“Oh, When the Saints…”

“Oh, When the Saints…”

After Christmas Gill and I had a four-day break in the North, beginning with a couple of nights in Durham, then seeing the New Year in with some of our closest friends in Bramhope, Leeds. It meant we could also see our son, Nick and his wife, Jes, and their two children (and commiserate with them that our two-year old grandson had the dreaded norovirus, poor chap.) It was the first time we had ever visited Durham Cathedral by ourselves, having popped in when staying with a Regional Ministry colleague a few years previously but having paid little attention in a very busy Cathedral then. This time we had the leisure to explore, and I was fascinated to discover the tomb of the Venerable Bede in the Galilee chapel at the West end, and especially the shrine of St Cuthbert, behind the High Altar, at the East. Cuthbert was the Prior of Lindisfarne, and died on Holy Island in 687, giving his monks the solemn charge that if they were to ever leave Lindisfarne, they should take his bones with them. Harried by the Vikings two centuries later, they fled, taking his coffin with them until they reached Chester-le-Street, (but this proved unsafe from marauders too) and so they were moving on once more until they found a home on the high cliffs above the River Wear at what is now Durham, where they founded the Abbey and cathedral. The impressive Norman building, the finest in Britain, is the second on this site, and when I travel to Scotland on the West coast line, the highlight is always the sight of this magnificent cathedral as you draw into Durham station across its stone viaduct.

What I had not realised was that St Cuthbert’s feast day is 20 March, my birthday, so I have found a particular resonance with this missionary saint who did so much to establish Christianity in the north of England. Bede is the source of much that we know about Cuthbert (as indeed about many things from this Anglo-Saxon period of British ecclesiastical history) so it is somehow fitting that they should lie separated only by the vast nave of the Cathedral built to house Cuthbert’s tomb. Once a bejewelled and glorious shrine much visited and endowed during the Middle Ages, it suffered at the hands of the Reformers, the Abbey having been surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1540. What remains is profoundly simple, a stone slab inscribed with ‘Cuthbertus’, and somehow much more fitting for this simple man of prayer and missionary zeal. Bede says of Cuthbert that

“He protected the flock committed to him by constant prayer on their behalf, by wholesome admonition and — which is the real way to teach — by example first and precept later.”

Now, there’s an example for a pastor to follow!

In our own town, the Abbey suffered a much harsher fate than Durham, even if, it is reputed, it was almost as magnificent and ancient. As we know, it is almost completely destroyed, leaving little more than a town park to recall its presence and the gateway that leads on to the market place. But Abingdon has its own saint, too. St Edmund, born in the town around 1175, and dying on 16 November in 1240, which became his Feast Day. A great reforming Archbishop of Canterbury from 1233, he acted as peacemaker between the king and the barons, probably averting civil war in the process. He was an outstanding preacher and an eminent teacher at Oxford. Matthew Paris (1199–1259), in his life of Saint Edmund writes,

“by the effect of his words upon those who heard him, it was clearer than daylight that in him and through him there spoke the One of whom it is written ‘It is not you who speak, but the spirit of your Father.’ …. Who was ever gentler in his piety? Who in such a position of eminence thought less of himself, or who, in the higher he rose by his merits, was more deflated by his consciousness of sin? We cannot adequately express the immense charity and charisma by which he converted many hearts….”

As Baptists we do not go in too much for saints or their remembrance, and I wonder if this is not to our disservice. Our avoidance of hagiography has a great deal to do with an older rejection of Catholicism and its ways, and perhaps with that bathwater we have thrown out too many babies who might enrich our discipleship. To learn from the example of a St Cuthbert or St Edmund might indeed deepen our own following of Christ. After all, without such women and men of faith and courage in every generation playing their part in their day I very much doubt if we would have even the vestiges of the Christian faith that cling on in secular Britain. If we are to re-Christianise Britain, then it will be because there are men and women like them, willing to live with integrity and courage in today’s world, as they did in theirs, and we have much to gain from their example (as we have to lose from a misguided forgetting of past runners of the race of faith that hands the baton from one generation to the next.) I think the time has come for a good Baptist and ecumenical cycle of saints to be remembered each year, their accomplishments remembered with gratitude to God, and their example followed with fresh resolve. And certainly amongst them would be our own Daniel Turner, (1710–98) eighteenth century pastor of this church and forerunner of the ecumenical generosity that we take so much for granted. He died on the 5 September 1798, and I wonder if following this, on the second Sunday in the new season after we all return from the long August break, might not be as good a date as any to remember his example, and recommit ourselves to following Christ as a company of God’s people here in ABC. What do you think?

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