Dean's Blog

Dean John Mann



The Dean's "twice a week" blog is published on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Links to monthly archives of the blog are provided at the bottom of this page.




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23rd August 2016

Tomorrow evening Andrew Campbell will be installed as Rector of the Parish of Skerry, Rathcavan and Newtowncrommelin – otherwise known as Broughshane. We wish him well, and Allison too, as they move from Bangor Abbey and start a new chapter in their lives, and Broughshane is fortunate enough to have them go to them too. It is a partnership that I am quite certain will work and work well. Helen and I hope to be there for the institution service. Andrew, as you will recall, served his deacon’s year in St Anne’s and very popular he was too with everyone.

From a personal point of view, but one that I am fairly sure others identify with, it was indeed good to have Andrew with us, but time moves on (I, incredibly, will be five years at the cathedral next week) and I hope that we can all build on what has gone before and, in Andrew’s case, not carry too many scars of working with me! Tomorrow is St Bartholomew’s Day as well and the Gospel reading appointed for it is some verses from St Luke, where Jesus speaks of the need of the greatest among us to become as the youngest and the leader as one who serves. Jesus says these things in response to those amongst the disciples who were arguing about who was to be regarded as the greatest.

It is not unnatural that we should still struggle with this concept, when the disciples did themselves. Jesus did turn so many things upon their head, and challenges us still to imagine how the Kingdom of God can be – and in fact is a place where the rules are different. The example he continues to give is of himself. Of course, John the Baptist, whose beheading is observed on 29th August each year, was the archetypical saint of the Kingdom; decreasing as another increased; becoming nothing as the newest of Christ’s followers found their way and their understanding. It is good to wait quietly on the Lord.


20th August 2016

The weeks of July and August that seem so long in June are now nearly through and even the Proms are up to numbers 46, 47 and 48, with a little while to go before the Last Night on 10th September, when we are used to seeing well wrapped up individuals, with umbrellas and the like, huddled together outside in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, while Hyde Park always appears to be that bit warmer. Anyway, that is a while off and we will be nearly at Culture Night by then (Friday 16th September).

There is a bit to go yet. Tomorrow the Prom for the Albert Hall features the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is also playing in the Ulster Hall for the opening concert of the Ulster Orchestra season on 23rd September this year. She is the wife of the Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Raphael Payare, and will perform Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto in Belfast, in a concert that has Rachmaninov and Glinka as well. The musical life of our city struggles on with funding cuts continuing to bite.

We are very grateful to the visiting choirs that have helped us out in the cathedral this summer, and to Mark and Caroline who have been cantor for us on the Sundays when there has not been a choir, much as we look forward to our own choir returning soon. In September we shall have the Connor deacons’ ordination on 11th September and the Organ Scholarship service on 18th September, and there is quite a programme of events through the autumn. So the summer slips away and we head onwards to the 40th anniversary of Dean Sammy Crooks’ inspirational beginning of what was soon to be known as “Black Santa”. I expect we will mark it in a special way. Watch this space!


16th August 2016

I am finally to the end of Seamus Heaney’s published poetry collections, with Aeneid Book VI, with its golden branch pictured on the cover, the talisman for the underworld. This final posthumous work dredges up all the Greek, Trojan and Roman myths and legends that I have always found to be exciting, but leave me faintly depressed. Having said that, I have a gorgeous 1924 Medici Society edition of The Odyssey of Homer, ever my favourite of this genre, with wonderful pre-Raphaelite illustrations. Just the extensive prose works of Seamus Heaney to read now. They will have to wait.

With a house full of books the question often arises, “What should I tackle next?”I know that I am far from the only one with this pleasant thought, even when reading time is short. The holiday suggestions that come in magazines and newspapers generally open new horizons, with novelists and poets, historians and political writers all coming up with their ideas for the beach, the armchair and the airport wait. One might go for a Kindle or its like, of course, but the swing back to a real book in one’s hand is only a matter of time and is already happening – I think.

One of this year’s suggestions from among the writers is The Essex Serpentby Sarah Perry. This is just her second novel and ticks a number of boxes for me, including as it does, natural history, a country parish and the Essex of my youth. But, I have to admit, the cover sold it to me in the end: a writhing serpent amongst the gold and bronze leaves of some faintly William Morris design. It’s well-written too. A great holiday book.

It’s funny though how little connections set things going, and lead on to the next thing to be done. Life’s like that I think, as the richness and variety of working at St Anne’s leads us too, to make connections and find the familiar spilling over into new experiences all of the time. Perhaps it is a piece of music, or a meeting; a repetitive daily occurrence or a slip of paper that falls out of a book, it starts a train of thought that leads who knows where. So, holidays and work and acquaintances and maybe a sight or sound, all of a sudden, and something new has opened our eyes and we have found a good reason to explore or search or desire a fresh start. I think it is probably summed up in that useful catch-phrase:“You learn something new every day.”



13th August 2016

A few weeks ago, I think it was the beginning of June, we had a visit in St Anne’s from an art historian and critic from Milan who spoke at some length to several of us just prior to the 11.00 a.m. Service. The point that she was raising, and for which I had no satisfactory response was, “Why, in the creation mosaic on the ceiling of the baptistery, are there no human beings?”. In fact, when one thinks about it, there are no terrestrial animals either. There are fish, there are plants, there are the heavenly bodies, but the latter end of the seven days of creation is not reflected in the design at all. I still have no answer.

Anyway, I suppose that has made me brood a little, from time to time, over the other creation image in St Anne’s, namely the creation window in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. It has a naked Adam, with discretely placed foliage, and a number of animals as well as the plants. Adam is in an attitude of innocent reaching upward, perhaps beseechingly to God. This is without Eve, which raises further speculation. Anyway, his eyes are to the heavens, rather than to the earth.

Looking then to the animals, they are an interesting grouping: an ox, a lamb, a lion, a flamingo, two rabbits and a deer, all much the same size, benign, with interesting eyes. The lion, for example, has not the eyes of a fierce beast of prey, but of a gentle and wise human, sensitive and aware. The plants are anemone and ranunculus and something like a stylised tulip, but most interestingly of all is the hint of a serpent in the bottom right hand corner. Do look at it. Surely there is something writhing in the grass.

I am reminded of an article I read, again a few weeks ago, a little later than the visit of the lady from Milan, but perhaps I wouldn’ t have noticed it without her searching question, on an exhibition of the painting of George Stubbs which is at the Holburne Museum in Bath until the beginning of October. It took me back to the eyes of the lion in the Holy Spirit Chapel window. Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian (last 24thJune) of “Stubbs” presenting “his animal subjects as both sentient and sensitive” and speaks of “Romantic art which opens up a completely new realm of feeling. Nature here is a place of wonder, revelation, dread and emotional profundity.” Jones is referring at this point specifically to a more violent rendition by Stubbs, but the general theme of animals that are “not dumb” is clear throughout. He makes the point that: “The creatures in this exhibition look back at you. Their eyes are strange and unsettling – not human, but conscious, intensely aware.”

I think that it is worth looking afresh at our window with some of these thoughts in mind. Like all the wonderful windows in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, it is complex and thought-provoking; sensitive and inspirational.


9th August 2016

On the day of the wedding Helen managed to lose a twenty pounds note down the side of the driver’s seat in the car. She tried every way to squeeze her fingers down to grab a corner, but it just opened the gap a little more and the note slipped further from reach and almost out of view. Gradually, frustratingly, but with an “I have got more important things to worry about today” the cash was left, safe and sound, but not forgotten.

Inspired perhaps by the windy day, the thought came to us, yesterday morning, to try the vacuum cleaner and suck it out. There I was, flat out, trying to the draw the Danske Bank’s promise to pay 20 with the attachment that gets into crevices. Within a couple of minutes, there it was, folded neatly as it left Helen’s hand and now securely unfolded and placed in my wallet!

The swifts have left the north coast and will be gone from Belfast in a day or so. There were just a couple around the Crescent Arts Centre yesterday and that will be it for another nine months. They are the fastest bird flying in the world, on the level as it were; others, notably a peregrine can beat it for speed in a vertical descent diving on prey. The gannets are pretty good at that too and there were plenty off Ramore Head, with strong winds stirring the sea and even the gulls struggling against the force of the gale.

The potatoes are up and the netting off the raspberries. Helen was giving a liquid feed to everything from leeks to tomatoes, beans and rhubarb. The secret at this time of the year in the garden seems to be to be forthright with anything that looks tired. They are not going to recover at this stage and may as well come out. Not that I am dismissive of what some plants achieve in a season’s growth. The giant sunflower must have one of the greatest ratios of seed to size and weight of plant in six months of any other garden plant. They are on eight foot canes at the moment and will make a great sight in a couple of weeks from now – though as Alys Fowler says, they suck the life out of the soil.


6th August 2016

The festival of the Transfiguration of Christ falls today, an apparently fairly randomly set date several hundred years ago. Logically, for the Christian year, it should be placed before Holy Week and there is a Sunday earlier in the year that may be used in this way now. However, 6thAugust remains fixed, when choirs are off and holidays are on, and belying the occasional autumnal tinge in the mornings already, we are at the height of summer.

Height and Transfiguration go together. Jesus went up the mountain with his closest disciples and there was transfigured before them, his face and very clothes becoming dazzlingly white. Mount Tabor which stands proudly above the plains of Galilee was the site of this marvel, and thousands of pilgrims visit the place each year. The tour coaches can only reach a village near the bottom of the hill; then it is taxis or minibuses up a snaking road to the top. It goes not to a peak, but to a plateau, which is open and beautiful and has places to pray and hold communion. There is an interesting church built on the site and various viewing places to take in the scale of the distance in all directions.

But it was close-to that the encounter really happened. The disciples were witnesses and had climbed the mountain, but the intimacy of our Lord’s meeting with Elijah and Moses was the fact that Peter, James and John took with them.

I am looking at the height of my still-in-bud sunflowers. As with the teasels and sweet peas, they are above our heads now with phlox and dahlias not far behind, but the whole garden is starting to take on that mature summer look that hints at the autumn yet to come. The broad beans are out – we had the last yesterday – the raspberries and strawberries are past their best (we had an amazing crumble last night with five different fruits: gooseberries, red-currants, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb – fabulous, I can still taste it!) but the runner beans now look good and will be producing soon.

I have plans for the autumn and have set aside some days at the end of a holiday for replanting the herbaceous bed. The weather will need to be good, but that is for October. In the meantime I ponder the wonders of summer, the bounty of nature and how little we really do, as we acknowledge at harvest, as God gives the growth, the life, the miracle.


2nd August 2016

The wild flower planting in Cathedral Gardens/Buoys’ Park is extremely effective and cleverly done. The mix of seed that they used gives colour and height as well as reasonably longevity. Whoever planned it knew what they were doing. It is possible to get the cathedral in a picture with one of the beds in the foreground. There are plans afoot to change the layout of this open space and pedestrianise Academy Street. I hope that in doing so the area may be visitor friendly and be a place that is welcoming to people with picnics and children, as well as the many new students who will be populating the area in a few years from now. We are expecting St Anne’s to be in the midst of a buzz of new life before the end of this decade!

I can hardly believe that we are in August already. The ‘back to school’ signs are up in Eason’s and elsewhere, and yet the examination results are still to appear. This is such an anxious time for young people and their parents, and we will be holding them all in prayer in the coming days. Though expensive and privileged, student life, both undergraduate and postgraduate enriches us all. St Anne’s is the recipient of spin-off of the striving of the young for success in their careers. Music is the obvious outlet, but having Queen’s interns with us for each of the last three or four summers is a huge benefit, not to mention our connection with the Art College of the University of Ulster.

If you haven’t picked up what the four interns are doing this year yet, do look through the Belfast Cathedral news items or the Facebook page. Karen has done little profiles and given information as to their topics of study, and I would like to add my encouragement to them. Margaret is in the treasury, Zoe and Corey are producing video footage and Matthew is studying the flags. There is always more to learn, though we are already mightily blessed by our experts who have been introducing the cathedral, its history and artefacts to visitors for many years. Thank you to all of you!


Links to previous months


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