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

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Durham Cathedral's 'Open Treasure': a Big HLF Award

It is immensely heartening that in the latest round of awards, the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting Durham and Peterborough Cathedrals. We are not the only two cathedrals to be grateful for the HLF’s generosity in recent years. No doubt it is a coincidence that both these famous and beautiful cathedrals are Romanesque, and that both their profiles are well known to travellers speeding up and down the East Coast Main Line.

The first thing I want to do is to pay tribute to the great team here at the Cathedral who worked up the bid and worked with staff, volunteers and community to prepare for its submission.  We have had great support from the officers of HLF itself, from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission and many other bodies and individuals along the way. And of course we want to say thank you to the HLF for this great news. It is a wonderful way of beginning Advent.

This £3.9 million award will mean that we are within sight of achieving our long-held dream of displaying the Cathedral’s marvellous treasures in some of its equally marvellous medieval spaces. The buildings round the cloister constitute the unique (for England) survival of an intact monastic enclosure that is still used for the religious purposes for which it was intended. Their treasures include relics associated with St Cuthbert such as his coffin, pectoral cross and portable altar. Not only that, but the Cathedral Library has retained more of its monastic collections of medieval manuscripts and early printed books than anywhere else in the country.

The collections are of international significance as a witness to the civilisation, culture and history of Christian North East England particularly in the Saxon and early Norman periods. They more than do justice to the landscape and architecture of the World Heritage Site that has been their home for so many centuries. What we have lacked are facilities to exhibit them properly. In the 21st century, this means creating environments that conform to the highest conservation and security standards in which they can be safely displayed and interpreted. To adapt medieval buildings for this purpose while at the same time enhancing their beautiful interiors in their own right is a formidable challenge.

After years of planning, we are now poised to realise this dream. Called Open Treasure, the development will create a large exhibition space in the monastic Dormitory (which will still retain its 19th century function as a library). Its focus will be the shaping of church and cathedral in medieval Northumbria, and how this story of a faith community has continued beyond the Reformation into the present day. A newly constructed gallery will house some of our most important and precious manuscripts together with our Saxon stones and artefacts, while the Great Kitchen will have as its focus St Cuthbert and the relics associated with his memory.

Why Open Treasure? Because we shall be opening up what has been largely hidden from public view in the past: incomparable medieval spaces, and the equally incomparable treasures they will contain. This year’s highly successful Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, in which the Cathedral has been a partner and to which we lent no fewer than 14 items for display, has shown that there is a real appetite for Christian heritage that is beautifully displayed and intelligently interpreted.

There is another purpose to all this. We want to maintain free entry to the Cathedral itself. By opening up our ‘Treasure’ as a revenue-earning exhibition, we hope to stabilise the Cathedral’s finances so that it will never be necessary to levy an admission charge to such a fine sacred space. When we held a press call to announce the news, I was pressed hard on this point: it is hugely appreciated in North East England that the Cathedral does not charge for admission to the church itself. We want to keep it that way and we rely on Open Treasure to achieve this.

For our biggest treasure is the Cathedral itself, so much loved and admired across the world. Not just the building and what it contains, but its community that has its origins in 7th century Lindisfarne and its saints such as Aidan and Cuthbert. Like the Benedictine house that it became, the Cathedral is still a living place of worship, work and learning and this adds contemporary human, Christian texture to the place. Our invitation to visitors to experience for themselves this rich past and present is part of our mission both of hospitality and of interpretation. We hope all our guests both young and old will not simply come here as sightseers or observers but become participants in the Cathedral’s life of prayer, community, arts, learning and outreach.

Thanks to HLF and other funders, this vision is close to becoming reality. We want to begin the works in 2014 and already have significant funds raised and pledged. Thank you to everyone who has supported us generously so far. If there is anyone reading this blog who can help us match the funding so that the project can begin all the sooner, that will be wonderful too. Call me night or day!

This is a revised version of my piece on the HLF Blog to coincide with the announcement of the award.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Scottish Referendum: a simple question

Earlier this year I attended a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. It’s a stone’s throw from the River Tweed which marks the present Anglo-Scottish border. This was the last of a long line of Anglo-Scottish battles, and it was one of the bitterest. Its outcome changed the history of Scotland, and arguably paved the way towards the Union of the crowns in 1707. The memorial cross on the hilltop that overlooks the battlefield says simply, and movingly, ‘to the brave of both nations’.

In North East England we have been a border people for centuries.  These marcher lands have long been fought over as their array of castles and fortifications show. The Durham Palatinate ruled by its powerful Prince Bishops was a buffer state within a state set up to guard the rest of England from invading Scots. Yet all that belonged to the middle ages. It’s odd to think that we were still fighting these battles on the threshold of modernity in the early 16th century.

I write this on the day the SNP publishes its vision for an independent Scotland. It’s a milestone on the long journey that leads up to next September’s referendum. It’s obviously a matter of keen interest to all Scots. But here in the borderlands, it’s a matter of concern to the English too. The decision Scotland makes about its future will have effects south of the border. If Scotland votes for independence, there will be consequences for the North of England that are economic, political and social. But these wouldn't merely affect the North. They would affect the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Independence would radically alter the way the surviving peoples of the Union saw themselves. It would need us to re-group in order to face a future that could be very different from what we know at present.

I happen to think that the Union is a good thing, and so far, the evidence is that a majority of Scots feel that way too. The Union as a federation of peoples is one of the world’s most successful nation-states. There is no doubt room to re-calibrate the precise ways in which our nations, provinces and regions relate to one another within a united whole, but that is no argument for dismantling it.

But this isn’t my principal concern right now. What baffles me is very simple. Why is the future of the Union, which is the business of all UK citizens, to be decided on our behalf by the Scottish people alone?

The more I try to get my mind round this question, the more puzzling it seems. I can’t find a flaw in the argument that the future of the Union is the business of the whole Union, not just part of it. It may be that in North East England, because of our violent history, we feel the force of this particularly keenly. What matters at the border, what kind of border it even turns out to be are as important to us south of it as to those on its north side. But as I’ve said, it affects all of us who are citizens of the UK. Profoundly and probably irreversibly. I am not sure we have woken up to this yet.

I can’t see that it is good politics, let alone justice, to delegate the dismantling of the UK to the say-so of 10% of its total population (fewer than 6 million out of more than 60 million). Whichever way it goes, it does not look like a well-founded plebiscite that acknowledges the legitimate interests of all UK citizens. I'd like to be clearer what the role of the Westminster Parliament is in this watershed constitutional decision. I am not comfortable about being disenfranchised, relegated to the role of onlooker gazing at a drama acted out on the Scottish stage that will have far-reaching consequences for the large audience sitting impotently in the rest of the UK.

For the avoidance of doubt let me add that I honour the Scots for many things, not least their intellectual rigour, their love of fairness and their strong sense of common purpose. We need all these qualities in the Union. But if there is a decision to make about the future of the Union, it should be through a process that is rigorous, fair and that has regard for the purpose and flourishing of all its peoples, not just some. I am sure the Scots don't dissent from that.

Monday, 18 November 2013

In a Nutshell: infinite space in Durham Cathedral's light show

Lumière has come and gone. Durham’s festival of light brought 175000 people into the city over four dark winter nights. The city was filled with beautiful, inventive light shows that revealed how sophisticated technology can serve art. For many, the Crown of Light installation on the north face of the Cathedral was (forgive the word) a highlight. It painted a vast colourful canvas in images and music encompassing the northern saints, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the building of the Cathedral.  Although I had seen it many times, it never failed to work its magic.

We don’t yet know how many tens of thousands of people found their way into the Cathedral: the queues were so long that not everyone made it inside. Those who did may have found themselves bewildered at first. The blacked-out nave communicated darkness and mystery like a huge cave. Narrow beams of light swung rhythmically back and forth across the width of the church, so focused that the surrounding darkness remained almost impenetrable. Clusters of very fine wire hangings, looping invisibly down from the vault caught the beams as they passed through creating an effect like a myriad of dancing fireflies. As the rays hit the architecture opposite, amazing geometrical patterns formed converging and diverging, expanding and retracting, picking out for an instant capitals and arcades, flutings, striations and chevrons in an ever-changing dance of light. It would need a poet to put it into words. It was hard to photograph too though I have posted some images on my Twitter feed @sadgrovem.
As I watched this celestial drama I wondered what made it so beguiling. It was as if I was looking out across the vastnesses of a dark empty cosmos to stars and galaxies millions of light years away, reaching back across the aeons of a far distant past.  The Cathedral had become a mass , a container that was re-shaping time and space.  Hamlet says: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’. The title of the light show designed in France by Atsara was [M]ondes: ‘worlds’ with the ‘M’, ‘waves’ without it. Light at work in the cosmos creating worlds, light both making waves and being waves: a whole theology of creation was suggested by what we were seeing.
The 12th century Abbé Suger said of his masterpiece, the Abbey of St Denis near Paris, that a cathedral should encapsulate heavenly worlds. It should be a casket for the infinite, a beautiful container in which to glimpse what lies beyond human understanding. The created materials of stone and glass should become a window on to the Eternal. For him, the essential quality was light and how it irradiated the building, and how the building in turn influenced and shaped the light pouring through it. 

To me, [M]ondes was an extraordinarily subtle, complex, many-layered work. It was not in your face, exhilarating like Crown of Light. It was more reflective, and understated, needing time to do it justice, penetrate its textures and touch its mystery. Yet I heard people remark after walking through it for a few minutes that there was something tantalisingly effective about it. Perhaps they experienced it as thought-provoking, suggestive, putting questions to us that were not just interesting but even important.  If art succeeds in getting us to ponder, perhaps touching and changing us in some way, helping us to glimpse God, it is realising a deeply human and spiritual purpose.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


I’ve read a couple of articles during the past week by people who have fallen out of love with the poppy. I don’t mean the flower itself, but the symbol most of us wear at this time of Remembrance. The argument is that its meaning has been debased into unthinking support for a narrow nationalism and the militarism that goes with it. Wearing the poppy is to collude with assumptions that drag our world back into the mind-set of conflict between nations rather than forward towards a global community of reconciliation and friendship.

I admit I have reservations about enforcing the wearing of poppies or regarding them as a kind of fashion accessory. The meaning must surely have something to do with what it symbolises for the wearer. For instance, on tonight’s Strictly Come Dancing, contestants were all sporting them over every conceivable kind of costume from ball gowns to tight leotards and skimpy outfits. It was no doubt well-meant, but it did not always look like a personal choice, more an expression of BBC policy that it is de rigeur not only for its own staff but everyone who takes part in a show.

That said, let me try to defend the poppy. The Great War gave our Remembrance rituals their defining shape. ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow….’  The poppy seemed to resonate with the instincts of ordinary people to memorialise war in a simple way through a blood-hued flower, beautiful as a life laid down, prolific as millions of victims, short-lived as the young men who fell. There are not many invented symbols that are as eloquent as this. Its popularity speaks for itself.

It’s true that like any symbol, the poppy carries many meanings: loss, grief, the pity of war and the tragedy of wasted lives. But it also stands for pride and gratitude for sacrifice offered and service rendered. It is both honourable and necessary for every people to cherish its common memory of war in this way. Yet because the poppy focuses on the debt we owe to the armed forces, and because it is largely they and the ex-service organisations that keep remembrance alive, it is susceptible to a narrow militaristic twist. But this is not the poppy’s fault. The answer to the abuse of a symbol is to use it properly. That is to say, we need to learn how to remember accurately, and then ‘remember forward’ to a world in which we have learned the lessons of war. In such a peaceable world, there will be no place for the divisive nationalisms that inevitably lead to conflict. Ultimately the poppy is a symbol of our humanity, our ability to remember and to care.
Perhaps the poppy is like the Christian cross. That too is the reddened memory of suffering, pain and bloodshed. But it is also a redemptive symbol of sacrifice offered and new life given. Like the poppy, the cross has at times been grossly abused by being turned into a sign of blood-filled destructiveness in, for example, the Crusades that took their very name from it. It has taken the church a long time to wean itself off its addiction to coersive force. If it is doing this, it is through a deeper reflection on what the cross truly means: self-emptying, vulnerable love and the reconciling peace that flows from it.

Might a deeper reflection on the fragile poppy help recover the richness of its symbolism?  I stood in the Cathedral tonight at the annual Festival of Remembrance and watched the poppies drift down from the lantern tower during the silence. I was moved as I always am, by this simple but powerful ceremony. I do not think I was being seduced by it, nor was I colluding with anything. The awfulness of war, the honour of those who served, our mortality, the 'heartbreak at the heart of things', our agonised longing for a better world – all this seemed to be there. I doubt if this marriage of the collective and the personal could be done in better.
Good rituals and symbolism reminds us who and what we are as peoples and as individuals. They open the doors of perception, enlarge our vision and imagination.  This is more and more necessary with every year that passes if we are serious about re-making the world as a safer, wiser, kinder place. In that spirit I shall go on wearing the poppy.