A warm autumn evening. Ordinarily, we can smell the sweet-and-sour fumes of the sugar-beet factory this time of the year. Not tonight. It is so dry in this part of Suffolk that farmers can’t lift the beet from the fields. So the air is pure on this balmy night in Bury St Edmunds as we walk towards the cathedral. It’s an unusual hour for a service. It’s an unusual service. A Service of Celebration of the Ministry of Neil Collings as Dean of St Edmundsbury.
It’s too soon to be celebrating the Dean’s ministry at the cathedral. He was only installed as Dean three years ago. He came into our midst like a knight on a charger. He disentangled the legal log jams that were holding up the completion of the Millennium tower that transformed this market town and the fields that surround it. He brought the cathedral finances back from the brink and presided over the transformation of the cloisters. He used his influence and charm to get The Queen here for Maundy Thursday service, and the Archbishop of Canterbury to consecrate the completion of the Chapel of the Transfiguration, the crypt and the cloisters, visits that lifted the spirit of the cathedral and its community.
Last October, we had an evening that was a wonderful example of the Dean’s energy and imagination. The guest list consisted of citizens who, over the years, had raised money for the restoration of the Theatre Royal and for the building of the cathedral tower. The evening began with a dinner on the stage, looking out over the empty seats of the miniature Regency theatre, restored and made beautiful. The Dean spoke about the way our spirits are fed by music, by literature, by theatre-especially theatre, which can make us laugh, make us weep, make us more aware of our shared humanity. And, he confessed, when young, he had been torn between the stage and the Church.
After dinner, we walked the short distance to the cathedral. We were there to celebrate the new Steinway concert grand piano presented by a generous benefactor from the Dean’s former congregation in Exeter. Music filled the candlelit cathedral, giving us a sense of that space between matter and spirit. If I didn’t say a silent prayer of thanks that evening for the life-enhancing man who had come among us to remind us of a God who had a sense of fun, I certainly counted my lucky stars.
And then, the following week, the Dean went to the West Suffolk Hospital’s eye clinic complaining of scrambled vision. Within days, he was at Addenbrooke’s being operated on for a brain tumour. The surgery was considered successful, but his great gift, the gift of language and a voice as resonant and memorable as an Olivier’s or Gielgud’s, was now weak and blurred. His humour and faith sustained him, but, in June, the cancer returned. The service tonight is his congregation’s farewell to their beloved Dean, who is moving to Morden College in London, a 300-year-old community providing residential care. Thanks to modern technology, he will see the film of tonight’s service.
In some ways, this is what we always wish for: that the person we love could be present at their funeral, could hear the outpourings of feeling, could know what people remember and will carry with them. I’ve fought off my anger at a God who would bring this wonderful man into this cathedral community and then take him away so prematurely, so inexplicably. What’s helped most has been reading the autobiography of dying by another dean, Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey. The Enduring Melody has enabled me to celebrate his arrival, instead of giving into faithless fury at the departure of this humane and holy man. I’m sure that Neil, now Dean Emeritus, will be relieved to know I’ve made this more-stagger-than-leap of faith.