It is around a year now since we knew that we would be moving to Sunderland, although we didn’t actually move until November and I didn’t start in my current post until December. So it is not yet quite a year that we have lived here, but getting there.
A year is no time at all to get to know a place. But already we have moved beyond first impressions – which were largely positive, but necessarily superficial – into a growing sense of attachment to a place in which we are still getting our bearings.
It happens by imperceptible degree, sneaking up on you, catching you by surprise.
And in this instance, it is different. The Church of England is first-and-foremost parochial, rooted to a place that – in an urban context, at any rate – you can walk around. And while the church exists for the benefit of those beyond the church, the church as a congregation inhabits that place, comes across herself and her shared neighbours on a daily basis. Her ties go deep, not wide. But Sunderland Minster is what we call an Extra-Parochial Place. That is, it is not grounded in a circumscribed locality, but grounded in (the heart of) the city - an amorphous living organism. I cannot walk around my parish, and I do not obviously come across the church as congregation as I go about the business of my days. Our parishioners are not a particular public but the general public. Our map is the network of connections and intersections between the business community and city council and emergency services and National Health Service and university and voluntary sector and … which is to say that the map is both real and invisible.
The glass artist Tom Denny created three windows for the Bede Chapel at Sunderland Minster. The one on the left depicts Benedict Biscop, polymath and patron saint of Sunderland; the man of action. The one on the right depicts Bede, first historian of the English people, another polymath; the man of prayer. But the central window depicts the city of Sunderland today, the top part being a bird’s eye view of the river Wear emptying into the North Sea. This out-of-body experience, detached and looking down, perfectly illustrates my extra-parochial entrance to the city.
I did not think that I would miss the narrow grounded-ness of the parish, knowing – in as much as we know anything – that we were being called out from such a fixing. But I have had to pass through a sense of loss, and recognise it as such, before I can be free. Before the gull’s view is not so much detached as visionary; the Minster a grounding-place to rest, for those who take in the city centre as a whole, who note its landmarks shift like sea-cliffs.