Saturday, 29 October 2016

Jacob and the Angel: meditation on a doorstep


There's a striking medieval sculpture on the door-jamb of the north west door as you go inside the great Basilica at Vézelay in Burgundy. It's the only piece of Romanesque you'll see outside - all the rest is imitation by the nineteenth century architect Viollet le Duc who restored the crumbling church. This one sculpture is worth pausing by before you venture into the narthex and the glories that are there.

It shows Jacob wrestling with the angel. It's derived from the story that is told in Genesis 32.

The same night he [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (New Revised Standard Version, quoted with acknowledgment.)

It's a strange, unsettling story that's given plenty of scope to the commentators - whole books have been written about it. But the context in Genesis makes it clear that it's a pivotal experience for Jacob. He is anxious at the prospect of meeting his elder twin Esau whom he has defrauded of both his birthright and his inheritance. This night-time watery struggle with an unknown visitant seems to symbolise a profound inward uncertainty, not to say conflict, about both his identity and destiny. It's as if he needs to become aware that life is far more mysterious and elusive than he has hitherto grasped. Only when he has come to this point of recognition is he capable of coming out of the water and continuing his journey. He has prevailed and found blessing, yet his unknown - unknowable? - assailant will not disclose himself. Why is it that you ask my name? Yet Jacob acquire a new name for himself, that of a victor. Israel means "a prince with God". This, and the sun rising upon him, both suggest that a defining and life-changing rite of passage has taken place.


Let's look at it as the sculpture presents it, particularly in relation to its position at the entrance of the church. (We must bear in mind that this may not be its original medieval setting - I've not been able to find out whether the or not the Victorian restoration may be responsible for placing it there.) To see the capital squarely, you have to face across the doorway and look south. That's to say, you need to stop and turn to it. I find that in itself significant. Crossing any threshold is always an action that is significant - that's why gates and doorways are so often highlighted architecturally as places of special symbolism. And when it's a doorway into a sacred space, you can expect it to be particularly charged with life-meanings.


So what is this beautiful sculpture saying to us who enter (or leave) the church?

I think it's something like this. When you cross this threshold of a church, you are entering a world that is not altogether like our everyday lives. Here, we grasp how life is about more than what we can see or touch or handle. The mystery of things is recognised and acknowledged, what Rudolph Otto in his book on religious experience The Idea of the Holy famously described as Mysterium Tremens et Fascinans. Religion is not all light and certain conviction - far from it. There is a shadow, a night-time aspect in which unknowing, doubt, struggle and even fear rise to the surface. We long for the sunrise and the clear light of day, and we imagine that this is what will be vouchsafed in the sacred space set apart for the worship of God. After all, isn't religion supposed to be about illumination and enlightenment? Instead, we often find ourselves immersed into even greater mystery where big questions are opened up - about the world, about ourselves, about what life is all about, about suffering and pain, about God himself.


All this, I think, is symbolised by the sculpture that guards the portal of the church. As you look at it, the angel has his back to the light so that he casts a shadow across Jacob. (Paradoxically, the only time Jacob's face is lit up is when the setting sun in the west illuminates the west front of the Basilica.) That angelic shadow contains both a warning and a promise. It warns us: don't expect easy answers in here. Religious faith won't provide them. It may be a discomforting place where you will feel your anxieties and dilemmas - if, that is, you come in as a truth-seeker rather than a pretender or play-actor.

But there's a promise too in Jacob's face and the sun that lights it up. It assures us that by crossing this threshold and entering into the mystery of the "holy" on the other side, we shall be given what we need more than anything else to negotiate the complexities of life: courage, hope, the sense of not being alone, confidence in a future (symbolised by the sunrise) that we are drawn towards, reassurance that all shall be well. We shall be given tools to make important connections. Religion is not an easy rescue from our troubles but a way of facing them with integrity and faith.

Charles Wesley wrote a famous hymn Come, O thou Traveller Unknown based on this story. One of its verses goes thus:

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.


And in the next verse comes the marvellous discovery: Thy nature and Thy Name is Love! In the story, in the sculpture, in the hymn, it has taken a life-and-death struggle to reach this point. Faith is hard-won, and the older we get, the more we are right to suspect that it is not always going to be easy. But that's precisely what makes the journey worth travelling. And if we are limping because the struggle has been hard, it's evidence that we have experienced something real. In the dark, it was "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God". But when the day breaks and the shadows flee away, we know that this is precisely where our humanity, our safety and our healing lie.

Monday, 24 October 2016

In France: the view from the hill

We spent last week in France, in our little Burgundian hilltop village where we are lucky enough to have a small house. It's lovely at all times of the year but especially in autumn when the landscape is shot through with reds and golds, and wood smoke from the first fires hangs in the air, and the village goes quiet as it draws itself in for the winter.
 
It was our first trip to the continental mainland since the Brexit vote. You'll know if you read my last blog that we were curious to see how it would feel. Vézelay is not a place where you hear politics being debated in the street. Our village, a UNESCO world heritage site, is officially listed as one of France's most beautiful. Its economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism - it's said that nearly a million visit it each year. So the talk is more likely to be about the ups and downs of the hotels and restaurants, car-parking (always guaranteed to get villagers going) and of course the weather. Contrary to what's commonly thought, the British are not unique in loving to gossip about the weather. And you'll also hear about it if Monsieur le Maire has been up to something that means change in the time-honoured village way of doing things such as new office hours in the Mairie, the introduction of differently coloured bin bags or alterations in the one-way traffic system.

So the streets were not reverberating to heated debates about Brexit. Anyway, that's old news now.  But it wasn't difficult to get a reaction when I raised the topic myself. On our first day there I went to the Mairie to get my resident's car-parking permit. Benoît (not his real name) who sits in the office each morning and deals with enquiries had plenty to say about it. "Ah, la grande bêtise anglaise! What fools you English are!" he said without ceremony. "I've never cared overmuch for the English" (looking at me with affection - or was it pity?) "but surely, for God's sake, we were better off together than apart. Have you forgotten the war?" (It's characteristic of the French to elide "English" with "British" but of course he was right in that it was the English vote that largely swung it for Brexit.) I managed to get in my désolé de la part de mon pays before he rushed on: "and here we are in Burgundy, of all places. In the Middle Ages, it was England and Burgundy against France, as Joan of Arc knew to her cost. How could you do this to your historic ally?"

This last bit was laced with a heavy sarcasm: even my hesitant French could pick that up. But he had a serious point to make. "I'm deeply committed to the European scout movement and have been for many years. It's completely internationalist in its outlook, bringing young people together from across the continent. It's how the world should be in miniature: a place of friendship and reconciliation where we each out to one another and despite our differences try to understand and live alongside one another as neighbours." Then he proffered a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. "Ah well, so be it. I dare say that where the English lead, we too may follow one day. Tant pis for us all. And then what will have become of all our fine dreams about a better world?"

Our expat friends in the department of the Yonne had plenty to say about the referendum as you'd expect. Those who had lived in France longer than fifteen years were especially sore about having been denied a vote for reasons that seemed to them entirely arbitrary. More serious was the likely effect of Brexit on whole areas of their lives in France. Already their sterling earnings or pensions are worth a quarter less in euros than they were before June. They do not know whether the excellent health care they enjoy in France will continue to be available to them in the future, whether there will be implications for owning property, what the tax regime and welfare benefits will look like, what formalities there will be for travel to and fro between the UK and France, and a thousand other concerns.

More than anything else I was aware of what I would describe as a low level sense of dislocation, suddenly feeling more "foreign" than before. It wasn't big, yet, but it was there. Some mentioned worries about relationships in their local community. None of them had experienced any direct hostility, though one friend said she had been harried on a narrow local road and almost driven into the ditch by a driver who, she presumed, had seen her UK number plates and was making a point. No one was talking much about returning to Blighty - all the people we know are well embedded in Burgundy; they have made their life there and feel part of their communities to which they contribute in many different ways.
 
But the air was charged with unspoken "what-ifs". They had all voted Remain, or would have done if they'd had a vote. But now there was a degree of uncertainty around that was troubling. One or two said they were surprised by the strength of the anger they felt at a turn of events that would not only prove hugely damaging but had been unnecessary to begin with. But now the genie was out of the bottle. There was nothing anyone could do but wait and see what happened, and practise the art of resignation. I suppose that's true of all of us who think that something incredibly precious has been needlessly wrecked as a result of the referendum. But expats understandably feel it all the more sharply when it seems as if the place they've come to call home isn't quite the same as it was before.
 
Today we sailed back across the narrow stretch of water that divides Britain from France. As I write this, the refugee camp at Calais, the so-called Jungle, is being dismantled. Some of its children have been granted asylum in the UK, but too few, too late and in circumstances that hardly bring credit to this country. Meanwhile, France is dispersing the many who are left behind to other camps across the country. The man most likely to be elected as President next year is talking about relocating the UK border where it belongs after Brexit, on the English side of the Channel, and letting us deal with the refugee problem ourselves. It's just another symptom of a pulling up of the drawbridge and the fracturing of good relations and fruitful collaboration that once characterised our place in the European Union. We may claim that Britain is "open for business" but it sounds pretty hollow at the moment, whether we're talking about the economic business of trade or the political business of day to day relationships between states.
 
No-one in France made us feel unwelcome or gave us the cold shoulder. We love being on our Burgundian hill and last week was no exception. But somehow, being there brought it home to me that by voting to leave the EU we have treated our European neighbours and allies with little less than contempt. We have turned our back on people who thought of us as friends, bound together by more than a century of entente cordiale. That feels deeply uncomfortable. And I haven't the faintest idea what to do about it. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

At Sea

Some scribblings from the middle of the North Sea. We are on the Hull-Zeebrugge night ferry. The wind is in the east and there is a swell running; not uncomfortable but enough of a lilt to remind you where you are. Laurens Van der Post recalled from his childhood at sea, that when you are aboard a ship, it's as if you feel the fingers of God moving beneath you. 

Being seaborne, "between lands", has added symbolism at the moment. This week, the news is once again dominated by Brexit: what kind of deal our country is likely to secure when it leaves the European Union, what it will cost, how our political relationships with the rest of our continent will be configured, whether or not Parliament will be actively involved in shaping this unknown future. 

The UK is still part of the Union. We haven't said farewell just yet. But somehow it feels different from just a few months ago. At that time, most of us Remainers believed we would win the referendum vote - not necessarily overwhelmingly, but convincingly enough (though if you follow this blog you'll know that I became rather less sanguine in the days just before the vote). But it didn't take long for the Brexit decision to register. Within hours, the pound had plummeted. David Cameron announced that he would resign (what is it with politicians who won't stay on long enough to live with their misjudgments - which this referendum was, I believe, from the outset - and see through the consequences?). 

When it came to the EU leaders' summit in Bratislava, the UK wasn't there with the twenty seven at precisely the time when we should have been cultivating goodwill among our (for the time being) partners. We should have been explaining ourselves to a baffled continent. Increasingly the atmosphere has changed from fraternal collegiality (not without its tensions at times to be sure) to a clear sense of estrangement where the talk is of "us and them". The rhetoric on both sides is becoming more hawkish, less open to negotiation and compromise. The UK can expect a hard time - that's the message from Brussels and Strasbourg. We've made our bed. We must lie on it. 

So here I am, a Europhile at sea in both a literal and a figurative sense. This is my first blog on the EU since just after the referendum, and I have to say that I have yet to come to terms with the outcome. Others have written about the Brexit decision in terms of grieving, and that's my experience too. I keep coming back to what we have lost - or rather, not lost because it was taken away from us but thrown away of our own free will. The stages of grief are not a linear process. You can feel angry and empty and lost, and you can search, and you can want to come to terms and negotiate, and you can be tearful and resigned all at once or in rapid succession, and then find that you're going through the cycle all over again as if experiencing it afresh. 

And what uncannily mimics bereavement caused by a death is that the landscape ahead is truly unknown. No-one knew what they were voting for when they opted to leave the EU in June even if they think they did, or politicians and the media tell them they did. We are still no nearer to knowing, though it looks as though a "hard" Brexit is on the cards and "softer" options are being ruled out. Everything is expressed as negativity: we (I speak collectively of the nation) have decided only on what we do not want without having any idea about what we do. This is an alarming place to be: like the North Sea at night, there are no landmarks and no lights, just the sea churning restlessly beneath our feet and the hope that the voyage will lead is to a good destination. 

This is our first trip to "the Continent" since June. We don't know what will have changed in our relationship with neighbours and friends in the little Burgundian village where we go. Quite possibly nothing at all: the best human relationships are bigger than our political changes and chances, and friendship is not going to founder on these shoals. But I expect a certain degree of bemusement: we Brits have always been an enigma to the French, and Brexit may simply strengthen their belief that we are a pretty crazy nation. Some will recall de Gaulle's "Non!" when the UK first applied to join the Common Market and mutter that the EU is better off without us. Who's to say they are not right? - Britain was never the EU's most passionate champion of the European vision. There may even be a few who follow Marine Le Pen and think it's high time the French did the same and left the Union. 

But something has shifted in me and I find it disconcerting. My German ancestry has given me a profound sense of attachment to Europe. I've been proud to carry the words "European Union" on my passport and think of myself as a citizen an entire continent. I belong. But all that seems more provisional now. I feel myself being pulled back into an island mentality, less sure about my identity, less confident about stepping on to a shore that may appear more "foreign". It's a question of shades and hues, not strongly delineated structures or shapes. It's subtle and elusive, this repositioning process. It's happening over time, and the fugitive pieces may not settle into a clear picture for months or years to come. 

I've been reading a little book called How to be an Exile in England. It's by a Hungarian who has been living in London and writes humorously about how foreigners need to understand and navigate our odd national traits. I picked it up not just for the sake of being amused but because the title resonated. For while I am pulled back into an island mentality as I've said, I've also felt myself to be more alienated within my own country. There's so much that I simply don't recognise as British: the xenophobia, the populist contempt for migrant workers, the self-interest that is now driving politics, the eclipse of a liberal, generous and inclusive vision of society, the insularity of outlook in relation to the global crises that threaten humanity.... I could go on. We've all seen how the referendum has spawned a dark side of the British character that has taken us by surprise. To me the book's theme of being an exile in England feels oddly accurate. 

And deeply disturbing. Here on this North Sea ferry, I'm "between lands". And that's what Brexit is making of us who believe that we are making the biggest collective mistake we have witnessed in our lifetimes. It may take a generation for the nation to find its new identity and role in the world and establish itself in it. I probably won't live to see it. But faith helps me to see that even in adversity we must not give in to despondency. We must commit to the journeys we find ourselves making and invest in them as best we can for the sake of a good future for us all. So we keep our hope alive for our continent, our nation and ourselves. Good can come out of this even if we can't yet glimpse it. Brexit could mean a desperate narrowing of our horizons. But if it were to lead to serious reflection on our destiny as a nation, the reinvention of ourselves as a force for good in a turbulent world, that would be something to welcome. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Girl on the Train

She started the conversation. The train was pulling out of Newcastle Central Station. It was crowded. At the last minute, a teenage girl got on and sat down next to me. As we gathered speed across the King Edward VII Bridge, she looked out across the Tyne and suddenly asked, "What makes the bridge stay up? What stops us tumbling into the river below?" 

I answered that Edward VII is a girder bridge and tried to explain how it works. And since we were crossing the Tyne, I mentioned suspension and cantilever bridges too and was glad that she didn't ask me to elaborate. Then she got her earphones out and started listening to her music. I went back to my book. 

But I'd already noticed that the device on the table in front of her was not a smart phone or tablet, but an old-fashioned CD Walkman ("Discman"). What memories that silvery saucer-sized disc brought back. How retro!  How 1990s! I'd no idea anyone still used them, least of all hi-tech-habituated teenagers. Emboldened by her curiosity about bridges, I indulged mine about her technology. "I used to have an iPhone" she said. "But I lost it. And I realised that I didn't need all this digital connectivity. I want to feel and touch life for what it is, not through a screen. All I need is a simple player for music and a basic phone for emergencies." I asked her what she was listening to. John Lennon, she replied. "I'd love to have been alive in the Sixties. People seemed kinder then than they are now."

Already nostalgic at the tender age of - what? sixteen? It sounded like a cue to reminisce for half an hour. But (to her credit) she didn't give me time to get going. She began to tell me about her ambitions in life. "I want to be a free spirit" she said, "I want to travel, see the world, enjoy myself, find out who I am. I want to experience the beauty of nature and the beauty human beings have made. The trouble is, my education isn't feeling like a preparation for really entering into life at its fullest. There are so many rules and obligations, so many oughts and shoulds, hoops I have to jump through, hurdles to stagger over. So who knows what will become of me? Anyway, the world is such an uncertain place. Anything can happen."

That was quite a speech. But as if awkward about having disclosed a little of herself to a stranger, she turned to me. "What do you do?" she inquired, winsomely imagining that I was nowhere near superannuation. The young are not always very accurate when it comes to judging age. "I used to be the Dean at Durham Cathedral" I answered. "I'm a priest." "Wow!" She exclaimed. She thought for a moment. The first part of my reply was proving a bit easier for her to get her head around than the second. "I love Durham Cathedral" she said. "I've been there several times. Didn't they film Harry Potter there?" (But then she admitted coyly that she'd not actually seen the Potter films.) She was in full flow now. "I love ancient places. I want to see the Pyramids one day. Can you go inside them? They're burial places, aren't they? I'd like to be buried in my very own pyramid." And why not, I thought. Go for it.

Back to her music and my book. But not for long. "I went to Beamish the other day" she announced. "All that old technology - the coal mine, the trams, the old shops, the chapel, the cobbles, the steam engine - what a wonderful world it must have been when everything was like that. It's why I'm not interested in the digital world. The old world feels more honest, somehow. You can see it, touch it, feel its solidity and toughness." I told her about Flying Scotsman that not many days before had been running over the very rails we were hastening along. She didn't seem to have heard of the legendary locomotive but was excited at the thought of it. I almost recommended her to google it and see it for herself but realised that for her this was very definitely not the thing to say. 

When it was time to get off at my stop, I found myself saying: "It's been a lovely conversation. Thank you. Don't let anyone ever take away from you your vision of life, the beautiful way in which you see and talk about the world. Keep the dream alive and live it. Yes," I admitted, I hope not too portentously, "this is a priest talking of course, so I would say this; but what matters is that people see visions and dream dreams. There is so much cruelty and wrong all around us. But if you can somehow not lose your hope, the vision you've caught of the goodness of things, you'll not only be a richer person in yourself but also a real gift to others. And I hope that your education, rather than being an ordeal that gets in the way, can be an important part of that journey you're making." 

I doubt the girl on the train (what else can I call her?) would welcome the epithet rapturous. Joyous maybe, or hope-filled or innocent or wholesome. Or all of them. How do I put this without sentimentality? For without a trace of self-consciousness, she seemed to echo the glowing vision of William Blake's art and poetry allied to the belief of John Ruskin and William Morris that there must be a fundamental honesty in the character and quality, the craft and the tools of living. There needs to be simplicity, what Jesus calls purity of heart. Above all, life must be experienced directly, face to face if we are to be fully human. There's time enough for her to learn that the old technology she admired was itself new and cutting edge once, that it was as much mistrusted in its own time as she mistrusts today's. 

And that goes even for her beloved Discman and Nokia brick phone. There's time enough for her to gain a historical perspective that will put things in their place. But she was reminding me that the new technologies, for all the good that they can bring us, need to be used with awareness, with, if you like, Blakean simplicity and purity of heart. We need to maintain a critical eye to our own integrity. We need to make good choices about the degree to which we become dependent on the powers we have created for ourselves. She will get there, of that I've no doubt. She's bright, and her instincts are sound.

I didn't say any of that of course. I was happy just to listen. The young can be wonderfully refreshing company, I've found as I've grown older. So the other thing I didn't say, but felt, was that this unlooked-for conversation with a teenager was a gift.  I've not been so touched by a chance encounter for a long time. Whoever she is, she shone another shaft of light on what had already been a good day. One of those "angels unawares"?

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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

Evensong

It isn't quite the BBC's longest running show - which is The Week's Good Cause. But it is the Beeb's longest running outside broadcast. 90 years ago on 7 October 1926, the BBC broadcast Choral Evensong for the first time. By the time I was old enough to be vaguely aware of ethereal singing mysteriously seeping out of the big valve radio in the corner of the living room, it had been going for more than 30 years. At the age of 90 it's more popular than ever.

Last week the national cathedral attendance statistics for 2015 were published. They showed a striking increase in weekday attendances, up by 18% over the past decade. This includes weekday celebrations of the eucharist and the daily office, including of course choral evensong. (Sunday attendance remains "stable".) In some choral foundations you have to turn up in very good time to be sure of a seat in the quire. 

What is it about evensong that continues to draw people to cathedrals, greater churches and college chapels? I can't put it better than the writer of a letter to The Times, quoted by one of the producers of BBC Choral Evensong, Canon Stephen Shipley:*

I turned on Choral Evensong by accident one afternoon a year or so ago and I’ve been listening ever since. The music is beautiful, but the special quality of Evensong lies in other places too, in the paradoxical contrast between the sinewy intricacy of 16th century language, and the simplicity of the thoughts it expresses: prayers for courage, for grace, for protection from the dark, for a good death. These are things to which our minds have particularly lately turned in the aftermath of recent terrible events, but they were there all the time in the psalms and collects of Evensong. For almost 500 years the same words have been repeated by people in times of trouble or of triumph. The presence of that cloud of unseen witnesses lends an intangible quality to Choral Evensong. You could call it calm or spirituality. You could call it holiness. But it’s very precious.

In retirement, I'm often asked what I miss most from my working life. It's a question that can be answered on many levels. There's so much that I miss, however rich life is also becoming in new ways. But in terms of the way time and prayer have been shaped and ordered day by day and week by week, I unhesitatingly say that what I miss most of all is daily choral evensong. After almost 30 years of full-time cathedral ministry, with six years before that living and working in a cathedral close, it's been fundamental to my praying. Days still feel oddly empty without it.  The incomparable blend of finely wrought words, music and architecture somehow touches the human soul in a very deep place - well, it touches mine anyway. Which is why the weekly broadcast of evensong on Wednesday afternoons on BBC Radio 3 has become such an important part of the spiritual life in retirement, as are our midweek journeys to Hexham Abbey to attend evensong there. 

I was first drawn into its powerful and redemptive magic as a boy chorister in the early 1960s. Once enticed, I never looked back. Even in my most fervent evangelical Christian Union days when I sat a lot looser to formal liturgy and relished the spontaneity of the prayer meeting, I never lost the sense that evensong was a wonderful gift of the English Church to her people. My farewell service in Durham Cathedral a year ago took the form of choral evensong with music by those quintessentially English church composers Herbert Howells and Edward Bairstow among others. Nunc Dimittis sung to the Gloucester Service felt extraordinarily poignant. A lifetime of evensongs seemed somehow to be gathered up that afternoon. Looking back, I wonder how I got through it.

There is something very Benedictine about Anglican choral evensong. In cathedrals and on the radio, you feel you are tuning in to the Opus Dei, the "work of God" that is the whole church's continuous offering of praise and prayer day by day and hour by hour. All its parts are in a beautiful and delicate balance with one another: music and words, praise and prayer, scripture, psalmody and silence. And let's scotch a myth about evensong straight away. People sometimes say that it's liturgy you don't join in. How wrong that is! You do join in. But in a contemplative way, by listening, paying attention, allowing yourself to be transported into another place by what you are hearing and experiencing. 

And when the Prayer Book psalms for each of the thirty days of the month are chanted in full, you catch Benedict's vision of daily prayer that is organised around the songs of the Israelite community that are collected up in the Psalter. Celebration, lament, despair, thankfulness, comfort, anger, trustfulness, bewilderment, joy, hope and love are all there in the Psalms. They gather up all the quotidian experience of life - as it was in ancient times and as it now. I used to say to choristers in the cathedrals where I served: make the Psalms your special joy. They are like Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, the 48 Preludes and Fugues. If you can play those, you can play anything. And if you love them, immerse yourselves in them, learn some of them off by heart, they will nourish you for a lifetime. 

The surprising thing is this. I've found that choral evensong can be a powerful tool for evangelism. I've met many people over the years who have found faith through coming to this service. Maybe they came tentatively at first, not quite sure what they would find, relieved perhaps that they didn't have to open their mouths and sing or say very much. Gradually they found themselves drawn into the inward logic of prayer which is that it takes us to places beyond our immediate experience, and by doing so, helps us to see things in a new and life-changing way. For some, this has come as nothing less than a fresh expression of lived Christianity. Looking back, I think the seeds of faith were sown in me at evensong too. 

Among those who became committed Christians have been the parents and families of choristers themselves. They came at first simply to enjoy the music and support their children. As a former chorister parent myself, I can entirely understand that. Gradually, they began to see that there was more to this strange world of prayer and worship than they had imagined. Perhaps the growth in attendance at evensong is precisely because cathedrals offer the possibility of "liminality" - finding your own way of approaching the thresholds of faith and making the journey from being a member of an audience towards being a participant and a pilgrim. 

Late in life, I am still on that journey. I'm profoundly thankful for this lifetime of choral evensongs. Thank you to the cathedrals, greater churches, college chapels and other places of worship - not just in the UK but across the world - that guard our precious "English choral tradition" so lovingly and so well, and contribute so much to the rich spirituality of Anglicanism. And thank you to the BBC for its continued commitment to broadcasting the service week by week. Happy 90th birthday!