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Last Tuesday my local clergy book club met.  We discussed Sara Maitland’s new(ish) book: ‘A Book of Silence’.  We were not overly impressed.  We though she was approaching the subject of silence in a far too academic a way – and was sometimes confusing it with ‘solitude’.  For example, she writes that she had spent some time alone in the Sinai desert reading the Sayings of the Desert Fathers – we all felt she should have left the book behind and tried to read the silence itself!

However. Three of us (out of six) had attended a meeting last September addressed by Fr Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk who now heads up the late John Maine’s ‘World Community for Christian Meditation’, and he had much more powerful stuff to say about silence. 

The current welcome page of the WCCM website has the following picture:

lfcushion091A meditation mat and cushion, a Buddhist ‘singing’ bowl (chime) and striker, a watch, and, by coincidence, a copy of my latest discovery: ‘Benedictine Daily Prayer – A Short Breviary’ produced by St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota (ISBN 1-85607-495-1 The Columba Press, Dublin).

As someone who has struggled for the last thirty years or more to find the ‘right’ form of daily office (- I know, a desperate situation to be in!-) this comes very close to fitting the bill.  For the last few years I have been juggling with two forms: ‘The Divine Office’ (the official UK RC version) and ‘Daily Prayer’ (the Church of England’s Common Worship version).  Both have much to offer.

I have used ‘The Divine Office’ for most of my thirty years and love the flexible arrangement, the Grail Psalms, the ‘all-in-oneness’ of the book – but sometimes find some of the non-scriptural readings a bit heavy, some of the ‘incidentals’ (antiphons, responses, etc) a bit ‘unreconstructed’, and the intercessions often dire (although in great variety!).  ‘Daily Prayer’, on the other hand, is a bit more ‘self-conscious’, almost as if it were trying too hard to be an office book, certainly very ‘wordy’, very uptight, as it were.  It also involves at least three books (office book, bible and lectionary – four if you want more that half a dozen hymns!) and a lot of page flipping.  But I am an Anglican…

‘Benedictine Daily Prayer’ is one book, Grail Psalms, two scriptural readings in the night office (all NRSV), only occasional patristic readings, traditional office hymns (albeit in a modern translation), re-written antiphons and responses, and even the occasional Anglican feast day to supplement the Benedictine Calendar.  It is a joy to use.  I recommend it.


GFD at his leaving 'do' 1978

There I was, a new curate, new to Manchester, new to the North, wondering what this ministry thing entailed.  GFD, as Gordon was know to his curates, had the answer!  “Spend the morning with your books,” he said, “the afternoon visiting parishioners, and the evening for anything else!”.

GFD spent his mornings principally with St Paul, making neat notes in a series of small, pre-Filofax multi-ring binders. “Focus on one small area of study”, he would say, “stick with it, and you’ll find that will lead you into all sorts of other areas.”  Only lately have I learned of the depth of GFD’s study of St Paul.

As a training incumbent GFD was ordered, rather than strict.  We, two curates and GFD, would meet three times each weekday: mattins [when he could monitor our previous day’s visiting via our intercessions!] , a midday mass followed by lunch [accompanied by Radio 4 – Round Britain Quiz being his favourite], and evensong – with a staff meeting every Sunday evening.

Visiting was at the heart of his pastoral ministry: organised visiting with the parish divided up into distinct areas [different areas, different days – so we didn’t clash!], a simple but effective card index of every home in the parish, and different coloured inks for each of us to record our visits!  Community was the thing, making connections.  This pastoral heart extended beyond the parish to embrace the spiritual direction, counselling, and befriending of many in the diocese.

A truly humble man – I remember when he was offered an honorary canonry; “I’m not sure,” he said, “that taking on a title without any accompanying work is what we’re all about.”  And a poet!  I remember taking a telephone call in the Rectory while GFD was out: a literary agent phoning to tell him that some of his poems had been accepted for publication – under a pseudonym, of course!

GFD was a solid, thoughtful, learned, caring, and deeply spiritual man – a loving heart beating within the concrete jungle of deck-access Hulme – making a great and lasting impression on a whole string of priests trained by him.  Thirty years on, still remembered with affection and gratitude.

Gordon Frederick Dowden: born 7 November 1925 – died  3 November 2008.  Deaconed 1953, priested 1954.  Curacies in Salisbury and Ely.  Rector of St Philip’s, Hulme (1958-67); St Philip with St Michael, St Stephen and St Mark, Hulme (1967-70); St Philip with St Michael, St Stephen, St Mark, and St Gabriel Hulme (1968-70); the Ascension, Hulme (1970-78); Rural Dean of Hulme (1973-78); Priest-in-Charge of Holybourne with Neatham (1978-82); Rural Dean of Alton (1979-82); Assistant Curate of the Good Shep­herd, Manchester (1982-91); Area Dean of Ardwick (1982-90); Chap­lain of Ancoats Hospital, Manchester (1985-90).

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