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

Friday, 23 June 2017

Farewell to St Chad's: the Rector's Last Supper

This is my last Rector's Feast after eight years in this office. It's a time for farewells and above all, for saying thank you.
What I want to say comes from the heart. You've made me so welcome here in this wonderful college community. As Rector, I've wanted to be a good friend and champion of St Chad's in the University, the city, the church and beyond. It's been a huge privilege. But more than that, it's been enormous fun. As I often say, in this honorary role you get all the nice bits to do while the Principal, governors and staff bear the burden and the heart of the day. They deserve our recognition.

Jenny and I have loved being part of the College for almost the whole of our time in Durham, first as Visitor, then as Rector and, to my surprise when Joe Cassidy thrust a college hood over my head on his last College Day, as a Fellow. I'm so grateful that the green St Chad's hood means that I can continue to enjoy this precious relationship with St Chad's after today when I become superannuated.

Being a friend means sharing dark times as well as light. All of us who knew and loved Father Joe still miss his loss very keenly. It was Joe who invited me to become the College's first Rector. He gave everything he had to this college that he loved. He was to all of us an inspiration, a truly transformative leader who took the long view and worked incredibly hard to make it a reality. We could not have wished for a better successor in Dr Margaret Masson who prized the aims and values for which St Chad's has stood in recent times, but who has put her own imprint on them as we move into the future. I loved working with Joe and I've loved working with Margaret. I've loved working with their colleagues, both staff and governors, people of exceptional ability and calibre.

And I've loved getting to know students too. Sadly, not enough of you, and not as deeply as I'd have wanted, though I was always heartened to get many a cheery wave when we passed one another in the Bailey. This college has always emphasised the importance of being a good community that prizes friendship. I've always felt that I was among friends in this college, and that means more than I can say. Your excellence not only academically but also in the arts, sport, volunteering and promoting social justice in the wider community has been truly inspiring. Durham University is rightly proud of you. We all are.

I'd like to wish Dean Andrew Tremlett well as he follows me in this role. It's good to know that as my successor at Durham Cathedral, he now has his feet well installed under the table with so many exciting developments to celebrate, not least the completion of the cloister project Open Treasure which I hope you will visit when the treasures of St Cuthbert are installed in their final resting place next month. I hope Andrew enjoys being Rector of St Chad's as much as I have.

So I shall follow the fortunes of the College from across the hills, in the Tyne Valley where we now live. It goes without saying that we shall miss our regular trips to Durham. However, we shall be back from time to time, knowing that behind the green front door on the Bailey, there is warmth and friendship and the stimulus of good conversation and a generosity of spirit that has no equal in Durham. Thank you for all of it.

Finally, let me anticipate and congratulate you on the dazzling results I'm sure St Chad's will have achieved** in final exams this year. Indeed, congratulations on all the success you have enjoyed as members of this college. If you are coming back in October, or your work is keeping you here, have a very good summer. And if this summer is a time for farewells, well, you and I have that much in common. There's no denying that it's poignant to say goodbye. So go with my very best wishes and prayers for the future, wherever it will take you. You and I know that we shall always prize the fact that we belong to the St Chad's family.
This isn't the parting of friends, but an opportunity to discover how friendship enters a new dimension; not adieu but au revoir. Thank you again. God bless you. God bless St Chad's.

**Abundantly fulfilled when the results were published the following week, the best ever for St Chad's.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

At a Service of Thanksgiving for Bob and Ruth Jeffery

I can hear Bob’s advice to me as his curate ordained just a few weeks. “At funerals and memorials, don’t preach about the person who’s died. Preach about God.” He was right of course. And yet…. Isnt a person’s life – yours, mine, Ruth’s, Bob’s - the primary place where we read the traces of love’s work, where we discern God to have been present in the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of being a woman, a man, where we learn how to speak about God out of our own lived experience?

I think Bob would say so. It was how he had been formed as a Christian and how he had learned the art and the craft of Christian ministry. You could call it “being real” though Bob would have hated the cliché like he hated all the easy speeches and hackneyed phrases that fall unexamined off too many tongues. Being authentic as a priest, a Christian and as a human being was Bob’s life task right up to the moment he died. His faith and the language with which he spoke about it were characteristically his own. They owed a great deal to the people who had inspired him and he never tired of acknowledging the debt. But the experience was his, and the words were his. He wouldn’t perhaps have owned the word artistry to describe this. Yet I believe that under God we are called to be artists, or co-artists, of our own lives and to do this means living in a state not only of awareness but of being true to who we are in God.

Being present, paying attention, living reflectively, truth-seeking were basic to Bob’s way of understanding the world and God’s involvement in it. He didn’t have much time for theological speculation and none at all for simpliste slogans and what they usually gave birth to, well-meaning but ill-considered strategies and programmes that would sort out the church’s problems. One of his great spiritual guides, the eighteenth century French Jesuit writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade, taught him to be humble before the providence of God and not claim to know too much about the divine plan for the world. Bob conscientiously refused to speak of things he did not know about, things none of us can know about. What mattered was the offering of life to God. To him, reticence was a virtue that went with the modesty proper to a created being. And the complexity of life, and the unknowability of so much of it, was part of its glory that God embraced in the incarnation. He insisted that it had to be understood “from below”, inside the experience of being living and sentient with mind and conscience and the capacity to be aware and articulate the wonder of our own being. He believed with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that in this respect, religious faith, the God-given “examination” of life should make us more human, not less.

As David Thomas says in his tribute in today’s service sheet, metaphor and poetry were everything in this quest to interpret the human condition from the perspective of the divine. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” said Emily Dickinson. Faced with the task of finding words to express the inexpressible, there is no alternative. I once preached a sermon at Headington, mercifully long-forgotten, that Bob felt did not quite capture the spirit of the text. “The trouble is” he said in the nicest possible way “there’s too much prose in your preaching, not enough poetry and not enough paradox”. It was one of those moments that made me stop and change course, not just as a preacher but as a theologian too. It’s among many insights for which I have to thank a tolerant, cherished and wise mentor.

But if he valued reticence when it came to speaking about God, his practice of faith was confident, joyful and large-hearted. He liked Bishop Ian Ramsey’s saying about being “tentative in theology but sure in religion”. He proclaimed a God who in Jesus, as the Fourth Gospel puts it, “loves us to the end”. In the words of our reading from St Paul, God’s is a love from which nothing can ever separate us, not height nor depth, not evil or disaster, not anything in all creation. I guess there were times when that faith had to be fought for, most of all here at Worcester that terrible morning when he found that his beloved Ruth had died suddenly. Bob had always believed that if religion has nothing to say about suffering and loss, then it has nothing to say. Such circumstances are the severest test not only of the human being but of whether the faith he or she professes can carry such a burden. Bob found that it could, because the bridge to which he entrusted himself to carry him across the abyss was scaffolded with love. That is what it means to be “sure in religion.

To Bob, the capacity to hold belief and doubt together, to explore, probe, debate, ask questions was all part of having a mature faith. He reckoned that religion that infantilised grown-ups into tribal submission and uncritical obedience was not worthy of the name. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith had taught him, as had Bonhoeffer before him, that faith must “come of age” and it is the responsibility of a Christian leader to help people discover religious adulthood for themselves. It takes courage to do that. On the last page of his book Anima Christi he wrote: “Our pilgrimage is itself an act of faith and an act of worship. We are moving towards the greater mystery of God which envelops us all. Pilgrims live only by the mercy and grace of God. This means that we can let go of security and certainties because we realise that God is in control. We need nothing but to offer everything to God with willingness.” His children say that even in his last illness, there was a curiosity about what he called the “end game”, how to die as authentically as he had tried to live. His favourite Psalm 139 was sung at his funeral: “O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me”. He wanted to be as alert and present to the truth of this in dying as much as in living, and to discover how God would be “about his path and about his bed” in his last Nunc Dimittis.

We are here today to honour Bob and Ruth’s memory cherished not only in Worcester but also in Sunderland, Barnes, Oxford and Tong, not to mention the British Council of Churches and the General Synod. As Dean here, he worked tirelessly to save the tower and conserve this great building. He and Ruth made their Deanery a place not only of hospitality and welcome, but of jollity, stimulus, good conversation about books and theology, church politics and the state of the world.  But he would have wanted these tangible memories to be a metaphor of a lifelong investment as priest and pastor whose generous vision of life touched the fabric of so many people. If I learned one thing from Bob in the forty years I knew him, it was how to try to understand and live just such a Christianity that is capable of reaching out to the lives of others and of making a real difference in the world.

So what is Bob and Ruth’s lasting memorial? I think we can see it in the faces of all of us who are here today, and many more who are not,  whom they loved and cared for because they prized the most precious gifts life can bestow: integrity, generosity, community, a sense of place, kindness, laughter and the knowledge of God. What unites us today is that our lives were touched by Bob and Ruth in the name of the One who in Christ has himself touched us, searched us out and known us. In his death and resurrection we are given back our lives once more, strengthened by the promise that our hope was not in vain. For love was his meaning, and always will be in both this world and the next.

Worcester Cathedral, 21 June 2017
At the memorial service for The Very Reverend Robert Martin Colquhoun Jeffery
Romans 8.31-39