect of what they are wanting to express. You could put it this way. As “professionals” (and I’m aware what questions the use of that word begs), we are embedded in a story that it’s our call to be telling. We are its public representatives, its spokespeople, its official guardians. When at our ordination we are solemnly handed the holy scriptures and told to “take authority”, this is the role that is being conferred on us. We belong, in the great image of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to the House of the Interpreter. 

But the other side of this is to do with the stories of the communities we serve, and the human lives that constitute them. A good pastoral theology and practice requires us to be as embedded in these stories as we are in the church’s story that we rehearse in tell and re-tell in scripture and sacrament. And here is where I think we must be especially intentional as we take on the public role of interpreter in our parish. It’s true that people are the same in one place as another – human life is what it is in all its vicissitudes. But in another sense it’s not true. We are constructed by the communities we live in, shaped for better or worse by the concentric circles of our belonging in family, neighbourhood, town, city, region, nation and continent. There is a grain in the timber of human life, and if we don’t recognise it, we shall get the story wrong in important ways. So paying attention to the local story calls for careful eyes and ears and a good deal of discernment if we are to understand the places in which we work.
As a parish priest in the north, I had so much to learn about all this. And although I have learned a great deal in my ministry subsequently, I am quite clear that it was in my first incumbency that I learned most. In my thirties, suddenly finding myself in a public leadership role in a parish in a strange part of the world, the decades of ordained life ahead felt like a very long haul indeed. At times I found myself very low indeed and wondered how I would ever survive a lifetime in ministry. I can’t altogether explain it, though my uncomfortable discovery that as a priest you are constantly in the public eye and subject to scrutiny was near the heart of it. My difficulty in handling conflict and disappointment were also part of it. So was my fear of failure – not only because self-interest made me need to succeed but also for the better reason of not wanting to fail people, the church, the parish. I needed to develop healthier habits of mind and emotion. I needed to acquire resilience, learn that stamina comes into things.

You’re wondering how it is that I’m still here. There are a number of reasons. The sustaining love of God is at the heart of it of course. It found expression as it always does in many ways, some outward, some inward. I’ll say more about inwardness on the long haul tomorrow. I recall some of the books I read then that helped turn my attitude around from self-absorption to living more generously. Among them were the writings of Alan Ecclestone, especially A Staircase for Silence. It wasn’t just the content but the fact that it had been written by someone who had been a parish priest in a tough urban parish in the east end of Sheffield, a place I was to get to know well a decade later. He only started writing in retirement, not just (he said) because of the relentless demands of parish ministry but because he believed he would only have something to say as a spiritual or theological writer after a lifetime’s immersion in the agony and ecstasy of real life in the church and the world. 

I also remember how the poetry of R. S. Thomas came to my rescue, one of the greatest of twentieth century religious poets. Again, his profound insights were forged (I use that fiery analogy deliberately) in the tough setting of parish ministry in rural Wales. In one poem, he writes of his recalcitrant parishioners, “there is no loving such, only a willed gentleness”. How well he knew himself, and me too! How I longed to move beyond “willed gentleness” to love freely, sacrificially, given, like God’s. But one of the many things I have learned in ministry is that sometimes, maybe often, “willed gentleness” is all we are capable of. Like “good enough parenting” to quote Winnicott’s famous phrase, it may not be all that we aspire to, but rather than flail our poor selves out of guilt, shame and the sense of failure that so easily afflicts us, it is not only sufficient to be good and wholesome, but it is God-given too. Maybe someone can draw out of the gospels how Jesus practised willed gentleness against the temptation to be angry or to judge. Perhaps this turns out to be true love that is demonstrated in a way that is sustainable and practical. Remember that in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is only once said to have “loved” anyone, and that was the rich young ruler after whom the Lord looked with sorrow because the cost of discipleship was too high.

But what I learned from both Alan Ecclestone and R. S. Thomas was reinforced by a highly skilled mentor I was lucky enough to find. At this demanding and at times dark time, he was shrewd enough to see through my confusion and despondency and point me towards a healthier approach to ministry. And let me say before I go any further how essential I’ve found it to be to find the best possible accompaniers and guides in public ministry. If ever there is a fatal arrogance in people in public life, it is to think that they have to lead on their own. Nowadays, most of us take spiritual direction, mentoring, coaching and work consultancy for granted and gratefully avail ourselves of them, thanks to our bishops and dioceses who set aside funds to support us and encourage us to take the time we need to make sure we get the best help we can. I am quite clear that for my long haul as theological teacher, parish priest, cathedral canon and dean, these fellow-travellers were essential to my learning, my insight and my flourishing. And never more so than in the parish.

That particular mentor asked me in effect (and over many months) to do three things. The first was to try to understand what the priest symbolises and represents both in and to a local community. The second was to immerse myself in that community’s story, get to know it intimately, become part of it myself. The third was, in the light of the first two, to try to frame my own ministry intelligently and purposefully, make of it something that was not only of real and lasting value but lovely in its own right. They are of course all aspects of the same thing, but it was helpful at the time to see them as distinct. And I can honestly say that learning to reconfigure my public role in the light of these prompts and nudges was life-changing. They meant I could look back and see those few years as hugely formative – and be proud of the big steps forward that the parish achieved in that time. 

Let me take them in turn.

First, what the priest symbolises and represents. Thomas Mann said: “to live symbolically spells true freedom”. The Greek word means “to throw together”, to lay things alongside each other from which the word evolves into one standing for the other. It’s a rich idea theologically and psychologically and there is a vast literature devoted to it. But we have an intuitive idea about how a symbol opens up doors of perception in our minds and imaginations giving us access to meanings that are beyond the capacity of rational speech. 

We clergy inhabit a world of symbols all the time. We understand, because it is our job, how symbol and sacrament, ceremony and ritual belong to the Christian story we tell and clothe it with flesh and blood, incarnate it in a material and tangible way. This is especially true in the archetypal Christians sacraments of baptism and eucharist. What is less familiar is to think of ourselves in this way, in our ordained roles as deacons, priests and bishops. Now, a symbol (as opposed to a mere sign) is capable of exerting great power. A national flag, a football trophy, a wedding ring, a gift that carries great personal meaning for us because of the person who gave it to us – all these are true symbols in which heart is, so to say, speaking to heart. In church, water, bread, wine, oil, the book of the gospels, incense, lights, music, processions – all these and many more are invested with a symbolic character by the liturgy. They “glow”, as it were, with a quality we can only call numinous. So far so obvious – and so wonderful.

But by extension, the church building is itself a space that is symbolic of many things: the presence of God primarily, of course, and the worship and prayer that belong within it are what make it not just any space but “sacred space”. But it’s much more than that. It holds profound collective memories of a community; even a modern building like Coventry Cathedral where I once worked had rapidly acquired a deeply symbolic identity in just a few years. By the time I went there 25 years after it was opened, there were aspects of it that were as unquestionably iconic and sacred as the medieval bombed out church had been next door. And on top of that, a church is “sacred” to us if we worship there or did once, have been baptised or married there or said farewell to our beloved dead there. This year I walked my daughter up the aisle of Alnwick Church because she had chosen to be married there. It was a strange feeling to be the proud father of the bride in a place I’d known so well as its incumbent. 

For me, the sacredness of the place because of my memories, and of the sacredness of this unique moment in our family story came together unforgettably. All this belongs to the world of the symbol. I’m saying that when we operate in a highly symbolic environment, we ourselves become symbolic people. Like church buildings, we clergy evoke memories, expectations, longings, hopes, fears even. When we stand in the pulpit, when we preside at the Lord’s table, when we visit, when we chair the PCC, when we lead the prayers, even when we make a fool of ourselves in the parish pantomime so that people laugh good naturedly at us, we are functioning in this symbolic world. It goes with the role. It’s true to some extent of all leaders because a leader inevitably embodies and represents their institution or community to itself and to others. If you look at the highly ritualised world that, say, our politicians inhabit, you’ll see the point. In our case as clergy we stand on the elusive threshold between what is seen and what is unseen, between what is temporal and what is eternal, between the church’s story and the local and personal stories that belong to a particular place. We publicly represent and symbolise the values of the gospel, the story and teaching of the church, indeed the very mystery of God by who and what we are. 

I found it liberating to begin to understand that all this was to do with the role conferred in my ordination. I was called to inhabit it in a personal and unique way: we can never divorce person from role even if we need to distinguish between them to save ourselves from being swallowed up by the sheer demands of public office. It made sense of some of the (to me) sharp difficulties I thought I was facing in the parish, matters I now think are largely normal for us in our roles because they so often concern other peoples’ expectations, transferences and projections. It felt, and still feels, highly relevant to the long haul and how I was going to construe my ministry in a healthier way. In last year’s farewell sermon, I referred to knowing where we come from. That’s both a biographical and an existential aspect of ourselves. We need to know who and what we, “where we are coming from” in a pastoral, spiritual and sacramental sense. It empowers us to fulfil our calling to serve by feeding the hungry with good things. Solidarity with the poor in my sermon was meant to include all of human need wherever we find it – physical, emotional, spiritual. “Empowerment” to respond not only because it’s our duty but because it’s our privilege is how I have experienced that insight ever since, at least in my better moments.

The other side of this was to do with the parish itself and its story. This was my second point. For whom was I symbolic as the parish priest? The obvious answer is, to the worshipping community with whom, week by week and day by day, I broke bread and shared koinonia, that infinitely precious communion in holy things. But that was only part of the answer. You know what I’m going to say. Whatever I myself thought about it, whatever I said or did, there was no way that a market town parish was not going to pull me into the life of the whole community. Whether it was baptising, marrying and burying parishioners, national and local celebrations or disasters that the town wanted to observe in church, prayers at town council meetings, schools (not just the aided CofE school), hospital, theatre, music and the arts, trade, the historic Shrove Tuesday football match, the town wanted these activities to be ritualised, symbolised, “blessed”. It looked to us clergy to do this for them, or perhaps I should say, among them, as one of them. 

That was then, a generation ago, and there, in Northumberland. That was traditional Church of England parish ministry with a traditional northern accent. It’s 300 miles away from London and ten thousand miles away from the far more complex metropolitan worlds you are familiar with here in Stepney. But how strange it was to me at the time, schooled as I was in suburban churches in London and never having lived in the north of England before. I had to renegotiate my vocation. And I had to define the scope of my ministry in that parish and try to shape it round what I believed God was asking me to do there. And I believe the response I made, to embrace the wider parish, to be there in principle for everyone as far as I could, was the right one. I learned that the very word parish, “paroikia” means not those who go to church but those who “live around”. 

What this required of me was to develop a sense of place. The parish already had that – in abundance. But I needed to learn it for myself, embed myself in the particularities of that parish in that landscape at that time, learn its story. When we moved into the vicarage I found in the study a copy of the two-volume History of Alnwick by George Tate, published in the early 19th century. Copies are as rare as gold dust. Alas, inside the cover it said “For the use of Vicars of Alnwick. Not to be removed from the Vicarage”. From it I learned a lot about the church and the town, all new to me. I wrote a little visitors’ guide to the church – always a good way of learning about your place of work. This was a medieval building, but every church has a story as I’ve tried to say already. And from there I became fascinated with the history of the town itself, and the North East region in which it is set. All this seemed to me to be part of getting to grips with the story of the place in which I was serving as incumbent. It’s an approach I adopted everywhere else I went on to minister. In the language of my farewell sermon last year, it comes down to living close to the earth and paying attention to the story it has to tell.

And here is the point I want to make. It served me well to develop this sense of place as life-giving in its own right – after all, the parish is also our home and our family’s home: how could we not be curious about where we live? But it served me even better to see it as an essential resource for public ministry. It gained me, I think, a hearing, respect even, that I had taken the trouble to try to recognise the context of peoples’ lives and the stories of their community. It’s not a question of going native because a good parish theologian (which is what a priest is called to be) is not only there to affirm the environment with its narratives and traditions, its myths and rituals, its culture and habits, its self-understanding, its assumptions about what it aspires to be in the future. That goes for the church too, of course. Ministers must ask questions too, critique assumptions, perhaps even help a community reframe the story it tells about itself. But we have to learn and know and understand before we can stand in the House of the Interpreter, especially when, like Jeremiah, we have to pull up and destroy as well as build and plant. 

My third point was about the purposes and goals of public ministry. What did all this teach me about how to reframe my ministry at that time and set healthy directions for the future? I had no reason to think then that I would not spend three more decades in parishes. What I learned there was largely thanks to my mentor’s making me think through what ministry was about; much of it too was thanks to colleagues and parishioners who often without knowing it helped pennies to drop; and I have to admit, much of it was also through mistakes and misjudgements too embarrassing to recall.  But I look back to that experience as a time when better habits of mind and heart became at least the starting point for journeys that lay ahead. And I think I can say that as I have begun to take hold of ministry as something that has both purpose and art, they have largely stood up to some pretty robust testing since. (Don’t ever think by the way that cathedrals are refuges from the hard graft of parish life. If they were once upon a time, they certainly aren’t now.) 

In a report you know well in the Stepney Area, Church Growth in East London, Angus Ritchie speaks about having “a clear vison of goals, engaged in conscious self-reflection on being both faithful and reflective”. I think that is meant as a way of being for a healthy church that is growing and flourishing. But it maps directly on to our roles as clergy. If we are to be, as the phrase has it, “reflective practitioners” (what other kind of practitioner would any of us want to be?), then clarity about purpose and the capacity to be self-aware enough to think about what we are doing, and how, and why, are all indispensable. Indeed, I doubt that with the demands and stresses of ordained life as it is today, it is sustainable in any other way. I wouldn’t have used that language thirty years ago. But I now see that it was what I was seeing through a glass darkly. I can only say that over a lifetime of ministry, that way of thinking, behaving, pondering and praying has served me well. It has made the best of me what I am. 

In my farewell sermon, those insights about knowing where we come from, living close to the earth and solidarity with the poor were introduced by two imperatives: thankfulness to God and dependence on God. They sum up, I think, not only the whole of ministry but the whole of life. I’ll say more tomorrow. But in relation to the big story that we tell about a God who so loved the world, I hope I’ve made it clear that we as ministers are meant to be the public embodiment, the symbol, of those fundamental ways of being before God. Go back to the ordinal and see it for yourself in the emphasis laid on what clergy do and what we are. Austin Farrer spoke about the priest being a “walking sacrament”, or in an older register, "alter Christus", being as Christ to others. 

I said earlier that we can never separate ministry from discipleship. You could say that being ordained sets us up publicly as exemplary disciples. However uncomfortable we may feel about that way of putting it, I’m clear that this is how many see us. It’s where all those “oughts” and “musts” of ministry come from, rules that say clergy should behave like this and not like that. In a month when the sexuality of bishops has once again hit the headlines, we need to examine these assumptions. My point is simply to indicate that when you are an office-holder in the church, your life is up for scrutiny, and everyone has their own ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate for clergy. As symbolic people, we model something that is important not only in the church but beyond. Questions about values are bound to follow. We should welcome it because it shows that something, at least, still matters. The power of story and symbol is still there.

Of course, we know that none of us is that exemplary disciple. We are all broken, fractured human beings. We are precarious, we fall short and we fail God, the church and ourselves times without number. We know ourselves too well to be deceived on that point. This is why these two attitudes of dependence and gratitude are so fundamental to being a Christian. We are people formed by grace, and to live out of dependence and thankfulness is the only adequate way of responding to the God who freely comes to us, finds us, loves us and accepts us in Jesus. I doubt if I have learned anything more fundamental than that when it comes to the long haul. I am still learning it. 

So if we can tell the big story about God and engage with the stories of our communities consciously invoking (because it is our role to) the faith dimension of human life, if we can point to what is of abiding significance for us and give a reason for the hope that is within us, then, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we do not lose heart. We shall have found ourselves artists of our ministries. They will have been not only useful but beautiful. We gather the fragments with joy, and offer them to God. All in the end is harvest. 

September 2016