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

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Durham Cathedral: Foundation Sermon

On 11 August 1093, a momentous event took place here on this peninsula. On that day the foundation stone of this Cathedral was laid amid much pomp and ceremony and in the presence of royalty. We are celebrating it at services today, the Sunday nearest.

It was a watershed spiritually, historically, politically and architecturally. As we know, we have the Norman bishop William of Saint-Calais to thank for it. It was he who embarked on the enormous project of replacing the Saxon ‘white’ church with a great new cathedral in the Romanesque style that by the late 11th century had become familiar across France and after the Norman Conquest, England too. No doubt he was motivated by many aspirations. We can take it that he wished to build to the glory of God. But he also wanted to honour St Cuthbert, whom the Normans adopted as the North’s patron saint not least to win the Saxons’ allegiance. Then he intended to express visibly the ideal of the great monastic church of a religious community following the introduction of Benedictine monks to Durham a decade earlier. Finally, and perhaps not least, because human motivation always comes into things, he wanted to build big and grand to demonstrate that the Normans now held power in the land, and to signal to Saxons and Scots alike that this peninsula was the seat not only of spiritual but of secular authority.

William of Saint-Calais did not live to see his cathedral finished, nor even the placing (or ‘translation’) of Cuthbert’s body into its final resting place behind the high altar when the shrine had been completed in 1104. But I always tread lightly near his grave in the Chapter House: the monks had wanted to bury him near Cuthbert but he insisted that he was not worthy of it. (When my wife and I went to Saint-Calais, a little town in the Loire region of France, we found an elderly woman cleaning the church and asked about the great Norman bishop of Durham who was baptised there. She had never heard of him, and realising that we were Anglais, told us that we had evidently confused Saint-Calais with the better known ferry-port just across the Channel.)

You do not need me to tell you what we owe to him. This Cathedral is consistently regarded Britain’s best-loved building and praised as a masterpiece the world over. That is a tribute to his vision and his eye for architecture. If you wanted to imagine a church that would be an embodiment of the Benedictine virtues of stability, balance and the beauty of good order, you would not do better than Durham. Here is a building to lift the spirits, point you to the skies, drive you to your knees, enlarge the imagination, guide you to contemplate the vision of God and dream about a world in which his will is done on earth as in heaven. But it is also a building that affirms our humanity, holds us in a safe place, protects us from threat, a church that doesn’t crush us with its awesomeness but upholds our human dignity, makes us feel honoured and valued. The laying of the foundation stone in 1093 inaugurated an era that despite the changes and chances of centuries, still goes on in our day, drawing admirers, guests and pilgrims in their millions. We who worship here, live here, volunteer here, work here are privileged to be a part of this history of a place of awesome majesty and beauty.

But the word ‘foundation’ is perhaps misleading. For what took place in 1093 was not of course the founding of the Cathedral itself. That had existed on this site since the Saxon community of St Cuthbert with their bishop, the relics of their saints and the Lindisfarne Gospel Book arrived here at the end of their long journey round the north a century earlier and recognised that this was where the body of their saint would lie. Their cathedral had been lovingly built around Cuthbert’s shrine. No doubt those who had known it shed tears when they saw it being torn down, just as some of the Jews returning from exile wept at the dedication of the new temple because they had not forgotten the old. So when we speak the language of ‘foundation’, we should not forget an earlier history so deeply embedded in the founding story of this place: how (says a later legend) the community were first guided on to this peninsula by a lost dun-cow and the milkmaids looking for her. This ‘foundation’ of 995 is important too, for it marked the transition from being a wandering community of Lindisfarne exiles to establishing themselves as settled in one place, like the Hebrews entering into the promised land. It was another threshold that needed to be crossed with awareness of untested demands of a new, unknown environment.

But even this is not all we need to say today. If you look at the list of Bishops of Durham in Crockford’s Clerical Directory, you will see that it begins, not with the Saxon bishops who arrived here in the 10th century, nor the Normans who succeeded them. It begins with the See of Lindisfarne founded by St Aidan himself at the instigation of King Oswald in 635. St Oswald’s head is interred in the shrine along with Cuthbert, and we celebrated his feast last Tuesday with a procession to the feretory in which we remembered how he was the founder of the mission to Christianise Northumbria. So the true foundation of the See of Durham and its Cathedral lies not here at all but 80 miles to the north, on the Holy Island where Aidan first gathered around him as bishop a community of prayer, study, evangelisation and the service of the poor. This is where the story of our Cathedral begins. This is where the word ‘foundation’ ultimately points.

It matters that we are accurate about our history: the monks of Durham were always clear that as the shrine of St Cuthbert, this Cathedral looked back across an honoured era of Christian life and witness that preceded the Durham years by centuries. It also matters that we recognise that this cathedral has been through many different incarnations and they are all part of the story of our ‘foundation’. You could say that the Lindisfarne era was our apostolic age when saints like Aidan and Cuthbert, Hild and Bede, Wilfred, Chad and Cedd walked the landscapes of Northumbria and bore witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ with such power. You could also say that what followed it was just as significant: the century of exile after the Vikings had driven us from our Holy Island and forced us to travel around the north ending up at Chester-le-Street where the Cathedral was resident for more than a century. We learned through that experience to be a roving cathedral, a community that was discovering how to travel light, adjust to ever-changing circumstances, realise that there is something deeply ingrained in Christian faith about being readily responsive to God’s call. There is something attractive to me about being a Cathedral on the move. In a metaphorical and spiritual sense, this is how we must always be as we are led by God into futures that glow with possibility and promise. ‘To live is to change; to live long is to have changed much’ said John Henry Newman.

So ‘foundation’ is not finally about great stones and magnificent buildings. The fabric of a sacred space is there to demonstrate the deeper truth of our New Testament lesson. St Peter refers to ‘living stones’, people like us from St Oswald and St Aidan to the present day whose life in this community is founded upon Christ the Living Stone. And he says, while we are aliens and exiles like our Hebrew forebears, nevertheless we carry the mark of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and are always ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. That is why Durham Cathedral is here. And that is why it is good to celebrate its foundation today.

Durham Cathedral, 10 August 2014 (1 Peter 2.1-12)

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