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

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Sacred Space and Community in a North Pennine Village

During Easter time 1930, a couple of young men came down off the fells south of the village and walked over the Derwent into Blanchland. They had roamed over the top from Stanhope and crossed the watershed between the Wear and the Derwent. They stayed the night at the Lord Crewe Arms. “No other spot brings me sweeter memories” said the one who felt so much at home in this landscape. He ordered champagne at the bar and played Brahms on an ancient piano. He was of course the poet W. H. Auden.[1]

Writing for the American Vogue magazine in 1954, Auden poses the question: where do we place our own Eden, that “Innocent Place where no contradiction has yet arisen between the demands of Pleasure and the demands of Duty. What is its landscape, the ethnic origin of its inhabitants, its religion, its form of state, its architecture, its system of weights and measures, et cetera?” For that child of the Midlands, his compass always pointed north.[2] His favourite landscapes were not the olive groves and classical ruins of the Mediterranean but the sombre Pennine Fells, whale-backed and lonely under the grim grey lowering sky that the North does so well. And best of all, what he called his “great good place, the part of the Pennines bounded on the south by Swaledale, on the North by the Roman Wall and on the West by the Eden Valley”.[3] Precisely where we find ourselves today, indeed, what he called “the Never-Never Land of my dreams”.[4]
To Auden, I think we can say, the North Pennines were a sacred landscape. It wasn’t only the natural beauty of the area that loved for its own sake, but for the way it had been worked and reworked since prehistoric times, through antiquity and the middle ages into the industrial era of modernity. Especially the industrial relics of its lead mines. Alan Myers and Robert Forsythe have painstakingly documented Auden’s knowledge of the North Pennine’s mine workings in their study W. H. Auden: Pennine Poet from which I have already quoted. He reckoned the loneliest Pennine Dale of all, Rookhope, where we once owned a lead-miner’s cottage, to be the best. Specifically, the watershed between that dale and this. A poem of 1940 tells us why.

Always my boy of wish returns
To those peat-stained deserted burns
That feed the WEAR and TYNE and TEES,
And, turning states to strata, sees
How basalt long oppressed broke out
In wild revolt at CAULDRON SNOUT….
The derelict lead-smelting mill,
Flued to its chimney up the hill,
That smokes no answer any more
But points, a landmark on BOLT’S LAW
The finger of all questions. There
In ROOKHOPE I was first aware
Of self and not-self, Death and Dread….
There I dropped pebbles, listened, heard
The reservoir of darkness stirred.[5]
What he tells us is that it was here among these landscapes that Auden found his poetic voice, where juvenilia metamorphosed into a maturing poet. The first poem he admitted to his adult canon was a poem called “The Watershed”.

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to a wood.
An industry already comatose…

He sees an almost mystical significance in the relics of an obsolete industry, as numinous to him as the monuments that we admire that have come down to us from the ancient world or the middle ages. Numinous may seem a strong word in that context. Not when a place has become charged with meaning because you became a poet there, where you saw “into the life of things” for the first time, to quote Wordsworth. Auden ventures up to a derelict mine working somewhere on the fells above this village and drops a pebble down the shaft, and, he says, listens and hears, senses the reservoir of darkness stirring, becomes aware of self and not-self, Death and Dread. The language is redolent of religious experience, the kind of primal awe described by Rudolph Otto in his great book The Idea of the Holy. For him the reservoir of darkness doesn’t mean what is sinister and frightening, rather, the hidden depths of the land, of life, of the soul, of God even, which it is the vocation of every human being to uncover and explore if we want not to live in the shallows all our lives. The experience may be raw and disorientating. But that is the whole point. That’s where watersheds in human life are crossed and our human existence becomes significant in new way. To encounter the native spirit of a place in this visceral, life-changing way is, I think, how we become more truly alive, and therefore more truly ourselves.

I find Auden’s discovery of the sacred within the landscape intriguing. I think he can help us reflect on our theme today, Sacred Space and Community. What he suggests is that “sacredness” is a bigger concept than simply marking a site where people of faith have gathered and done religious things, where “prayer has been valid” to quote T. S. Eliot. The sacred is about finding meaning in a place, recognising in it that which evokes responses like attachment and belonging, reverence and awe. Sacred literally means “set apart”, so it defines space marked by thresholds that we cross where we behave in particular ways. The classic instance is Moses at the burning bush where he is told to “take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground”.[6] It’s to recognise the rich, coalescence of myth, memory and story, symbols, images and human community past and present – clusters of associations that compel us to stop like Moses, to consider and reflect, discover who we are under God. I think it works like that for people of faith who want to enter into the cultural, historical, and theological meaning of religious sites and artefacts, what we call our spiritual heritage.
Let me offer you three theses about sacred space that I hope will help us understand what we are talking about here in Blanchland.

My first thesis is: Sacred Space is an Aspect of Landscape.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I were in Greece visiting classical sites. It was our first visit. We landed at the same time as the mini-cyclone Zorba that you may have read about. There was torrential rain in Athens. So we experienced what many visitors never do, the sight of the Parthenon sailing above a sea of umbrellas. After that we went to Delphi. The rain had moderated but the skies were leaden, dark clouds sitting over Mount Parnassus and that cleft in the hills where without warning you come across that extraordinary site. Having never been there, the effect was overwhelming, walking up the via sancta or pilgrim’s path along which temples and treasuries, theatre and stadium and the seat of the oracle itself perched on a cliff-edge beneath crags that soared up into the cloud-cover.

When we were back, I talked about Delphi with a retired school teacher who was also a reader in her cathedral. She had taken A-level student groups there to perform classical drama in the theatre. “Of course, what you sense when you’re there is that this is a holy site” she said. “And that’s something to do with the landscape setting itself. It’s not simply the centuries during which people went there to seek wisdom and worship at the shrines. Something about the place itself suggested the numinous, the sacred.” I dare say it might not have struck us so powerfully on a hot sunny day, for the weather seemed so much part of our experience of Delphi – but then again, who knows?
Haydon Bridge on the South Tyne, where I live, is best known as the birthplace of the early nineteenth century painter John Martin. You will know him for the vast canvasses he painted such as The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle or The Plains of Heaven at Tait Britain, said to be modelled on his native Tynedale. His art tried to capture what people of that time called “the sublime” in landscape that cuts us down to size and inculcates a response of awe in the presence of the divine, what Freud called that “oceanic” feeling that overwhelms us at times and that we often associate with religion. As far as I know he didn’t paint Delphi but I couldn’t help thinking about him as we clambered up the Pilgrims’ Way to the top of the site and looked across the valley.
Landscapes don’t have to be overwhelming or sublime to speak to us. They can be beautiful in quieter, more intimate ways. Perhaps this is true of Blanchland “nestling” (as the usual travel-writer’s cliché has it) in its remote but sheltered valley beneath the Pennine fells. When we observe where our ancient or medieval forebears established sacred sites, we often comment on the appropriateness of the chosen place – not, or not only because of some ancient pre-existing religious history (which it may or may not possess) but because somehow the landscape setting almost seems to require it. Blanchland is not Delphi but who is to say that this tranquil valley didn’t entice the Premonstratensians to found their new Abbey here? (Though some historians of a more pragmatic hue suggest that it was the lead mines that drew them here.)

I think it’s important to underline the landscape context in which we are sitting. You often hear it said that “church” is not a place or a building but is people. There is a truth in that, as I’ll go on to say, but that cliché is as much false as it is true. It’s false because it implies that sacred space is only ever configured by what human beings have historically done and continue to do at particular sites and buildings. But a more robust theology of creation would at once challenge that assumption. If the created order was declared “very good” when God finished his work on the sixth day,[7] then we should expect that the Creator continues to disclose his presence in and through the natural world as the Psalmist affirms: “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims hs handiwork.[8] Or again, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”[9] Discerning the holy in the created world, however flawed or broken it is and we are, is a primary God-given instinct.
Natural theology claims that this is a fundamental aspect of our creaturehood. My former colleague David Brown has stoutly defended it in a magisterial book that calls for a sacramental reading of nature and the re-enchantment of place. This, he believes, is what the arts have always responded to in the natural environment, even if religious believers have sometimes been more ambivalent about it. He concludes a long chapter on theology, spirituality, art and the natural world by saying: “The excitement of place, as with the natural world, is of a God valuing more than the simply human, and instead using the material. Even where decisively shaped by human beings, to tell us something of himself and thereby draw us more deeply into his presence”.[10] Which is to say that the “sacred” is, and always needs to be, more elusive than we think. It should take us by surprise, open our eyes and ears in new ways, challenge our assumptions and yes – overwhelm us at times, disturb or alarm us as well as inspire us. “Sacred geography” is about landscapes before it is about humans inhabiting them.

Here at Blanchland, then, we should not be too quick to assume that “sacred space” only means the Abbey and its surroundings. Residents in this village may tell different stories about sacredness that may not wholly align to the church’s preferred narrative. When people talk about communing with God in nature, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of such spiritual experience. When Jacob exclaims at Bethel, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it!”[11] he was speaking not of a formally-established place of worship but of a numinous experience in the open air where he had a dream about heaven and earth that shook him to the core. The shrine followed the experience, not the other way round. And I did not know it is the crucial point. It may be precisely where we do not know God, or expect to find him, that he discloses himself. Beth-El means “house of God”. God has many mansions. Most of them are not churches.
My second thesis is: Sacred Space Tells Stories.

I said that Auden’s experience of this part of his beloved North was of a highly-textured landscape. Geomorphology and natural history are a big part of the story of the North Pennines: this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated as a UNESCO geo-park, one of only seven in the UK. The focus is “on using Earth Heritage to support sustainable economic development of the area, primarily through geological and responsible tourism”.[12] This has included “geology events, developing trails across the landscape, creating displays in local museums and visitor centres, producing educational resources, working in local schools and more”. So the story of this particular sacred space predates any human story by hundreds of millions of years. In Durham Cathedral I always pointed out to visitors the fossils embedded in the black Frosterley Marble piers. These are the oldest living things whose traces can be read in the fabric of this building. Every building, every site, tells such a story.
Blanchland’s narrative is especially rich. It is told in the church guidebook[13] first issued in 1951, originally privately printed, we are told, for Vaux and Associated Breweries Limited, Sunderland, and reprinted in the 1990s for the Lord Crewe Arms, Blanchland Post Office and Blanchland Stores. There can be a whole story in the obverse of a title page! It’s an invaluable guide, and is now available on the village website[14].

There are key historical layers of this story. The foundation story is of the establishment of the Abbey in the twelfth century. Despite its remoteness, this site was not far from Dere Street, the Roman road that crossed the Tyne at the town of Coria, Corbridge as it headed north to the Stanegate and the Roman Wall just beyond. In Saxon times, it was on the edge of the Shire, the land given by Queen Etheldreda to Wilfrid to endow his great church at Hexham which he began in 674. Later, as we know because the stories are documented, the valley found itself in the English Middle March, a frontier land where Scots raiders and reivers would sweep down and plunder. Northumberland has a long history of being fought over, and as I said in a recent lecture[15], this sense of liminality has coloured much of the county’s history, even on its southernmost flank as we are here. The Palatinate County of Durham, just across the river where the king’s writ did not run, was established precisely as a buffer-state to protect England from invasion out of the North.

Blanchland would not exist but for the Abbey. Its very name tells us that its origins belong to a religious story, Blanch-Land, meaning, probably, the land of the White Canons as the Premonstratensians were known. In this, its foundation story has many parallels in medieval Europe, like Durham, the city that grew up around the shrine of St Cuthbert, or Salisbury, the city of New Sarum that established itself in the same way when the Romanesque cathedral of Old Sarum was abandoned on its hilltop and a new Gothic cathedral begun down in the valley. In both cases, you can draw concentric circles round the formal sacred space of the church itself: its conventual or college buildings, the enclosure of the precinct, the city that sat on the far side of the precinct wall, and the hinterland beyond. As in Greek or Roman cities, the pro-fanum was not some barbarous place where the holy did not penetrate; rather, it was the space before the temple in which holiness took a civic, rather than cultic, form. “Ordinary space” as compared with sacred space. So sacred and profane co-exist in the localities that are within the orbit of holy sites. In this locality, for instance, life in the upper Derwent Valley would not only fall within the cultural and spiritual “reach” of the Abbey, but, all-importantly, it would be wholly under its economic power as well.

This is easier to understand in Durham, where so much has survived of the medieval Priory, than in Blanchland where the dissolution of the Abbey resulted in the creation of an altogether new townscape. We know that Abbey buildings were despoiled for stone with the village began to be re-imagined as we currently have it. The Abbey Church was severely truncated, losing its nave, south transept and pretty well all its conventual buildings – cloister, refectory, chapter house, dormitory, abbot’s lodging and infirmary. Unless you know what you are looking at, reading the layout of the conventual site from the present-day village can be difficult.
So when I say that the village would not exist but for the Abbey, it would be more accurate to say, but for the despoiled Abbey out of which it was created. This means that the townscape we look at and admire is the legacy of the bitter religious upheavals of the sixteenth century when so much of the legacy of the middle ages was swept away across England. It isn’t correct to say, as some of the promotional material does, that Blanchland is an unspoiled medieval village. Far from being unspoiled, the canons of Blanchland would certainly have said that their holy and beautiful house had been spoiled beyond recognition by Henry VIII and his commissioners. It is true that its stones are (largely) medieval, and a few of its buildings, those that preserve the Abbey’s footprint. But the fabric of medieval Blanchland with its severed limb of a church refashioned in the eighteenth century, like its village, is paradoxically both familiar and remote.

It doesn’t stop there. The Abbey estates passed to the Derwentwaters of Dilston Castle and became part of Jacobite history for a while until the sympathisers James and his younger brother Charles Radcliffe were executed following the abortive 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions. You need to read Walter Besant’s novel of 1884, Dorothy Forster to get the feel of those times, or more recently (and accessibly), Devil Water by Anya Seton, both of which are set in this locality. From then, the key player in the story of Blanchland is Nathaniel Lord Crewe, the Bishop of Durham who cherished this village and created the model village as it is today. The Lord Crewe Trust has managed it ever since. You see how densely textured the story of this place turns out to be. The brand may say unspoilt medieval village. The story tells us that the reality is a lot more complex than that, but Lord Crewe’s village may be closer to what visitors actually see.  

My point is that the story of Blanchland’s concentric circles of sacred space is ambiguous. It preserves the memory of centuries of worship and piety on the part of the white canons, the goodness and purity of heart that flowed out of the Premonstratensian vision of life lived in the service of God and neighbour. Yet it’s an ambiguous history like the story of the landscape here in the North Pennines. You could say that the natural beauty of our Pennine landscape carries a shadow side, the evidence of how it was despoiled by the raids on it of centuries of lead-mining. Now, the mines have gone too, and with them the livelihood of many a Pennine village and family. In the same way, the Abbey was done violence to by a Reformation that some welcomed as the work of God, but many, particularly in the North, saw nothing but disaster in the abandonment of the old faith. Loss is written into this place. I tried to capture the spirit of the place in my book of 2013, Landscapes of Faith. Having described the village and the Abbey, I wrote, a trifle nostalgically, “It offers an emotive, living memorial to a lost way of life, with the remoteness of the village’s beautiful setting and its still obvious monastic layout a powerful memorial to those long-dead white canons”.[16] The story of sacred space is always ambivalent, carries a shadow, or at the very least can be read in different ways.

In the Ignatian spiritual tradition, the words consolation and desolation stand for different states of the soul in the discernment of God’s Spirit at work in human life. Consolation means the comfort and strength that comes from the Spirit’s presence as Comforter or Advocate, while desolation is the darkness and disturbance of the soul through sorrow, hopelessness or anxiety when God is, or appears to be, far off or altogether absent. Is it fanciful to ask whether some aspects of the story of a place’s speak of consolation while others testify to its opposite, desolation? If so, then Blanchland with its noble but troubled history could be a case-study of how to read a story and, importantly, learn how to place ourselves within it.
Which brings me to my final thesis. Sacred Space Must Be Inhabited and Reimagined.

I come back to the point I made earlier about landscape, that it is just not the case that “the church is people, not a place or a building”. When people speak about churchgoing, as Philip Larkin did in his famous poem of that name, that’s precisely what they mean. And if sacred geography and our theology of place[17] are well grounded (to coin a phrase), they are right to speak as they do.
However, places, landscapes, buildings are for populating. People do not by themselves necessarily create sacred spaces (though they can do), but by inhabiting them they add to their textures and assign new layers of meaning to them. I learned this when I wrote a new guide book to Durham Cathedral in 2003. In it I suggested that there were three emblems of North East England (I believe I called them icons, but I use that word much more sparingly now) that were instantly recognisable by everybody who lives in the region or has the slightest acquaintance with it. They were the Roman Wall, Durham Cathedral, and the Angel of the North. I was taken to task by a professor of history from eastern Europe who remarked that I wasn’t comparing objects of the same type. The Roman Wall had once been populated by a community (the army that served along it and the communities that lived in its hinterland) but whose people were now simply a memory. The Angel of the North was an artefact pure and simple and was not inhabited by anyone other than in the most attenuated sense. But Durham Cathedral was home to a living, worshipping community and continued to be the goal of pilgrims as it had always been. The textures of these emblems were entirely different.

I now see that it is not as simple as the professor thought. The Wall is the focus of a community of guardians, conservators and volunteers to whom its destiny is a matter of almost mystical significance. The Angel, intriguingly, draws to it people who want to mark rites of passage at its foot: birthdays, renewing wedding vows, scattering the ashes of loved ones. All of these are temporary communities brought into being by a sculpture created out of cold steel on the site of a former mine working. And all three attract big crowds of visitors (who may well describe themselves as pilgrims, in which group I include people walking along the Wall) who, for the time they are in relationship with the object of their visit, can be said to form another kind of temporary community. 
When we come to Blanchland, we realise how the textures of the place involve the different communities that have populated it in its history, from the White Canons and lay brothers to the Anglican congregation that worshipped there after the dissolution, and the villagers who lived and continue to live around their church. (The literal meaning of parish, paroikia, is the locality that lies around, and by extension, the people who live in it.) So a key question for the village and the Abbey community now is, how are we inhabiting our place today, the church itself and its pro-fanum, that which lies before, i.e. the physical and human setting of village and valley? How do we honour its sacredness and the sanctity of life in the wider community? And how are we thinking about its development into the future as a sacred space that will serve its resident and temporary communities in new ways? And how shall we embrace the heritage and tourism activity that is so central to the economy of the North Pennines without sacrificing the integrity whether of our “sacred space” and its landscape setting, or of the local community that inhabits it?

I don’t know Blanchland well enough to suggest specific responses to these questions. But if I am right about the landscape and narrative dimensions of sacred space, then the way we inhabit and reimagine it must honour the setting and story if it is to continue to be a source of inspiration and renewal. That has always been the task, to make sure that sacred space doesn’t remain fixed in a past that is daily becoming more and more remote from the present. What matters is the kind of dynamic remembering that both respects the pastness of the past, but also its capacity to speak into the present and help shape the future. Christian theologians call this kind of memory anamnesis. It’s what we do at the eucharist as the sacred space and its story gather us together to tell of God’s mighty acts in the past, so that they come alive in the present and transform us with a vision of what we could become under God.
Heritage is a difficult concept. Like it or not, all of us who are responsible for sacred spaces with long histories, beautiful settings and noble architecture are caught up in the heritage industry. Funding bids have to demonstrate access to heritage and activity plans that encourage people to discover, learn about and enjoy it. The risk is that we package our spiritual heritage, subtly (or not so subtly) through literature, signage, guided tours or the visitor centre, condition people to experience it in approved ways. What this can do is to rob them of the raw experience of encountering the place on its own terms with all the surprise, delight, awe or even shock that this can bring. Most of us can tell stories of childhood visits to heritage sites that laid down memories for a lifetime. When we went back as adults with our own children, we found we had to negotiate a barrage of information, officialdom and retail opportunity before we were allowed anywhere near what we had come to see. The effect of this is to distance us intellectually, spiritually and emotionally from our heritage by over-managing it, and controlling our encounter with it by keeping in its place. An influential book warns against “othering” the past and thereby exoticising it “as a place for tourists and schoolchildren to visit, or as a site of lost romance and betrayed glory”.[18] Either is a failure to honour the integrity both of the heritage itself, and of the people who have come to see it.

I’m not in the least decrying the heritage industry and church heritage in particular: I’ve spent three decades of my working life trying to open up the heritage of three very different cathedrals and encouraging people with little or no church background to cross the threshold and come inside. The growing awareness of our heritage “offer” as sacred spaces is not only a key aspect of outreach, but it also professionalises our practice and humanises our welcome to guests as we help them orientate themselves in our buildings, understand something of what they see and respond. You’ll note the word: not tourists who only come to observe, but guests with the potential to become pilgrims who, however tentatively, are encouraged to participate, become part of the temporary community that the sacred space calls into being. Benedict’s Rule says that we should receive guests as if they were Christ himself. Generous hospitality and intelligent interpretation are, I think, among the gospel values that should shape how we inhabit our sacred spaces. We could put it another way and say that sacred space is “shaped” by vocation, as the Hebrew Bible speaks about the land of promise, a call that affirms a particular geography not only for its physical aspects but for the spiritual, ethical and personal values it represents.[19]
What’s clear is that here at Blanchland, inhabiting and reimagining sacred space are not tasks for the church alone. I’ve pointed out how in this place, church and community are historically deeply intertwined. That gives the village and the valley a vital interest in what happens inside and around the Abbey. It’s partnerships in the community that are going to enable the Abbey’s vision of its future to be achieved and flourish. That’s necessarily true of how every church needs to reimagine itself, for the natural population of a sacred space is the paroikia, “the people who live around”. But this sacred space and this community, because of their story, are woven fine into an entity that cannot be divided into churchgoers and everyone else. One of the hazards of our secularising times is the tendency church people, clergy among them, to think that a congregation and its priests somehow own the building they worship in. They don’t. Sacred space is public space that belongs to all and is open to all because it is God’s space, and God offers hospitality and welcome to all humanity. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”[20]

Perhaps that’s the most important insight for today. Allow it to shape our thinking about “sacred space and community” and it will make all the difference. Create a place where all can come, as Auden did, and drop pebbles down metaphorical shafts that plumb the depths of place and life and God, and listen in case something stirs.

[1] Myers, Alan & Forsythe, Robert (1999), W.H. Auden: Pennine Poet, 55ff.
[2] Davison, Peter (2007), The Idea of North
[3] Myers & Forsythe (1999), 8.
[4] Sadgrove, Michael, “Durham: A Northern Cathedral” in Wakefield, Gavin & Rooms, Nigel, eds., (2016), Northern Gospel, Northern Church, 183.
[5] Quoted by Myers & Forsythe (1999), 24.
[6] Exodus 3.5.
[7] Genesis 1.31.
[8] Psalm 19.1.
[9] Psalm 8.3-4.
[10] Brown, David (2004), God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience, 152.
[11] Genesis 29.17.
[12] www.northpennines.org.uk, accessed on 23 October 2018.
[13] Addleshaw, G.W.O. (1951), Blanchland: A Short History.
[14] www.blanchlandhistory.org.uk/docs/BLANCHLAND%20A%20short%20history%20G.W.O.%20Addleshaw.pdf
[15] https://northernambo.blogspot.com/2018/10/christianity-with-north-east-accent.html?spref=tw
[16] Sadgrove, Michael (2013), Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of the North East, 129.
[17] Rumsey, Andrew (2017), Parish: an Anglican Theology of Place.
[18] Wright, Patrick (2009), On Living in an Old Country, 137.
[19] Rumsey (2017), 79, citing the work of Walter Brueggemann.
[20] Mark 11.17.

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