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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21st February 2017

Yesterday left us reflecting on the lives of three remarkable men, one very much still alive, but retiring, two others whose appreciations have just appeared. I think it started with an obituary to the singer-songwriter Peter Skellern who died last Friday. As an entertainer and singer he is best-known, but I was unaware of his lifelong Church commitment and his acceptance for ordination just three years ago, at the same time as learning of his developing an inoperable brain tumour. He continued with his training and was ordained deacon and priest simultaneously last October. His example started me on the train of thought of life being what we put into it rather than what we take out of it.

The BBC website carried my thoughts onwards as I read of the retirement of Dr Benny Glover who has been GP in Glenarm since 1966. Yes, he reminded me of my own father who was a family doctor on his own for many years and who never, to us, ever seemed to get a night of unbroken sleep, and spent the first few days of our annual holiday winding down in a darkened room. But contemplating the fact that Dr Glover is retiring at the age of 78 does put in perspective some people’s contribution to their community. He is a truly remarkable person. I wonder how many of his like are still about? Modestly, Dr Glover spoke of his long and committed working life as “it just happened”.

Then we talked of Bishop Samuel Poyntz who died on Saturday. I will write something fuller later, but if ever someone gave to his Church and community it was surely Bishop Sam. Many people across Connor diocese and the Church of Ireland will be thinking of him and his family at this time. Our thoughts and prayers at St Anne’s this week will be of thanksgiving for his life and service to this city, our cathedral, and the Diocese of Connor in which, for some years, he made his home.


18th February 2017

A robin is singing each morning at the moment as we wake, and yesterday, our resident pair of robins were at the bird bath; one having a mighty wash and the other looking on approving. It is so easy to anthropomorphise, adding imaginary speech bubbles, she calling to him splashing away, “About time too, make sure you get all the biddies out!”

Actually, the avian activity of the garden has stepped up a gear all round recently with blue tits prospecting the nest box again. They are twitchy and cautious in their approach, checking round and measuring instinctively the sightlines, size of hole and soundness of the place to bring up a family in the next few weeks. Again, we rightly or wrongly draw them closer to us by ascribing to them human thought, as children’s book authors have done since Victorian days.

On a more serious note, as we approach the election, the politicians are expending many words in trying to gain our votes and, as seems to be the situation the world over, we are in danger of voting for those who will ‘end’ things we don’t like, or say ‘no’ to the direction we fear, rather than possess a positive agenda that will see Stormont embrace cross-party efforts to solve underlying financial, social and sectarian problems that otherwise may drive our divisions deeper once again.

This morning’s psalm, verses from psalm 106, recounts many upsetting times of error and distress amongst the people of Israel. These are things that the psalmist often reflects on, but in verse 44 he recalls that, as so often, it is when the people started to approach God in lamentation that he heard and acted. While they behaved in ignorance of their misguided ways or worse still in arrogance, there was little that He could do to help and heal.

As Lent approaches and the hopes and attention of all Christendom turns, as always, towards the forty days of preparation, with eyes upon the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, it is without doubt the time for penitential reflection; the prayers of lamentation will sound and the opportunity is there to hear again of the saving power of our Lord’s sacrificial work.

We may passively watch birds nesting or feeding, but as I know from gardening, results take effort and a certain know-how, and much trial and failure. My view is that politics is much more like gardening than simply observing, but can we learn from what has been, both recently and further back, and try something new that will not deny or minimise what it is important that we remember, but will liberate a new generation to create a new and vibrant future? The people of Israel understood that the sound of lamentation was ever part of their path to renewal, but it led them to trust their future to God, whom they worshiped, and that encouraged the fresh start, the building of hope, the positive outlook, and ultimately the flowering of new life.


14th February 2017

Helen and I are both down with the cold/flu which seems to have been going around the cathedral since before Christmas. Some poor people have been off for three weeks or more. We hope at this moment to be back in a few days, but there is no doubt that this particular bug is a virulent one and people have warned us, “Just when you think you are getting better, it hits you again”. Thanks!

As we are trying to pretend that perhaps we might be improving - usually at that moment about an hour after taking paracetamol - we are still taking in the fact that the little signs of spring are definitely about: some camellias are in full flower, snowdrops at their height, white blossom appearing here and there in hedgerows and gardens, daffodils well in bloom. With a latish Easter, Ash Wednesday isn’t for a couple of weeks yet, but still there is the feeling that we may be heading out of winter.

Anyway, with energy levels pretty low, my aim is to get well as quickly as possible, though chatting with Mark yesterday I suspect that the office may not want me in before I am no longer carrying the germs! I will do my best.


11th February 2017

Tomorrow I have the great privilege of preaching at the service in St Ann’s Dawson Street, Dublin that celebrates the Black Santa collection at Christmas 2016 and distributes the proceeds of the fund to a number of charities. This annual tradition, the we so easily consider to be just part of Belfast’s life, has long taken root in Dublin, and the Rector of St Ann’s Dawson Street has been, personally, Black Santa, longer than me.

Although we term our service: “The Good Samaritan Service”, this is as much locating it in Belfast Cathedral, with its fine East Window depicting this very parable, as it is making reference to those who will work in the coming year for the charities which are the recipients of grants. So, what kind of a service do I imagine it to be and how will I tackle the preaching? How will it differ from our own?

Interestingly it is placed at the 11.00 a.m. time of the main service in St Ann’s tomorrow, and it is Choral Matins, a service that has disappeared from St Anne’s Cathedral altogether, as our Sunday mornings are entirely Eucharistic in nature. Secondly, there is a sermon, as one would expect at the primary congregational gathering of the day. Thirdly, there are fewer, but larger grants made. The similarity of supporting primarily community-based charities, is paralleled with Belfast.

It will be very interesting to learn from the way that things are done in Dublin, which, while not having the 40 years of the Belfast original, nonetheless has been long established in the city and raises, as we do, a great deal of money for charities that badly need it. As I contemplate what I am to say, I am drawn to the opening of the Old Testament reading as the people of Israel are presented with a choice by Moses before they enter the Promised Land: Will you chose life and prosperity, or death and adversity? He unfolds the way to each. A stark choice that peoples and nations have faced many times the world over.

The Black Santa tradition, wherever it has been tried, leaves those who promote it working for the life and prosperity of others. The word prosperity may have the connotation in our usage of the state of the wealthy, but its derivative holds the meaning of simply “doing well”. That, with life itself, is what we hope and pray for those who are helped by the charities which receive grants both here in Belfast and In Dublin, that, whatever their need, the good work may prosper and those who are down, for whatever reason, may be lifted to new hope and new life.


7th February 2017

I have a feeling that I am about to part with something very dear to me. This is never easy, and the consequences of its loss may live with me for some time. But, the moment is approaching. I was warned of it a day or two ago. Helen looked me up and down and said, “That overcoat has got to go!” “There is such a thing as shabby-chic but that is just shabby.” “But” I returned, from a fairly weak arguing position, “It’s a comfort; it’s warm and I like it”. “Besides, I have had it a long time.”

It is true that both pockets are worn out and anything placed in them goes into the lining, so there is always a chance of finding a pound coin, if I dig deep enough and work it round to extract it again. The collar does have a small white area where the wool has worn away, but its label inside still bears the old “St Bernard” name and “Made in the UK”.

I think it must have been at Dunnes Store in about 1983 it was purchased and for a first decade it was “for best”. Once it went into everyday winter use then the rot began to set in until finally, thirty-four years or so later, it is destined to be recycled. Well, maybe not quite yet…. I remember my father having an old coat like this in the boot of his car when we were small children. He called it his “car coat”. He would say, “It will always be useful to lie on if I need to change a tyre, or whatever”. I suspect it was rarely if ever worn, but didn’t actually have to go. Mine may have to. Not easy….. “Parting is such sweet sorrow”.


4th February 2017

The birds are singing these mornings and I fear that we are being lulled into a false sense of the arrival of spring. Mind you, I can’t resist a daily lifting of the lid of the deanery rhubarb forcer to judge the moment when there is enough for the first crumble of the year. It is not far off, so long as the frost doesn’t come and blacken it.

Meanwhile, liturgically, we enter the pre-Lent period of Ordinary time that is represented visually with the colour change from white to green. This is where things get a bit complicated because its length is determined by the date of Easter, so, tomorrow becomes the Fourth Sunday before Lent, as Easter is relatively late and Ash Wednesday not until 1st March. A quiet time; a reflective time; but our eyes have turned since the Presentation of Christ last Thursday from the crib to the Cross. That is the easy way to think of it: we have stepped over the watershed from looking back to Christmas to looking onward to the Passion.

Tomorrow is the Good Samaritan service. The representatives of about 200 charities will receive cheques as the sharing of the Black Santa fund is made. Like everything else, it never seems a year since it happened last, but, here we are again and I have the great privilege of handing out over 200,000. I have tried to reflect the feelings of people giving in the street before Christmas in making some larger than usual individual grants to a few selected charities, as concern for the plight of those who need help in the evening and night-time life of the City is reflected in the support given by organisations that help the vulnerable.

This is the 40th anniversary of the foundation of this Belfast tradition and quite coincidentally I came across a yellowing Belfast Telegraph article of 11th March 1981 whilst clearing things at the deanery the other day. A smiling Sammy Crooks, the first Black Santa, is up on the roof of the cathedral as the photographer asks him for a thumbs-up for the ending of the building work on the north transept. Behind and below him there are two storey houses and car parks and derelict land, as the cathedral soars high above the surroundings. Now with the MAC and St Anne’s Square, the new University buildings and plans for yet more development, St Anne’s is a great deal more enclosed. There is much more change to come.

The building programme in March 1981 was 325,000 in debt. What a huge amount that must have been 36 years ago. He spoke of the festival that was to happen that summer with a concert by the Ulster Orchestra and “Murder in the Cathedral ”being performed by students from Stranmillis College, all in keeping with, and I quote, “the Church’s policy that St Anne’s should be a cathedral for all the people of Belfast”. Somethings do not change!


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