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

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Two Churches, a Bishop and a Saint: the St Cuthbert's Lecture at Darlington

It is a great pleasure to be back here in this great church to speak to you. The topic I have been given is the connections between Durham Cathedral and St Cuthbert’s Darlington. There are many, and most of them date back several hundred years, as we shall see. It is these that I want to focus on in this lecture. But not before mentioning the two literal connections that have linked Durham and Darlington in more recent centuries. I am thinking of the Great North Road, and the North Eastern Railway. The industrial development of the North East in the 19th century owed much to both these transport arteries that ran across the region from south to north. In particular, Durham’s great railway viaduct, built by T.E. Harrison in 1857, was commissioned by the Stockton and Darlington to bring trains into their new terminus at the northern end of their line from Bishop Auckland. I include this because Darlington is one of the nation’s historic railway shrines. The County Durham coalfield would never have prospered were it not for the development of the wagon-way, and then the steam engine, in this southern part of Durham’s hinterland. 

But it is to the middle ages that the closest links between Darlington and Durham belong, and particularly (though not exclusively) between this church and the Cathedral. There are three. The first is architectural, the second historical and the third, for want of a better word, religious. To see the connections I shall try to make among these three you will need to be patient. But I want to emphasise at the outset that I believe all three ultimately feed the theological and spiritual links that exist between the two places.

My first connection is architectural. St Cuthbert’s is one of the great parish churches in the north of England. In my book, I described it as ‘one of the best examples of a town church of [its] era not just in the north but anywhere. The grandeur of this cruciform building with its splendid tower and spire is evident from the railway line… In a market town you want the parish church to be prominent enough to [‘crown’ its setting. This Darlington does to perfection. The church is an apt commentary on the civic aspirations of this place, later to be so amply rewarded by the coming of the railway, and later still by the granting of unitary authority status, unusual for a place which, despite its growth, is still experienced as a real town and not as a sprawling industrial conurbation like most of its neighbours.’[1]

But this church is particularly distinguished for its architectural excellence. While there was a Saxon church on this site, the present building was begun in the late 12th century and completed in the first half of the 13th century. This was the era of the architectural style we call ‘Early English’, the first of the three principal phases of Gothic in which all our cathedrals, churches and abbeys were constructed between the 13th and the early 16th centuries. Darlington is a particularly pure example of this, a pioneering experiment in the new style along with the great hall at Auckland Castle. Almost all the windows are narrow pointed lancets carefully arranged round the building to create a strong sense of geometry, particularly in the three banks of windows in the east wall, and two in the west.
So this was a church on which no expense was spared: this was because throughout the high middle ages, St Cuthbert’s was collegiate, staffed not by an incumbent alone but by a dean and four canons.  This is reflected in the architecture of a proud cruciform church with a crossing tower. You only find three west doors in churches that are intended to make a grand statement. Of course, the church was added to after the 13th century, particularly the windows in the aisles, enlarged to let in more light when the roofs were raised in the 14th century, and the top of the tower with its spire from the same century. Since then, the building has been much restored, especially in the 19th century in common with every other distinguished medieval church. But its essence is of the 13th century in its purest form. If we were to list the ten best Early English parish churches in north east England, Darlington would certainly be one of them. (The great church of St Hilda at Hartlepool would be another, as would Hexham Abbey, and if we were allowed to include monastic churches, Brinkburn and Tynemouth Priories would be on the list too. Honorary mention should also be made of Ripon Cathedral which may have influenced the design of this church.)

But this lecture is about links between this church and Durham Cathedral. The reason architecture is my first connection is that the Cathedral, too, has an example of the highest achievements of 13th Century Early English.  This is the Chapel of the Nine Altars that surrounds the shrine of St Cuthbert. We think of the Cathedral – rightly – as one of the world’s finest Romanesque churches, yet it also contains one of its highest achievements in early Gothic, ‘one of the most beautifully proportioned monuments of the Early English style at its ripest’.[2] In that mighty eastward extension of the quire, with its majestic transepts, you can see the same distinctive strengths as here in Darlington, particularly the geometrical array of lancet windows lined up along the east face surrounding the rose window in the midst.

The history of the Nine Altars is, however, rather different from St Cuthbert’s Darlington. Two motives underlay its construction. The principal reason for creating such a huge volume at the east end was to promote the pilgrimage to Cuthbert’s shrine. In the 12th century, many thousands of pilgrims had made the journey to the shrine, for Cuthbert was without doubt England’s premier saint. However, the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 had the effect in diverting vast numbers of pilgrims southwards, as we know from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Cathedral Priory was in danger of losing large revenues that accrued from the pilgrimage. So they set about energetically promoting the cult of Cuthbert, and reorganising the space around his shrine both to emphasise its central significance for Durham and the north, and also to create better flows of large crowds around the feretory itself.

In the shrine, you can see the original Romanesque apse, the eastward termination of the Cathedral marked out on the floor round the tomb. This had already proved impracticable because of the constructed circulation space, and it did not enhance the dignity of this spiritual and emotional heart of the Cathedral. It was the 13th century Bishop Richard Poore who instigated this new building, though he did not live long enough to begin work on it. He had been Bishop of Salisbury and had been the mind behind the construction of its great Cathedral of New Sarum. Like this church, it is an extraordinarily pure example of Early English, probably the best in England. So who better to design the new extension at Durham than Bishop Poore’s great master mason at Salisbury, Richard of Farnham (as we suppose). The result is an uncanny imitation of Salisbury, the only significant difference being that instead of the black shafts of Purbeck Marble he had used to such effect in Salisbury, here he chose the indigenous Frosterley Marble instead – not, of course, a true marble but a limestone that polishes up to produce a reflective marble-like surface.         
The second reason for constructing the Nine Altars Chapel was a direct imitation of a similar arrangement at Fountains Abbey. Here, the great Cisterician Abbey had solved the problem of how to allow each of the many priest-brothers of the community to celebrate mass at one of the Abbey’s altars within a reasonable space of time, as the priestly rule of life required. So they lined up nine altars against the east wall of the eastern transept, and this was the arrangement that suited the equally populous Benedictine community at Durham Cathedral Priory.

What is it about the Early English Gothic style that is both distinctive and compelling? Its importance lies in that it introduced an entirely new concept in both the theological vision of a great church, and the engineering principles that gave it physical expression. Great Romanesque buildings like the Cathedral had solved the problem of how to build on a grand scale without the threat of collapsing vaults and toppling towers. But this could only be achieved in the 11th and 12th centuries by conceiving them as a kind of fortress with thick walls, giant piers and great buttresses, with narrow windows that were sufficient to let in a certain amount of light, but small enough not to compromise the structural integrity of the wall. This matched the Romanesque concept of a spiritual castle whose role was to contain a sacred space as a safe space, securely defended against the assaults of Satanic enemies. A Romanesque church is, in one sense, a defence against fear and anxiety.

The Gothic style was changing that. It emerged in France with the construction of a new cathedral at Saint Denis, now a suburb of Paris. The great Abbé Suger’s vision was of a temple that would be filled with light and splendour, an translucent casket that would reflect the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem. To achieve this, he needed to abandon the Romanesque idea of the fortress, and imagine walls built not of stone but of glass; and to emphasise not so much the length of a great church as its height through its soaring verticals culminating in a vault or tower. By the end of the 12th century in France, structural engineering had developed to the point where this could begin to be the reality. So great churches in the new Gothic style, the continental equivalent of our Early English, sprang up all over northern France: at Nôtre Dame in Paris, at Sens and Vézelay in Burgundy and at Chartres.
Gothic crossed the Channel with the building of a new quire at Canterbury Cathedral whose mason, William of Sens, had built the great cathedral there. But it is interesting to see how slowly this style reached Northern England and Scotland. By 1170, Gothic was becoming the norm in France and was beginning to be adopted in southern England. But in Durham, they were still building in the older Romanesque style as we can see from the Galilee Chapel of the Cathedral. Here, there is a quite new concept of lightness and grace, which anticipates Gothic, yet the design is still unambiguously Norman, as it is in Dunfermline Abbey and St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, both very late examples of Romanesque. In the north, it was only in the 13th century that Gothic began to make itself felt. This church, and Durham’s Nine Altars are among its prime achievements; and this first of my three connections is a good reason for celebration.

My second connection is historical. I have talked about the Bishop who inspired the Nine Altars at Durham. But who was behind this great Early English Church here in Darlington, and why was it significant?
The answer is: another of Durham’s bishops, a predecessor of Poore. Hugh le Puiset held office from 1153 to 1195, an extraordinarily long incumbency. He was one of Durham’s great prince-bishops who relished nothing so much as an ambitious construction project to which, no doubt, he was pleased to see his nickname Pudsey attached. He was a high-born Frenchman, a nephew of King Stephen of England and of Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and one of the most influential men in the kingdom. He was elected Bishop by the Cathedral Chapter at the uncanonical age of 28, though not consecrated until the following year, owing to the hostility of the Archbishop of York who had contended the election: the ecclesiastical politics surrounding his accession to Durham is a story to go into on another occasion. In 1189 he purchased the offices of Earl of Northumbria and Sheriff of Northumberland for £2000 and paid a further £1000 for the office of Justiciar and a release from his crusading vow, though it was said that God would not be pleased with a bishop whose loyalty to both a heavenly and an earthly king was compromised. And this was a real risk, for ‘he was determined not to allow the grandeur, wealth, or magnificence to be abated one jot. Untouched by either the clerical zeal of the Gregorian reformers or the humility beloved of the Cistercians and their admirers, he pursued the life of an old-fashioned late-Frankish aristocrat’.[3]

His legacy is everywhere in North East England. By acquiring the Wapentake of Sadberge near here, which had once been part of Northumberland, he fixed the Tees as the southern boundary of his County Palatine. In addition to his castle at Northallerton, he rebuilt the border fortress at Norham in stone, in the northernmost detached parts of the Durham Palatinate, not to mention a new bridge over the Tweed at Berwick. He founded Sherburn Hospital for lepers near Durham. In his episcopal residence of Durham Castle, he constructed the gallery that runs across the inner bailey, where we have one of the best Norman doorways in England leading up into the residence proper. We owe to him Durham’s fine medieval bridge that linked the episcopal and Priory lands on the peninsula with the ancient borough of Elvet.

In the Cathedral, his outstanding achievement was to build the new Galilee as a Lady Chapel with a shrine for St Bede. The original plan had been to place this at the east end, where the Nine Altars now is, but the ground proved unstable, it was said (without foundation) because Cuthbert did not approve of a place of worship for women so close to his shrine. He also commissioned the great Puiset Bible, one of the outstanding manuscripts to have survived from the Cathedral Priory’s great library, and still in our collection as Manuscript A.II.1: four great volumes containing more than 130 square metres of parchment, nearly 7 miles of writing and with a combined weight of more than 100 lbs.[4] We do not know whether he commissioned this beautiful work for the Cathedral Priory or for his own use, nor where the writing and illumination was done.

Another of Le Puiset’s great achievements was the production in 1183 of the so-called Boldon Book. This was a survey of the estates, revenues and customs of the Bishopric of Durham in the 12th century. It only covered lands belonging to the Bishops and which were subject to taxation by him rather than the Crown: 124 estates in County Durham and 16 in its detached parts in Northumberland. It did not include estates belonging to other land-owners such as the Cathedral Priory, itself richly endowed with property bequeathed to the Community of St Cuthbert. The book is named after the township of Boldon whose 22 tenant-farms are listed with together with their rents in money and in kind and other obligations are listed. In other places where there were episcopal villeins, their duties are listed ‘as at Boldon’. Here in Darlington, there were 48 villeins or bondmen out of 70 tenant farmers in the Bondgate community who gave their name to the street. Like the Domesday Book of the previous century, which did not cover lands north of the Tees, it is an invaluable source for our understanding of society as it was evolving in the century after the Norman Conquest.[5]

What about Le Puiset and Darlington? His achievement was substantial, and indeed could be said to have shaped the centre of this town as we now have it. He was said to have built a manor house on the site now occupied by the town hall, a southern ‘office’ for the administration of his large and complex diocese. His square market-place, the ‘borough’, was lined on three sides by burgage plots and tenements. On the fourth side, toward the east, stood the church with its churchyard skirting the River Skerne. And this church was the focus of his ambition for the town which by his time had already become a substantial centre of trade and economic activity in the Tees Valley.

I have already mentioned that St Cuthbert’s was collegiate, staffed by a Dean and four canons whose prebends were endowed by Darlington itself, Cockerton, Blackwell and Archdeacon Newton. But this foundation is the heir to a longer history that establishes another connection with Durham. Lands in Darlington had been given to the Community of St Cuthbert by the Danish-Yorkshire nobleman Styr, son of Ulf a few years after the arrival of Cuthbert’s Community on the Durham peninsula in 995. This donation may reflect shifting power-alliances in the 11th century that consolidated Northumbria’s position.[6] But all this changed in 1066. As a result in 1083, the Benedictines were brought from Wearmouth and Jarrow to Durham as part of the Norman bishops’ project of suppressing Saxon religious communities in their cathedrals for the more rigorously disciplined life lived according to the monastic Rule of St Benedict. These displaced secular canons were dispersed to a number of other churches in the region, St Cuthbert’s Darlington, belonging to the patrimony, being one of them (a chronicler called Galfrid of Coldingham says so in his 1192 account of Le Puiset’s career).

Le Puiset’s contribution was to formalise the College that held jurisdiction over the church at Darlington, and to plan for its rebuilding in a style worthy of its dignity and importance. Galfrid says that ‘amid the vicissitudes of so many storms he did not desist from the erection of the Church of Dernington...’ He did not of course live to see the church he planned, but he was its principal begetter and patron. We have already seen that his ‘church’ in Durham Cathedral, the Galilee Chapel of the 1170s, was still clearly Romanesque in style. By the end of the century, Gothic influences were beginning to be felt in the emergence of what is known as ‘transitional’: not purely Romanesque any more, but not quite Gothic either. But as this building progressed, Gothic took a firm hold, and the result is the majestic, exquisite Early English building we are sitting in, with its clear architectural links to the Cathedral’s Chapel of the Nine Altars which followed it.


My third and final link is spiritual. You have wondered why I have taken so long to come to it. And of course, it is as much to do with history as with spirituality, yet I fancy we all this connection as the one most likely to influence the way our two churches understand and practise the Christian faith today. I am thinking, of course, of St Cuthbert himself. 

Ten years ago my lecture was called: St Cuthbert: A View From Durham.  I wanted to suggest how, viewed from his shrine in Durham, the long history of the Cathedral has added many layers of meaning to those foundation stories we tell about him that have come down to us from Saxon times, particularly through the writings of Bede. In some ways, what Cuthbert represented to the Normans who built the Cathedral as his shrine was not altogether the same as it had been for the Saxon community of monks who first arrived on the peninsula in 995. To them he was their humble saint who lived in the utmost simplicity.
The Normans never forgot this. Indeed, Cuthbert was intensely useful to them in winning Saxon hearts and minds to the new England they were inventing. To ally a native Northumbrian saint to the Norman cause, with all the spiritual authority and power he wielded, was a shrewd political act. Cuthbert remained central to the self-understanding of both the bishopric of Durham and the Cathedral Priory throughout the middle ages. When the Priory became involved in litigation in the 14th and 15th centuries, as it often did, the Chapter justified it on the grounds of defending the honour of St Cuthbert. However they transplanted his memory into a world where power-relations had become all-important, following the Norman Conquest, and this was a world away from the simplicity of the Saxon Northumbria Cuthbert knew. It is a matter of endless fascination how meanings acquire different depths and patinas with the passing of centuries. We shouldn’t be surprised by this: it is the same with any great historical figure who has the power to touch and change lives, not least Jesus Christ himself. So I spoke about the unease the simple Anglo-Saxon Cuthbert might have felt at the prospect of being interred at the heart of a vast fortress-like cathedral built by a people hated by the Saxons: the French Normans, the ‘Norse-men’ descended from the same war-mongering tribes who had destroyed his monastery on Lindisfarne after the community abandoned it for fear of them in 875. We know from Bede that Cuthbert wanted his body to rest on his beloved Inner Farne, but reluctantly accepted that his brothers would wish to bury him on Holy Island itself. How much more strongly would he have felt about Durham!

The link with Darlington is, historically, through this church’s dedication to St Cuthbert. That could tell us any of a number of things. It could suggest that there was a memory of Cuthbert himself preaching here, as is claimed at St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, a Church of Scotland church that is said to be the oldest attested Christian site in Scotland. I do not think this is likely here in Darlington, although we do know that Cuthbert will have passed this way during his time as guest-master in the monastery at Ripon founded by Wilfrid in 672.
More plausible is the tradition that the Community of St Cuthbert stopped here on its final journey from Ripon to Durham in 994 or 995. Most of the medieval churches dedicated to him commemorate a site where the community halted on its pilgrimage with his body. One way of reading this extraordinary journey around the north of England is as the community’s visitation of its lands, a peregrination that, as I said ten years ago, perhaps contributed to the early sense of ‘northern’ identity, the very idea of north-England that was emerging in Saxon times. As we have seen, perhaps on the basis of their presence in Darlington, the nobleman Styr gifted estates here to the community 20 years later as part of what had become designated the ‘patrimony’ of St Cuthbert with its inhabitants being known as the haliwerfolk, the ‘people of the saint’. What we do know, as we have seen, is that when the Saxon canons were ousted from Durham by the Benedictines introduced in 1083 by William the Conqueror’s Bishop William of Saint-Calais, some were sent to Darlington on the grounds that since St Cuthbert also held estates here, they were continuing to serve the saint on his own lands.

So both the name and the history of St Cuthbert is the central link between our two churches. You may like to know that since I last came here in 2004, the Cathedral has formally recognised this. Throughout the middle ages, it had been dedicated to ‘Our Lady and St Cuthbert’, a common dedication for churches founded where Cuthbert or his community had worshipped on their travels, such as the great church at Chester-le-Street, Durham’s first cathedral. In honour of this, the Neville Screen behind the Cathedral’s high altar once had a statue of the Virgin Mary at its very centre, with St Cuthbert on the right (and on the left, St Oswald, the royal founder and patron of the Northumbrian mission whose head is also interred in Cuthbert’s shrine). In 2005 the Chapter took the decision to reverse the act of Henry VIII in removing Cuthbert's name from the Cathedral's title. This was achieved through the legal process of revising the Constitution and Statutes and renaming it as ‘The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham’.
Symbolic of this, we also received in 2010 the Cuthbert Banner, a re-imagining by the Northumbrian Association of the medieval banner that used to hang near his shrine and which was burnt at the Reformation. It was said to be the most popular and effective battle ensign in England according to the 12th century chronicler Reginald of Durham.[7] It is lovingly described in the manuscript known as The Rites of Durham,[8] a late 16th century text written by someone who could remember the Priory as it had been just before the Dissolution. The banner was said by the author to have been ‘injuriously’ burned by the reforming Dean Whittingham’s wife Katharine ‘in the notable contempt and disgrace of all ancient and goodly relics’.

What then of the spirituality of St Cuthbert as we understand it both here and at the Cathedral? My last lecture here outlined how I believed St Cuthbert held abiding significance not only for understanding the history of Christianity in the North East, but for our practice of Christian faith today. You can read my earlier lecture again, if you wish, but ten years on, I do not think I would want to alter very much of it.  However, I would perhaps want to express them in a more nuanced way. So here are the insights I distil from the last decade of living in Cuthbert’s Cathedral and serving under his protection. Perhaps they can add to and nuance what I said in my Cuthbert Lecture 10 years ago.
First, I want to use the word inspiration of the way I have come to experience Cuthbert. I am sure I speak for many of you in this. I am sure that the saints are meant to inspire us in all kinds of dimensions of life. But I have the sense that in Cuthbert so many human and Christian virtues converge and cohere. I have no doubt that this is due to the sheer intensity of his spiritual vision, an aspect of his life that Bede’s writings relay to us as vivid and fervent to a degree that was legendary even in his own lifetime. Only this immediacy of spiritual experience can explain the extremes to which he took his askesis, that is, the discipline with which he shaped his entire life to equip him for the way of discipleship. This was why his memory was revered by the community he left behind, not simply those who had known him but the generations that followed, and who as an act of both piety and love bore his sacred body on their long journey as they sought for him and for themselves a permanent place to rest.

We who inhabit Cuthbert’s places today are heirs to that tradition, where he remains as much an inspiration in our own era as he was in Saxon and Norman times. And in these places especially, like yours and mine, we have always honoured him for his simplicity, his humility, his holiness, his compassion for other human beings, his closeness to the natural world, his ardour for God. You could call him England’s St Francis; or perhaps it would be better to say that Francis is Italy’s St Cuthbert, so close are they in many important respects, not least the loyalty and love they have elicited in those who have followed them.  What they both had is what Jesus calls in the Gospel ‘purity of heart’[9]: being ‘single-pointed’ as Buddhists saying, having one sole purpose for being alive, to live for God, for the human family and for his fellow-creatures. 
Second, I want to speak about the need for what I call critical imitation. Being inspired by someone does not necessarily mean that we can or should emulate them in all respects. Cuthbert, who was importantly inspired by the Egyptian desert hermits and the early Irish monks, did not imitate them in all respects. For example, his call to the hermit life, which lay at the core of his understanding of himself, did not take him to the extremes of the stylites who lived as solitaries on the tops of pillars, or the Irish monks who set out to sea beyond the reach of the mainland to exist on isolated rocks and islets. Nor did the community on Holy Island regard Cuthbert’s hermit-life on the Inner Farne as something to be imitated by most of their number. Still less was this the case for the Anglo-Norman foundations that succeeded the Saxons’ whether at Lindisfarne, Durham or here at Darlington.

One of the problems with saints who are as attractive to posterity as Cuthbert and Francis is what to do with what you might call their radical goodness. One response is to distance ourselves from their age and say that such lives belonged to a simpler, less complex era and could not be lived amid the bewildering demands of modernity. The other is to transfer the distant past directly into the present and try to embody its insights regardless of greatly altered contexts. I am not convinced that either approach is workable. It seems to me important to interpret Cuthbert’s life in ways that are true to the profoundly religious spirit of his life but without necessarily emulating its more extreme manifestations. I am thinking of the Irish habit of spending whole nights in the sea reciting the psalms, an activity we know from Bede that Cuthbert engaged in.
‘Critical imitation’ means learning from the past but not allowing it to seduce us into thinking that we belong to it. It means not forgetting the century we ourselves live in, where we are called to obedience as Christian disciples. This is why the later history of Cuthbert as a Saxon saint who was adopted by the great Anglo-Norman institutions of the North such as the Cathedral and this collegiate church is so instructive. It shows us how later generations wanted Cuthbert as their patron and fellow-traveller, but as their contemporary as well as the icon of a long and noble tradition. St Cuthbert of Durham is not altogether the same as St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, as I argued last time. But he remains the source and inspiration of the Cathedral’s life where his shrine is the spiritual and emotional heart of the building, however little this would have made sense to the saint himself. In 2004 I said here: ‘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… 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.’[10]

So my third and final insight has to do with how I believe Cuthbert can function as an institutional conscience for organised religion in this part of England. This, I think, is the thread that perhaps binds the perhaps disparate themes of this lecture together. What we have explored has been the relationships between two great religious institutions, this collegiate church of St Cuthbert and our Cathedral. The links between the architectural styles in both, together with the crucial part played in both by Bishop Le Puiset, both represent the achievement of what is called Christendom in both places. Christendom means the expression of Christianity as it is embedded in the public institutions of a nation’s life. The Cathedral represented a divine authority conferred on the Bishops of Durham as Counts Palatine, holding temporal as well as spiritual authority. The king’s writ did not extend into the Palatine County because the Bishop was already sovereign there. This expressed the English ideal of Christendom in its most developed form. This church too expressed an aspect of that ideal in which the whole life of this town and parish was lived out in subjection to the rule of God expressed through the persona of his Bishop. 
This was the world that Cuthbert and the northern saints could not envisage since it represented developments that, while indeed already present in the relations between Saxon rulers and the church, were only brought to fruition in an explicit, conscious way in England with the Norman Conquest. However, all institutions, even religious ones need salvation no less than individual people. The larger, wealthier and prouder they are, the more they are likely to need it. They can behave badly, be seduced by power and prosperity, become almost irredeemably corrupt. The history of Christianity leaves us in no doubt about that. So I like to think that in Anglo-Norman Durham, their cult of St Cuthbert was a way in which large complex institutions like the Cathedral could test their motives and aspirations against the purity of heart of the man who lay buried in the shrine. Perhaps this is easier to appreciate now than before the Reformation.  Then, Cuthbert’s shrine had become the elaborate construction laden with gold, silver and precious jewels that is described in The Rites of Durham. It is hard to think that it was close in spirit to Cuthbert the humble man of Lindisfarne.

However, the sacrilegious and destructive act of King Henry’s Commissioners, when they hacked down the shrine in 1537 during their infamous visitation of the Cathedral, perhaps did it a spiritual favour. They left nothing above ground, only a coffin interred underneath the raised platform called the feretory, where the shrine had been. Later, the black stone slab we see today was installed over the place. It simply bears the saint’s name: CUTHBERTUS, so much in keeping with the spirit of his beloved sea-girt places where he lived and prayed and served and loved. Today, the shrine stands as an enclosed place apart at the east end of the Cathedral. It indisputably belongs to the very centre of the Cathedral, for without the shrine, there would be no Cathedral and no Durham. At the same time, it somehow stands apart, a place in which to be still, and remember, and ponder, and see things in a fresh way, and God willing to find a new sense of connection with the island saint whose name we bear.
In this sense, Cuthbert is the redeeming conscience of the Cathedral and by extension, of his ancient Diocese that once covered the North East of England. He recalls our churches, such prominent symbols of a Christendom that has come and gone, to what must always lie at the centre of their vocation. He reminds us that we are only true to our vocation insofar as we are true to the gospel of Jesus Christ by which he lived and died. That gospel is, of course, the deepest connection between St Cuthbert’s Darlington and our Cathedral. It is all that ultimately matters.

The St Cuthbert’s Day Lecture given at St Cuthbert’s Church, Darlington, 18 March 2014

[1] Sadgrove, Michael, Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England, 2013, 125.
[2] Pevsner, N. & Williamson, E., The Buildings of England: County Durham, 1985, 23.
[3] Barrow, G.W.S., ‘Puiset, Hugh du’  in DNB.
[4] Gameson, Richard, Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral, 2010, 78.
[5] Harvey, P.D.A., ‘Boldon Book and the Wards Between Tyne and Tees’ in Rollason, Harvey and Prestwich, eds., Anglo-Norman Durham 1093-1193, 1994, 399-405
[6] Aird, William M., St Cuthbert and the Normans: the Church of Durham, 1071-1153, 1998, 49-50.
[7] Dobson, R. B., Durham Priory 1400-1450, 1973, 27.
[8] Rites of Durham, being a Description or Brief Declaration of all the Ancient Monuments, Rites and Customs belonging or being within the Monastical Church of Durham before the Suppression, Surtees Society 1903, 26-27
[9] Matthew 5.6
[10] Sadgrove, Michael, St Cuthbert of Durham: a Perspective of 900 Years, the St Cuthbert’s Lecture 2004 (unpublished).

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