Sermon preached at Matins in Durham Cathedral on 2nd September 2012 the festival of ‘The Translation of the Relics of Saint Cuthbert’.
Today we commemorate the removal of the relics of St Cuthbert from their place in the old so-called white church to what we have ever since called the feretory, the shrine within the shrine of Durham Cathedral.
This took place in 1104. That’s a long time ago. But it was also a long time after the death of Cuthbert, and a long time after the arrival of Cuthbert’s remains in Durham – the result of the famous ‘journey’ which meandered round the north east of England and Borders of Scotland. Looking back, we call it a journey but this was not purposeful pilgrimage to a better place but a worried fleeing from a place of danger.
From the first then, Durham has been a place of sanctuary – of safety: a safe place to lay down the remains of a holy man, and so a safe destination for pilgrimage and a safe place at which to build a religious community.
People often contrast the simplicity of Cuthbert’s own life with the wealth and grandeur of his shrine. And they have a point. It would be hard to overestimate the rigours of life on Cuthbert’s beloved Farne Islands, and you only need to lower a toe into the North Sea to know that to spend the night up to your waist in it is the action of a spiritual iron man.
Equally, it is hard to overestimate the power or wealth of Durham when pilgrimage was at the height of its vogue. Any suggestion that we might recreate some of the gaudy and opulent décor of the feretory, even virtually, is met with a roar of disapproval on the grounds of good taste. The roar is justified. But the sentiment is a relatively new one in the history of Durham and the way in which it had lived with the privilege and opportunity of being the shrine of St Cuthbert.
Every cathedral has a story. We have with us today the choir of Coventry Cathedral, surely the English Cathedral with the most vivid, tragic and ultimately inspiring of stories. The Cathedral was bombed in 1940 as the city was ‘Coventrated’. The response of people at the cathedral was to find a cross among charred wood and then to fashion one from old nails as ways to proclaim the cross of Christ and say ‘father forgive’. In this way they laid the spiritual foundations for a new building and an international ministry of reconciliation.
It is interesting to put the stories of Durham and Coventry side by side, especially now in 2012 when both the bishop of Durham and the bishop of Jarrow, not to mention our own Dean, the three most senior clergy in the diocese, are all former canons of Coventry.
The main difference, perhaps, is that Durham Cathedral has never been bombed. And according to local myth and belief we have Cuthbert to thank for that. This is the story as it appears on the BBC’s People’s War website:
“The sirens sounded across the city. It was a bright moonlight night following a warm summer day in 1943.
A squadron of the Luftwaffe were right on schedule, their target to bomb the Durham Viaduct that carried the main railway lines from the South to the North of England.
This would also destroy the city and its famous Norman Cathedral, which stands high on a peninsula rock above the River Wear.
The Cathedral was founded by the monks of Lindisfarne when they brought the body of Saint Cuthbert south, to escape the savage Viking raiders early 900AD, and in which his shrine still remains.
As the plane approached, out of nowhere came a mist, descending over the City like a ghostly shroud, hiding every building, as if they had disappeared.
They passed over, dropping their bombs on open countryside doing little damage. No one has been able to explain this phenomenon, and it has become known as “Saint Cuthbert’s Mist”.”
The story of the Cuthbert mist is told with a deal of local pride here in the North East. I wonder how it sounds to Coventry ears. Put that way some of the difficult questions begin to surface.
Coventry too has its historic holy heroes: Leofric and Godiva, the original benefactors of the religious community of Coventry. Holy and devout they might have been – but without mist generating powers, it would seem.
Why should Cuthbert be concerned to preserve the massive edifice which Durham cathedral had become if his vision was the proto-Franciscan simplicity of the Holy man of the Holy Island, making friends not with the great and the good , still less with fortresses or riches but with the sea and sky, the eider ducks and otters?
Every cathedral has its story. And every ancient cathedral – and Coventry is an ancient Cathedral whose story incorporates three buildings just as Durham incorporates two – has a long story. Much of that story is history: that is the legacy, the heritage from the past. And any cathedral of spiritual interest will have mysterious stories, legends, unexplained or half explained happenings. We should not spoil these with too much analysis. The past is other country, strange things happened there and we should not think that we can either explain or justify them all.
But the story of any decent cathedral is not only a history but also a story which embraces the present and the future. Part of the role of a cathedral will be to tell its own story. That sounds like a narcissistic exercise, and indeed it can be. The point of telling the Durham story or the Coventry story is not to make the canons, choirs or congregations, staff or volunteers of either place feel good or superior. There is no cathedral story Olympics in which medals are handed out for the best story… though if there were, I do rather suspect that it would be Coventry which picked up the gold medal.
Or at least it would have done at any point over the last 50 years.
It might be worth Coventry, just as it might be worth Durham, asking what it might take to get it on to the rostrum in 50 years’ time. I say this not to encourage a spirit of competiveness or even friendly rivalry but to make the point that the story of Provost Howard, the cross of nails, the Basil Spence building (Spence also built St Aidan’s college here by the way) the liturgies of Joseph Poole and the exciting ministries of Oestreicher, White and Welby are to Coventry as Cuthbert and the Benedictine Monks are to Durham.,
They are gifts of God to be sure. But God’s gifts need not only to be remembered and celebrated, they need to be accepted as signs and symbols of God’s active and transformative presence.
The reason that Coventry is in C20 terms the gold medal English Cathedral is because its story is one of transformation and mission.
The reason that Cuthbert is a gold medal English saint is because his story is one of humble openness to God.
It is indeed our task to remember these realities. But to be authentic to our faith, to our living God, the God who was and is and is to come, the past, present, future God, we have to fill in the present tense and the future tense of the story. Not exactly ourselves, because it is not we who write the story but God. We have the more modest, and yet more demanding and spiritual task of allowing ourselves to step into the space where God is given permission to become the author of our own personal and collective history.
This is the pattern we see if we look back to the life of Cuthbert and the strange providential journey that brought his remains to this place. It is the pattern we see when we reflect on the Coventry story.
It is the story that all Cathedrals, all Churches all Christians are here to tell. It is the story that God is both loving and modest. God is both powerful and yet stands aside from controlling the wills of human beings. It is the story that God’s love never fails but is always there the morning after the worst catastrophe – whether we are bombed or whether we ourselves bomb in some way (and we all let ourselves down sooner or later) there will be some fragments left over which can be forged into a rough-hewn cross and so draw us back to the true foundation of all Christian living, and all Christian institutions.
The difference between Durham and Coventry is that Durham has never been traumatised in the same way. It has been a safe place, a sanctuary. I don’t pretend to understand the ways of providence, and I have no wisdom to offer about that contrast, except that we should note it. We like to assume here that the cathedral should be a safe place for all people and we are determined that people should not be charged for entry. These are good things but we in Durham need to know that providence can work differently and that one day it might be our challenge to go through unimaginable and unwelcome change.
Putting the Durham and Coventry stories side by side reminds us that there is really no such thing as safe. C.S Lewis made the point in The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe when Mr Beaver says that Aslan is a Lion. Susan is surprised and says, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver… ‘’Who said anything about safe? ‘course he isn’t safe. But he’s good,. He’s the King, I tell you.’ ‘
The point needs to be taken on board by every Christian institution, not least every cathedral. The quality of a cathedral’s life is not shown by its capacity to tell its own story, or look after its own saint, nor less to keep aloof from the pain of the world but in its capacity to refer to the redeeming cross of Christ when the darkness comes or the bombs fall. The past will always look after itself – and always has many people queuing up to help it do so – the National Trust does not lack for volunteers. It is in the present and the future that our holiness, our faithfulness will be revealed. We may all be lucky and live through easy, undemanding times over the coming years and decades. Personally, I don’t think this is very likely and that we will need to draw all the inspiration we can from the Cuthbert stories and the Coventry story to help us remain in touch with God’s story ,which is never safe, but always ends in resurrection.