Sunday, 7 July 2013

Two Books and a Train: the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham

Last week Durham’s Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition opened to the public. I have already visited four times. It would need a twice-daily visit to do justice to it. The Famous Book is the centrepiece of an array of marvellous books, manuscripts, sculptures and treasures that shed light on the Gospels and the world in which they were created. Will we ever see so many Saxon gospel books in the same place?  And Cuthbert’s cross, ring and personal gospel book of St John in the same room as the Gospel written in his honour? Come and see for yourself. It’s open all summer, till 30 September. I never use this phrase lightly, but it is not to be missed.

One of the things ‘not to be missed’ is the location of the exhibition. We can see the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library in London where it will not cost us a penny. But that is not the same as seeing it on the Durham peninsula, in the shadow of the Cathedral that not only contains but is Cuthbert’s shrine. His coffined body, together with the Gospels, were the most precious objects the Lindisfarne community possessed. When they left their island, they carried them round the north of England until finally arriving in Durham in 995.  Here they stayed, in each other’s company, until irrevocably parted at the Reformation. Yet they belong together and should never have been separated. We have Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries to thank for that. This summer gives us the remarkable opportunity to bring the Gospels back ‘home’ not just geographically but culturally, intellectually and above all, spiritually, near St Cuthbert in his very own place. The message to those visiting the exhibition is simple. You've seen the Book; now come and see the shrine of the man for whom this huge labour of love was created, whose place is the Cathedral itself. 

For me, visiting this exhibition has been an emotional and spiritual experience. To re-learn the history of how Saxon England embraced Christianity is one thing. To see and enjoy some the highest achievements of 'Northumbria's Golden Age' is deeply satisfying. But what is so memorable about Durham 2013 is how it witnesses to the remarkable devotion of our forebears: Cuthbert and so many other native saints and their communities. It's a cliché to put it like this, but I think I have glimpsed the 'gospel' in the Gospels in a new and, I want to say, compelling way. The exhibition is not only celebration and interpretation.  It is evangelism.  

There have been other events this week that have celebrated the Gospels in Durham.  Here are just two. On Wednesday, on the platform at Newcastle Central Station, we named and dedicated a locomotive ‘Durham Cathedral’. (For those who like to know, it’s a class 91 East Coast electric 91114.)  During the summer, it will also carry imagery from the Lindisfarne Gospels and invite people up and down the East Coast Main Line to come to Durham and see the book for themselves.  In addition to the name, the loco also has a silhouette of the Cathedral as seen from the railway viaduct which is also depicted. So here’s another way in which Cathedral and Gospels are linked. You never saw a happier dean than when I was presented with my own replica of the large (and heavy) nameplate that now adorns ‘our’ engine. My best thanks to East Coast, Stephen Sorby, railway chaplain, and many others for a great partnership that I am sure will continue in the future.

The second event was to launch my new book Landscapes of Faith during the week.  This too is published to celebrate the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham. Like the exhibition, my book is a celebration of the rich heritage of Christianity in North East England. I blogged about it last week, so I’ll say no more here except to thank the team who worked so hard on it, especially Third Millennium for producing a large and beautiful book that is a joy to handle, even though I say so myself. And thanks to the large number of friends from north and south of Tyne who offered encouragement by coming to the launch. I am doing a book-signing in the shop at Alnwick Garden on Friday 12 July from 1230-1400 if you happen to be in the area.

And this is just Week 1!  It promises to be an extraordinary summer in Durham.

**I preached about the Lindisfarne Gospels at the launch service.  You can find the sermon in my Sermons and Addresses Blog on this site. Go to:

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