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

Thursday, 17 October 2019

In Praise of Etheldreda

I’m very glad to be here in Ely to celebrate the Translation of St Etheldreda. I come to you from Tynedale in Northumberland, the lands where Etheldreda was once queen. As does your new Bishop of Huntingdon who is installed as a canon of this Cathedral today. She, indeed, follows literally in the footsteps of your saint, since it was Queen Etheldreda who granted estate to Wilfrid to build his legendary church at Hexham where Dagmar was rector. We celebrated Wilfrid’s feast day just a few days ago. It was he who prevailed on the Northumbrian King Ecgfrith to release his Queen from her marriage vows and take the veil. He got into a lot of trouble for it, and was exiled from his see for a while. Meanwhile, she founded her monastery here at Ely in her native East Anglia. So Ely owes its existence to a northern saint, which makes it an honorary member of the great Northumbrian family of Saxon religious foundations. I am sure this is something Dagmar will remind you of from time to time.

Etheldreda is Aethelthryth, “noble strength”, a lovely way of describing her. She has a beautiful window in Hexham Abbey that commemorates her benefaction, but she was of course always your saint rather than ours, being the daughter of an East Anglian king who only found her way up to Northumbria because its young king Ecgfrith needed a royal bride to give him offspring. Famously, she insisted on remaining a virgin. She had always believed herself called to the religious life. So she came home to the Fens and founded a double monastery for men and women here on the Isle of Ely along the lines of Hild’s communities at Hartlepool and Whitby. Bede tells us that she presided over her community in a spirit of humility, piety and devotion, living an intensely austere life until she died in 679. Proclaimed a saint, her relics were translated to the shrine of her abbey church in 695, the event we commemorate today. 

Wilfrid was present at this great ceremony, the man who had witnessed to her virginity, consecrated her as a nun and watched the elevation of her untarnished remains. Bede wrote a hymn in honour of her as “an example of heavenly life and teaching”. He might have had our reading in mind, for the church’s memory of her was of a woman free of “malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander”, no mean achievement in the febrile world of the Saxon kingdoms and their politics. Indeed, in the imagery of the letter of Peter where Christ is the cornerstone of the new temple of God’s people, he sees the household of faith as built upon precisely the Christian values and virtues that Aethelthryth herself embraced. Her memory, etched into this shrine, bears witness to vision of God’s kingdom on which her life was premised and from which she never allowed her gaze to wander as queen, wife and abbess.

It’s just four years since we left Durham. People sometimes ask me not only what I miss from our thirteen wonderful years there, but what I learned from cathedral life. I could speak for England  in answer to both those questions. But as to the second, one big insight that gradually worked its way into my spiritual bloodstream I owe directly to St Cuthbert. I used to say to visitors that Durham is not a cathedral that holds the shrine of a saint, but a shrine around which a cathedral has been built. And the thing about putting it that way round is that it requires you to focus primarily on the person, not the building. I asked myself: what kind of saint was Cuthbert, that he should be so cherished and loved, not just in Durham but across the North? I used to kneel at the shrine and reflect on his holiness, his simplicity, his single-heartedness as a man of God. This is what a dean should try to model, I thought, how the community ought to envision itself as God’s people holy and humble at heart. It stopped me being seduced by the majesty of the building, the power it embodied, “pride of man and earthly glory” as the hymn says. It told me that while tower and temple fall to dust, the spiritual principles on which they are built are the things that abide for ever, that are for eternity our temple and our tower. Cuthbert put me in my place. 

I think there’s a similar truth here. The whole world loves Ely just as it loves Durham. Romanesque crowned by gothic, water to set off a world class building, a peerless vista from the railway station, a compact cathedral city huddled round its sacred space - what could be more enticing? Maybe what matters most is the spirituality that connects them, founded as they both are on a pre-Conquest story of faith that was embodied, made visible and tangible, in the lives of holy men and women, then lived out and borne witness to by religious communities during the Benedictine centuries, and finally by us who succeed them in our post-Reformation Anglican cathedrals. Saints like the lamps in the gospel giving light to the whole house – its they who impart so much of the character, the spiritual texture, of these great places.

So to lay a relic of St Etheldreda on her shrine during this service is not do anything bizarre or superstitious. It’s an act of gratitude to acknowledge our roots and treasure the memory of a holy woman but for whom we would not be here today. It helps us to touch directly a life of sanctity and devotion, of purity of heart and faith in the gospel, of undying hope in the coming of God’s kingdom of truth and peace. Hers was a life lit up by the light and love that she saw, and we see, in Jesus. There was nothing she would not do to serve that light and love. There is nothing we would not do. The shrines of the saints are our inspiration never to lose heart but to be faithful unto death, in the hope of receiving the crown of life.

What matters is that we allow the memory of the saints to shine a light on our own times, our experience as men and women of our century who are stirred by the words of Jesus, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”. What would it mean for the dark places of our national life, our politics and our society to be lit up in that way? The dark places of our church? The dark places of our personal lives? Etheldreda who walked palace corridors and sat on an earthly throne, yet renounced them to embrace the poverty of the gospel and walk in the light of God: she is just the kind of saint we need to keep hope alive. The meaning of her name, “noble strength” with its connotations of stability, steadfastness, confidence in the gospel – these are the spiritual virtues we need to cherish and cultivate today. Which is why we give thanks for this Cathedral and its testimony to God’s mercy and wisdom and love. And for the memory of Etheldreda kept alive here in her holy place, and for her companionship and prayers as we trace her footsteps and journey on together full of hope towards that City set on God’s holy hill, the goal, the light and the joy of every pilgrim heart.

Ely Cathedral, 17 October 2019
1 Peter 2.1-10, Matthew 5.14-16

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Learning from St Wilfrid

Today in Rome, an Englishman is being proclaimed a saint: John Henry Newman, the famous Cardinal of the nineteenth century who, we must never forget, was initially formed not as a Roman Catholic but as a child of the Church of England. He is the first English person born since the seventeenth century to be canonised. 
But here in Tynedale we celebrate today an English saint of thirteen hundred years ago. We owe a big debt to St Wilfrid. Everyone knows about Hexham Abbey which he founded, and the Saxon crypt and Frith Stool that survive. Fewer people associate him with this church a few miles downstream, yet he founded it too, maybe before Hexham. They are links in a chain of Saxon churches dedicated to St Andrew that marches east along the line of the Roman Wall as far as Newcastle. Wilfrid almost certainly built his crypt at Hexham as a shrine for the relics of St Andrew that he brought back from Rome. He had a particular devotion to Andrew, one that is shared by your incumbent whose first anniversary as Vicar of Corbridge this is. So a lot of themes coalesce happily today as we celebrate this festival. 

It’s lazy to say that the church isn’t a building, it’s people. There is a truth in it of course: the church is a community, “the household of God, built upon the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone”. It’s an organism that grows, says our reading from Ephesians, “into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God”. But if you’d asked Wilfrid why he built these great churches in worked stone, and on such a scale, furnished so lavishly and adorned with treasures, he would have said something like: if this people is to be a casket of holiness, goodness and truth, then everything that makes it visible – its buildings and its ceremonies – should bear witness to all that is to be valued most: the glory and beauty and love of God as we know him in Jesus Christ. A church building is a sacrament of the One who is among us as Immanuel. It should bring us to our knees, make worshippers and disciples out of us. It’s not either-or. People and building belong together in a God-given both-and. This is what we celebrate on our festival of dedication.

But let’s speak about Wilfrid. The are plenty of people who revere the northern saints like Oswald, Aidan, Cuthbert and Hild, but who have little good to say about Wilfrid. Proud, pompous and prelatical would sum up the popular view, more like a Saxon prince than a servant of the humble Man of Nazareth. It’s true that he was not like gentle Aidan as we call him, who had been his teacher on Lindisfarne. Wilfrid – fervent, combative, self-regarding, complex - could never have been accused of the virtue of simplicity. Nevertheless, Bede goes out of his way to mention the obedience, thoughtfulness and humility he learned as a child. He speaks of his devotion and purity meaning, I think, his unwavering commitment to his vocation as a monk, evangelist and bishop. The call to lead boldly burned hot within him. 

But what especially mattered to Bede was Wilfrid’s vision for the English church. Although schooled in the Irish tradition of faith he had learned from Aidan, his travels on the continent, good European that he was, gave him a larger perspective on what we call catholic Christianity. As Bishop of Hexham, he brought back to Tynedale customs he had come to admire in Rome: great churches built of stone, splendid liturgy and ceremonial, fine music, the Rule of St Benedict for his monks, a love of learning embodied in books and manuscripts, devotion to the saints and not least, high ideals for the status and authority of bishops.

It was conflict over the date of Easter that brought about a crisis for the English church. It could not be right for Christendom to be divided on the celebration of the greatest festival of the liturgical year. King Oswiu, a Northumbrian, and his Queen Eanflaed who was from Kent, followed different traditions, so that in some years, one would still be fasting in Lent while the other was feasting in Eastertide. The Synod of Whitby was convened in 664 to resolve these differences, and it was Wilfrid whose advocacy for catholic custom won the day. His argument came down to being obedient to the apostles Peter and Paul and the undivided church they had bequeathed. To Bede, who knew how mathematics and astronomy come into the complex calculations of the date of Easter, bringing the northern church into unity with the rest of Christendom was of profound importance. It still is, whatever those who want to fix the date of Easter may say.

Arguably it was Wilfrid who helped pave the way for what we call Northumbria’s Golden Age. The kingdom now saw itself as connected to European civilization in a new way that brought inspiration and energy to its leadership. It was open to influences from across the continent, not just from Ireland. In art, literature and politics, the flourishing of the kingdom was envied across Europe. Our fine Saxon churches here in the North East, like Corbridge, bear witness to it. Think of the Durham and Lindisfarne Gospels, the Saxon crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell, the Franks Casket that may owe its origins directly to Wilfrid, Bede’s biblical, poetic, astronomical and historical writings. Where do I stop?

But it was religion that was the golden thread. In the middle ages, sacred and secular belonged together. Church and world, politics and faith, all of life belonged to God and was subject to his rule. Perhaps we can see the colossal Roman arch under the tower as a symbol of that. Probably it was brought here from the Roman town at Corbridge: why go to the trouble of dressing newly-quarried stone when there was so much of it left behind by the departing legions a couple of centuries before? Here in this church is an emblem of the might and panoply and culture of antiquity, the people who once lived and died along the edge of empire, and of the alien gods they worshipped. Wilfrid’s Christianity was big enough to embrace even these, to ennoble and put to a higher service the relics of the civilization that once held sway in these lands.

For me, this is the significance as the founder we celebrate today. For all that we may not want to endorse every aspect of his way of leading, I think we are bound to find ourselves honouring the breadth of his vision. If he was ever prone to imagine there was nothing he could not do as a bishop, he was right to recognize that there was nothing God did not care about, did not own as his. This is what it means to be catholic. It’s not simply to care about the formal sacramental unity of the church (though that matters, and we should pursue it by all the means we can). It’s to affirm the catholicon, the wholeness of all things, how everything is knit together and gathered up in the Christ who is Lord of all. “All that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom O Lord, and you are exalted as head over all. And now our God, we give thanks and praise your glorious name.” Wilfrid would say a heartfelt amen to that. As we do on this festival day.

St Andrew’s, Corbridge, 13 October 2019
1 Chronicles 29.6-19, Ephesians 2.19-22, John 2.13-22