Saint Cuthbert of Durham (Part 1)
I am very glad to be here in St Cuthbert's Church, and bring you greetings from St Cuthbert's people in Durham Cathedral. I may not make friends by saying so, but to me, having made this Cuthbert journey from Durham to Edinburgh, it does not feel as though I have crossed a national frontier. In his day, Saxon Northumbria extended right up to the Forth, here to Edwin's Burgh which preserves the memory of its first Christian king. This part of Scotland is as much part of Cuthbert's Land as north-east England. Cuthbert is believed to have halted on this site and preached here as he journeyed from Melrose to Lindisfarne, and at time a church was founded here.
It is true that in later centuries, Durham Cathedral came to be perceived as 'half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot' as Sir Walter Scott graphically put it. But when I went to Dunfermline Abbey ago to celebrate our common memory of Queen Margaret at the time this nation was honouring William Wallace, I said that I was glad as Dean of Durham to come to Scotland in the spirit of peace and friendship. Cuthbert, Margaret and David are among the many figures in our Christian history who symbolise the deep sense of connection that we feel to this part of Scotland. The 'new foundation of St Cuthbert's church is due either to Margaret or perhaps more likely, her son David. If you visit Durham Cathedral, you will find them both honoured by the altar of St Margaret in a striking painting commissioned a few years ago by the Portugese artist Paula Rego.
I was installed at Durham on St Cuthbert's Day 2003. That date is now better known as the day the disastrous Iraq war broke out. I shall never forget having to re-draft and re-draft my sermon throughout that day as the news unfolded. I was aware of asking myself all day, what would the peace-loving Cuthbert have said about Iraq? But my most powerful memory of the liturgy itself was of kneeling with the Bishop and Chapter at the shrine of St Cuthbert while the elegiac music of the Northumbrian pipes wafted across the Cathedral. I knew then that I was back in the north-east, in Cuthbertsland. And I dared to hope and pray, knowing that with Cuthbert you can never take anything for granted, that the north-east's great saint would be with me as inspiration and protector in the years that lay ahead.
I said I knew that I was back in the north-east. In the mid-1980s, I worked as an incumbent in north Northumberland. I am not a native northerner, but I grew to love that rough, rugged county and its people, and its spiritual heart, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. I often went there, alone or with others, on clear winter days when the sun shone out of a sky like opal and not a breeze ruffled the clear blue sea, and the snow was bright on distant Cheviot; and on stormy equinoctial days when the wind seemed to tear the clouds to shreds and shake the island to its core and the sea rushed in to enclose it with unbelievable force. I have celebrated the eucharist with pilgrims on the beach opposite St Cuthbert's Island and collected Cuddy beads and read aloud some of the stories Bede tells of Cuthbert.
From Northumberland, I often visited Durham and the shrine of St Cuthbert. When I went back across the Tyne, they would tell me that while Durham had the body of Cuthbert, his soul was still on Lindisfarne. Behind this teasing rivalry, there is a serious point about where we think the spiritual heart of the north-east lies. Indisputably, Lindisfarne is the mother of Durham Cathedral and the mother of us all. It was here that Aidan came from Ireland via Iona at the invitation of Oswald and established his community of monks. It was from here that he, Chad, Cedd and many others went out to reconvert England to the Christian faith. We in the north need no reminding that theirs was a mission that embraced most of what is now England. Only south-east England was the domain of Augustine of Canterbury and those who came with him from Rome. Even there, the Christianisation of Sussex owes everything to St Wilfrid, Lindisfarne's best travelled and most combative missioner.
What is more, the Irish missionaries from Iona and Lindisfarne came with no less a European ecumenical perspective as did the Latin missionaries like Augustine. Time does not allow me to go into how, for example, Columbanus, an Irish Christian par excellence, travelled across Europe, had close connections with the church in Gaul, and brought this dimension into Irish Christianity. But we need to remember this when it is alleged, as it sometimes is, that the faith of Ireland and Iona was no more than an episode, an eccentric, offshore aberration from the European mainstream that the Synod of Whitby in 664 had to correct. Aidan had died in 651. Cuthbert, like Hild, lived through the painful adoption of Latin ways in the north. And this paved the way for the golden age of Lindisfarne, the late 7th and early 8th century, which saw the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Gospel Book is coming to Durham for a 3 month exhibition next summer, an event organised by the Cathedral and University as the major presences on the World Heritage Site. That book shows in its supreme art and craftsmanship that there as a close connection between Northumbria and other parts of Europe where elaborate sacred texts were being created. And in so far as the relics of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels found their way from Holy Island to Durham, it is true to say that Lindisfarne is the mother of Durham Cathedral.
But if it is mother, it is also daughter. And this needs to be said just as clearly. In the year 875 the community of Lindisfarne left the island, taking with them the relics of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Over a century later in 995, they installed themselves at Durham. Although they returned to the island at least once in that time, they did not settle there. The usual reason given is the threat of Viking raids and the need to find a better defended site. Whatever it is, by the end of the 10th century, Durham was where Cuthbert and the Gospels had come to rest. In 1083, after the Norman Conquest, the Saxon community of St Cuthbert was replaced by Benedictine monks from Wearmouth-Jarrow. It was these who went out from Durham to found cells across the north of England, priories such as Finchale, Coldingham and the one on Holy Island. Where there had been a Christian presence before, it had disappeared and needed to be re-established, certainly the case on Holy Island. In all these places, the ruined priories show some striking similarities to the mother house, Durham Cathedral Priory. The incised drum piers and the Romanesque 'rainbow' arch at Holy Island make it seem like a scaled-down version of Durham in red sandstone. The point I am making is that the ruins there that we find so evocative are of the Benedictine daughter house of Durham, not the original mother house of the monks of St Cuthbert.
This chicken-and-egg relationship between Durham and Lindisfarne is politically important today when it comes to the Lindisfarne Gospels and whether they should be permanently returned to the north-east. I am not going to go into that debate now, but I do want to draw attention to the logic of the issue. If we think they should 'come home', as popular rhetoric has it, then where should they go? The claims of Holy Island and Durham are both strong. Durham Cathedral is where they are presumed to have been kept and honoured for about 600 years, longer than they have been anywhere else. And because the Gospels were created 'in honour of God and St Cuthbert', as the dedication says, and because the Community of St Cuthbert would have thought it inconceivable to separate the books from the saint's relics, there has to be a case for saying that they belong to the place where Cuthbert's relics lie. However a similar argument leads to the conclusion that Lindisfarne, their place of origin, would be the natural and best place for them to be kept. What is more, that argument would point to sending Cuthbert's remains back there too, and not only that, but returning the relics of Bede to Jarrow from where they were stolen by an unscrupulous monk and brought to Durham in 1022. These issues are perhaps more difficult than they at first seem.
All this is by way of illustrating how, now that I am at Durham, and in a sense the guardian of Cuthbert's shrine, I am pondering the rather different perspective from which I now see and experience the saint. For Durham 'inherited' a Cuthbert who was already a distant memory coloured by a long history after his death that was at least as extraordinary as his career while he was still alive. Most saints are left alone in their resting places when they die as no doubt Cuthbert was intended to. But chance, circumstance, providence - call it what you will - decreed otherwise for him. Cuthbert probably travelled further when dead than he ever did in his lifetime. Only three centuries after his death did he reach his final resting place at Durham. So by the time he arrived there, a vast quantity of collective memory, reverential myth, legend and folk tale had coalesced around the three primary sources for his life, the anonymous Life of about 700, and the two Lives by Bede, one in prose and one in poetry. And once installed in Durham, in a context so different from the one from which he had come, his presence came to acquire yet more layers of meaning that are intriguing in themselves, and to some extent paradoxical for the way in which they represent a very different vision from the one he himself had embraced.
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