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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18th October 2016

White petals of the David Austin rose Winchester Cathedral mingle with the stones on the drive and against the dark and threatening sky shine brightly. The rain of recent days has been heavy but intermittent, with plenty of fine sunshine to remind us of the autumn that is still with us – and should be for a while yet. Many of the trees are a tired-looking green, though others are yellow or nearly bald. Slippery pavements and clogged drains make for a wet and potentially precarious walk in smooth-soled shoes.

Three very late house martins scud across Ramore Head, not pausing long enough to notice the babble of turnstones and starlings, intent, with an odd redshank, to secure some delicacy on the upper shore. Soon after, we pass, as every week, Portrush’s permanent wayside pulpit. Its selection of texts familiar, its message clear. But why does the sign-writer in quoting Roman’s 3.23 identify the author as God, but paint the word God without a capital? ‘god’ looks so out of place, as does ‘lord’ for ‘Lord’ in the next text following, even in gothic script.

At 4.00 a.m. I can find my way to the deanery bathroom by the light of the moon. These are the hours when weakness and failure seem most real and are mentally granted a capital letter. Glancing behind the curtains there are stars too, even with the light pollution of an urban street. They do more for the hour, stretching the mind and imagination to the searching heart of humanity, that reaches for what it cannot touch and dreams of what it may, one day, conquer.


15th October 2016

Things are not always what they seem, as we know only too well. Advertisers have played on this fact for a long time. When it came to the strap line for the upcoming Elvis tribute concert in St Anne’s at the beginning of December, “The King at Christmas”, the jarring irony of this title left us discussing its suitability and the discomfort that we felt.

Naturally, what it has led us to think of in the past few days is of the true Kingship of Christ. But will it for others? Two weeks before it (on 20th November) will be the Sunday designated since Pope Pius XI created it in 1925 of “The Kingship of Christ” (initially it was on the last Sunday in October, but the calendar reforms after the Second Vatican Council moved it in 1969 to the Sunday next before Advent), that now has a place in our Book of Common Prayer 2004. Christmas Nativity plays will always firmly place crowns on the head of the wise men (as they are in St Matthew’s Gospel) and call them kings, who nonetheless bowed in homage at the manger. King Herod will be the anti-king of Christmas, yet the king who wields power and misdirects and murders.

But is all this discomforting subtlety and irony misleading, or worse still, hypocritical? A good question, but one that I answer with a “no”, “I don’t think so”. The contrast with the king who ultimately rides on a donkey to die, but at his birth found himself helpless and in a manger in a cattle shed, who is the Saviour of the World and our Lord, the Son of God, the trappings of worldly kingship are like dust and ashes. Yes in glory we think of Christ as he is depicted in stained glass in the great west windows of St Anne’s as high and majestic and lifted up. Indeed he is before us as the one who reigns over us for ever and for ever. But in this life, as he lived among us, he is the one who reigns from the cross and he whose birth was in utter humility, as our carol-writers suggest.

So the glitz of this substitute Elvis, the noise and the popular support that the concert will almost certainly engender, will be held with him singing some of the great Gospel songs of the Church and will be enjoyed by many who will not profess themselves as Christian.

Recently, at a harvest festival service at which I was the preacher, I was given, on the way out, some purple carrots from the decoration. Helen turned them into Carrot and Coriander soup which looked indescribably awful, but tasted just like ordinary carrots and was, in fact, lovely. No, things are not always as they seem!


11th October 2016

Can I mention something that is not often spoken of, but which I value exceedingly? Our 1.00 p.m. prayers. Each day, faithfully, one of the clergy or more likely a lay member of the congregation, stands up at 1.00 p.m. and asks visitors to be quiet for a moment while we have prayers. I am very rarely present at this moment, but I know it goes on each day. Last Saturday Paul Twomey was on the rota, as he often is on a Saturday. The women decorating the cathedral for harvest and the visitors in St Anne’s at that moment stood quietly or sat. Paul took the prayers perfectly for the occasion, one lady, who entered at the moment they started, stood still and bowed her head. The moment of public prayer in the midst of busyness reminds us that what we are about is not concerning who we are, but whom it is we worship; as with music; as with artwork; as with the pause and the silence and the echoes of prayer that resound in St Anne’s and thousands of other churches.

Glory of a different, but of no less sacredness, shone over the sea off Ramore Head yesterday morning. Rarely can Helen and I remember just such a wonderful Autumn day. The sea was mill-pond still as a cormorant skimmed the water, so low its wings must have brushed the surface, the clarity of the light allowed us to see to Islay and beyond to the north-east. On the shore youngsters with ribbon transects learnt the difference between spiral wrack and bladder wrack; a timeline survey remapped the geology of the nature reserve area further on, to see has there been a change. Can there be be coastal erosion here? The rocks here are so permanent, by sight unalterable, but further on again, at the end of the east strand, at the dunes and white rocks, the story is surely different, with fissures and loose chalk, moving sand and a beating sea. But not yesterday. The tide lapped, children played, laughter trickled across the water from youngsters with surf boards, a red-throated diver obeyed the Collins Complete Guide to British Birds in that it ‘frequently dives’ and helped me identify it, in its ‘in winter’ plumage.


8th October 2016

The trees in Donegall Street and those around the cathedral are small and established, with the garnered experience of many a city’s urban planting, more than twenty years ago. From time to time we talk about the attention that the (mostly lime) trees lining the car park are going to need fairly soon, but as they lose their leaves for another year and the autumn proceeds, there is always something more pressing to think about.

Meanwhile crossing from the cathedral grounds into Donegall Street it is possible to collect hazelnuts at the moment. Again, there is not just one species of tree planted here, but the hazels are more obvious just now as they are fruiting. On the ground lie the shaggy clusters holding the nuts. I have one beside me as I write this, its nuts extracted, it is an eye-catching product of this species.

They are not native hazels, which are inclined to grow with multiple stems and form a bush, which for millennia have been harvested by man for a host of uses, coppicing at between about seven and fifteen years according to the thickness of wood required, from thin rods for wattles and thatch work and bean poles, to small, easily split logs for fuel. Our common and native hazel can be trained as a standard tree, but those in Donegal Street are not Irish. They are specimens of Corylus colurna, the Turkish Hazel.

Why use these one may ask? Because they are tough and can take the sort of root-bound treatment that makes them suitable for urban planting. They can take both flood and drought, will not break up the pavement, will form a nice triangular top, which is disinclined to grow into the road or impinge on the buildings. But, they are still, in today’s jargon, a ‘natural product’ and so we have the leaves coming down, and the nuts available for the squirrels, should any risk life and limb on Donegall Street, even with our relatively new 20 mile an hour limit, that is mostly being adhered to – when we all remember it! Change as ever helps us notice what we have; one of the blessings that we shall observe and give thanks for as the cathedral is decorated for harvest today and we gather for our festal Eucharist and harvest Evensong tomorrow.


4th October 2016

Ronald Blythe, long time columnist for the Church Times and author of many books, in one of his gentle reflections on the life of a rural parish, remarks thus: “Taking Matins I am suddenly aware, yet again, of the reality of public worship being multiple private worship, each voice, each closed or wide-open eye, each kneeling form contributing to the whole.” I think that at the other end of the scale of church life, in a cathedral, one could say much the same thing. People are inclined to sit in their own accustomed place, and have the same view of the service as it unfolds, and the same aspect on the cathedral architecture. In another sense, are we not all occupying our own individual space? By that I mean, entering the stillness of our own being, with all its preoccupations and distractions, but also with the intent to concentrate our hearts and minds for that hour, or whatever, on God.

This may, I fear, not be a fashionable way of looking at worship. The word ‘engagement’ is one that I use a lot myself, but not I fancy in the sense of mentally holding hands as we occupy ourselves in the singing of hymns and the reciting of familiar prayers. We greet each other in the Lord at The Peace and share in fellowship at the altar as we receive together of the bread and cup, but this symbolism acknowledges a unity of spirit and bond of Christian love, but not a mutual offering that does not allow for our individuality and deeply personal response to Christ.

I had these thoughts at much the same time as Helen and I were discussing gardens, which began with talking about Helen Dillon’s Dublin garden (which has just, and very sadly, permanently closed) and her method of displaying lilies, by planting them in bins and moving them into display places for the short time of their flowering period, then wheeling them away out of sight, for something else to take their place. We came to the conclusion that, in a much more limited way, we do this with pots; moving them in and out of view according to when they look their best. I argued rather for the herbaceous bed, that has the succession of flowering timed to allow neighbouring plants to support and cover those looking their poorest, which in their turn will come into bloom when others look tired or dying back.

It’s a matter of both and, rather then either or, I fancy, as in worship we carry in our hearts those beside us that are in need of support, and those absent from the congregation for whatever reason. Equally, we too are supported, knowingly or unknowingly, for our understanding of the condition of another is naturally ill-informed most of the time (and so it should be, in the privacy of our hearts) by the prayers and presence of others; yet, at the same time, like the footprints in the sand that become one set when we are carried, Christ alone bears our burdens with us and sets us down in right pathways. Public or private may be our view of worship together in Church but, for all its frailty and inadequacy, it is what it is, and is part of what we are; thank God, thank God.

P.S. The Ronald Blythe book is A Year at Bottengom’s Farm (Canterbury Press 2006) p. 60


1st October 2016

Reading aloud some of the (occasionally quite long) Old Testament readings at Evensong introduces a captive congregation – and the clergy leading it – to many parts of the Scriptures that we are only ever likely to read alone. Last night there was a long passage from the last chapter of Jeremiah in which the prophet was describing the dismantling of Jerusalem before the exile. As I think back on it this morning without the text in front of me, I am thinking to myself, “What out of the catalogue of destruction and division for exile and remainder sticks in my mind?” “What hit me most?”

I think it was partially the bronze objects and their removal and breaking up for transport things that were too large, especially the bronze pillars, where emphasis on their size was important to the observer. There are matters here that struck the commentator too and he remembered them. I use ‘observer’ and ‘commentator’ for it is thought that these verses were added to the end of Jeremiah by someone else, to show that the prophet’s words came true.

After all this talk of bronze, and some gold and silver it was all about the people. There was a clear division being made between those who were deemed to be useful and those who had no skill and could be put to tending the fields and left. Partially I expect the victors wished to leave no one with leadership abilities to manage to either re-build or recreate a fighting force for a long time. So, of course, it proved to be.

There is no realistic parallel in this to what is happening in a number of areas of the world today, for the scale of destruction and movement of people is colossal in comparison. However, human nature is no different, and the use and abuse of power is just as dominant. Hearing the Russian and American perspectives on the air attacks in Syria is one case in point, another, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen. The UK is implicated in these areas too, and, whilst no one pretends that there are not major issues to be considered, one can’t avoid the feelings of helplessness and horror and the on-going and seemingly endless suffering.

If you are glancing at Jeremiah chapter 52, having read this blog so far, do look on to ‘The Lamentations (of Jeremiah)” that follow – in my Bible they begin on the same page. This little book many of us will hear tomorrow morning, as the first few verses are one of two alternatives for the principal Old Testament reading for this Sunday. As I read them tomorrow I will hold the destruction of Jerusalem, with many other cities in my mind, and begin this grief-filled book once again: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become ….”


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