I have found myself a little sheepish when telling people exactly what I did during my sabbatical leave in the first three months of the year. All clergy are encouraged to take a period of release from their duties and role around every seven years to renew their sense of vocation and refresh their ministry.
On 1 May I will have been Dean here for ten years so this felt like an appropriate moment at which to step away and do just that. Thanks to Bishop Nick and the Cathedral Chapter who were wonderfully encouraging, and my colleagues who generously bore the workload related to my absence, I was able to enjoy the kind of space which brings a sense of fresh perspective.
The sheepishness relates to the fact that whilst the winter rain fell interminably on Salisbury, and the floods threatened, I was enjoying summertime in New Zealand. The only time I wore a dog collar between Christmas Day and 1 April was when I preached in Auckland Cathedral at Candlemass on a gorgeous warm and sunny February Sunday! My motive for making that substantial journey to the southern hemisphere wasn’t merely to seek good weather. Paul and I shared a curiosity about a part of the world of which everyone speaks well – many people in our own congregation who have lived in or visited New Zealand all assured us we would be inspired by its natural beauty and habits of hospitality. That was certainly true but more than that I wished to experience a Province of the Anglican Communion which has a deserved reputation for welcoming the ministry of women. For instance we began our experience in Christchurch where the Cathedral is tragically in ruins and where the Bishop and Dean, who are responding to the traumas of the substantial earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, are both women. The Anglican Church of that small and distant nation also has to find a way of responding to its own racial and cultural history with Maori, Pakeha (of European descent) and Pacific Islanders sharing both the Christian legacy and stewardship of the Church’s resources. Thanks to the generosity and wisdom of many of the Church’s leaders, including some Maori friends, I was able to learn much from the opportunities they face now as a multicultural society with new immigrants predominantly from Asia.
On my return from New Zealand I continued that theme by reading what some theologians are saying about how the Christian faith operates in our own pluralistic society which experiences a diminishing role for the institutional patterns of church whilst at the same time recognising the vivid and important influence of spiritual conviction or religious activism.
I have returned with great appetite for the exciting period ahead of us. We draw ever closer to the finishing line of the Major Repair Programme – the first thing I noticed as I stepped back into the Close was that the scaffolding had been moved off part of the north face of the Cathedral! And through the strong story of Magna Carta we have a special opportunity to present ever more confidently the Christian roots of our values and the character of our community. It’s a vital contribution to British society which can be threatened by the complexities of multiculturalism and diversity, and the constant challenges of change.