Today I got a web alert to tell me that a job has been advertised on the CofE website. Mine. DEAN OF DURHAM it says in big letters. That it should appear today, 4 September, is something to note. This is the anniversary of the day in 1104 when the relics of St Cuthbert were laid in their new shrine at the east end of Durham Cathedral. It was a great festival in Durham in the middle ages. Please don't tell me it's just a coincidence that the world learns today that Durham is looking for a new Dean. Especially when this one was installed in the Cathedral on the other St Cuthbert's Day, the anniversary of his death on 20 March 2003.
It's odd, staring at an ad for your own job before you've even left it. (I should say that I was asked months ago if I was happy for the appointment process to begin while I was still in office, and I readily agreed to it: it's in everyone's interests to see the next Dean in post as soon as possible.) But seeing the ad in cold print and reading the detailed documentation that went with it made me stop and think. A bit like stepping on your own grave. My first flippant thought was: if I applied for this post now, would I even make it to the short list?
Enough said. I am going to be scrupulous about not commenting on matters to do with the succession. Except to say that whoever is appointed will find him- or herself in a truly wonderful place inhabited by an equally wonderful community. It's been hugely rewarding to complete my full-time ministry by serving these dozen years at Durham Cathedral. I can honestly say that I have never been happier.
But it's my next thought that has haunted me all day. This is actually happening, I realised. It's real and irrevocable. The die is cast. In less than a month I shall become part of history, the thirty-ninth Dean whose name is engraved on the Bishops, Priors and Deans board outside St Cuthbert's shrine. It's not quite in memoriam. The name board is not a grave slab - yet - though it will be one day. Of all Durham's Priors and Deans, only two of us are still alive.
But when I stop and muse in front of it as I regularly do - because I enjoy lists and names and dates - I don't think morbid thoughts. On the contrary, I'm reminded that the recollection of the past is always a vital aspect of our sense of place and belonging. These servants of God still live on in our collective memory. This grand alabaster tablet is a celebration of so many honourable and good people who have given their lives to this place and left their mark on it, some of them heroically. Even after twelve years, I still feel keenly the privilege of seeing my name among them. I have tried not to take it for granted.
As I look back after the end of this month, I want to be able to say, 'This was the best of me'. Pray God that I shall be able to. Each step in this long drawn-out rite of passage called 'retirement' is an opportunity not for regrets but for thankfulness: to contemplate the past with a deeper awareness of the goodness of God, and to look forward expectantly to the days that lie ahead.
Yes, sunt lacrimae rerum: there are tears in things too, and no doubt they are permitted when we come to say farewell. As I've blogged before, leaving Durham is going to be a big wrench. But I shall - from afar - share the celebrations that will surround the appointment and arrival of the fortieth Dean. This Cathedral is the focus of so much prayer, affection and love across the world. It will give to the next Dean as generously as it has given to me. It's that kind of place, that kind of community, like its saints, especially beloved Cuthbert whom we honour today. And ultimately, that is how God is, for love is his nature and his name.
You can find the papers about the post at https://www.churchofengland.org/clergy-office-holders/aaad/vacancies/dean-of-durham.aspx