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The last word for an outgoing dean

The last thing the ChristChurch Cathedral congregation says to outgoing Dean Peter Beck is “So long, you’re on your own.”

Lynda Patterson   |  20 Feb 2012  |  1 Comment  

Evensong Sermon preached in ChristChurch Cathedral on Sunday, February 19:

There’s a story told about a preacher who was well known for his excellent sermons, but no one who heard him ever realized that they’d all been written by his long-suffering curate. Finally one day the curate’s patience ran out. The preacher was speaking to hundreds of expectant listeners, and at the bottom of page two he read the stirring words, “And this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk, which is…”  Then he turned the page and found it completely blank except for the words, “So long. You’re on your own now.”

We gather here tonight for a great celebration of Peter’s time as Dean, to wish him and Gay well , to offer them our congratulations and benediction, and to assure them that the very last thing we want to say to them is “So long. You’re on your own.”

I’ve spent some of the last month in my spiritual home, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, tucked away among the mole-like academics, sucking a surreptitious boiled sweet and listening to the scratching of a hundred pencils. While I was there, I dug up a little handwritten book of advice for cathedral deans by Richard Trench, Dean of Westminster in the early 19th century.

It’s an eccentric gem with about a hundred almost-illegible aphorisms. Many of them offer advice about what to do if your chapter are revolting, and there’s a striking section on methods for drying kippers – which were obviously of more theological significance in the 19th century than they are now. But a couple of sentences stood out.

A dean, says Trench, must keep a decent coach and horses, so his dignity may not be compromised on any occasion. A dean’s speech must always be moderate, and he must strive to cause no offense to anybody. And a dean must react to all things he hears with due seriousness. “Let there be no levity in your manner, but be in all things passing grave.”

Dignity, inoffensiveness and a certain po-faced gravity. Well Peter, if those are the criteria for success as a Dean, I’m afraid you’ve failed. When I think of Peter’s ministry among us for the last nine years these are not – thank God – the phrases that spring to mind. As we say farewell to him tonight, I want to consider the ways in which his ministry has turned them on their heads.

The first virtue which Peter has managed to avoid is standing on his dignity. The English word ‘ministry’ comes from a root which means small and insignificant. All those who minister are, quite literally, mini people in the scheme of things, and smallness and weakness is our stock in trade. The word that St Paul uses in this evening’s NT reading for those who minister means a servant, or an attendant, and it’s very closely associated with the word that means dusty from running. You should be so anxious to wait upon God that you run to do God’s will, and you get sweaty and covered in filth in the process. 

If I could sum up Peter’s ministry in a single snapshot, it would be this. Moments after the February 22 earthquake, with the sirens sounding on all sides, and as the Cathedral tower fell, Peter was outside the building grey with dust comforting the crowds who gathered speechless and uncertain in the square. And in the days and weeks which followed, he was there to articulate a promise of hope for people who couldn’t quite find the words themselves.

This is priesthood - the action of emerging out of a crowd and doing something on behalf of other people which they cannot do for themselves.  Peter’s ministry has been characterised by his ability to talk to anybody at any time about anything. There’s not much room for dignity if you’re doing that properly.

The second quality that the book recommends for a Dean is inoffensiveness Now, I’m not suggesting that Peter has gone out of his way to cause offense, but he doesn’t suffer from the terrible oppressive vice of Christian niceness. God preserve us from cardboard cut-out clergy who smile slightly too much to be convincing, and are just a little more dull and two dimensional than the rest of the world. Peter tells it like it is, which is sometimes not what people expect to hear.

If we are to be authentic ministers of the Gospel, we have to be people who become more richly ourselves by experiencing the extravagant ordinariness of God’s grace. There is a natural, unfussy, unselfconscious kind of holiness which allows us to become ourselves and to appreciate each other more fully. When the Church absorbs this atmosphere of rich holiness, without censoring itself to be what people expect, we can find in other people and ourselves just a hint more quirkiness and individuality than we might otherwise be aware of.  

“Be in all things passing grave."  The last virtue that Peter has managed to avoid is a kind of po-faced humourlessness.  I have never met a man who needs so little encouragement to don a tutu. He is a person of strong convictions held lightly, which is a rarity in a church filled with people who hold frivolous convictions with the utmost seriousness.

There is a small English country church at Preston Blisset in Buckinghamshire. When you stand behind the altar and look up, you can’t help but notice a fourteenth century carving of an ample bottom pointed straight towards you.  Professor Diarmuid McCulloch begins his great book on the Reformation by calling attention to it. He doesn’t know its purpose, but he reminds us that “this was a religion where shouts of laughter as well as roars of rage were common in church, and where the whole breadth of human life was known and appreciated.”

The church is not the world with the filth washed out, but the world deepened and enriched and made more real by the experience of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter stands firmly in that tradition.

The three pieces of advice to deans in Richard Trench’s little book assume the church is embedded right in the centre of society, decent, charitable, comfortably off, and focusing its energies on serving the needs of its current members. But there is a prophetic call for the church to explore the meaning of being in the world but not of it—a church on the edge, far from the centres of power and influence, rooted in serving the community and calling on others to commit to doing the same.

That is a tradition that this cathedral community has long subscribed to, and Peter is part of the long line of deans who have ministered not only to those within the church but to those who barely register that it exists.

Earlier we heard the choir sing the triumphant song of Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis. "Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." The words often seem to describe an ending, but in fact they come at the beginning of St Luke's Gospel. Simeon had seen a hint of the salvation to come.  He has seen a beginning, and that gives him the strength and the courage to carry on. Peter and Gay, what is an end for us is a new beginning for you, as Peter takes up his role as a city councillor, and the whole new calling with the misery and the joys that that will involve.

The Franciscans have a liturgy for taking leave of a community and making a new beginning  surrounded by support and love and prayers. It acknowledges that living in community has its good times and its bad and that there is a sense of pain and insecurity in moving on, as well as blessing and growth and that, surrounding all of this are the loving arms of God. When you leave, its never just “So long. You’re on your own now.”

So I’d invite you to pray for Peter and Gay, and for the threads that bind them to this community where they are loved and to which they have contributed so much.

Let us pray.

We praise you and thank you, God of the journey, for those who are soon to leave us. We entrust them into your loving care, knowing that you are always the faithful traveller and the companion on the Way. Shelter and protect them from all harm and anxiety. Grant them the courage to meet the future, and grace to go into new life; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.


Barry Smithson

Lynda - your usual high standard.
Barry Smithson.