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

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: March

March in Durham means two things above everything else: Lent, and St Cuthbert.

I wrote about Lent in February. This year, Easter falls in early April, the Goldilocks period that is not too early and not too late. Which means that all of March is Lent. And although the spring equinox has come, and with it a paschal new moon to eclipse the sun, it is still wintry. High pressure has brought sullen gunmetal skies and keen winds from the north and east to chill to the bone. Late snowdrops and crocuses hang on, mingling with courageous daffodils. Spring comes late in North East England.

Towards the end of March Lent is feeling long. Those high aspirations with which we began this journey on Ash Wednesday now feel like hard work. The Chapter has its annual budgets to approve, always a demanding process that falls appropriately in Lent. People are longing for sunshine and warmth. We are ready for a break before we go into the toughest part of this pilgrimage, Holy Week itself. Mid-Lent, Mothering Sunday, is known as Refreshment Sunday. But here in Durham, we do more than enjoy some gentle mid-Lent relaxation. For it’s St Cuthbert’s Day on 20 March. And that means one of the highest and holiest festivals in the entire year.

Whatever the date of Easter, St Cuthbert’s Day is always in Lent. Because of this, the Church of England wanted to move the festival to Cuthbert’s other day, 4 September, the anniversary of the dedication of his shrine in Durham Cathedral. But North East people were not having this. Cuthbert died, Bede explicitly says, on 20 March and this is when we should celebrate him. So we do, with enthusiasm and √©lan. There are even alleluias at the big services (the service sheet explains to the shocked why we allow ourselves to use the forbidden a-word in Lent). We say a Te Deum and sing the Gloria and other joyful music and big hymns like ‘For all the saints’ that lift the spirits.

Cuthbert’s shrine behind the high altar is the spiritual and emotional heart of the Cathedral. People came there in vast numbers in the middle ages to ask for his healing and his prayers. Today, pilgrims still come to find inspiration in his life of holiness, devotion and gospel simplicity. To the people of the North East, he has been a companion and fellow-traveller since the seventh century. So at the eucharist on the eve of his day, and at evensong on the day itself, we go in a long procession to the shrine and remind ourselves of his importance by listening to what Bede tells us about a life that was so extraordinary and so beautiful as to be remembered by all subsequent generations. 

The monks of Durham saw themselves as the guardians of his memory, the living successors of those who bore his body across the north of England to Chester Le-Street, Ripon and finally Durham’s rocky peninsula. This is still how we see ourselves today at the Cathedral. Which is why, ten years ago, we boldly reversed a sacrilegious act of Henry VIII in the 1540s and put Cuthbert’s name back into the legal title of the Cathedral. It’s why the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in his honour shortly after his death, are treasured in this place where they belonged for so many centuries.

Cuthbertstide isn’t simply a time for great liturgy. There is a range of other activities on offer: a market of local produce in the cloister, children’s story-telling based on the Saxon saints, ‘show and tell’ presentations on the Lindisfarne Gospels (using the facsimile presented to us in 2003), and demonstrations by stone-masons in the cloister garth. Visitors (and there are many) can enjoy Cuthbert’s Slice with their coffee or tea in the restaurant. Young people have constructed a model Cuthbert shrine to go into our great LEGO Cathedral. 

And there is a little spectacle to take part in. Each year, the Northumbrian Association organises a St Cuthbert’s pilgrimage from Chester Le Street to the Cathedral, retracing the steps of the Saxon community upstream along the River Wear as they brought his body here in 995. Led by pipe and drum and the St Cuthbert Banner, we end the journey in Cuthbert’s shrine where there are prayers and readings. It affirms this Cathedral’s rootedness in this evocative part of England.

This time of year holds special meaning for me because I was installed as Dean of Durham on St Cuthbert’s Day 2003. That year March was warm and still and springlike, not like 2015. Sadly, this year’s will have been my last because this is the month I have announced my retirement later this year. But that's another story I've written about already. 

Meanwhile, in Durham, this wonderful festival is over for another year. It is time for the Cathedral to return to its Lenten simplicity. Lent is very Cuthbert-like. If only we could imitate him more successfully in this complex world in which we live. Which means imitating Cuthbert's Lord whom he loved so fiercely and followed so faithfully. Holy Week will show us how. 

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