Monday, 30 January 2012

On Values

Today I took part in a seminar on values and behaviours at the University.  This is part of a process commissioned by the University Council to come up with a statement encapsulating what we recognise to be our values as an organisation. 

It sounds like the sort of worthy exercise beloved of all self-respecting boards and committees: we have the strategic aims and KPIs, we have the plan and smart objectives, now let's deal with the 'how' as well as the 'why', 'what' and 'when': how we do what we do, the value 'brand' that identifies who we (believe we) are and aspire to be.  And true enough, the consultants' paperwork had plenty of corporate-speak, that tiresome language that is often no more than code for: 'we know the organisational theory and have learned the discourse; we are to be taken seriously, and even if we are an educational institution - or a church - we can hold our own in the tough world of business'. 

Actually, the exercise was a lot more interesting - and difficult - than that.  Once we got beyond wordsmithing, recycling the familiar slogans and formulae that any committee could come up with, we got into some really interesting debates.  We agreed that we wanted to find a fresh language that would genuinely capture what Durham stands for, and how it is distinctive.  I asked questions about wisdom, knowledge, justice, generosity and truth: weren't these the kind of values we should be aspiring to, and encouraging one another to emulate? 

There was a lot of talk about 'excellence in all things' until someone said that this was not necessarily a virtue: wisdom consists in knowing when to be content with what is 'good enough' so as to release energy and resource to focus on what does need to be truly excellent.  Trivial example: a top-flight academic, taking a 15 minute meal break while engaged in world-class pioneering research, might not crave 'excellence' in sustenance, but be content with a 'good-enough' mug of tomato soup and a cheese sandwich instead.  So 'good enough when we need it to be' might be an important value too.

In the Cathedral the Chapter and others have spent several months working on a purpose statement.  It has been a rewarding journey.  We now need to do a similar piece of work on our own values.  I am hoping to learn from the University how we might do this, but tonight convinced me that it is not a task that can be accomplished quickly.  And even when we have a form of words that we recognise as 'us', it can take years for the process of 'reception' to happen so that the values are lived out in all that we do at every level. 

Meanwhile, we could do worse than embed the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life into our organisations, and ask all leaders and trustees to sign up to them.  These are:

  • Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

  • Integrity – Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.

  • Objectivity – In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

  • Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

  • Openness – Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

  • Honesty – Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

  • Leadership – Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.


  • Hard to improve on, I think.  Unless it is by adopting the values of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.3-8). 

    Friday, 27 January 2012

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Today we had over 300 children in the Cathedral to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.  They came from schools all over County Durham, and they were joined by the Chairman and the Leader of the County Council and other civic dignitaries.  There were workshops in the morning, including holocaust-related art and storytelling and a visit to the Anne Frank for Schools exhibition in the Galilee.

    The afternoon session was a plenary in the nave.  It began with the recitation of the Kaddish (in Hebrew and English) for the victims of genocide given by an orthodox Jew.  This was followed by an address from a survivor from the camp at Bergen-Belsen, Rudi Oppenheimer.  He spoke about growing up in Berlin and in German-occupied Holland. Movingly, he passed round the yellow Star of David labelled (in Dutch) 'Jew' which he was forced to wear on his clothing.  He described life in the relatively benign transit camp at Westerbork, and then facing the full horrors of Bergen-Belsen.  He told us about the loss of his grandparents and parents, and about the long journey to liberation. 

    The children asked several questions.  Three were especially telling: 'how did you feel when you heard about your parents' death?', 'did you think you were going to die?' and 'do you feel bitter towards the Germans?'  Rudi answered these without evasion.  He spoke about the suppression of emotion in the camps, how all effort was focused on staying alive for another day.  He talked about the importance of not harbouring hatreds: he did not hold the German people of today responsible for the atrocities of the Nazi regime.  But he acknowledged that for him it was impossible to forgive on behalf of others, such as his murdered parents. Only the victims can speak for themselves, he said. 

    Tough truth for school children to face, but necessary, for children and for adults alike. In my summing up, I spoke about my being a second-generation survivor whose Jewish mother fled from Nazi Germany and was given asylum in Britain.  This has coloured my entire life. I then quoted Edmund Burke: 'for evil to flourish, it is necessary only that good men do nothing'.  This is why Holocaust Memorial Day matters: so that we, who think of ourselves as good people, do not stand silently by, but do what we can by speaking up for victims everywhere, and speaking out against the wrong. 

    At evensong today, when the prayers focused on racial hatred and genocide, I pondered further the issue of forgiveness and the insights Christianity has to bring to the way we re-imagine a post-holocaust world.  Except that Bosnia, and Rwanda, and the Sudan, and now northern Nigeria remind us that we have yet to enter that world.

    Saturday, 21 January 2012

    On photography

    A friend lent me his new zoom lens to try out, so today I spent a happy morning with it. (For those who want to know, it was the Canon 18-200 with IS, which I attached to my 7D to see how it would perform.) In the cold clear light of January, wrapped up against a brisk wind, I walked down the Bailey to do some street photography, along the river banks where rowers provided a moving subject, then up to Kingsgate Bridge where the low sun was bringing the modern structure into sharp relief against its watery and sylvan setting. Back on the Bailey, I experimented with some architectural shots of the Cathedral's east front (in all its glory now that the student-proof fence has at last been taken down after 30 years). Back in the College, I took some close-up images of the 18th century sculptures on the water-tower.

    The results were striking. My own super-zoom has never achieved images as good as these. It illustrates the truth that however good the camera, it can never be better than its lens (and indeed its human operator). Of course, sharpness is only part of what makes a good photograph. It's possible to make too much of it at the expense of what matters most in an image which is its composition. Some kinds of image, portraits for instance, should not be over-sharp. But a good lens gives the photographer the choice in this that he or she needs. Today, my eyes were opened to my camera could achieve.

    'My eyes were opened.' It is a familiar phrase from spiritual autobiography: 'I was blind, now I can see' - the story in John chapter 10 of the man whose blindness Jesus healed is meant as a metaphor of how life is changed when we encounter God.   Eyes opened, seeing in a new way, is a powerful idea. In Calvin's Institutes, faith in the living word of the scriptures is likened to putting on glasses that bring everything back into focus again. 18th century rationalists borrowed the image when they coined their movement the 'Enlightenment', successfully exploiting its religious resonances.

    Photography is about a way of seeing the world. This is not simply a matter of bringing it into focus (the job of the lens) but of using the discipline of the frame to make connections and elicit meanings (the art of the photographer). It is as much related to insight as to sight - what Gerard Manley Hopkins called 'inscape'. Because this is the essential character of photography, the use of the camera's viewfinder is pretty much essential, I believe. 'Live view' is certainly useful when a shot is physically awkward to take, but it should never substitute for the true live view that eye and viewfinder together provide. 'A new way of seeing' means that we need the camera to be an extension of the eye, not a substitute for it. The fact that it is almost impossible nowadays to buy a compact camera with a viewfinder ought to worry us about what is happening to photography.

    The spirituality of photography is a rich theme. Thomas Merton, who was both a gifted writer and photographer, spoke about how it helped him to deepen his contemplative life, to 'see into the life of things'. A borrowed lens helped me to glimpse this today.

    Friday, 20 January 2012

    In Limine Sapientiae

    'At the threshold of wisdom' is the motto of the University of York. Jenny and I were there for our daughter Ellie's graduation. Her degree is in mental health, and as the names of the graduands were read out, I pondered the Latin motto, an apt aspiration for anyone engaged in mental healthcare, indeed, for anyone engaged in anything at all. I should know where this tag comes from; but whatever its source, I like its pleasing modesty, as if to say: all the knowledge, all the learning, all the skill in the world can only bring us to the threshold of wisdom and invite us to discover how to cross it for ourselves and become truly wise.

    Wisdom goes hand in hand with self-knowledge and awareness. The young people like Ellie who today took another step in their vocation to care for those with mental health needs were committing themselves to journey the path of wisdom and to beginning the all-important task of accompaniment - walking alongside others and helping them not only to find health but also wisdom. Being the midwife of others' healing is a very priestlike task, which is perhaps why the ceremony felt like an ordination without religion. There was organ music and a procession, a homily from Greg Dyke about being true to yourself, and after each handshake the handing over of an instrument (like the delivery of the Bible at ordination), in this case the degree certificate and a dossier about alumni relations. Degree ceremonies evolved out of ordinations (because they conferred a licence to teach) and it is striking how much of the memory remains in the ritual shape of the event.

    I go to all the Durham congregation ceremonies in the Cathedral, and because clergy are professionally interested in the practice of ceremony and ritual it was valuable today to observe how another university does it. York is less formal than Durham, no doubt because the environment is so different, but it was pleasing that both the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor were taking part. This is always the case at Durham too, a big contrast to the university at which my son graduated, where neither was present, and half the chairs on the platform were empty. A nice personal touch for me was that one of the professors presenting candidates turned out to be a former school friend, last seen 40 years ago. We have since exchanged emails.

    Monday, 16 January 2012

    A Writing Day

    I have spent most of today writing, a rarity for a dean these days.  Today is dubbed 'Blue Monday', i.e. the most depressing day of the year when post-Christmas, with bills piling up and the days still short, you are at higher risk of committing suicide than at any other time, or at the very least will struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  None of this was in my mind when I put a line through the diary to stay at home and write today.  But although the sun has shone brilliantly from its rising to its setting, I have felt the listlessness of this low time of year.  It has been a day when I have not ventured further from the Deanery than my stall in the Cathedral, and I can make that daily commute without even going outside.  It is too easy when you live and work in a cathedral close not to go outside the enclosure for days at a time.  Here in Durham where we live on a peninsula with water on three sides, it is especially important to venture off this privileged almost-isle and show your face in the big wide world beyond. 

    But back to writing. I am trying to finish a book called 'Lost Sons' which, the publisher patiently reminds me every so often, was due over a year ago.  It started life as a series of Holy Week addresses I gave in the Cathedral two years ago (or was it more?).  I took five stories from the book of Genesis about sons who had become 'lost' to their fathers in various ways: murder (Abel), abandonment (Ishmael), binding (Isaac), supplanting (Esau) and betrayal (Joseph).  I linked these with the passion narrative where, I suggested, Jesus was himself 'lost' at the cross in all these ways (betrayal, supplanting, binding, abandonment and murder).  But this Lost Son is 'found' again through resurrection, and being found is a theme in some of the Old Testament narratives too.  The other controlling story in all this is the parable of the prodigal son.  Having worked up the original addresses into full-length chapters, my task now is to write new chapters on the characters I did not include in the series.  Today I have finished Canaan, the cursed son.  Next up will be Adam the banished son, and finally Moses the hidden son. 

    Does this work?  Not as a formal theological scheme.  Only Adam, Isaac and Moses feature significantly in the New Testament as in any sense 'types' of Christ.  So it is important not to claim too much: in one way, this is simply an essay in biblical inter-textuality, identifying stories with suggestive cross-references, whether these are sanctioned by the text or simply evident as narrative themes with elements in common across different texts.  Yet it is interesting to see how the passion story 'gathers up' so much that is present in the Genesis stories, consciously or unconsciously.  Its first readers would have known these stories intimately and perhaps (who knows) made intuitive connectons along these lines: 'it's thought-provoking that Jesus is portrayed as the abandoned son left to die alone ('my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?') just as Ishmael was left to die in the desert, abandoned by the father who had taken such pains to beget a son and heir'. 

    It is easier to write afresh than to work up existing material.  For one thing, new writing on a blank canvas flows so much better; for another, it takes some effort to re-enter older material in order to bring it to life in a different milieu and for a different audience (which is why recycled sermons do not usually work, even when preachers admit to this practice which is not often).  Perhaps this explains the struggles I have had in writing this.  Or maybe it is to do with the content.  After all, I am somebody's son, and I have a son of my own.  These themes of being lost and found touch our human lives as a profound level.  It is out of that awareness that I want to write, and such writing comes slowly at times because it can feel like a costly personal commitment. Which is good, if not always comfortable.   

    Sunday, 15 January 2012

    Preliminary canter

    When I was at school our Latin master would set beginners' exercises which he called a 'preliminary canter' or PC. This was to limber up, get the hang of a new declension or conjugation before venturing out into the more demanding terrain of unseen translation.

    Regard this as the PC of a blogging learner. Last week it was learning how to Tweet, so a new ICT skill a week isn't a bad aspiration for a new year. I'll give this a try through Epiphany and Lent, and see how it looks and feels at Easter. I have no idea whether there will be anyone out there is cyberspace to read this, but the discipline of wool-gathering in print feels like photography, a way of noticing, paying attention, reflecting on what we experience. If you are overhearing this (I suppose I mean over-looking it, but not in tab usual sense if that word) I look forward to hearing from you from time to time.

    Inhabiting a great cathedral (Durham) where I live, work and pray, it ought to be impossible not to live reflectively. The stones cry out for it. Worship in the Cathedral twice a day calls us afresh to it, reminds us that the unreflected life is not worth living. But it is too easy to take it all for granted, forget that places like this were built to make us wise (among other things). The day to day job of leadership is all-consuming: a great galleon such as this takes many skilled hands and clear heads to keep it on course. (I learned a lot about cathedrals by reading right through the Hornblower novels when I first became a dean 17 years ago - maybe more about that some day.) But it is a privilege to lead the team of people who are the guardians of the cathedral's heritage, spirituality, common life and mission, even if it sometimes keeps me awake at night (which is when I am most likely to blog, so long silences may simply mean that I am going through a welcome period of sleeping peacefully).