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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26th July 2016

26th July is designated as for the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary; it is, in effect, St Anne’s Day, so we are fortunate to have Academia Musica visiting from Hereford today and tomorrow, to sing choral evensong and make the day something special.

A walk around the garden at the moment makes one elated and slightly depressed depending on what corner is being considered. I will try and not tell any lies about this, or even, as someone put it the other day, achieve a “rearrangement of the truth”. Let’s get the failures up there first: the cordon-grown sweet peas have not grown well, many have just shrivelled up and died. I blame the weather, my planting them out too early, their initial care, but, and here comes the rearrangement, I want to blame things beyond my control, so let’s just say it was the cold, the wet, the wind, the slugs. The problem for me lies in that the sweet peas in the front garden, up traditional wigwams of canes, are doing fine. Then there are the currants – a poor crop considering the area of soil they use up: the truth: I cut them back incorrectly and at the wrong time; truth re-arranged: they are doing exceptionally well as I am resting the bushes this year, and the foliage is fabulous, as I plan for a bumper crop in 2017.

Then come the successes: The raspberries are cropping well: The truth: they love this mixed up weather of showers and sunshine, and, in my defence, I did prune them correctly and at the right time; a slight re-arrangement of that truth: the planning, feeding and general day-to-day treatment of these canes has produced evidence of tender, loving care that has borne fruit, literally, to the hard graft that we have put in. I could repeat a similar analysis of everything from the sunflowers that are reaching head height to the strawberry plants that insist on growing in the cracks in the paving; from the amazing dahlias growing where they had been forgotten, to the things that I want to forget, but can’t, because they are clearly not happy and are right in front of my eyes. When does good fortune become green fingers, and failure just something beyond our control?


23rd July 2016

What’s in a number one might ask at this the 300th entry in this blog, with more than 140,000 words? Not all that much, we might think, as clergy look at attendances at services and events and financial statements, and weeks of the summer, and hours in the day. Seven days until my daughter’s wedding etc. Seven lists on the breakfast table, two fresh, un-written-on backs of envelopes ready for further lists, one busy wife.

Facebook give us statistics all of the time: the number of likes, the number of views, the number of visitors ‘checked in here’, the number of people ‘talking about this’, whatever that means. It is strange how one gets caught up in these things, and I suppose it is one of Facebook’s successes that we are persuaded go back to it again and again, to see what has moved, who has commented. Mind you 774 views of Corey and Zoe’s video of the opening of the Eve Parnell exhibition is pretty impressive. Corey and Zoe are two of our four Queen’s interns in the cathedral for the summer. They are working on a new video introduction to St Anne’s. The quality of their artistry is plain to see – go and add to the views of their clip on Eve’s drawings! Add to our numbers!

Primarily the signs of increase or decline are based on numerical statistics, but then comes the analysis as to why – with all the complications and potential spin, dependant on what solution or vested interest or difficulty is to the fore. I was listening during the week, to the interesting views of the British Trust for Ornithology on their explanation for the halving of the number of cuckoos in Britain during the past 20 years. Seen purely on the basis of numbers, one could leap to the conclusion that it is just a sign that environmentally everything is in decline. It is what we might expect. However, like church growth and decline, it is not an even pattern.

With the cuckoo they are talking about the migration routes taken by the birds in the autumn: some go via Spain, others via Italy. The Spanish-routed migration has a much higher mortality rate than the Italian-routed flight. Then we get down to why that is, and why some fly one way and some another, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, can future generations of birds learn to change their migration route to one which is safer? The further analysis of this was fascinating, but by no means conclusive.

Fascinating, but not conclusive, is perhaps a line of thought that might lead to framing an answer to my initial question, ‘What’s in a number?’, whilst carrying on with a blog that has no statistic of readership. With apologies for repetition, irrelevant digression, chronic tendency to self-opinionated rubbish and all other (unnumbered) faults, I’ll write a few more.


19th July 2016

The weather forecast for the north coast yesterday was for sunny spells and light cloud, generally warm and dry. As so often in this summer, it was very much more changeable. Walking into Portrush at about 9.30 a.m. the sky was threatening and the sea battleship grey, but there was warmth and a feeling that it was about to improve, as it did. Holidaymakers are made of stern stuff in Ireland, as we know. Visitors to St Anne’s regularly speak of expecting rain, “This is Ireland!” they will say, with a smile and contentment that recognises that without the rain, this most beautiful of countries would not look as it does.

Nevertheless the children (of all ages, including the very elderly) on the beach were glad of the sunshine when it came, and there were many in the sea. The fresh breeze cut through the humidity and the sea sparkled. The tides do renew everything twice a day. Gone are the large letters that someone happily wrote in the sand last week “Happy 3rd Birthday Sienna Rose” as are the passing words on the wind, “Supposed to be a nice-ish day!”. Yes, local visitors, expecting rain and wind, exude happiness and embrace the day with energy when the sun shines. A tubby little chap of I suppose 18 months potters with his spade and bucket, mothers swipe their smart-phones and soak up the sun’s rays, and the joyous cries of young would-be surfers are carried with laughter across the placid sea.

Near the nature centre there are sandwich terns resting on the rocks. One arrives with a fish and doesn’t stay long but whisks off to eat it alone. These must be on transit. As, I suspect, were some common terns that flew over the deanery last week. They will nest inland sometimes, but the sandwich terns, which have black beaks, are more likely to have come from Donegal.

The humid heat was not so welcome for grass-cutting as I shed buckets and hauled the damp grass to the car for trips to the civic amenity site. These little journeys represent a rest, often extended by chat at the skips, the general message being, “Get it cut before it rains”. By 2.00 p.m. the rain was belting down and we were on the road. A solitary runner, slowed to a walk, had given up. Soaked to the skin what can you do but think, “This is how it is. Another shower. Another day!”

Yes, it was a happy day with the weather forecast’s unexpected becoming our normally expected. But, happiness won the day. One of my memories is of a young couple, maybe late teens, he with gorgeous long brown hair below his shoulder on one side of his head, and completely shaved on the other, she with waist-length ponytail dyed vividly grey and purple. How courageous! How the young teach us all to dream! Well, each in our own way of course……!


16th July 2016

The dreadful news to which we awoke yesterday morning of the terrorist attack in Nice affected us deeply all day. It seemed as though there was little else relevant to talk about. At one point as many as fifteen people were together in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, quietly reflecting and praying. On other occasions the candles burnt alone, but with the space held quietly for the next person to come. This chapel we use for prayer more than any other place in the cathedral. It is where we start and finish our days.

Beginnings and endings are part of what makes us what we are; like arrivals and departures. I am just up, curtains open, tea bag in cup, news read, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. What will today hold? That lies in the near future. There will be beginnings and there will be endings. Some are of little importance, others change our lives.

I recall some years ago, when I was preparing a dissertation on a very specific area of church history, that my supervision, in answer to the question, “What should I read around my subject?”suggested the biographies of people living at the time. To a more limited extent than I should, I took his advice. The same has gone for understanding the ups and downs of Christian pilgrimage. Reading about the lives of saints may leave us vicariously elated, but more deeply challenged to what real discipleship looks like.

As we strive to respond to the news as it happens, and make sense of what is beyond our experience, there is within each of us a very large capacity for that striving.“We may not know, we cannot tell ….’ but we can seek to understand how our ultimate example, Christ himself, went about his life and work for the Father. For the Christian, it all comes back to this point: how we express the love that has brought us into being, sustains us each day and makes possible, through the hope that lies within us (that is Christ’s redeeming Spirit) for new life; new efforts in the expression of a loving spirit, whilst wrestling with and wrung out, in the depths of what in sorrow we can barely contemplate.


12th July 2016

Monty Don was speaking a few nights ago of the fact that the weather over the course of a spring and summer is reflected in the general look of some plants. The example he took was of the fuchsia which is doing very well this year in cool, damp conditions – the reason why, I suppose it thrives in the west of the British Isles.

One might say that our garden is responding a little too obviously to the wet and cool weather conditions of the past little while too. The plants that love lots of water are putting on masses of foliage, and those that have been somewhat starved of sunshine and heat are waving little distress flags. First among the success stories must be the raspberries. We expect to get over 20lb of raspberries a year, and unless there is a disaster we should hit and exceed the benchmark in 2016. The net is over them now, for, while we are regular feeders of the birds that visit our garden, we don’ t care for them getting a share of the soft fruit.

Round the front the colour is amazing in the herbaceous bed with sweet peas and nasturtiums, catmint and English marigolds, campanula, sedum and ox-eye daisies seeing off the fading lupins, irises and poppies. There is always more to come, with snapdragons, French marigolds, phlox and anemones, rubbing shoulders with sunflowers, teasels and dahlias and lots more too. It took us years to create a bed that gives flower all summer long and into the autumn; that hides the failures and stages the transitions, but believe me, we have still much to learn. Regular readers will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the hollyhocks or delphiniums. Neither are too healthy.

Never mind, the fuchsias as Monty says are doing well this year. We use them only in pots at the moment. Some survive the winter, as have the begonias and geraniums (sorry, pelargoniums to be technically correct), others don’t make it, but the number of pots seems to increase each year. This is our fifth summer at the deanery, we have got dozens now, several of which contain strawberries that seem to do very well in pots. There always seems to be the need for just a few more, both pots and strawberries!


9th July 2016

On travelling by car to the cathedral, several times recently, I have opened the window when passing the Crescent Arts Centre where the swifts always nest. Knowing that as we get older we lose some of the upper register of our hearing, and the scream of the swifts can no longer be heard, it is a test to see if this year I can still hear them. The young birds are on the wing now too, and there are plenty of them flying about, so, stopped at the red lights, radio off, window down, the screech of the swifts is quite audible. Good. Lights change and on we go.

Signs are sometimes sought and sometimes are right in our faces, and Jesus spoke a bit about them too. What we should make of the current trends in world affairs is a matter for anyone’s speculation, but they are, generally speaking, far from encouraging, and when rhetoric fuels fears we are not in a good place. Much better if we can gain informed facts from an objective source, even if it takes an age, such as is the case of the Chilcot report.

Needless to say, we shall all receive it in summary. Its 2.6 million words make this blog, which is about 138,000 words now, look like a piece of shorthand, but even if we read the lot, we would still need to train ourselves not simply to search for what we hope it has to say. I have been very conscious of military matters in recent weeks, as our special services since Easter have included those for SSAFA, the Belfast Blitz, the UDR, and two commemorations for the Somme, so maybe I am particularly sensitive to conflict at the moment.

So yesterday, racial attacks in the USA, deployment of British groups on the Nato front in eastern Europe, the decision to allow women to take their place in the infantry and, this morning, news of another ballistic missile launch in North Korea, stand for me, and I suspect for a lot of other people, in pretty stark contrast to the lighter aspects of the news, such as the finals of Wimbledon and European football – much as we hope those to be happy, exciting and binding-together kinds of emotional release.

Mind you, I was reminded yesterday also, that we need to be careful of dualisms and contrasts, in reading a new theological book on ‘the body’, which I am reviewing for the Church of Ireland Gazette. How do we perceive our own bodies? And, how do we compare what we are to what we shall become? Lots of St Paul in it, of course. Fascinating, instructive and very positive on the subject of ageing. I still put down the window and listened for the swifts on my way in this morning!


5th July 2016

The electric blue flash of a kingfisher was our reward for a late evening walk to the Lagan a few nights ago. We were admiring the giant hogweed that is at its best at the moment; massive in a splendid way, it dominates the river bank where it grows. Turning the binoculars from the great umbels to a bright blue and bronze something caught in a bush, it flew for us, dived for a sprat and disappeared. The river was like a mirror, the dying sun catching a patch of yellow water-lilies that somehow flourish in the sluggish-flowing water. It was a lovely evening.

A few days earlier we had been walking the Strand at Portnoo on a weekend in Donegal to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and whilst it was cloudy, there was a brightness in that wild and windswept west of Ireland way, and the backdrop of birdsong from the thickets near the car park, provided the welcome. We walked mostly along the lower shore as near to the sea as we could. The island of Inishkeel lies not far distant and there on its shingle are the shore-nesting birds that protect their eggs by camouflage and by dive-bombing the unwary walker.

On the sand, on the Portnoo side of the water, there lay an egg that was cold and abandoned. It was complete. Either a common tern or, perhaps more likely an arctic tern, had laid it amongst the stones in a depression on the beach of Inishkeel. The arctic terns are known for laying as close to high-water mark as they can, and return to the same site each year. It had been a full moon five days earlier and the tide would have been at its height then, washing the nest away and floating the egg across the sound to our feet. Olive green with brown markings, the egg is beautiful.

The alignment of the sun, moon and earth that affects our tides from day to day is part of the mystery of the solar system that continues to fascinate us. I wonder how much more will scientists gather of the outer planets as the space probe Junois successfully settled into orbit around Jupiter, as reported this morning. Going to bed last night hoping they could manage to achieve this at such distance that it takes a radio message 48 minutes to cross the intervening space, was not in the least like wondering about a referendum result of whatever, but the project has cost a huge amount and taken an age, so it is a relief to know that it has worked. Life is so rich and varied, from the blink-of-an-eye-and-you’ve-missed-it surprise, to the patient years of a single experiment, from the potential held in the palm of one’s hand to the work of scientists millions of miles away. We live in exciting days.


2nd July 2016

The death of the poet Geoffrey Hill last Thursday will have passed many by, I suppose, because his poetry, though so highly thought of by his contemporaries, is quite dense. He may be seen as a poet’s poet. As a passing reader of poetry, and a daily reflector on things theological, I have tried over the years to unpick what he is saying on matters relating to faith; primarily anyway. It has left me with pictures and concepts which have made me think, to the extent that I now feel I could do with spending some time re-reading at least a small and selected part of his work. I have a feeling that in my very finite attempts at the appreciation of poetry, I need to take Geoffrey Hill slowly and in tiny amounts at a time.

Let me mention the poem of his that lives with me because of the one phrase: “the judas-kiss of our devotion”. This is the whole poem, entitled Lachrimae Antiquae Novae:

Crucified Lord, so naked to the world,
you live unseen within that nakedness,
consigned by proxy to the judas-kiss
of our devotion, bowed beneath the gold,

with re-enactments, penances foretold:
scentings of love across a wilderness
of retrospection, wild and objectless
longings incarnate in the carnal child.

Beautiful for themselves the icons fade;
the lions and the hermits disappear.
Triumphalism feasts on empty dread.

fulfilling triumphs of the festal year.
We find you wounded by the token spear.
Dominion is swallowed with your blood.

The poem is a judgement on our inclinations, shocking us into thought and out of complacency. I seem to recall that someone said of Geoffrey Hill’s theological reflection, that it opens our eyes as does a flash of lightening; with suddenness, brightness and shock, all in a fraction of a second. He is a poet that tends to the cross rather than the incarnation, but what does he mean by “the judas-kiss of our devotion”? I have dwelt on this many times and on the depth and direction of the churches’daily offering of worship; on my devotion; on our understanding of the effects of sin on the mind and heart and intent of the Christian disciple; on what Christ, “so naked to the world” offers us constantly in love today. It is a starkly beautiful poem and must have taken an age to write.


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