About Me

My photo
Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Who is like God? A sermon for Michaelmas

Yesterday was Michaelmas Day.  It is a prince among seasons. I love it not just for the light and colour of autumn or because of my Christian name but because of the symbolic power of its themes. I was first a vicar in the parish of Alnwick where the whole town, not only the church, is under the protection of St Michael the Archangel.  At this festival the beautiful medieval church would overflow with Michaelmas daisies.  I left there to go to Coventry Cathedral, another hill-top church dedicated to St Michael, and persuaded the flower guild to do the same.  They were a bit sniffy at first and said that Michaelmas daisies were no better than weeds.  But in time they succumbed. After that I went to Sheffield Cathedral where I missed St Michael and his daisies, so the flower guild took pity on me and always put a vase of them on my office table for Michaelmas.  I have yet to work on Durham.

Who is Michael the mighty archangel?   That name asks a question in Hebrew: ‘Who is like God?’  It is a question, not a statement.  Angels are the Bible’s great questioners.  When an angel appears to Daniel and strengthens him, it is with a question: ‘do you know why I have come?  When the mysterious shadowy figure wrestles with Jacob in the dark, he asks him his name.  An angel in the book of Zechariah pesters the prophet with a full-scale catechism: ‘what do you see?’, ‘do you know what this is?’, ‘do you not know what these are?’  It’s as if God sends angels to tease us mortals with questions that are bigger than they seem. 

Who is like God?  The Book of Genesis says that we are made ‘like God’, in his image.  Early on, the Hebrews thought this measnt that human beings looked physically like him.  Later, the image of God came to mean being aware, knowing right and wrong, being male and female, recognising beauty, or being capable of thought and speech. But I think from the way Genesis tells the story, that the image of God is most closely linked to the idea of authority and dominion.  ‘God said, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over all the wild animals of the earth.”’  To be a man or a woman, in the Old Testament, means the care and responsibility for the world.  One of the psalms says: ‘the heavens are the Lord’s, but the earth he has given to the children of men.’  And if ever we needed to take seriously the thought that we are stewards of this good earth, it’s now.  The threat of climate change has made it all to clear how fragile our planet is and how easily the human race could wreck the delicate fabric of the life it sustains, including our own.  

We are called then to hold dominion responsibly, on God’s behalf.  In the Book of Revelation, there is a passage that speaks of the archangel Michael as the mighty warrior who ‘takes dominion’ against evil.  He stands for salvation, truth and justice against all that is evil and false, all that comes from the adversary Satan, ‘the deceiver of the whole world’.  By throwing the dragon out of heaven, Michael re-enacts the creation battle of ancient myth where sea-monsters are defeated and the world comes into being.  So there is a new creation: the universe is saved from chaos and destruction, and restored to the order and goodness it had at first.  By the one who is like God, what was lost in the fall is won back, put right. 

So much for what is going on in heaven.  But now come down to earth.  This question ‘who is like God?’ looks beyond the archangel, for Michael is not alone in taking the victor’s crown.  In that same passage from Revelation, the victor’s crown also belongs to ‘our comrades’ whom Satan had accused night and day before God.  It is they ‘who have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’.  It’s a beautifully drawn contrast between the huge apocayptic events taking place in the sky, and the human scale of what is happening on earth. The vast canvas on which the angelic conflict is fought out is mirrored in the personal victories won by individual people, the martyrs of Christ.  We can imagine how this picture of evil defeated in dimensions unseen would strengthen those facing persecution at that time. So the question ‘Who is like God?’ is answered in those who follow Jesus in the fiery ordeals of passion and death, who ‘bear witness’ at the cost of their lives.  Their suffering shows the true meaning of dominion.  ‘This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith’. 

Discipleship, said Jesus, is to be so free within yourself, so given up to God, so focused on the kingdom of heaven that you can contemplate losing your life in order to find it.  And whatever the way of the cross holds, it means having the inner soul of a martyr which is what a ‘witness’ literally is. I believe the New Testament sees the disciple as a potential martyr: to be baptised is to be ready to bear witness to Christ wherever it leads, whatever it costs. It’s a hard truth for us to hear, and I find it as tough as you do, wondering how on earth I have got myself into this, not only as a Christian but as a priest, a public representative of this way of living.  What else might we have done with our lives if we had not chosen this way of crucifixion that commits us to live courageously for truth and righteousness, to reject worldly power and success, to disown human glory? 

In the early church, when persecution subsided, many chose what came to be called ‘white’ martyrdom, by entering monasteries as a way of dying to the world.  Perhaps baptism is a kind of white martyrdom, where being a Christian is unusual, eccentric, bizarre, an offence against the lazy tolerance that does not like the idea that truth is something you might not only live for but die for. There are many who have and they inspire us to this day: St Francis embracing Lady Poverty and kissing the leper; St Martin giving his cloak to the beggar; St Cuthbert turning his back on what comforts he knew to live alone on the Inner Farne and fight evil through his prayers; St Therese, the ‘Little Flower’, full of simplicity and purity, a young girl’s life offered to God’s love; Mother Maria Pilenko stepping into the queue to go into the gas chamber in the place of a frightened old woman.  It is stories like these that make me realise that Christianity is true. 

I am nowhere near it, though on my better days I do want to be, I do want to live a life that has this single focus of loving God with all my heart and being.  You become like the gods you worship, said a Roman philosopher.  The issue is, whom do we worship, what do we put first in our lives?  So this question, ‘who is like God?’ must be the question for all of us who want be serious about Christianity.  How do we live up to our name and bear faithful witness to Jesus so that our dominion reflects his own everlasting reign?  For if the demons that stalk this world are to be conquered, and the storms that threaten to overwhelm it are to be stilled: if people are to feel after God and find him, so much turns on how we live out our discipleship.  I ask myself the question, if you were up in court on a charge of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? 

Jesus calls us to lay aside everything that stops us giving ourselves to this great project of the Christian life.  For God walks the earth and looks for those who will bring in the just and gentle rule of Christ.  He asks us the archangel’s question Mi-cha-el, who is like God, who will take the dominion of Jesus and bear God’s grace and truth to our world?  He waits for our answer, and only God knows what it will be. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

In the Name of the Trinity and Very Wet: a baptism sermon

Today we are baptising Christopher Newitt.  I am of the school that says that baptism should be in the name of the Holy Trinity, and very wet. It is, or ought to be, a ceremony of few words and lots of water. And this morning, it is the wetness of baptism I want to speak about. Christopher’s very name reminds us of the watery legend in which the saint used to carry travellers across a river.  Once he was presented with a small child whose weight made the big man bow beneath his burden, none other than the Christ himself.

It is a paradoxical rite, because water is itself paradoxical, ambiguous.  In our celebration of baptism water is the focus.  Yet baptism has a dark side, for water is dangerous, unpredictable, capricious.  Outside its proper bounds, it threatens our stability, our safety, our very existence even. In sufficient quantities, it stirs up our primeval fear of chaos.  The ungovernable deep, in the mythologies of most cultures, is where demons lurk: Leviathan, Rahab, Tiamat, Moby Dick, Titanic, all symbols of terror and destruction.  Creation, in many myths, is to subdue the deep, establish its bounds which it cannot pass.  Chaos is kept at bay only at great cost.

So baptism, like all rites of passage, is an ordeal. It symbolically dangles us over the abyss, then plunges us without mercy into it, into the deep waters of death as the baptism rite puts it.  There, we are ritually speaking drowned.  Something in us is put to death for ever, for there can be no going back on baptism. The rite is as cruel and unforgiving as the waters that swept across the old world in the days of Noah and engulfed it. The waters of the font confront us with our mortal destiny, which is that we must die.  And Christopher, who is little and innocent and has no notions yet of mortality must pass through the ordeal of the waters. It is a time of trial. Jesus knows this well.  In today’s gospel he speaks about it, not for the first time: ‘the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him’ he says.  But his disciples didn’t understand, and were afraid to ask.  But the waters of death do not lie.  Which is why Christopher will be marked with the sign of the cross, the reminder that none of goes up to joy but first we suffer pain.  That is the character baptism confers: the identity of the suffering servant of the Lord.  Bonhoeffer said: ‘When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die’. 

Yet - such a big word for three letters - yet when we pass through the waters, God is with us. The ordeal is ours, true.  But it is also his. Where we walk, and are tested, and know pain, he has been before us. And that is to draw the sting of death out of the baptismal waters, for we know that we are saved through the ordeal of water just as Noah was delivered safely through the flood, and Israel walked through water towards the land of promise, and Jonah was not swallowed up by the deep but was spared to serve God. These archetypal stories embedded  in our baptismal imagery are our stories too: we who came through the waters of our mothers' womb towards light and life; we whose fragile life evolved out of the womb of the primeval ocean, we who are re-born in the womb of the font by water and the Spirit.  This is the other side of baptism: its glorious side. Water is gift. By water we are kept alive, sustained, enabled to grow. It is the symbol of life itself. Its natural sources - springs, wells, rivers, the sea - are amongst the great mother symbols of humankind, images of a good earth that is kind to her children and cares for them.

So baptism is a rite that holds out both risk and promise. It symbolises burial and resurrection, ordeal and deliverance, mortality and everlasting life. Plunged into the water, we are lost in it. We become as nothing and as nobody. Yet at the same time we inherit the kingdom of nobodies where all of us become somebody: where we are marked for Christ, uniquely precious, known by name, held, valued, loved for ever.  This is how I read the touching episode in our gospel where Jesus takes a child in his arms and says: ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’.  Children were the lowest-status members of the household in ancient times.  Yet Jesus reverses that assumption and make this little creature somebody of infinite value and importance.  So as Jesus welcomes Christopher at the font, and takes him in his arms, he gives him the noble dignity of being a human being and a Christian. Baptism saves us because it is the proclamation of Easter. As Jesus says in the gospel, his destiny is not only to be killed by to rise again.  Today, Christopher becomes a member of the Easter people. Today he learns to sing alleluia. Today he joins in the laughter of the saints and begins to play before God.

We are here at this eucharist on the first day of the week because of the resurrection. We are what we are, an Easter people, through this watery ceremony of baptism.  Today is the day of Christopher’s ‘yes’ to Easter, when he begins to enter into his inheritance, and be marked as a child of God. And if that is his destiny and ours, it is no less the destiny of the entire cosmos to be redeemed from the chaos out of which it was born, which the creation story likens to the watery deep.  In the little child Jesus held in his arms that day in Capernaum is encapsulated the entire history not only of the human race but of the whole created order: to be ordered, redeemed, held, sustained and loved by the one who welcomes us home and gives us space to be.  In Christopher we re-enact this wonderful drama of how it is God's wise and loving will to bring all things in heaven and earth into unity in Christ.

So much is gathered up in baptism. Nothing less than death, judgment, hell and heaven are hidden in its waters; infinity in the palm of the baptiser's hand; eternity in the liturgical hour; an old order passed away, a new order begun. It consists of a few simple words and lots of water, sign of the grace, mercy and peace of an abundantly generous God.  Your name Christopher means ‘Christ bearer’.  And that is what your baptism means: to bear Christ, to wear Christ, all your life long.  It feels like a heavy burden being laid upon your tiny shoulders, yet your baptism is all gift, for his yoke is easy and his burden light.  Indeed, in our gospel it is not we who carry Christ but he who carries us.  His pledge is that he will do this all your lifetime and beyond.  So, marked with his cross, wear his grace and truth joyfully before the world.  In baptism, all things are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.  Alleluia.

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral, 23 September 2012
At the baptism of Christopher Newitt
Mark 9.30-37

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Saxon Saints and Saxon Places: Spiritualities of North-East England

1  What is Iconic?
Some years ago I wrote a new guide book for Durham Cathedral.  I began, as deans do, by offering a word of welcome to it, saying that there were three sites in north-east England that were commonly regarded as ‘iconic’ of the region: Hadrian’s Wall, the Angel of the North, and Durham Cathedral.  Later, I was drawn into a long conversation with a visitor from eastern Europe who had taken exception to what I had written.  He said that I was using the word ‘iconic’ in an ambiguous way that obscured how different these three places were, and how only Durham did justice to the true meaning of ‘icon’.  What made the Cathedral ‘iconic’, he said, was not simply its unforgettable visible image, but the indissoluble association between the place and its people over more than a thousand years.  He believed that the Cathedral’s rich ‘texture’ was not only its architecture and history, what we might call the ‘heritage’, but specifically the memory and lived experience of a common life focused on a particular place over centuries, and continuing today.  Hadrian’s Wall only had this connection to a human community in an attenuated way, and for a far shorter period of time; while he doubted whether the Angel of the North was ‘iconic’ at all other than as an easily recognised profile on the skyline; it was an ‘icon’ only in the modern and as he thought, debased, sense that is familiar to us as an overused lazy epithet from the travel-writer’s lexicon. (I have ow banned the use of the word in our Durham literature.) 

He was I think making two points in this thought-provoking exchange.  The first was that what makes something ‘iconic’ in this deeper sense is not simply that it symbolises something, nor even that enough people assign value to it to get it included in some canon of defining images.  An iconic place has to do ‘work’, not in the crudely functional sense that it necessarily serves a functional purpose, but that it is profoundly connected to a community, ‘does’ something for it and invites, indeed requires, that community to do things for it.  The second was that an icon, in the Christian spiritual tradition, opens doors, discloses meanings beyond itself, draws us into another dimension of experience.  An icon is always ‘charged’ with significance which is why it is inseparable from the emotional, spiritual and aspirational investment in it on the part of human beings.  This is how art and heritage take on ‘texture’. 

I am still not sure whether I agree with my conversation partner, or whether in fact his argument proves more than he intended, for it is indisputable that for the people of this region, these three places represent something more than mere branding, and more than a simply aesthetic appeal to the senses.  There are many people in the north-east who do not like Anthony Gormley’s sculpture, and who regard it as a piece of rather brutal temporary art shorn of any truly symbolic meaning, and beset by all the uncertainties and lack of conviction that characterises our age with its ambivalence about strong religious or cultural statements.  But even they recognise the way it has captured the imagination of the north-east and to travellers on the A1 or the East Coast Main Line gathers up its sense of place.  I suspect that Hadrian’s extraordinary wall is more admirable and fascinating rather than ‘beautiful’ in itself; yet there is something evocative about its relationship to the lowering skies and wide lonely landscapes of Northumberland that makes it an eloquent and moving image for this part of England.  There are even a few who do not greatly care for Durham Cathedral, who find the building dark, intimidating and oppressive; yet precisely because of this admit that it captures the tough astringency of north-east England. 

Where my critic was undoubtedly right about ‘texture’ was in something that was implied rather than stated in his comments about how an icon exists only in relation to a community.  What was implied was to do with the particular people who are remembered at certain places.  Part of the value a community finds in such places is its association with memory, not only specific events that constitute a story but the people who are its central protagonists.  In narrative terms, this is how particular sites have meaning conferred on them, because of the connection between place, people and event.  In this place, something significant has happened to certain people.  When that story intersects and resonates with the self-understanding of a community or an individual, its ‘place’ becomes charged with significance, if you like ‘iconic’ in a more focused sense than the loose way I used it as part of the Durham Cathedral promotional-speak.  Sometimes it is a public significance for a society or nation, like the Cenotaph.  Sometimes it holds private significance for families and a few individuals, like a roadside shrine where flowers are tied to a post in memory of a loved one killed in a road accident.  Sometimes it carries religious significance, sometimes not.  But a site that capable in any way of inhabiting the landscape of the mind, and evoking some kind of spiritual response, will I think have a texture that is layered by a sense of place, the memory of particular people, and an event or events in the distant or more recent past that live on in the present.    

Faith communities have always understood this.  In the history of religions, the ‘idea of the holy’ is not usually of some disembodied presence, rather it is an experience of the divine, mysterium tremens et fascinans, that is concretely located in particular places, people and events.  Pilgrimage in the world’s religions is the universal human way of acknowledging the importance of places where certain significant things happened to certain significant people.  In the Old Testament, we could cite many examples, such as the shrine at Bethel that was associated with the patriarch Jacob because of his dream of the ladder to heaven and the altar he built there; or Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem whose altar of burnt offering was situated at the very place where David had bought a threshing floor in order to build an altar to thank God for the cessation of a plague.    

Medieval pilgrim churches always have this layering of place, people and event.  You only have to think of the three great pilgrim destinations of medieval Europe, Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostela to realise this.  But I want to focus on north-east England where we see this in abundance; for this region is the richest in England for its concentration of pilgrimage sites related to the origins of Christianity in Saxon times. 

2  The Significance of Durham for North-East England
Let me start with Durham.  The Cathedral, and therefore the city, only exists because of the memory of one man and the community who revered him.  Cuthbert’s body, together with the Lindisfarne Gospels written in his honour, was brought to Durham by the community that bore his name in 995 after more than a century of wandering around the north of England. In an important sense that journey defined a ‘sacred geography’ that roughly approximates to north-east England.  Holy sense of ‘place’ was built into the journey of Cuthbert’s relics from the first.  At every place where the coffin rested, a church was erected and the memory of Cuthbert enshrined into the self-understanding of a locality: places such as Norham on the Tweed, and Chester-le-Street, the mother church of the Durham Palatinate.  Such churches were always dedicated to St Cuthbert, or to Our Lady and St Cuthbert, as indeed was our Cathedral (which, after a lapse of over 450 years following the Reformation, now has St Cuthbert restored to its legal title alongside Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin). 

So the ‘texture’ of Durham, its iconic significance, its sanctity if you like is inseparable from the saint whose shrine it was from the very beginning.  The shrine legitimises sacred place.   And inevitably, the sacred attracts the sacred.  St Oswald’s head had already been interred with the Cuthbert relics as the royal patron of the Northumbrian mission (and perhaps because the presence of a martyr’s relics added potency to those of Cuthbert).  Add to this, as part of the same symbol-system, the Lindisfarne Gospels, written ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’ early in the 8th century perhaps a decade and a half after his death, and always intended to be inseparable from his relics.  Next summer we look forward to welcoming the Gospel Book to Durham for a three month visit.  The significance of this is not simply to open up this national treasure to the people of the north-east who have such a deep feeling of connection with it.  It is that you can only understand the Gospel Book in its Cuthbert context, that is to say, in and around the Cathedral.  This is what gives that sense of ‘texture’, community belonging and spiritual meaning to what is otherwise just a beautiful ancient manuscript.

But the monks of Durham were greedy for more relics, I don’t say that they did not covet sanctity; but more relics meant more pilgrims and more pilgrims meant more gifts and endowments including valuable estates.  In the middle ages, one way of strengthening the relationship with sacred history was the practice of furta sacra, the sacred theft of relics from other shrines. ‘Professional traffickers in holiness’ travelled around snatching and selling relics of the saints. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln was an ardent practitioner. He was once allowed to handle the arm of Mary Magdalene at a rival shrine, whereupon he surreptitiously bit off a finger and took it back to Lincoln.  The monks of Durham were not above this practice, and this is part of your history here in Wearmouth.  They insinuated one of their number at Jarrow; and when that monk had gained sufficient trust, he stole the relics of Bede and brought them back to Durham to form a second shrine alongside Cuthbert.  That was in 1022.  Bede’s remains have been there ever since, an additional focus of spiritual presence in a church already well endowed with saints and the source of a millennium of irritation on the part of Jarrow people towards Durham. But we ought also to acknowledge our further debt to Wearmouth and Jarrow because it was from here that Benedictine monks were translated to Durham by William of St Calais in 1083 to found the Benedictine community there and to build its new Romanesque cathedral. 

The intriguing history of Bede’s bones is an important story to tell here in Wearmouth, because it shows how strongly the association of holy place and holy people was felt in the middle ages, and is still felt today.  But it opens up another aspect of the relationship of sacred people to sacred place.  St Peter’s Monkwearmouth, like St Paul’s Jarrow, are both moving testaments to the faith of the Saxon era, so vibrant and colourful, so intensely focused on the goal of human sanctity and on the reconciliation of earth to heaven.  (If you want to see an entire surviving church from the era of Bede, you must to to Escomb in the south of the county, a pure Saxon building of consummate beauty that hints at what these two churches of the double monastery might once have looked like.) 

After 1022, Jarrow became a pilgrim’s paradox: a saint’s shrine without the saint’s relics.  It became an empty place, shorn of the very thing that gave it meaning.  And yet the meaning lived on, perhaps tenuously for many centuries, but then strongly revived in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of romanticism and its passion for antiquity.  Where Bede had lived and worked and died, there the memory was once again revered.  That there were no physical remains left to honour made no difference.  You can still see what Bede saw, the inscription marking the dedication of St Paul’s Jarrow above the chancel arch; you can still walk where Bede walked, through the Saxon porch of St Peter’s Monkwearmouth.  Mention ‘Bede’ in the north-east, and the reply you will get will probably be ‘Jarrow’, not Durham Cathedral.  You will hear about Bede’s World, a successful and enjoyable rehabilitation of his memory in the place he knew and loved. The numinous character of these two great churches is not that they are conventionally beautiful but because of the spiritual, cultural and intellectual ‘heritage’ the legacy of Bede represents.

The extent of interest in Bede here at Wearmouth-Jarrow is almost saying of Durham, ‘they may have the body of Bede, but we have his spirit’.  Something similar is said on Lindisfarne about Cuthbert.  I am not going to say that they are altogether right, but neither are they wholly wrong.  My point is that the association of holy place and holy people can and does transcend physical remains.  A place can become a shrine and attract pilgrims for its holy (or heroic) memories and resonances.  And this is, in fact, how most of our ‘shrines’ in the north-east are.  I am not only thinking of Lindisfarne, or the Inner Farne of Aidan and Cuthbert, or the Wearmouth and Jarrow of Benedict Biscop and Bede.  We need to remember Bamburgh where Aidan died, Hartlepool where Hild ruled a double monastery, Coldingham where Aebba presided over a similar community, Hexham and Ripon with their crypts associated with Wilfrid, Finchale where Godric lived as a hermit, and many other sites across County Durham and Northumberland where memory has sanctified place. In all these places, memory does not need the support of physical remains. The nexus of place, people and event is powerful enough on its own. 

The implications of this for Durham are perhaps not comfortable.  For uniquely among the places I have mentioned, Durham has no intrinsic relation with any of the saints whose relics it houses.  Cuthbert presumably did not visit the obscure peninsula hilltop site of Dunholm far away from any major centre of population and from his own native Farne.  Bede, who was given to this double monastery as a child, probably never left it apart from two occasions when he travelled to Lindisfarne.  So Durham is the paradox of a holy place whose sanctity has nothing to do with what is indigenous to the place itself.  It’s a cuckoo in the nest, originating out of the historical accident that this was where the community of St Cuthbert chose to inter their saint and erect his shrine.  This is why the 12th century chronicler Symeon of Durham, who probably came to England with the founder of the new Cathedral William of St Calais and who therefore had an interest in promoting the project of the Normans, goes to such great lengths in his Libellus or ‘little book’ on the origins of the Cathedral to legitimate the shrine, telling stories of how providence had guided the community to that spot, how the coffin refused to be carried any further became the saint had decided that his resting place should be at Durham. 

This story was important and influential in two ways.  First, it bolstered the fortunes of the Cathedral Priory at a time when the murder of Thomas Becket was placing the rival shrine at Canterbury ahead of Durham in the pilgrimage stakes.  But second, and importantly, it supported the temporal power of the prince bishops whose legitimacy as rulers of a palatinate kingdom within a kingdom depended on the patronage and good will of the local saint.  We can see something similar in the legend of how the relics of St James the Great came to be discovered in ‘the field of the star’, Compostela, thus legitimating the great shrine and pilgrim destination that place was becoming, and at the same time acting as the patron saint of the long Reconquista of Spain, the reclamation for Christendom of the Iberian peninsula from Islamic domination.  If you know the Pilgrim Road, you will be familiar with many images of St James as the Matamoros, the slayer of the Moors, hardly a comfortable depiction of a Christian saint for our own age, but an eloquent reminder of how both sacred people and sacred places become appropriated to the social and political causes of the day. 

3  Seven Saxon Saints and their Places
Having said something about the relationship of sacred people to sacred place and sacred event, let me devote the rest of this lecture to looking more specifically at seven of the north-east’s most important saints from the Saxon period and the places with which they are associated. Simply to list these names is to remind ourselves what an extraordinary era the 7th and early 8th century was, from the baptism of Edwin in 627 to the death of Bede in 735.  (Let me say, while I am about it, that I avoid the use of the word ‘Celtic’ to describe the saints of that century.  It is a slippery word that in popular spirituality tends to mean uncial script, intertwined decoration and fancy knotwork, images of golden sunsets and all pleasantly scented like a National Trust shop.  I joke but as a matter of accuracy, only one of the northern saints was of Celtic or Irish origin.  The others were all Saxon Northumbrians, strongly influenced by the Irish traditions of Lindisfarne but in no way Celts themselves, least of all after the Synod of Whitby in 664 when the Saxon church adopted Roman ways two decades before Cuthbert became bishop and before Bede was even born.)  And while it is inevitably simplistic, I am going to associate with these saints and ‘their’ places a quality that for me identifies each of them as a distinctive, figure who occupies a unique place in the landscape of the mind and spirit. 

Oswald, king and saint, is in many ways the founder and midwife of the Christian mission in Northumbria, and through it much of England.  He is the only one of the seven to have become a martyr.  He became a Christian on Iona, returning to Northumbria to do battle with the pagan British king Cadwalla.  The story is told of how he set up a wooden cross at Heavenfield in the Tyne Valley and gathered his army to pray for victory.  The defeat of Cadwalla was a turning point in the Christianisation of the kingdom, and led to his sending to Iona for a bishop who would preach the gospel to Northumbria.  This is what brought Aidan to England.  However in 642 he lost his life in battle against the Mercian king Penda, a death that was quickly construed as a life offered for the cause of Christ against paganism.  Penda dismembered his body, and this accounts for the fact that his relics are honoured in many different places.  His head was buried with Cuthbert’s remains on Lindisfarne and found its way to Durham: as is common in the Cuthbert iconography, there is a medieval statue of Cuthbert in the shrine there, holding Oswald’s head.  We can associate the lonely site at Heavenfield with him; but perhaps more eloquently, the castle at Bamburgh, where Oswald established his royal court, not as Northumbria’s first Christian king (that honour belongs to Edwin), but as the monarch who decisively established Christianity in the kingdom and thus gave it its character.  In this, he is an image of the Christian leader in public life, for whom politics and faith, for all their ambiguous alchemy, belonged inextricably to a single baptismal vocation.

I see Aidan as the missioner.  He is inevitably associated with the place where he founded a monasterium, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  It is one of the most numinous, or as they say up there, ‘thinnest’ places in England.  Of Aidan’s monastery nothing remains, only the memory; but what a memory it is!  I have called Aidan a symbol of mission, for as I have said he was brought from Iona by Oswald not as his personal chaplain, but specifically to convert the Northumbrians to Christianity.  The choice of Lindisfarne as the base of the Northumbrian mission is very significant.  Aidan seems to have looked for a site where his monks could live in community according to their rule following his native Irish traditions, from where he and others could travel across the kingdom preaching the gospel. The ‘semi-detached’ nature of the Island was ideal: it is connected yet not-connected to the mainland, a place with porous boundaries where holiness could be nurtured as the prerequisite for mission.  But there is another aspect to the island’s physical location.  This is that it is within direct sight of Oswald’s royal palace at Bamburgh, as if to say, not only was the king patron of the mission, but the politics of the court were accountable to the High King, God himself, whom the island community existed to proclaim.  This pattern of holy place juxtaposed to secular power is common in medieval sites: Durham is a good example of this.  The message is: mission is to the institutions of a society as well as to its individual members.  All of human life is subject to the kingship of God, and mission is to proclaim that fact. 

My next saint is Wilfrid and his place Hexham.  I see him as the organiser and shaper of Christian institutions in Saxon England. Among the bishops, Wilfrid was one of the most able intellectually and the most forceful as a personality.  He built the first church at Hexham in the 7th century on such a grand scale, says his biographer Eddius, that no other church north of the Alps could compare with it. He was a native Northumbrian who was sent to be educated by Aidan on Holy Island.  From there his studies took him to Canterbury, Gaul and Rome, travels that gave him an understanding of the wider church few others of his generation had, and which gives us the clue to his life.  A colourful career as ecclesiastical statesman and politician par excellence, led him to stride out across Europe like some new Joshua to conquer lands for God.  From the beginning, as abbot of Ripon and bishop of York, and as apologist for the Roman way at the Synod of Whitby, he courted controversy.  Combative and pugnacious, he fell out with practically every Saxon king and prelate in the land. Wilfrid is usually presented as an unattractive image of worldly ambition and self-interest, corrupted by the power he craved.  But his achievements were considerable.  Not only did he found churches, monasteries and schools on a grand scale, he also introduced the Rule of St Benedict to England, a development that would prove highly significant in the Christian history of our country.  In the debate about the date of Easter, he understood where the future lay: not because it was ‘Roman’ rather than Irish, but because he was committed to the unity of the church and believed that the bishop was its focus. Wilfrid understood how the tides of history were flowing.  But we do him a disservice if we somehow imagine that he was interested only in the institution of the church and its power relations with the state.  To touch his spirituality, you need only visit his two crypts at Hexham and at Ripon. They are a truly Saxon testimony to the power of holiness, the spiritual quest to re-connect with what truly belongs to the foundation of a life lived before God. 

I propose Hild as the reconciler.  She was related to the Northumbrian royal family and was one of the first to become a Christian alongside the first Christian king of Northumbria, Edwin.  Aidan established her in a community somewhere between the Wear and the Tyne (traditionally South Shields), but she soon afterwards became abbess of the convent at Hartlepool.  In 657 she founded the double monastery at Whitby where the famous Synod was held in 664.  That she hosted it is important, together with her loyalty to its outcome in favour of Roman customs in the calculation of the date of Easter and the design of the monastic tonsure.  As an heir of Aidan, this will not have been easy; yet it is clear that she worked tirelessly for the unity of the church in Northumbria, gaining much influence and authority among both the nation’s leaders and the common people who often resorted to her for advice.  A feminist reading of her life would emphasise the respect in which able women could be held in Saxon times: she was unusual, but as we can see from the life of Aebbe, prioress of Coldingham, by no means unique.  Perhaps it is not fortuitous that it was a woman who, in both physical and metaphorical ways, ‘created space’ for a contentious, difficult debate to take place and for an outcome to be reached that did not fracture the church.  This reconciling instinct may perhaps be a particular gift of women in leadership. Her place in north-east England is of course the headland of Hartlepool, another of the region’s numinous places, where the great Early English church of St Hilda was built near to the site of her monastery. 

Cuthbert is the ascetic in this septet.  He stands out not because the others did not also practise askesis or ‘spiritual training’: rather, it is the lengths to which he took it.  He is the one saint of this period who can truly be called eremitical, for the vocation to live as a hermit never faltered, even in the midst of a life fully taken up with the evangelistic, pastoral and organisational duties of a bishop.  To me he is always Cuthbert of Farne, for it was here in the harsh, lonely environment of a rocky island set in a grey hostile sea that he truly found his home.  We misconstrue Cuthbert if we see this as the introvert’s love of solitude, the quest for a peaceful retreat away from the demands of a busy life.  The Farne belongs to the same world as his well-documented habit of spending hours standing in the sea overnight as the tide retreated and advanced again saying prayers and reciting psalms.  It was a determined battle against the forces of evil in the world and in himself.  His extreme spiritual discipline is familiar to us from Irish monks such as Columba and Columbanus, and they seem to owe it to the example of Anthony of Egypt and the desert fathers for whom refuge in the fierce wild places on the margins of human existence was to find God and do battle with demons.  The paradox of this man of holy simplicity is that he should end up buried beneath Europe’s greatest Romanesque building, built as his shrine, yet at the same time so palpably a monument to human power and achievement.  To me the simplicity of his shrine at Durham plays an important role in acting as the Cathedral’s conscience, a reminder that the ascetic journey towards holiness, rather than the seductions of grandeur, is the vocation of all the baptised. And we should remember the Cuthbert is associated not only with Lindisfarne and Durham, but also with the many places he visited in lifetime, and even more those where his body rested after his death.  They include Norham on the Tweed, and pre-eminently Chester-le-Street, Durham’s first cathedral where the saint and his Gospel book rested for more than a century before they found their way on to the peninsula at Dunholme.

The least well-known member of this canon of Saxon saints is Benedict Biscop, the first abbot of Wearmouth and then of Jarrow.  He was the most travelled of the northern saints, making no less than six visits to Rome.  He brought many treasures back to England, for his famous library here and at Jarrow; bringing too a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore.  He was an energetic church builder, bringing continental stonemasons with him to England whose achievement, in the pre-Norman Romanesque style, we see in the wonderful Saxon remains at Jarrow and here at St Peter’s Monkwearmouth.  Among the craftsmen he introduced were the first stained-glass makers, an art for which Sunderland can claim to have pioneered in England, a skill which is perpetuated today in the National Glass Centre on Wearside.  But it is for his cosmopolitanism that I want to celebrate Benedict Biscop.  His long, arduous journeys are a timely reminder that far from being isolated from European civilisation and culture off the north-west corner of the mainland, his Christianity was intricately connected to the continental church. So he reminds us that the local church is always a part of a greater whole: this is the meaning of Catholicism.  As to the place with which I identify him, it must be Sunderland and specifically Monkwearmouth.  A few years ago I was preaching at a civic service at Sunderland Minster.  The civic leadership, celebrating their new and much coveted city status, had wanted to make Bede the patron saint of Sunderland.  I replied that this would be contested by both Jarrow and Durham whose claims seemed stronger.  I asked them to think about Benedict Biscop instead, for some of the reasons I have outlined.  I am glad to say that they have officially adopted him. 

My final saint is of course Bede, and his place here at Wearmouth and at Jarrow.  This is not to undermine the significance of his shrine at Durham, simply to acknowledge that it was in the lands between the Wear and the Tyne that Bede was given as a child to Biscop’s double monastery, and where he spent the rest of his life.  Bede is my undoubted symbol of Christian scholarship, learning and wisdom, or as I like to call it, religious intelligence.  He owed this not only to his education under Benedict Biscop but also to the library with which Biscop had endowed the monastery.  He was said to be the most learned man in Europe: a poet, astronomer, mathematician, biographer, theologian, translator and most famously, historian.  His great delight, he says, was to ‘learn, to teach and to write’.  ‘Bede’s World’ gives us a feel for the range of his achievements, though there is no substitute for reading him, especially his History of the English Church and People, which ought to be one of the best-loved books of English Christians.  But if you had asked Bede which writings he regarded as the most important, he would have said (modestly, for he was a deeply humble man), his biblical commentaries.  He was working on a translation of St John’s Gospel when he died.  So Wearmouth-Jarrow is one of those places where the memory enshrined here recalls us to the Christian imperative to love God not only with the heart and soul and will but also with the mind. 

4  Conclusion

I have tried to say something about how Saxon sacred places are connected to Saxon sacred people and the events for which they are remembered, and how this imparts both historical and spiritual texture to those sites.  I have mentioned places that fulfil this role in north-east England: from north to south, Norham, Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands, Bamburgh, Hexham, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Chester-le-Street and Hartlepool.  I could have chosen others, of course, for the Christian history of north-east England is uniquely rich in this respect: Yeavering by the Cheviots where Paulinus baptised; or the Yorkshire sites that belong to the world of Northumbrian Christianity like Lastingham and Ripon; or the scores of small, often isolated, ancient churches whose very obscurity makes them moving testimonies to lived faith and prayer across so many centuries, places where the holiness of unknown men and women is still palpable.  When I was a parish priest in Northumberland 30 years ago, I got to know and love these churches; indeed, one of them, a small hamlet called Edlingham, was part of the united benefice I served, and I used to travel out across the moors to take services for a handful of people in a tiny moorland church that was almost beyond dating for it seemed to have merged completely with its wild remote surroundings, with the stump of a Norman castle next to it and a small cluster of houses huddling together as if for protection against the blasts of wind that swept down off Cheviot.  Who knows what heroic souls weathered physical and spiritual storms in this forgotten corner of England, the kind of men and women who seemed to step straight out of an R. S. Thomas poem? 

That was, as it happened, a Durham Dean and Chapter living, so almost certainly part of the patrimony of St Cuthbert, maybe even (though this is conjecture) one of the many places where the body rested for a while on its long pilgrimage around the north.  And this brings me back where I began, to Durham Cathedral.  Where does Durham belong in the sacred geography of the north whose ‘core’ sacred places I have mentioned?   

I’ve suggested that Durham is different from the other sites I’ve mentioned because it has no first-hand connection with any of the saints whose shrines it houses, only a memory that has embedded itself in that place for historical reasons.  Yet that memory has proved powerful beyond words, as we all recognise when we look at the immensity of the Cathedral perched on its peninsula, and consider that it was the story of the simplest and humblest of saints that led to its being built.  So a ‘borrowed’ sanctity has, if you like, become indigenised at Durham, taken root there, for the Cathedral, St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels are, or ought to be, inseparable in what I have called the landscape of the mind.  A few years ago, I took an elderly imam from Saudi Arabia round the Cathedral.  He was completely blind, but did not wish me to speak very much about the building before he had experienced it for himself.  I ended the visit, as I usually do, at the shrine of St Cuthbert.  Before I could say anything about him, he said at once: ‘ah; I recognise here the presence of a holy man.  Someone important is buried here, isn’t he?  I sense it, because in Islam we too have our holy places where holy men are buried.’  I have pondered the word ‘presence’, for it says so much about how the power of religious memory makes the past live in the present, so that the saints become our contemporaries, fellow-travellers, friends, guardians and intercessors.  There is a mystical theology of person-and-place here that only prayer and contemplation will open up for us.

So Durham is not, after all, the cuckoo in the nest.  It is, I think, the shrine in the north-east that gathers up and embraces all the others, because its sanctity of person and place is inseparable from theirs.  I prefer not to use the epithet ‘mother church’ to describe this relationship, for historically, Durham is more daughter than mother, whether in relation to Lindisfarne, Wearmouth-Jarrow or Chester-le-Street.  But the lineal descent of Durham from the sources of 7th century Christianity in Northumbria, those extraordinary places and people who were the fountainhead of an entire nation’s faith, does make it in my view truly symbolic of the Christian north.

In the list of diocesan bishops you find in Crockfords, the Durham entry does not begin with Aldhun, the first bishop to be resident when the community of St Cuthbert arrived on the peninsula in 995.  It begins with Aidan, the first bishop of Lindisfarne who came to Northumbria in 635.  The Diocese of Durham (with its own 19th century daughter Newcastle Diocese) therefore stands in direct continuity with the Saxon church and its saints and martyrs: we are still the diocese of Aidan and Cuthbert whose first seat was Lindisfarne and whose present focus is Durham.  What Durham expresses in its textured relationship between place and people is the same reality that we have seen lived out in the other shrines of the north with their memories of sacred people and sacred events.  Together, they have shaped the Christian character of the North-East and given it its distinctive spiritual identity.  These Saxon saints in their Saxon places continue to speak to and inspire us today in ways they could not have dreamed of.  For that, we continue to thank God.  

The Wearmouth Lecture, St Peter's Monkwearmouth, September 2012