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

Monday, 30 September 2013

Farewell to the Lindisfarne Gospels

It's past ten o’clock on the last day of September. The doors of the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition Durham have closed for the last time. 100,000 people have passed through them in the last three months. Many have spoken about how inspired and delighted they were by what they saw. I want to pay tribute to colleagues at Durham University and here at the Cathedral who have worked so hard to make this summer such a huge success.

The Cathedral worked closely with the University on this project, and as Dean I served on the project board. We were clear that we wanted the Gospels to come back not simply to Durham but to the North East. And this is one of the great achievements of the summer. It has seen an amazing outburst of creativity right across the region with local communities entering into the spirit of the visit with great enthusiasm. There have been celebrations of the Gospels’ art and design, their place in English civilisation and in the history of the book, their symbolism for the North East’s identity and character. Was ever a book so much loved and welcomed back to its historic homeland?

Local churches have played a leading part in this celebration of our Christian heritage. At its heart, this has been an invitation to discover the gospel message in the four gospels. There have been study groups, public readings of the gospels, special acts of worship, pilgrimages to places associated with the saints of the region, lectures and talks, exhibitions and displays, temporary art, street theatre, creative play and themed entertainment.  This has stimulated adults and children not only to learn about their heritage but to read the gospels with a new awareness. The Cathedral has welcomed thousands of people to its own lively programme of events throughout the summer, culminating in an unforgettable flower festival to celebrate the Lindisfarne Gospels, the northern saints and our life together in the North East today.  A Roman Catholic newsletter spoke about how the Cathedral was rising to the challenge of using the Gospels’ visit in an evangelistic way. That pleased us because it recognised the true nature of the ‘gospel-work’ we were trying to do.

Yesterday, I went to Holy Island to preach on the last Sunday of this summer of celebration. It is always moving to walk where Cuthbert walked and pray where he prayed. To do this while the Lindisfarne Gospels were in his native Northumbria added its own richness to the experience.  I spoke, as I have done all summer, about why this celebration should matter to us, and what we have learned about the Manuscript, the Man in whose honour it was written, and the Message of the Gospel Book both then and now. 
I said that what the summer has helped us to do is to understand this great book in the setting of Saxon Christian Northumbria, and specifically, Cuthbert’s shrine. This linkage was fundamental to its meaning throughout the middle ages: it would have been unthinkable to separate the saint from his book. Severed from this environment, it acquired different linkages and has come to be read in new contexts. It’s not that these are less 'valid' than the original Cuthbert context. But the intellectual case for bringing the Gospels back to Durham was to enable us to hear them speak with their original northern accent once again.

In the south aisle of the church on Holy Island stands Fenwick Lawson’s powerful sculpture ‘The Journey’. It shows the monks of Cuthbert’s community carrying his body (and by implication the Gospels) on its 120 year journey that would end on the peninsula of Durham. I thought about the journey the Gospels had made to come to Durham and be reunited with their saint, and how it was now time for them to make the return journey back to London.  The Gospels have always travelled; now they are setting off on yet another valedictory journey. We all hope they carry a return ticket.

On Palace Green tonight, I talked to one of the security guards who had done duty outside the library during these three months. He told me how much it had meant to him to be doing his bit to care for this precious book, how sad he would be to see it go.  Like Cuthbert, the Lindisfarne Gospels touch ordinary lives in ways that are both moving and inspiring.  They have certainly touched mine. 

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