Sunday, 20 April 2014

A favourite Easter hymn in a new translation

My translation from the French of ‘Thine be the Glory’, sung in Durham Cathedral.   

Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.
Radiant in the morning, angels bright come down,
Greet the day that’s dawning, hail the conqueror’s crown:
Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.

See Jesus meets you, see your Lord appear!
Hear the word that greets you, tells you love is here.
Dance with joy and gladness, people of the Lord.
Banish grief and sadness, tell the news abroad!

Fear flies before him: evermore he lives!
O my heart adore him! peace and joy he gives.
Christ my mighty conqueror, Christ my gracious friend,
Christ my life and glory, till all ages end:




Friday, 18 April 2014

On Good Friday Afternoon

In the Chapel of the Nine Altars in Durham Cathedral, there is a striking sculpture by local sculptor Fenwick Lawson. His Pietà shows Mary at the end of a long and terrible Good Friday. Stretched out at her feet lies the body of her dead Son rigid after his ordeal on the cross. His left arm is slightly raised, stretching out towards his mother whose hands in turn are opened towards him. In his wrist is the mark of the nail of crucifixion. She is depicted as the woman who has undergone sorrow beyond words. Her face is worn with grief and with the scars of ageing that great suffering incises on the human body. I have tweeted some images today: @sadgrovem.

Large numbers of worshippers come here on Good Friday afternoon for a simple service of evening prayer. A few years ago we decided to make the Pietà the focus of our last act of worship on this solemn day. It is the traditional office of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, very simple and spare with no words wasted and plenty of silence for thought and meditation. It needs to be understated like this, almost empty, coming as it does after three hours of profound spirituality and high emotion in the Good Friday liturgy. In liturgical time, Jesus is being laid to rest. His mother, his disciples are exhausted, numbed, and so are we.

How to bring the service to an end? We do it by listening to the Stabat Mater read aloud. This 13th century Latin hymn enters into Mary’s experience as she watches her Son die.

At the cross
stood the sorrowful mother in her grief
while her son hung there.
The genius of the poem is to recognise that Mary’s grief is the same as any mother would feel. Even if he had not been the Son of God, he would still have been hers, and how could she love him more than in the hours of his suffering and dying?  There’s a moment I find especially poignant:

She watched her own sweet child
dying in desolation

giving up his spirit.

This is ‘the sword that shall pierce your own heart’ that Simeon had warned Mary about when she brought her 40-day old infant into the Temple to present him to the Lord. Death can have the effect of reawakening childhood memories and what mother would not remember her precious son’s infancy at a time like this?
When I wrote my book Lost Sons, I introduced it by meditating on this corner of the Cathedral. I have always been struck by two other presences near the Pietà. One is a painting by Paula Rego that shows Margaret, the 11th century Queen of Scotland, with her son David sitting at her feet. This time, it’s the mother who is at the point of death, but the mother-son image is a striking if unconscious echo of the sculpture (I put it that way round because the Pietà was here first). The other feature is a simple early 19th century memorial plaque to two sons who died in early childhood. It was placed there by their ‘afflicted’ parents to commemorate their beloved boys John and Francis. Were they their only children? We don’t know, but underneath the simple words the emptiness of a bereavement two centuries ago still speaks powerfully.

To me, the Pietà helps to make sense of what must be the worst human loss a parent can ever experience, the death of a son or daughter. Christians have always seen in the suffering of Jesus God’s loving identification with all human suffering: the divine Victim knows what every victim is going through. The Pietà says the same. But it does this by focusing specifically on how death severs human intimacy, strikes at the heart of the love and friendship that we need if we are to flourish and be happy. The thought that God understands and cares gives solace in our darkest times.
In his Good Friday sermon, the Bishop spoke about Jesus’ last word from the cross in St John: ‘it is accomplished.’ That sounded like an ending, he said. He went on: ‘how and why it is not an end but a beginning, I cannot know on this day - yet.’  The Stabat Mater is a sombre poem. But at the end of its long and gloomy day, the sun comes out once more. Like today’s sermon, its conclusion hints at Easter in a last line that speaks of glory and paradise. Tomorrow, on Easter Eve, we imagine a Sabbath rest for the Christ who has finished his work. And then, early on the first day of the week, he will stride through the grave and gate of death into the glory of resurrection blazing the trail where in God’s time, we hope to follow.  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Saying Sorry in 31 Seconds

There is something not quite right about the post-mortem over Maria Miller’s resignation. It smells unpleasantly sanctimonious.

I am not for a moment saying that she didn’t make serious mistakes. There are misjudgements that someone in public office can’t afford to make. This has always been true, but scrutiny is especially thorough nowadays in the aftermath of the parliamentary expenses debacle. It’s understandable that the public is not in the mood to be lenient. We are right to expect the highest possible degree of accountability. And it’s a pity she didn’t offer to repay the higher sum about which questions had been asked, even if technically she had been cleared of the requirement to do so. It would have been a welcome sign of good faith.

What I find disturbing is how Ms Miller’s apology to the House has been endlessly picked over since she spoke. Someone on Any Questions called it (if I remember aright) the worst speech from a parliamentarian he had ever heard.  Why? Because (I am paraphrasing) it was perfunctory, insincere and lacking any real sense of contrition. The assumption is that an apology lasting a mere 31 seconds cannot possibly be genuine. Ergo it didn’t do the job. ‘It wasn’t fulsome enough’ I’ve heard it said – by people who clearly don’t know what that word really means.

There’s a lot I don’t know about what has gone on in this affair, but I can’t help thinking that it’s dangerous to make judgments like this. For one thing, how long would Ms Miller’s speech have to be to carry conviction? Two minutes? Ten? Half an hour? You see the difficulty. You can’t calibrate the quality of an apology with a stop-watch. In one of his parables, Jesus compares the attitudes of a Pharisee and a tax-collector. The Pharisee offers a long platitudinous (fulsome, indeed) address to his Maker. The tax-collector simply beats his breast and says ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. That’s a lot shorter than 31 seconds. Yet Jesus commends him for those few words. When the Prodigal Son returns to his father to make a long contrite speech, his father cuts him off in mid flow and embraces him.

I once had to apologise to a friend I’d hurt. I tried the Prodigal’s long speech but the words would not come. All I could whisper was: I’m really sorry’. Then there was silence. I did not trust myself to speak. ‘It’s ok’ he said after a bit, and put his arms around me. Just then he didn’t need to know more than that I’d said it, and I only needed to know that he had heard. Yes, it can take a lifetime to work through the consequences and make reparation. It’s hard to say sorry but harder still to forgive, if my limited experience is any guide. What mattered to me all those years ago were the few brief words that enabled something important to begin. Saying sorry is a speech-act that opens a door.

So who is going to peer into Ms Miller’s heart and say, on the basis of what she said to Parliament, that she didn’t really mean it when she said she was sorry? We can never know what goes on inside another person; it’s hard enough when we try to look into our own hearts. Is this why Jesus says that we should not judge others, lest we come under judgment ourselves? Queen Elizabeth I wisely said, against the puritans of the 16th century, that she would not make windows into mens souls’. Nor should we.

It’s seductive to obsess about feelings and inner motivation. In today’s Guardian, Loose Canon Giles Fraser says that when it comes to forgiving other people it’s what we say and do that matters, not what we feel. ‘Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past.’ We can extend that to all the remembered and forgotten failures and flaws that haunt the present and get in the way of reconciliation.

Perhaps we should take an apology at face value, not try to analyse its level of sincerity but simply say: wrong has been acknowledged and publicly apologised for. The words we needed to hear have been said. It’s not cheap grace to recognise when it’s time to move on.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Equal Marriage: crossing the threshold

Today, equal marriage has become law in England. I want to welcome it and offer congratulations, good wishes and prayers to all who will be getting married today and in the coming weeks. It’s been moving to read stories of the very first ceremonies held in the small hours across the country.

I don’t know what I can add to the debate we have had in state and church over the past months, or for that matter, to what I’ve already blogged on the subject. But here are some thoughts from a Christian perspective as we cross this historic threshold.

First, I recognise how hard this has been for many fellow-Christians, some in this country, but especially overseas. It is unfair to dub all who dissent as homophobic: there are many people of integrity for whom equal marriage is hard to accept. It would have been for me at one time. We need to allow time. Our bishops don't find themselves in an easy position here, so I welcome Justin Welby’s realism about this change and his wish for the church not to campaign against it and pursue hostile agendas but at least to call a truce, and more positively to welcome and embrace gay couples in Christ’s name as they find their home in the church.

Secondly, we shouldn’t be afraid of how this development enlarges our understanding of marriage. Some say that equal marriage is an invalid distortion of marriage as traditionally understood. But if it is, so was the 19th century change in marriage law to allow men to marry their deceased wife’s sister (once forbidden as incestuous in the table of kindred and affinity). More recently, remarriage after divorce and the church’s provision of services of blessing were equally contentious at the time. My point is that neither of these changed the nature of marriage: they simply enlarged its scope by admitting to it people who were once excluded. Equal marriage is another stage in the long evolution of an institution that has been reshaped at different times down the centuries. But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.

Thirdly, I think we need to be more intelligent about thinking biblically in relation to equal marriage. It’s not enough to quote texts by themselves, as if they prove or disprove a particular position: what’s necessary is to understand the direction in which scripture is leading us in the way we reflect on human relationships. I was struck by a conversation the other day with a convinced evangelical who asked: why does the church come across as so hostile to equal marriage when it’s so clear from the Bible that covenanted monogamous lifelong commitment is always better than casual, promiscuous coupling? For the covenanted relationship is precisely how God marries himself to humanity. Shouldn’t the church positively welcome equal marriage as affirming this rich biblical insight into God’s nature and ours? And even if we aren't sure, isn’t it better to risk a more generous way of reading biblical writings rather than a narrower, in the spirit of a text I come back to in so many controversial settings: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). This is the kind of hermeneutical risk I see Jesus taking with Torah texts in the gospels.

Fourthly, let me acknowledge the pain and anger of gay people who continue to feel excluded by the church’s stance on equal marriage. The recent guidance from the House of Bishops has not reassured them, and it’s now clear that some bishops were far from comfortable with the advice they had issued. However, I do not think that this represents a stable position. As equal marriage becomes accepted by society and, as the indications are showing, by the majority of lay people in the church, we shall see a shift in the official stance. In time, the church will accommodate itself to this development, and recognise that by blessing same-sex marriages and even solemnising them, it is affirming the principle that covenanted unions are fundamental to the way we see (and more important, the way God sees) human love. Precisely the same happened with the remarriage of divorced people in church, and with female bishops. It takes time for change to be received and its theological significance understood. It’s not much comfort to those asking the church for recognition now, but in time I believe we shall get there.

And finally. After today, we shouldn’t talk any more about equal marriage, or same-sex marriage or gay marriage, just marriage. I’m glad that one more layer of discrimination and prejudice has been stripped away. It’s a day to celebrate generosity, justice and love. And while I’m sad that the church won’t officially be part of today’s celebrations, that doesn’t stop us rejoicing with all who rejoice, praying with them and blessing them in our hearts.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Week of St Cuthbert: too much attention?

The end of Cuthbert Week. His day was 20 March. On Wednesday and Thursday we had great celebrations in the Cathedral. Today there were family activities in and around the building. This afternoon I welcomed over 120 pilgrims on the annual ‘Cuddy’s Corse’ from Chester-le-Street to Durham. This is a walk organised by the Northumbrian Association to re-enact the last leg of the monks’ long journey bringing Cuthbert’s body, together with the Lindisfarne Gospels, to Durham his final resting place. Led by a Northumbrian piper and the Banner of St Cuthbert, we walked in a merry procession to the shrine where we said prayers.

Our new Bishop was with us on Thursday, the day itself. He tweeted beforehand: ‘Durham Cathedral for my first St Cuthbert’s Day pilgrimage. I suspect Cuthbert would not have liked all the attention.’ It’s an interesting comment. We know from Bede that Cuthbert hoped to be buried on his beloved Inner Farne, but reluctantly recognised that his brothers would want him back on Lindisfarne. We know that he was famous for his simplicity and humility: he would have fought against adulation. If that wasn’t enough, we can be sure that as a Saxon he would have hated the idea of lying interred beneath a Norman cathedral. So the Bishop is right. I reckon Cuthbert would have liked his distant successor's tweet.
Yet this isn't all of the truth. The veneration of Cuthbert as a saint began only a decade after he died. His body was disinterred by his community and miraculously found not to have been corrupted. At once he was pronounced a saint – this was how they ‘canonised’ saints in those days. And this gave Cuthbert back to the world as a man in whom it was believed God had vested special spiritual power. When the Vikings destroyed his monastery on Holy Island and drove his community inland to find safety, they took with them their two most precious possessions: the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Cuthbert’s body. So ‘all the attention’ paid him goes back over a thousand years.
The paradox is that saints tend to be humble and self-effacing: that’s what makes them so attractive to us. The ‘attention’ we give them is a way of honouring a collective memory of goodness and sanctity that is precious. It recognises that their influence is profound, their capacity to inspire us and enlarge our vision undying. Not on account of their words and actions by themselves, but because of what inspired them, Jesus Christ and the gospel. We can be sure that Cuthbert would have said: don’t focus on me, put Jesus at the centre, the Lord for whom I lived and died. All the saints would say the same. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be saints.
Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral recognises this. Above the stone slab with his name on it hangs a 20th century tester showing Christ in Glory surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. It’s as if Cuthbert is lying in his tomb looking upwards directly into the face of Christ the Lord of all. And Christ in turn looks on him as a beloved child, as he does all of us. In the Hebrew Bible, it says that Moses was with God face to face, ‘as someone looks on their friend’. This mutual gaze of recognition and divine friendship is at the heart of religion.
And this, I think, is what St Cuthbert represents to all of us who speak of him as the ‘glory of our sanctuary and ever-living symbol of our apostleship’, as one of our Durham prayers puts it. Through his memory, his companionship and his prayers, he helps us to know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly day by day. And that makes him truly evangelical in his appeal.  

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Lent in Black and White

My last blog was about hearing. This one is about seeing. 

What are you giving up for Lent? someone asks. Colour photography I reply, not wishing to be drawn further. An answer fit for Pseuds’ Corner. But I’m serious. Let me say why.

The point of Lent is to go back to first principles, try to live more simply, practise discipline (askesis, whence ‘asceticism’, meaning simply ‘training’). This isn’t an end in itself: it’s in order to prepare for Easter, the heart of the Christian year. So I asked myself: given my love of photography, could there be a way of keeping Lent through the way I use my camera?
One way would be to give it up altogether. That’s worth serious thought: photography takes time, and one of the gifts of Lent can be to create space for other things, especially God. Another would be to focus on a specific theme as a way into thought, meditation and prayer. That would require imagination, but I imagination is needed to keep Lent creatively.

What I decided to do was to turn off the camera’s colour function and work only in black and white. I do quite a lot of monochrome already, but this has always been by processing colour images. To set the camera to black and white exclusively, and not to photograph in colour at all has felt like a real shift in approach. And I have to say that with the advent of bright March days when landscapes are filling up with the fresh clean colours of spring, it has felt like quite a sacrifice.
However, there have been real rewards. As I often say about photography, it’s to do with seeing in new ways, not just looking at the surface of what is there but ‘seeing into the life of things’ as Wordsworth put it. The camera’s lens and viewfinder are already disciplining our way of seeing by making a choice of what to focus on and putting a frame round it. That involves renunciation – think of all the things we’re not photographing!  Using the medium of black and white is a further refinement of that discipline. And when you get used to ‘seeing’ reality as monochrome, it makes you compose images in new ways. So if Lent is about seeing life differently, photography can be a good metaphor of it.

I prefer the term greyscale to black-and-white because it recognises the infinite subtlety of the medium. Greyscale photography is different from colour because it simplifies the image. Colour is a gift, when it forms part of the photographer’s intention, but it can also be a distraction. Too much of it, or too much variety, or colour that draws too much attention to itself confuses the image and make it less clear what it is supposed to be for.
Greyscale, by concentrating on structure and form, texture, lighting and contrast can bring out patterns and meanings in an image. It can sometimes communicate more directly. Before the invention of the colour photograph, this was understood intuitively: it’s possible that mass photography in that era produced better results than nowadays because there were fewer choices to make And of course in the days of film, it wasn’t possible to take hundreds of snapshots ‘just in case’ as we tend to do in this digital age. Digital is powerful, but it does breed photographic promiscuity.

There may be an unspoken elitism about black and white photography because of its retro aspect: it fits directly into the classical tradition of the documentary image from its 19th century beginnings. I do not want to pander to elitism, because I believe photography is the most democratic of all art forms. I simply want to train my eyes and imagination to see differently, and to discover how the chiaroscuro world of greyscale is just as wonderful and haunting a place as the colourful cosmos we live in. The light and shadows of black and white can be particularly attuned to life’s beauty and tragedy. It is capable of interpreting them with startling clarity. It can cleanse and purify our vision by simplifying it. And because simplicity and Lent belong together, it could be a fertile way of entering into the richness of this season.
I’ve tweeted some early fruits of my mono Lent; and have also written more about photography on my other blog at deanstalks.blogspot.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Ears to Hear: something overheard

‘I can teach you how to hear. But only you can learn to listen.’ That sounds like a typical preacher talking. It could easily have been me. In fact it was the audiologist at Dryburn Hospital where I spent much of the afternoon.

You’ve guessed it, and it’s no great secret: I’ve reached the age when hearing has become a bit of a problem. So I went to a tinnitus group to learn how to manage the condition, and then sat down with a consultant to be fitted out with a hearing-aid.

I’d not looked forward to what I imagined would be large ungainly excrescences over and inside my ears. Nowadays however, they are, pretty discreet. So much so that when I got home later on and sat down with my wife it took her a whole 2 hours to realise I had them in, and only then when I complained about The Archers being too loud.

But they will take some getting used to. Walking home from the hospital was a revelation. My anorak seemed to swish like tin-foil as I walked along. I’d forgotten how noisy a car can be as it accelerates uphill. My own voice, when I said hello in the street, seemed to come from a strange, disembodied place that I couldn’t quite locate. The high-pitched wail of a rusty gate sounded like finger nails dragged across a blackboard. ‘Don’t worry about how disconcerting it is at first’ said the nice audiologist. Your brain will soon adjust.

But what especially struck me as I walked was the sheer richness and variety of the sound world I was part of. The songs of birds in the trees took on a vibrant joyousness that was entirely new to me. I was aware of picking up snatches of amiable conversation as I walked past the shops. In one of the stores there was music, nothing memorable at all, except for the brilliance of its upper registers and the acoustic of the shop interior in which it resonated. I enjoyed the background hum of a city going about its normal Friday afternoon routines. It was if I was hearing in colour once again, and in focus, and not only that but with surround sound to give it all depth and ambience. It was as if I was given back my capacity to listen.

Anyone with a hearing aid will know what a difference the technology can make. It feels as though what was dormant has been brought back to life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear before. But my hearing had become dulled, particularly when there was a lot of background noise or when people weren’t speaking very clearly. Big social events, and American films, were particularly challenging. My children used to gesture to me in imitation of the redoubtable Mrs Richards in that wonderful episode of Fawlty Towers where disasters of all kinds follow from the simple inability to hear and communicate. I hope, for myself, that from now on I’ll be more aware of those whose hearing difficulties are far worse than mine, and who are entirely or largely cut off from the sounds that make life such an auditory gift.  

‘Those who have ears to hear, let them hear’ says the Gospel. Like looking and seeing, hearing and listening are frequent images of taking in and grasping a life-changing message. To be able to hear well so that we can listen and understand is truly life-changing. I glimpsed, or rather I overheard, that today.