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

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Simplicity of St Cuthbert: a sermon at St Cuthbert's Edinburgh

It is good to be here in this church whose spire I have often admired but which I had never seen inside until yesterday.  I am especially glad to be here for this annual service of the Friends of St Cuthbert’s.  I bring you greetings from Durham Cathedral, also dedicated to St Cuthbert, and from the Cathedral’s Friends (along with Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin). 

It’s our privilege at Durham to be the home of Cuthbert’s shrine which is the spiritual heart of the Cathedral.  For many people it is one of this island’s ‘thin’ places where the Spirit of God seems to be present in a palpable way, like Iona, Lindisfarne and other Christian sites.  Once I was asked to take an elderly blind imam from Saudi Arabia round the Cathedral.  The shrine is not a place where we encourage much talking, so I did not say anything as we climbed the steps into what we call the feretory where the shrine is situated.  But as we got to the top, he said at once, ‘Ah!  I sense the presence of a holy man here, like our own shrines in Islam.  Who is this and why is he here?’  So I explained that the Cathedral, indeed the city of Durham itself, would not exist were it not for Cuthbert’s body and the long journey his Saxon community made in the 9th and 10th centuries to find a new home for their saint safe from the Viking raids that were terrorising the coast of Northumbria.  We lingered for a while there: he was not in a hurry to leave. Afterwards, he gave me a copy of the Holy Qur’an with all the passages that speak well of Christians underlined.  ‘What about those that are hostile to Christians?’ I asked.  He replied: with your saint, you are people of the Book.  We are all members of Abraham’s community.’  And I want to say, here at St Cuthbert’s, that all the places that have a connection either with Cuthbert in his life time, as this ancient site perhaps has, or with the journey his coffin made for over a century are linked by a common memory and sense of belonging.  Which is why I am so glad to be here today.

What do we love so much in our native northern saints: Aidan the gentle, Oswald the far-seeing, Hild the reconciler, Bede the wise, Margaret the generous? The treasured memory of Cuthbert can perhaps speak for them all.  Here is one of Bede’s stories about him.  Cuthbert had gone out on one of his long journeys to preach, taking with him a boy for company.  The day was long and the road steep, and they were tired and hungry.  The boy grew worried.  ‘Learn to have constant faith and hope in the Lord’ said Cuthbert.  ‘Whoever serves God shall never die of hunger.’  They saw an eagle in the sky and Cuthbert said: ‘God can send us food by that eagle.’  Soon, by the river bank, they saw it settling on a rock.  ‘There is the servant I was telling you about.  Run and see what God has sent and bring it quickly.’  The boy returned with a big fish that the bird had caught.  ‘What?’ said Cuthbert: ‘Didn’t you give the servant his own share?  Cut it in two, and give half to the bird.’  After a good meal of cooked fish with villagers nearby, Cuthbert praised God for his provision and said: ‘Happy the one whose hope is in the Lord’. 

That little tale shows something of what motivated Cuthbert.  His was an intensely devoted spirituality.  For him, to be human was to live in utter dependence on God, aware of his constant presence as something immediate and inescapable.  We could call it a true simplicity, being pure in heart and poor in spirit.  Perhaps only this can ever challenge what is broken and wrong in the world and in our communities and relationships.  And the beautiful detail of his care for the eagle and his dinner speaks of a man profoundly connected to the natural world, in tune with God’s creation.  His reverence for life and his intimacy with nature makes him peculiarly attractive, in an age of environmental awareness, to all who want to treat all things living with courteousness which, for Christians, should mean all of us.

Bede sums up his character: ‘like a good teacher he taught others to do only what he first practised himself.  Above all else he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort…. His self-discipline and fasting were exceptional, and through the grace of contrition he was always intent on the things of heaven.’  He also tells us that ‘Cuthbert was so skilful a speaker, and had such a light in his angelic face, and such a love for proclaiming his message… that all confessed their sins to him’.  Our readings today remind us what being a disciple means.  It is not the fine phrases and rituals of religion, but the devotion to God that begins in the heart and issues in a life of compassion and service to humanity.  For Cuthbert, perhaps the image more than any other that inspired his extraordinary ministry was that of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  This familiar but striking picture no doubt draws on the passages we heard today.  In Ezekiel, the context is the failure of human shepherds, the kings of Israel and Judah, to care and provide for the flock entrusted to them as they should have done.  So God himself will take up that mantle: ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep;, and I will make them lie down, and seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, and feed them with justice’.  And this great promise is echoed in the gospel where Jesus says that to search for the 100th sheep that is lost is a mark of the shepherd who acts as God himself does, to whom every life is infinitely precious and valued.

For Cuthbert and his contemporaries, Christianity meant living in the spirit of those texts where dying to ourselves becomes the price we pay for embracing the gospel and surrendering our lives to God.  The Book of Revelation speaks of those ‘who loved not their lives even unto death’, the martyrs who bore faithful witness to Christ.  What the Benedictine vow calls conversio morum, the ‘conversion of life’ means a kind of martyrdom, a way of dying in order to live, losing our own selves in order to find them, laying down our lives like the Good Shepherd.  This was how Cuthbert always was in his utter dependence upon God.  I called it true simplicity just now, purity of heart: having only one thing as your goal and focus and aspiration in life. Buddhists call this being ‘single-pointed’.  Such people are blessed because they see God.  Bede puts it this way: he ‘was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort…. always intent on the things of heaven.’  What is ministry, what is Christianity, what is true humanity if not that? 

St Paul sums up his own ministry and apostleship: ‘as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ is how describes the life of those who have surrendered all to follow Jesus Christ and bear witness to him.  Let me come back to this church and the Friends of St Cuthbert’s.  That name, ‘the Friends of St Cuthbert’s’ reminded me of a sculpture by Fenwick Lawson that many of you will have seen in the parish church on Lindisfarne.  There is also a bronze bust of it in Durham’s Millennium Square.  It is called ‘The Journey’ and shows six monks carrying Cuthbert’s body on the 120 year pilgrimage from Viking-threatened Holy Island via southern Scotland, north Yorkshire and Chester-le-Street to Durham where the saint’s body was finally laid to rest.  Perhaps the Society of the Friends of St Cuthbert’s are like those first Saxon friends who bore his name and his memory, for whom their beloved saint’s spirit of simplicity, humility and holy love inspired them to carry his body so long and so far. And if the Friends ‘carry’ him in this way, then so of course do our Christian communities dedicated to him: this church in Edinburgh and ours in Durham.  To live in his spirit is to live in the spirit of Jesus himself, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. 

For me, the gaunt stark slab in Durham Cathedral with his name on it says it all.  The simplicity and lowliness of the shrine tells us in a place of power and majesty who and what is worth honouring.  ‘Whoever would be great among you, let them be your servant’.  We know in our hearts that it is not status or wealth or achievement that matter, but becoming among the least by turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ.  The call, which belongs to all of us through baptism, is to give our lives to the project of purity and steadfastness, in the spirit of the saints ‘willing one thing’, wanting more than anything else the coming of God’s reign of justice, peace, truth and love.  For when God’s kingdom comes it mends our brokenness, gives us back our dignity, and makes life wholesome and beautiful once more. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

At St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh, 7 October 2012
Ezekiel 34.11-16, Matthew 18.12-14


St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Durham: a lecture at St Cuthbert's Edinburgh

I am very glad to be here in St Cuthbert’s Church, and bring you greetings from St Cuthbert’s people in Durham Cathedral. I may not make friends by saying so, but to me, having made this Cuthbert journey from Durham to Edinburgh, it does not feel as though I have crossed a national frontier. In his day, Saxon Northumbria extended right up to the Forth, here to Edwin’s Burgh which preserves the memory of its first Christian king. This part of Scotland is as much part of Cuthbert’s Land as north-east England. Cuthbert is believed to have halted on this site and preached here as he journeyed from Melrose to Lindisfarne, and at time a church was founded here. 

It is true that in later centuries, Durham Cathedral came to be perceived as ‘half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot’ as Sir Walter Scott graphically put it. But when I went to Dunfermline Abbey ago to celebrate our common memory of Queen Margaret at the time this nation was honouring William Wallace, I said that I was glad as Dean of Durham to come to Scotland in the spirit of peace and friendship.  Cuthbert, Margaret and David are among the many figures in our Christian history who symbolise the deep sense of connection that we feel to this part of Scotland. The ‘new foundation of St Cuthbert’s church is due either to Margaret or perhaps more likely, her son David. If you visit Durham Cathedral, you will find them both honoured by the altar of St Margaret in a striking painting commissioned a few years ago by the Portugese artist Paula Rego.

I was installed at Durham on St Cuthbert’s Day 2003. That date is now better known as the day the disastrous Iraq war broke out. I shall never forget having to re-draft and re-draft my sermon throughout that day as the news unfolded. I was aware of asking myself all day, what would the peace-loving Cuthbert have said about Iraq?  But my most powerful memory of the liturgy itself was of kneeling with the Bishop and Chapter at the shrine of St Cuthbert while the elegiac music of the Northumbrian pipes wafted across the Cathedral.  I knew then that I was back in the north-east, in Cuthbertsland.  And I dared to hope and pray, knowing that with Cuthbert you can never take anything for granted, that the north-east’s great saint would be with me as inspiration and protector in the years that lay ahead.

I said I knew that I was back in the north-east.  In the mid-1980s, I worked as an incumbent in north Northumberland.  I am not a native northerner, but I grew to love that rough, rugged county and its people, and its spiritual heart, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  I often went there, alone or with others, on clear winter days when the sun shone out of a sky like opal and not a breeze ruffled the clear blue sea, and the snow was bright on distant Cheviot; and on stormy equinoctial days when the wind seemed to tear the clouds to shreds and shake the island to its core and the sea rushed in to enclose it with unbelievable force.  I have celebrated the eucharist with pilgrims on the beach opposite St Cuthbert’s Island and collected Cuddy beads and read aloud some of the stories Bede tells of Cuthbert. 

From Northumberland, I often visited Durham and the shrine of St Cuthbert. When I went back across the Tyne, they would tell me that while Durham had the body of Cuthbert, his soul was still on Lindisfarne.  Behind this teasing rivalry, there is a serious point about where we think the spiritual heart of the north-east lies.  Indisputably, Lindisfarne is the mother of Durham Cathedral and the mother of us all.  It was here that Aidan came from Ireland via Iona at the invitation of Oswald and established his community of monks.  It was from here that he, Chad, Cedd and many others went out to reconvert England to the Christian faith.  We in the north need no reminding that theirs was a mission that embraced most of what is now England.  Only south-east England was the domain of Augustine of Canterbury and those who came with him from Rome. Even there, the Christianisation of Sussex owes everything to St Wilfrid, Lindisfarne’s best travelled and most combative missioner.

What is more, the Irish missionaries from Iona and Lindisfarne came with no less a European ecumenical perspective as did the Latin missionaries like Augustine.  Time does not allow me to go into how, for example, Columbanus, an Irish Christian par excellence, travelled across Europe, had close connections with the church in Gaul, and brought this dimension into Irish Christianity.  But we need to remember this when it is alleged, as it sometimes is, that the faith of Ireland and Iona was no more than an episode, an eccentric, offshore aberration from the European mainstream that the Synod of Whitby in 664 had to correct.  Aidan had died in 651.  Cuthbert, like Hild, lived through the painful adoption of Latin ways in the north.  And this paved the way for the golden age of Lindisfarne, the late 7th and early 8th century, which saw the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels.  The Gospel Book is coming to Durham for a 3 month exhibition next summer, an event organised by the Cathedral and University as the major presences on the World Heritage Site. That book shows in its supreme art and craftsmanship that there as a close connection between Northumbria and other parts of Europe where elaborate sacred texts were being created. And in so far as the relics of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels found their way from Holy Island to Durham, it is true to say that Lindisfarne is the mother of Durham Cathedral.

But if it is mother, it is also daughter.  And this needs to be said just as clearly.  In the year 875 the community of Lindisfarne left the island, taking with them the relics of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Over a century later in 995, they installed themselves at Durham.  Although they returned to the island at least once in that time, they did not settle there.  The usual reason given is the threat of Viking raids and the need to find a better defended site.  Whatever it is, by the end of the 10th century, Durham was where Cuthbert and the Gospels had come to rest.  In 1083, after the Norman Conquest, the Saxon community of St Cuthbert was replaced by Benedictine monks from Wearmouth-Jarrow.  It was these who went out from Durham to found cells across the north of England, priories such as Finchale, Coldingham and the one on Holy Island.  Where there had been a Christian presence before, it had disappeared and needed to be re-established, certainly the case on Holy Island.  In all these places, the ruined priories show some striking similarities to the mother house, Durham Cathedral Priory.  The incised drum piers and the Romanesque ‘rainbow’ arch at Holy Island make it seem like a scaled-down version of Durham in red sandstone.  The point I am making is that the ruins there that we find so evocative are of the Benedictine daughter house of Durham, not the original mother house of the monks of St Cuthbert. 

This chicken-and-egg relationship between Durham and Lindisfarne is politically important today when it comes to the Lindisfarne Gospels and whether they should be permanently returned to the north-east.  I am not going to go into that debate now, but I do want to draw attention to the logic of the issue.  If we think they should ‘come home’, as popular rhetoric has it, then where should they go?  The claims of Holy Island and Durham are both strong.  Durham Cathedral is where they are presumed to have been kept and honoured for about 600 years, longer than they have been anywhere else.  And because the Gospels were created ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’, as the dedication says, and because the Community of St Cuthbert would have thought it inconceivable to separate the books from the saint’s relics, there has to be a case for saying that they belong to the place where Cuthbert’s relics lie.  However a similar argument leads to the conclusion that Lindisfarne, their place of origin, would be the natural and best place for them to be kept.  What is more, that argument would point to sending Cuthbert’s remains back there too, and not only that, but returning the relics of Bede to Jarrow from where they were stolen by an unscrupulous monk and brought to Durham in 1022.  These issues are perhaps more difficult than they at first seem.

All this is by way of illustrating how, now that I am at Durham, and in a sense the guardian of Cuthbert’s shrine, I am pondering the rather different perspective from which I now see and experience the saint. For Durham ‘inherited’ a Cuthbert who was already a distant memory coloured by a long history after his death that was at least as extraordinary as his career while he was still alive.  Most saints are left alone in their resting places when they die as no doubt Cuthbert was intended to.  But chance, circumstance, providence – call it what you will – decreed otherwise for him.  Cuthbert probably travelled further when dead than he ever did in his lifetime.  Only three centuries after his death did he reach his final resting place at Durham.  So by the time he arrived there, a vast quantity of collective memory, reverential myth, legend and folk tale had coalesced around the three primary sources for his life, the anonymous Life of about 700, and the two Lives by Bede, one in prose and one in poetry.  And once installed in Durham, in a context so different from the one from which he had come, his presence came to acquire yet more layers of meaning that are intriguing in themselves, and to some extent paradoxical for the way in which they represent a very different vision from the one he himself had embraced. 

Cuthbert died on 20 March 687.  He had wanted a simple burial on the Inner Farne, but the monks of Lindisfarne had other ideas.  He was taken back to Lindisfarne where he was given a burial fit for a king.  His body was wrapped in precious cloths and placed in an elaborate sarcophagus together with his presumed pectoral cross and a copy of his beloved Fourth Gospel, the ‘Cuthbert Gospel Book’ that has recently been purchased for the nation by the British Library.  Eleven years later, the sarcophagus was opened, then the accepted route to canonisation. Miraculously it was found to be intact with no evidence of decay.  This was taken to be a sign of sainthood, and from then on his relics were venerated in a shrine above ground.  When the community abandoned Holy Island, they set off around the north of England, looking for a permanent home.  The issue here was not simply the need to live as a community in safety.  It was first and foremost to identify a final resting place for their beloved saint, probably a conscious imitation of the patriarchs of the Old Testament gathering up the bones of their ancestors and taking them for burial in the place of God’s choosing, the promised land.  The wanderings of this faithful band of pilgrims carrying the relics of their beloved saint and their precious gospels is to me one of the most moving stories to come from our part of Britain.

The places where the saint’s body rested on its long journey became indelibly associated with his memory.  Already, the community had acquired estates across the north of England through the donations of kings and noblemen.  The churches built on these sites were obvious safe stopping points on the pilgrimage, and the recollection that Cuthbert had lain in these places often provided the impetus to found small monastic cells there and enlarge their churches.  Norham on the Tweed, Bedlington in Northumberland, and Crayke in North Yorkshire are among many places that were part of what came to be known as the Patrimony of St Cuthbert, Cuthbertsland.  Wherever you find a pre-Conquest church dedicated to St Cuthbert, you can always presume a link to the Patrimony and often to this period of wandering.  Even today, the memory of this defining époque is perpetuated in the fact that many of these parish churches dedicated to Cuthbert remain within the patronage of Durham Cathedral, the lineal successor to Lindisfarne.  And this extends to the estates that this increasingly prosperous community acquired thanks for benefactions of those who came to treasure the memory of Cuthbert.  Yesterday, we were in Whitekirk near North Berwick, a beautiful church I had not visited before.  Inside there was a photograph of a medieval document which recorded the donation of the lands of that parish to the monks of Durham in virtue of its ancient connection with St. Cuthbert, either because he had preached there or because his body had rested there. 

The memory of how Cuthbert’s body had travelled around and rested at certain stopping-places created a strong sense of what we might call ‘sacred geography’ in the north of England and in the Scottish borders.  It reinforced the notion of ‘Northumbria’ as not simply a political entity but a ‘kingdom of the mind’ with an emotional and spiritual dimension.  This built on the connections already established in his lifetime between Cuthbert and the northern part of Northumbria, the kingdom of Bernicia.  In this he was building on the partnership Bede describes in his History between Aidan and King Oswald.  By the time of the Norman Conquest, the inhabitants of the far north were known as haliwerfolk, the people of the saint.  This ability of a saint’s memory to bond a people and define a sense of place is comparable to the role of St Martin or Joan of Arc in France. In north-east England, Cuthbert provided precisely the kind of ‘glue’ that 1300 years later is perhaps still able to affirm something like a common history and set of values in the north-east.    

In about 883 the community settled at Chester-le-Street where they rested for more than a century and a church was built in honour of Our Lady and St Cuthbert.  In 995, they decided to move to a more secure site up river.  We all know the legend of how they recognised the place where Cuthbert wished to lie.  As they drew near to the peninsula, the coffin unaccountably stuck fast in the ground.  It was impossible to lift it.  Clearly the saint wished the community to pay attention.  Then they overheard two women talking about a lost cow, and pointing to a place on top of the hill, Dun Holm, where she would be found. The community took this to indicate the saint’s wishes.  Now they found they could move the coffin again.  They brought it on to the peninsula where they built a church to house the relics.  It is only a story, of course, what the experts call an aetiology that explains the carving of a cow on the exterior north wall of the Cathedral.  But it is exactly the kind of miracle story frequently resorted to in the middle ages to legitimise a religious shrine.  It demonstrated both that Cuthbert had lost none of his potency in death, and that although Durham had enjoyed no direct connection with him, nevertheless this was the place where he wished to be honoured.

The Norman Conquest brought far-reaching change across England.  The new order was proud, confident and ruthlessly efficient.  In Durham, there was an early consequence for religious life at a time of conflict and rebellion in the north-east.  In 1083, the Norman bishop William of St Carileph brought 400 years of Saxon religious history to an end by suppressing the Community of St Cuthbert because the monks had been allowed to marry and, it was alleged, their discipline had become lax. He re-founded it as a Benedictine Cathedral Priory whose monks were required to live strictly according to the Rule of St Benedict.  Monastic ‘cathedral priories’ like Durham, Canterbury and Norwich provided for their bishops to be titular abbots who, no longer monks, delegated the running of the Cathedral to their priors.  These curious institutions were unique to England, and in this respect, the Normans simply carried over a well-tried Saxon model.  However, they transformed it on the basis of the Benedictine pattern familiar to them from hundreds of existing foundations in France.  Here, the model was Cluny, whose Abbot Hugh of Cluny was at this time completing the construction of the great third Abbey Church, then the largest church in Christendom. 

This watershed in the life of the monastery was given outward expression a decade later.  In 1093 the first Cathedral, the White Church, the last visible survival of the Saxon community of St Cuthbert, was pulled down and a new Cathedral begun under Bishop William of Saint-Calais and Prior Turgot.  As historians and lovers of architecture know, it is not only the pinnacle of Romanesque church building in Europe, but also pioneered new structural techniques.  It was the first building in Europe to be stone vaulted throughout with rib vaults that would provide one of the foundations on which the gothic style could emerge.  Along with the vault there were two other pioneering innovations at Durham: the flying buttress and the pointed arch.  Work proceeded quickly and by 1104, the sanctuary, quire and transepts had been completed.  In that year, Bishop Ranulf Flambard consecrated the feretory behind the high altar as the new shrine to St Cuthbert, and his remains, together with the head of St Oswald, were interred there. 

The significance of that event would be hard to exaggerate.  It launched a golden age for the Priory when pilgrims flocked to the shrine in their millions, bringing with them endowments and estates that made Durham the wealthiest cathedral in the land. For most of the 12th century it was the unrivalled pilgrimage centre of England.  Only with the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170 and the growth of his cult at Canterbury did Cuthbert lose his pre-eminence in England.  Durham’s response was to promote itself as a pilgrimage church even more energetically.  The late 12th century saw the creation of a beautifully illustrated life of Cuthbert, and the construction of Bishop Puiset’s exquisite Galilee Chapel.  In the next century followed the building of the Chapel of the Nine Altars at the east end of the Cathedral, a clear enlargement of the church around the shrine to allow pilgrims to gather and circulate more freely.  Despite Thomas a Becket, Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham continued to be a focal point for the devotion and loyalty of the people of the north of England and southern Scotland throughout the middle ages.   


Several things were taking place at this time, and it is the meaning of these events that I want to explore in the remainder of this lecture. 

First, we need to understand the nature of the Cathedral as a building.  It was not a case of constructing a church and then placing a shrine within it.  It was the opposite: building a great church in order to house a shrine, indeed we could say, building it around the shrine.   This had been true of the White Church.  It was pre-eminently true of the Norman Cathedral.  It only exists because of the need to build a new and magnificent home for St Cuthbert. This was a shrewd move politically.  Through the wanderings of his coffin and now through the shrine, Cuthbert was already a focal point for people across the north of England. To affirm his cult by the construction of a church on a scale hitherto unknown in this country was a way of pulling that wayward, indeed backward, part of England into consenting with, even welcoming, its new Norman overlords.  To make friends with Cuthbert was a way of making friends with the people of Cuthbertsland.  This is one reading, a more benign one, of the events in Durham after the Norman Conquest.

But there is another reading which puts Cuthbert in a more paradoxical context.  The suppression of the Saxon community and the installation of Benedictine monks was not simply a religious act.  It was an expression of Norman hegemony, an act of power and control.  In the Wars of Religion of later centuries, a principle was established that largely created the map of modern Europe.  It was expressed in the tag cuius regio, eius religio: whoever your ruler, you follow his religion.  In the 16th century, whether you were catholic or protestant depended for most people not on personal choice but on whether your prince was catholic or protestant.  It was the same in Norman England.  The importing of the Benedictine rule was a way of imposing Norman religious attitudes and assumptions on to the life of the church in the north-east.

And these Norman ways were very different from the customs of the Saxon church which Cuthbert and his community knew.  St Benedict, who had been educated in Rome, drew up his rule for monks in about 540, a century before Cuthbert’s lifetime.  His rule emphasised order, stability and pattern, a vision of a Christian society that drew on the remembered order, stability and pattern of the dying Roman Empire.  Its spirituality was grounded on the practical realities of life in community based on the three priorities of prayer, study and work.  This was the coenobitic way that proved so outstandingly successful in medieval Europe, especially in France, and that demonstrated time and again its capacity for self-renewal and reform, particularly in its Cistercian form.  So to the Benedictines, St Cuthbert must have struck a rather odd figure.  Not for them the extremes of ascetic devotion he was given to, like praying in the sea all night until the tide swirled up to his neck, or living in solitude on Inner Farne in an enclosure with walls so high that all he could see was the sky.  In fact, Cuthbert has much more in common with the Irish saints, and before them, with the ascetic hermit traditions of St Anthony and the desert fathers than with the coenobitic way of the Benedictine rule.  For this reason, the Benedictine Cathedral Priory at Durham would have struck Cuthbert as an unlikely, even an alien, place to lie.

And this is mirrored in how the building was intended to be read.  Durham Cathedral is historically more than a great pilgrimage church.  The power of the building is not only its consummate mastery of form, scale and proportion, or of the engineering principles of rib vault, flying buttress and pointed arch. It is also a symbol of the power of the Norman Conquest and of the William’s bloodthirsty adventures in the north of England.  The Cathedral, sitting on its acropolis along with the Castle, was in the strict sense of the word an offensive structure before it was defensive.  It identified who England’s new masters were and on whose side God and St Cuthbert now belonged.  It stood for the political as well as the religious role of the church and particularly of the Norman bishops.  It was a massive statement of Norman rule.   It was an unambiguous symbol of power. 

In this conflicted, power-obsessed world of the 11th century, the saint of Lindisfarne cuts a strange figure.  It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between these two worlds: Durham Cathedral, in one sense a worldly symbol of sword and crown, frequented by kings and knights and armies, and the lonely cell on Inner Farne battered by wind and sea, and home only to birds and otters and one solitary hermit.  We know that Cuthbert found even Lindisfarne too busy and crowded for him to realise his God-given vocation.  This required remoteness and solitude: not for ‘retreat’ in the sense we understand it, a way of withdrawing from the world to find refreshment and renewal, but on the contrary, to enable him to focus in a concentrated way without distraction on the spiritual work of prayer and combating evil, not least his own demons.  This was the reason he chose to live and die on the Farne. 

There are many traditions about Cuthbert that testify to his feeling for the natural world.  Bede tells the story of a visit to Coldingham Priory, a mixed community of men and women where Aebba, a friend of Cuthbert’s, was abbess.  One night one of the monks saw Cuthbert leave the convent when he thought everyone was asleep, and go down to the beach.  He entered the water and prayed there through the night.  As he came out of the water at dawn, two otters were seen breathing on the saint’s legs to warm him.  Episodes like these have earned Cuthbert the epithet of England’s St Francis.  But I believe that Cuthbert’s choice of Inner Farne was motivated by more than a love of nature.  When you visit the Farne Islands, you are struck by the fact that dominating the Northumberland shore to the west lies Bamburgh Castle, the historic seat of the kings of Northumbria.  That tells us that Cuthbert deliberately chose a site for his hermitage in full view of the political authorities of his day, as if to remind them daily that in ordering the affairs of human kingdoms, there is a heavenly kingdom to consider, a God to reckon with who claims the allegiance of all human subjects. 

This, to me, underlines the paradox of Cuthbert’s tomb at the heart of our Norman Cathedral.  In one way, his entire career was profoundly counter-cultural to all that the Norman Conquest stood for.  He would have been much troubled at the thought that his body would be imprisoned beneath the heavy stone vaults of a place so compromised by the principalities and powers of this world.  His holiness and simplicity were fundamentally at odds with the sophisticated complexities of Anglo-Norman life, with the Priory’s accumulation of wealth and status, and with the violent history with which it was associated. The powerful sense of permanence that the Cathedral evokes, its confidence that it will last for ever, exude a spirit very different from the lowly wooden churches and monasteries that Cuthbert and his peers inhabited. 

Yet there is another perspective on this.  Cuthbert was not unused to dealing with those in his day who wielded sword and sceptre in the royal courts.  His was a spirituality of engagement with this world’s agenda, not withdrawal from it.  And to my mind, it is precisely the presence of Cuthbert in the midst of this marvellous yet ambiguous building that perhaps redeems it from being what it might have become: a temple to the hubris its builders, forever driven by the need to build bigger, higher, stronger and better than their rivals.  No doubt there is something of William Golding’s Dean Jocelyn in those who set out to build the great cathedrals of medieval Europe (I am thinking of his brilliant novel The Spire, an imaginative re-telling of the completion of Salisbury Cathedral, in which he explores how the motive of spiritual aspiration becomes fatally corrupted by vanity and self-aggrandisement in the building of England’s highest medieval spire). 

Cuthbert’s shrine, then, puts a theological question to the Durham project.  It gives it a conscience, a soul.  Some would say that there is a contradiction between what he stood for and what the building consciously represented when it was built, that the shrine by its very existence subverts the meaning of a great church.  I do not think that it does, but by criticising human self-assertion against the claims of God it does put the building of the Norman church into a larger context.  It is as if the shrine is a kind of Inner Farne within the Cathedral, a constant and necessary reminder of where our true and ultimate accountability lies.  In the real world, we all have to deal with priors and deans, with bishops and princes and warriors, but there is only one ultimate loyalty that we owe: to the living God himself.  If we do not perceive and serve him in and through our negotiations with the ebbs and flows of human institutions, if we are blinded by those who wield power and hold our destinies in their hands, if we give our absolute allegiance to sword and crown, then we betray his trust.

I am aware of the risk, in saying this, that we romanticise the saints of the Saxon era and their Irish forebears.  Those who lament the Synod of Whitby in 664, and its ruling in favour of the Roman tradition over the Irish, see the Norman Conquest as the last nail in the coffin whereby a holier, simpler, more beautiful form of Christianity was suppressed by an insitutional church that was worldly, corrupted and domineering.  The label of ‘Celtic’ Christianity is often attached to that nostalgic vision of the spirituality of these islands when the church was young.  As we all know, there is these days a considerable industry around ‘Celtic’ spirituality that is attractively and fragrantly packaged and marketed.  Without criticising what many have found helpful, we do nevertheless need to recognise it for what it is: a re-invention for a postmodern generation of a way of faith that in its day was unbelievably, indeed for our day, an impossibly severe, astringent and demanding. 

I doubt if we would easily find ourselves at home in the world inhabited by Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Oswald and Cuthbert.  That world, from our vantage point, would seem bizarre, not to say extreme or even mad.  So much the worse for us, we may say.  But we can recognise that this process of ‘reinventing’ the saints was precisely what the Normans were doing with Cuthbert by placing his shrine at the heart of Durham Cathedral.  What is more, we can see that this is not only inevitable but necessary.  For as I have already said, Cuthbert had already become a distant memory by the time the Cathedral was built.  Placing him within the frame of a Benedictine Cathedral Priory was a way of ‘claiming’ his universal significance for times very different from his own.  It was, as I have said, a paradoxical thing to do.  But it rescued him from the fate of being locked up in the remote past.  It made him a contemporary of pilgrims of all ages.  It enacted a constant theme of religious faith which is that what we receive, we hand on but not without contributing to it our own insight, devotion and meaning.   This is the true meaning of traditio: a living body of faith that is given new significance through the act of cherishing it, and proclaiming it, and discerning new meanings in it in the light of altered circumstances and times.   


In 1537, Henry VIII’s Commissioners for the north of England came to Durham as part of the programme of dissolving the monasteries.  Always with an eye to the acquiring wealth for the crown, they stripped Cuthbert’s shrine of its jewels and precious metals and levelled it to the ground with their axes and crow-bars. Then one of their stooges set about opening up the coffin in order to smash the relics and destroy all trace of the saint.  A remarkable record of the Cathedral Priory, The Rites of Durham, tells us that he found, instead of dust and ashes, that the body was ‘lying whole uncorrupt with his face bare and his beard as it had been a fortnight’s growth’.  An altercation followed, the Commissioners standing below the feretory wondering why the man had not completed the work of a few minutes and thrown down a pile of Saxon bones and detritus.  The intact skeleton caused them to stop their work, leave the remains where they were and seek advice from London.  We can be grateful that the advice ever came. 

The relics remained where they were and subsequent openings in 1827 and 1899 confirmed that they had not been tampered with.  In 1827 the superb Saxon artifacts now housed in our Treasury were removed: the pectoral cross of St Cuthbert, a stole, maniple and girdle, the silk wrappings, an ivory comb, a portable altar and pieces of the coffin itself.  The great black slab, huge, primitive and unadorned identifies his resting place in crude unembellished letters: CUTHBERTVS.  Its sheer starkness and simplicity are profoundly moving: the best tribute we can offer as we honour a man whose extraordinary career in both life and death have endeared him to so many.  Millions still come to Durham to bring to his place their hopes, their longings, their joys, their fears, their pain.  He is, I think, as close as England has ever come to begetting a national saint.  What he is to us is no doubt very different from what he has been to past generations, and I have tried to show how Durham Cathedral played a large part in the process of reinterpreting his significance to subsequent generations. 

Cuthbert is the emblem of so much that our churches today need to cultivate. Here are some reasons why.  First, for his askesis or spiritual discipline.  It is not that others did not also practise ‘spiritual training’: rather, it is the lengths to which he took it, his complete devotion to the way of a disciple. It never faltered, even in the midst of a life fully taken up with the evangelistic, pastoral and organisational duties of a bishop. From this self-offering, going right back to the night on the hills around Melrose where he had his vision of Aidan’s soul being carried up to heaven and resolved at once to enter monastic life. Then we honour the memory of a man who lived close to the natural world, who not only respected it and treated it with courtesy but befriended it, England’s St Francis 600 years earlier. If we were looking for a patron saint of environmental responsibility, we could not do better. We celebrate him as an evangelist for his perseverance in preaching the gospel and the lengths to which he went in order to bring the love of Jesus Christ to communities in remote places. As a bishop he is an inspiration to all called to public office in the church, not simply in the complete commitment he brought to it, but in managing the boundaries of his public role and personal spiritual disciplines. As a spiritual guide and companion he models wise ‘accompaniment’ in the path of wisdom and discipleship. I could go on and on. Whether it is on his windswept Holy Island or Inner Farne, washed by the surf of the bleak grey North Sea under the wide Northumberland sky, or kneeling by his simple black slab beneath the soaring vaults and arcades of Britain’s best-loved building, we find ourselves drawn back to his story in ways that continue to inspire us, and put to us the inescapable questions of what it means to be human and to be Christian in the complex century, so different from Cuthbert’s, in which we live and seek to bear Christian witness to our generation as he did in his.

Michael Sadgrove
Dean of Durham
Lecture to the Society of the Friends of St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, October 2012 


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Welcome to New Students

It’s a great pleasure to welcome you to Durham as you arrive to begin your time in the University.  If you are from overseas, welcome to our country.  If you have come from other parts of the UK, welcome to north east England.  I am sure you will soon feel at home here as you get to know this beautiful region and its people. 

And welcome to this great building on the day of your matriculation, especially if this is the first time you have set foot in the Cathedral.  Last year one of our national newspapers ran an online poll to find the nation’s favourite building.  Durham Cathedral won.  Look around you at the magnificence that surrounds you and perhaps you’ll see why.  You’ll be glad to know that this Cathedral has a Facebook page with one of the biggest supporters’ group among cathedrals anywhere in the world.  You can also follow us on Twitter.  So you see, not everything in Durham Cathedral comes out of the middle ages.

You are sitting in a World Heritage Site which we share with the University.  Durham has a longer history of continuous study and learning than almost anywhere else in Europe, going back to the first Cathedal that was founded here in 995. 

The working life of these historic buildings continues today. The Castle is a working place of education.  This cathedral is a working church: services are held here three times on every day of the year.  But it’s also a place to walk around or sit quietly in, to enjoy its art, architecture and heritage, to explore its spirituality or to ponder the big questions of life.  There are scores of artistic, musical and cultural events to enjoy, many of them organised with the University.  There are lively debates about such topics as science and religion, the criminal justice system, peace-making and reconciliation, and what it means to be human.   Whatever your religious beliefs, I hope you come here often, that you think of it as your place and feel at home here.

As students you bring great liveliness to Durham and our region. I hope your time here is happy and rewarding. I wish you the very best for the years that lie ahead.