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

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Cathedral with a North East Accent

I have just drafted an essay on Durham as a 'northern cathedral'. It is due to be published later this year in a collection of pieces about being the church in the North of England.
It's been an intriguing assignment. I have always had a feel for the gritty North Eastern qualities of this place. But it's harder to put into words. What is the 'Idea of North' (to quote the title of a beautiful book by Peter Davidson)? What is the idea of the Christian North? How does a place like Durham Cathedral embody it? What does it mean theologically?

My essay focuses on three aspects: the Cathedral's northern 'sense of place' (the kind of thing I was trying to set out in Landscapes of Faith), its northern Christian stories (especially those of Cuthbert, Bede and the Prince Bishops), and its mission activities today that have a distinctive northern 'accent'.

I am still trying to understand something I began to realise 30 years ago when I was Vicar of Alnwick in Northumberland. I had never lived in the North before, and I soon began to learn that in some ways, to a Londoner, the North is another country: they do things differently there. I read Bede and learned about the northern saints. But I found myself unmoved by the uncritical way they were often talked about by enthusiasts for 'Celtic Christianity'. The purple prose and romanticised imagery somehow didn't do justice to their sheer strangeness. It all felt a bit too cosy.

I began to go to Holy Island for quiet days. There I listened to the elements. Sometimes they were still and serene, inviting me to go deeper into the contemplation of God and the discovery of myself. That was not necessarily reassuring: even the bluest of skies can be bracing rather than soothing. Often they were wild and disturbing, shaking the foundations of a comfortable faith as in Donne's 'Batter my heart Three-Person'd God'.

Both are aspects of the Saxon saints: their quest for a faith that was unafraid of truth. But one word kept coming back to me as I returned again and again to Lindisfarne. It still does. It's exposure. As I got to know the North East, I seemed to find it everywhere. I wrote a poem that tried to sum up what this spirituality meant for me. (To my surprise it won a Northumberland poetry prize. I have hardly written poetry since. Moral: even modest success doesn't necessarily encourage the Muse.) I called it 'Northern Saints'.

You look in vain for some
Shelter at our northern
Shrines.  That is their
Forbidding glory.  These are
Bleak places without
Trees.  Nothing much
Grows here except
Holiness.  They have been
Hospitable only to
God and to prayer.  Yet a
Presence has touched the
Uncurious soil.  Its
Resonances linger on,
Bricked up beneath
Jarrow’s forlorn pavements,
Battered by the
East wind’s assault on
Lindisfarne, or
Congealed in the hardened
Veins of men pitted against
Northumberland.  You might be

Tempted to say that these shrines are
God-forsaken, for he has been
This way once and passed on.  Yet their very
Emptiness is religious.  There is
No hiding here, no
Evading his absence, no
Obscuring comfort to help you
Pretend.  Naked the
Sullen land confronts the
Souring sky, and the
Sharp line of their
Meeting is the etched-out
Truth of the north, that in such
Cruel juxtapositions is the
Holiness that forges

Saints. Religion should be as
Exposed as this.

There is more than a hint of R. S.Thomas and his poetry of the via negativa. But the last line still seems right.

At the end of my essay I say that I have tried to hint (no more than that) at ways in which I see Durham Cathedral as rooted in the distinctiveness of North East England not as something that is merely incidental, but as an essential aspect of its Christian character and identity. The 'idea of north', which includes the idea of a Christian north, is perhaps an aspect of Durham Cathedral’s unique contribution to the witness of the church in England.
To put it simply, its northern landscape setting, its history and culture, its people and communities and its relationship with locality and region, Durham Cathedral is perhaps able to affirm, in a highly public and visible way, that God cares about North East England as part of his love for the whole of creation. It can pose questions raised in the titles of the two books I mentioned earlier: 'what kind of God' is at work in the North to point to the kingdom of justice and peace? And what does it mean to talk about ‘the kingdom of God and North East England’? It can help to interpret difficult theological and spiritual questions as the life of this region poses them. It must make the most of its assets as a glorious edifice on its rocky Wear-girt acropolis to which so many are drawn.

This is at the heart of what it means to be a northern cathedral. Its unique history and heritage can, and must, be put to work for the service of the gospel in the present and point to the future that God is creating. But the ancient story of Cuthbert and his community give us another, more primitive, model of mission to discover: learning once again to be a mobile cathedral, travelling light, moving out to the people of our time as God’s love for the world always does, here in North East England, and everywhere.

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