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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25th May 2016

Early this morning I felt the draw of a walk to the meadows for the dawn chorus. The fox, that crossed the road in front of me on the way, seemed quite intent enough on its own business to bother about me, or the runners, she in purple, he in blue, who were also out and about at 6.30 a.m.

Then we entered the deep leafy green of the little hollows separating the hillocks of the Lagan meadows. The wrens seemed specially strident this morning – mind you, are they not always? A black cap was moving briskly in the ancient hawthorn on Lester’s dam, whilst a moorhen made a placid sight in the water below.

The white of cow parsley and hawthorn is coming , but so too are the buttercups; everything thick with colour and filled with birdsong. Leaving, a thrush and blackbirds patrol the grass. A pounding runner makes me feel lazy and unfit. Without breaking stride or pausing for breath he called “good morning” and flew on to work, office, school run and car. The scent and sounds of May remain.


24th May 2016

White fly have attacked the tender areas of the foliage of the redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries at the deanery; wind, salt-laden, inshore, three weeks or so ago has caused major damage to the blackcurrants in Portrush, so remedial action is underway. Weeds are growing faster than the other plants they are crowding out and the Maytime battle for supremacy is on.

But the May blossom has still not whitened our hedgerows, except just here and there. That complete transformation of the countryside for a couple of weeks will happen in a few days and that means that the tree blossom is reaching its climax for another year. But the sea pinks are at their best. New railings have been erected, very neatly I have to say, replacing old yellow and rusty ones on Ramore Head. Inevitable damage to the cliff flora has been kept to a minimum, though it didn’t stop us squeezing the uprooted thrift into cracks in the rocks. “Maybe they will take” we said with the same tone of voice as on leaving a weakened garden plant with the words, “We’ll give it a fighting chance”.

The sea was choppy yesterday, and the sky not quite as the weather website had forecast until late morning, then there was some heat and sunshine. Cutting the grass I placed a cane beside an orchid, which may flower in a few weeks, to give it a chance too. Unusually, I was on my own at the civic amenity site, except for the workers some way off. They keep it neater than anywhere I know and are always helpful, but I missed the normal chat as grass-cuttings and old christmas trees mingle with the branches and rank vegetation in this green area of the place.

We have a little corner of the garden in Portrush that is planted for a thicket for the birds. It has trees and bushes, including a crab apple that we grew from a pip picked up in Fermanagh twenty-three years ago. It gives us crab apples every year now and is in blossom at the moment. There are hawthorns and bird cherry, birch and sallow, hazel and dog rose, rowan and blackthorn. The birds disappear into it now that the leaves have filled it in.

There are always sparrows there, perhaps the social bird par excellence. We hear them in Portrush, but rarely at the deanery. They have nearly disappeared altogether from London, the city of my birth, as I learnt yesterday from Michael McCarthy’s recent book, The Moth Snowstorm, Nature and Joy. Of course, they make a racket: cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, but they live together, unlike so many other birds whose new generation has to find its own area in which to nest and feed and survive.

I suppose it’s not unlike us really. Some are stay at homes and never want to leave, others must fly and may settle nowhere near. I guess that in Ireland, whilst many have left these shores, or have, like Helen and me, arrived from elsewhere, there is a culture of family being important, and a closeness and chattiness that isn’ t a million miles from a babble of sparrows in a bush. It is a happy sound; a healthy sound, and I for one, love to be woken by the cheeping of them in Portrush. Sad too that the tens of thousands of sparrows that would in London have been the Cockney’s “bow and arras” have mostly gone. No one is entirely sure why.


23rd May 2016

The opening concert of the St Anne’s Cathedral Music Festival 2016 took place yesterday afternoon in place of Evensong. There was an exciting programme of short pieces by girls and boys from the Choir Schools with a few of the older girls helping us out too. Tania who recently sang in St Paul’s Cathedral, representing St Anne’s at a gathering of a single chorister from each of the UK cathedrals, contributed If music be the food of love by Purcell, and Zoe, who is taught music by Therese, played the Irish harp for us. We are grateful to both of them.

However, the stars in the making were the main focus of the afternoon. Four of the boy choristers sang for us twice, filling the cathedral with their voices. The junior girls choir also sang twice, first the devotional The White Paternoster than a couple of fun pieces. There were instrumental performances too, including a violin solo by Cormac Barnes, Boat to Inverie, and a piano duet by Caity Hale and Katie Curley. They played individually too.

Well done to all concerned, with thanks to Catherine and Therese, Dave and Ian, Aoife and Anna. Gillian and Esther, with helpers, provided all with tea afterwards and a goody bag for each child! All in all a great start to our festival.


22nd May 2016

Members of the RSCM joined the cathedral choir yesterday for a sequence of music charting the path from Ascension Day to the Day of Pentecost. A very effective blend of sound was achieved after a rehearsal lasting only an hour, and much credit must go to all concerned for achieving, by 3.30 p.m., four anthems capable of being part of a liturgical celebration.

The combined choir processed in to the plainsong hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire”, following this immediately was the C.V. Stanford anthem Ye choirs of new Jerusalem. This very much set the tone of the short service, which relied much on contrast for its effect; David restraining the exuberance until the moment of climax, of which this anthem has more than one. After the Ascension reading from Acts, we heard more confident proclamation in Finzi’s God is gone up with a triumphant shout. The liturgy then moved on to Pentecost, preparing us for Elgar’s beautiful, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. I love the anticipation of this piece as we are quietly drawn into the wonder of Isaiah’s text. The dynamic increases toward the poor, the broken-hearted and the captives and those who seek sight and live in mourning, being declared “trees of righteousness” and “the planting of the Lord”, then sinks again for the final mysterious rendering of “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has appointed me to preach the Gospel.” It’s just lovely.

The whole congregation sang “Come down O Love divine”, then, after prayers, the last anthem was a setting by Ives of the text by Herbert, “Listen sweet dove unto my song and spread thy golden wings in me; hatching my tender heart to long till it get wing and fly away with thee.” This anthem became for me the heart and soul of the whole effort of the singers coming together. It is a gorgeous, wonderful piece and George Herbert’s words are set beautifully. Ives only uses four of the seven verses of the original poem Whitsunday, but, as John Drury points out in his biography of Herbert, the complete text is too drawn out. He very interesting compares Herbert’s Whitsunday with Henry Vaughan’s poem The Shower. Vaughan, he points out, sticks to the motif of the dove, and in just ten lines achieves the idea of descent, as in an evening shower of rain in his native Wales. The effectiveness of the poem is immediate, and somehow just works. Herbert on the other hand is bringing more complex images to bear with the flames of the spirit being likened to the stars and the sun, and his moments of listlessness leading through to the final restorative verse. Ives skips the more laboured parts and achieves an anthem of tenderness and yet confident hope in the Spirit that descends at Pentecost.

After a final hymn and blessing, Ian played us out to a striking Philip Hammond voluntary. A small but devoted congregation witnessed the inevitable photograph, happy smiles and the satisfaction of an RSCM event done well, in the spirit of worship and with a right sense of pride in what together we can do.


21st May 2016

With the RSCM event today and the Cathedral Music Festival starting tomorrow, music is high on the agenda at St Anne’s at the moment, in fact, as always. Travelling to and from General Synod last week, I took the opportunity to listen to a whole symphony through each way – more precisely, it was the same symphony: Mahler’s 2ndSymphony, ‘Resurrection’. My recording on C.D. Is Simon Rattle’s, with the CBSO from 1986. Amid the many vinyl L.P.s, that are still stacked on shelves and in cupboards about the Deanery, some that I seem to have long-forgotten I had, I have also found a lauded performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy from 1970. It is many a year since that has felt a stylus.

It’s a great piece though; the long first movement reflecting the funeral that inspired it, that of the conductor Hans von Bülow in 1894. But it is actually the later movements that captivate me most, and express such searching theological thoughts. There is a beautiful contralto solo in the fourth movement, Urlicht, which ends with the words, “I am of God and would go back to God! Dear God will give me a light, will light me to blissful everlasting light”, or as the sleeve notes of the Ormandy recording translate it: “I am from God and will return to God! God will give me a candle to light me to the bliss of eternal life.” David Stevens pointed out to me yesterday, when we were talking about it, that Conor is singing this in its tenor rendering on Thursday. A little coincidence.

The finale of the symphony I could listen to again and again. At least once towards the end you feel it simply must finish here, the climax is so great, but then chorus and orchestra seem to take a deep breath and on the music goes to an even more fabulous drum-rolled conclusion. Though for his inspiration Mahler took eight lines of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode, he added many lines of his own including giving the soprano the words, “O believe you were not born in vain! Have not vainly lived and suffered”. Before that the chorus has sung: “To bloom again you were sown! The Lord of the Harvest goes and gathers the sheaves, even us who have died.”

For the Christian, as Mahler works through death and suffering towards resurrection, the presence of Christ is central, as death is overcome through the“fervent struggle of love”. Whilst the final words, “Rise again you will my heart, in a trice! Your pulsation will carry you to God” are mentally reinterpreted along Christian lines, as our hope lies in our Lord’s loving gift of himself on the Cross, nevertheless, there is no doubt of the power of this music and its ability to lift the spirit.

Last Sunday the BBC Young musician of the Year reached its final stage, and the winner was a young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whose scintillating performance of Shostakovich swept everyone away. He just edged out two other remarkable musicians: French horn player Ben Goldscheider and saxophonist Jess Gillan. The chair of the judges suggested that all three should become household names. Let’s hope so. I was listening to these concertos whilst refining the text of my sermon on Psalm 8 for tomorrow, “What is man, that though art mindful of him?”I think that the psalmist must have conceived this psalm in the evening, or maybe on waking in the early hours. He speaks of the heavens with moon and stars, painting the picture of the night sky; it reflects the clarity of thought that can come when wakeful in the silence of the hours of sleep.

I think I may try a few extra entries on the blog this coming week, as the music comes and goes, interwoven into the pulse and life of our daily worship, as with all the comings and goings of St Anne’s that both challenge and inspire.


17th May 2016

Now that General Synod is over for another year, the eyes of many turn towards the Summer, plans for the Autumn and holidays, but in St Anne’s we are gearing up for six weeks or so of intense activity around special services and other events. Most immediately is a run of a mixture of musical afternoons and evenings in the eight days from Saturday 21st May to Saturday 28th May.

The full programme of the music festival, starting with a (about 40 minute) concert by the children of the choir schools, which replaces 3.30 p.m. Evensong on Sunday 22nd May, is available on a flyer and this website. Prior to that is an RSCM come-and-sing event this Saturday. Four anthems will be rehearsed from 1.30 p.m. With a performance at 3.30 p.m.

This weekend will serve to warm us up for the good things to come next week!

I am sitting in our dining room writing this, keeping half an eye on the entrance to our bird box on a birch tree in the back garden. Last night I sat watching too as great tits zipped back and forth. I think that the first brood is about ready to go. The bird bath is a constant distraction. Yesterday, as I sat outside on our ancient garden bench, one after another, birds appeared for a wash or a drink. Robins seem very regular for a bath, but there is a goldfinch drinking as I write this. Three came last night, one a young fledgling.

Starlings are eating the remains of last night’s pizza. Meanwhile the peas are coming through (note to gardener – those tender shoots will need protection from the pigeons), sweet peas are starting to grow – at last – and the raspberries look good and healthy.

My mind drifts back to yesterday morning’s Psalm: the closing verses of 107. After much about prosperity or ruination and the faithfulness of God’s people, we are encouraged to ponder on the mercies of God, and, I guess, consider how change affects us for good and ill. There are, of course, the micro changes that happen every day as well as the mega ones that completely transform us. So much in nature seems expendable and many things that are passing quickly we hardly notice. Yet we are affected by the sparrow that falls to the ground as well as the climate change which, unchecked, could in time destroy life as we know it.

The dramatic decisions taken that change lives quickly and for ever are weighty in their implications. The thought of the referendum on 23rd June is concentrating our minds and so it should, yet the great tit leaving its nest is also a sign of change. It may only live for days or at the most weeks. I will hold the sight of it with me today. Maybe by tonight it will be gone.


14th May 2016

General Synod is at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, a grand place, but, in common with most conference centres, prevents those who like to gaze out of windows and glory in the natural light of God’s world from doing so; the wing of a gull or flutter of a pigeon, common as they may be, are a happy sight whilst corporate curtains and electronic blinds do their best to shield them.

I am staying in Bray and taking the Dart each morning. Bray is quite a contrast, as is the Esplande Hotel. My room, high ceilinged, mid-victorian, stained-glass-edged sash windows, even in the bathroom. En suite takes on a different concept as evening sun bursts through the vast panes of opaque glass and a grey-winged duck takes to the air against a golden sky from amidst the lilies and reed mace, ever just leaving the water’s surface, the whole frozen in time like Keats’ Grecian Urn.

What other synods-person wakes to see a swallow, butterfly, forget-me-not – and is it a plantain? They have not moved since 1824. Faded splendour this may be; the bins below me, the sea yards away, the furnishings standard, the bed with duvet, but something of the life of elegance is here, and, were it perfect, I could not afford to stay. What in any case is perfection? Maybe Synod can tell me today.


10th May 2016

Yesterday it was such a beautiful start to the day in Portrush, where I was enjoying a day off, that I read Morning Prayer in the garden early, almost decadently in a deckchair, with an upturned bucket as a table for the books. The Psalms, so much a part of each office, come round with comforting familiarity. The first 30 verses of Psalm 18 were appointed for yesterday morning. That’s one where the first two verses (and its good to think of them as Christ inhabited) have a string of things that we acknowledge are ours in the Lord: my strength, my stronghold, my crag, my haven, my God, my rock, my trust, my shield, my salvation, my refuge. Succeeding verses throw up all kinds of trouble, but verse 30 ends with the thought, that with the help of the Lord “I may scale any wall.”

A walk through the dunes at Port Ballintrae in the morning brought new sounds and sights for this year, as sedge warblers and whitethroats are now noisily announcing their presence with the resident wrens and robins, skylarks and the rest. There are so many sand martins, could it be that some are the first brood already on the wing? Sea pinks, scurvy grass and primroses, together with violets, squills and daisies, make the cliff path a joy to behold. One bank of primroses close to the Causeway Centre was so dotted with primroses that it look from afar like a peppering of sherbet, as myriads of stars against a night sky.

Not all nature is joy-enhancing however. A kittiwake was finding it tough to protect its nest from three jackdaws and many of the hawthorns have been blasted by salt laden winds in recent weeks. They bend as if leaning from the inshore gales, but it is the way they grow, as the outer buds become desiccated and die in the wind, so the more sheltered buds are what develop and gradually over the years all the growth is on one side.

Back home in Portrush we eat in the garden marking the lawn, as best we can, where the spotted leaves of orchids are growing in the grass. “I’ll try and mow round them” says I as the machine is dragged out for the usual cut. A new clothes line up, sheets billow in the breeze, sparrows chatter in the trees, and weeds, as ever, out-grow everything.


7th May 2016

Yesterday, 6th May, I saw my first swifts of the year. They always seem to arrive for General Synod, sometimes on its first day, but they are a harbinger of late Spring and Summer, and so a welcome sight whenever that moment arrives. Looking back over my diary at first sighting dates for swifts, they are remarkably consistent. From 2009 to 2015 the dates were 9th, 3rd, 6th, 5th, 6th, 4th and 7th. They have a traditional nesting sight at the Crescent Arts Centre, so all day every day until the beginning of August they will be on the wing around Bradbury Place. We see them at the Deanery too and at St Anne’s, though not as consistently or often. Every one of these birds will have flown from sub-equatorial Africa. They pair for life, hardly ever touch the ground - only when nesting - and sleep on the wing. Anyway, they are here now and I am happy to see them!

So much changes from day to day, and with the projected heatwave of next week nearly with us the countryside will quickly slip into luxuriant May. I was standing looking at a bed of Solomon’s Seal and contemplating its beauty, as the leaf-wrapped spray-like flowerhead begins to unfold. They are, it seems to me, like the hands of ballerinas in repose, that beautiful holding of the fingers, all delicacy and grace.

The bus back from the cathedral stopping at the Northern Mall the other day left me seated upstairs in the midst of the branches of a tree, or so it felt. The flowers of maples, sycamore and cherries are all out, the latter in white and some striking pinks, but many tree flowers are green and undistinguished, though no less lovely.

It looks as though there is a reasonable set on the plums this year. But I must be careful, I have been told off by higher authority for assessing the weight of the projected gooseberry crop on the quantity of flower and quality of pollination, but we are both excited about our tree paeony which is flowering for the first time. We bought it three years ago at Benvarden Gardens and have tended it to this point, though it needs more space. I think a few things near it will have to be moved.

Today the cathedral will be full of children preparing for the concert tonight. I do apologise to visitors who had planned to see around St Anne’s today, and for those who regularly or occasionally pop in to pray. Morning and Evening Prayer will be said as usual and the Holy Communion service at 8.30 a.m. will take place too, but for child protection and other organisational reasons it seemed sensible to otherwise be closed. This doesn’t happen very often.


3rd May 2016

Such a beautiful start to the morning today, but I fear it will be unsettled again later. The countryside looks to me to be a week to ten days behind generally, but especially because the dandelions (which are normally at their height on St George’s Day, 23rd April) seem to have reached that stage now. James Wong, writing in the Observer last Sunday, tries to persuade us to eat dandelion leaves instead of spinach, pointing out that they contain twice the vitamin A and vitamin C of spinach, as well as a big dose of vitamin K. Great. He actually suggests that we dig them up and grow them in good soil and even use a forcer to blanch the leaves and make them milder. He also suggested some weeks ago that we deal with that pernicious import Japanese Knotweed by making the stems into a crumble, as with rhubarb. Yuk! I really don’t fancy that - give me a dandelion salad any day. “All very well”, says Helen, “but what about those in the cracks in the paving?”. Alys Fowler, much more our cup of tea, understands how gardeners battle against weeds like dandelions all the time, and recommends killing them organically, quickly and permanently by using boiling water. A far sounder idea and much practised by Helen already!

It reminds me of the year we tried to make dandelion wine - using the flowers now, not the leaves. Out on St George’s Day we went, to pick the blooms in full sun. There is a broad verge on the way to Comber that gave us plenty of scope. We needed hundreds actually, if I recall correctly, and they were measured in pints. The sight of the obnoxious, smelly green sludge that this produced, on the flowers being steeped in water for the first stage of the wine-making, is still pretty clear in my mind. In fact, in the end, it created quite a decent country wine. We stored it with the bottles on their side in an old chest of drawers. At least one burst, but there was no major harm done, other than the fact that the drawers stuck a bit for a while - and it smelt of wine.

The garden is beginning to perk up, but the cold is still a problem. Sweet peas are in, runner beans sown, broad beans looking good and an odd potato shoot through the soil. On the down side the hollyhocks look as though they have rust, the delphiniums are decidedly unhappy and some of the geums are ready for the chop. But, on these Rogation Days, the blessings of God are seen to be on all our farmland and gardens; our prayers for the producers of our food are as heartfelt at the sowing, as they are at the time of the reaping and storing. And, as for the countryside being a few days behind, it will certainly soon catch up. But the “Ascension Tree”, the Horse Chestnut, will not have its towering pyramids of blossom ready for Thursday. They are still in bud, the consequence of both an early Easter and a cold Spring.


Links to previous months


April 2016

March 2016

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