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SCP Conference Eucharist - 8th July 2009

Saints of Northern England - St. Paul’s, Jarrow

Isaiah 61:4-9; Psalm 15; Revelation 19:6-10; John 17:18-23

Today’s Eucharist is a Mass of the Northern Saints. Something of what that


means in the general church-going consciousness of the North-East I
discovered (again!) on Sunday when I dropped into my own church hall
after presiding at a Eucharist for another parish. It was after-church coffee-
time, but the Sunday School was still working away around a table. From the
other end of the Hall it looked as though they were performing an operation
- and in a sense they were. Closer up I saw that laid out on the table they had
a body in a monk’s habit - life-size, but without a head. “We’re just getting
ready for the end-of-term service and our visit to Durham Cathedral,” they
said. “We’ve decided to make our own St. Cuthbert.” I pointed out that
Cuthbert had a head. In fact Cuthbert’s coffin has two heads, because the
head of the unfortunate St. Oswald who came unstuck in battle is buried
with him. “We know,” they said. “The heads are over there... the balloons
with wet newspaper stuck round them. We’re waiting for them to dry.”

So just over a week from now my Sunday School will be going on their trip
to Durham Cathedral. But first they’ll join in the Eucharist in our own parish
church - which is dedicated in honour of St. Cuthbert - and as part of their
special presentation at that service it seems they’re going to parade around
the church with a coffin bearing a life-size depiction of the great saint,
accompanied probably by Oswald’s head too. You need to do things
properly!

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I don’t know who wrote the article on St. Cuthbert in Wikipedia, but they got
it right when they say that “during the medieval period, St Cuthbert became
politically important in defining the identity of the people living in the semi-
autonomous region known as the Palatinate of Durham.” The locals were
known as haliwerfolc, which means “people of the saint.” They got their
identity from him - and still do. On the walls of my local primary schools -
none of them Church Schools - there are regular displays about the life of
Cuthbert... and of course about that great building in which his body lies,
Durham Cathedral. The sacred person and the sacred place go together and
create an identity. The challenge to Christians today is to say that you can be
a “sacred people” in the here and now.

I’ve been asked why this Conference has its residential base in Newcastle
and not in Durham. Part of the answer is that our Chapter covers both
dioceses - and has already hosted a conference at the College of St. Hild and
St. Bede (two more great northern saints) in Durham. Another part of the
answer, though, is that homing in on Durham is just too easy. It’s what
people expect. The people of the region know about Durham Cathedral, but
too easily ignore their own churches. They (we! - I’m one of them) know a
bit about St. Cuthbert, but little about the other saints - and we don’t readily
make the connection with what being a saint today might mean. And then
another thing to say is that Cuthbert is truly a saint of this whole region
because he’s more than a body buried in a great Cathedral. He grew up far to
the north, wished no more than to live a sacred life on Holy Island and the
Inner Farne, but found himself called to travel the whole of the North as its
Bishop, and after his death travelled still further in his coffin as his

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community fled the Vikings to Melrose, Chester-le-Street, Ripon and only in
the end, Durham. As he travelled, so the feeling for him grew.

This afternoon we invite you to visit Durham Cathedral and the tombs of its
two great saints, Cuthbert and Bede, who lie each at their own end of the
building. But we make a mistake in focusing too narrowly on that visit as the
highlight of today’s pilgrimage. If only we could see that the sacred extends
so much more widely. The title of our Conference is an unashamed rip-off of
our local tourist board’s campaign, “Passionate Places - Passionate People.”
We wanted to get the “sacred” into that - and show that the sacred has a
bearing on every part of life. For me, the North East and its history tell you
that again and again. Arrive in Newcastle by train and you get off at the
Central Station, built by the great Victorian architect. John Dobson. He built
many fine secular buildings, but also some notable churches - among them
St. Thomas’s at the Haymarket, Jesmond Parish Church (the Jesmond
church in which we’re not worshipping tomorrow), even my own more
modestly proportioned church of St. Cuthbert, Benfieldside - out in the
sticks. Dobson is probably hardly known outside our region, but he is
important for showing how the sacred and secular go together.

And you see that as you cross the road from the Station he built... and find
yourself looking at a statue of a famous son of the town, Cardinal Basil
Hume. It’s in a good location, by St. Mary’s Cathedral, but also in the midst
of commuters, shoppers and clubbing crowds - and look carefully and you’ll
see that he stands on a dais of stone built in the shape of Holy Island. That’s
a place people value for the peace they find there - “a thin place” where you
might imagine heaven and earth touch - but in its Newcastle location it

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couldn’t be much noisier. And this is where heaven and earth need to make
contact.

Amongst those who pass by the Statue of Cardinal Hume are the crowds of
the Toon Army making their way to St. James’s Park. We could perhaps
reflect on why a football stadium bears the name of a saint? It’s certainly a
focus of what many count sacred, though with the relegation of Newcastle to
the Championship also a reminder that religious devotion doesn’t always
win its desired rewards. Basil Hume himself was always said to be a great
Newcastle United supporter and the story is told that when he met the
legendary footballer, Jackie Milburn, one of them suggested that an
autograph might be a good idea. Both stepped back - and there was a pause
until they realised that each of them wanted the signature of the other. Jackie
Milburn has his own statue too - though it’s not as prominently sited now as
when it stood in Northumberland Street, Newcastle’s main shopping
thoroughfare. It begs the question, how soon do people forget their heroes?
Alan Shearer has a bar named after him - and is promised canonisation
during his lifetime if he’ll take on the Manager’s role permanently. But he
won’t get the Toon back into the Premiership on his own, and arguably the
Club itself could do with a sense of historical perspective in place of the
wistful nostalgia which keeps so many buying season tickets.

There’s a lesson there for the Church. There are the great saints of the past
who leave their mark, but those also who are less well-remembered without
whom there would be no lasting inheritance. Many people can add Aidan
alongside Cuthbert and see him as a great hero of a so-called Celtic
Christianity which is so easily over-romanticised. Bede is a tougher prospect

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because he’s important for what he wrote, so you need to read him - but do
so and you can marvel at the depth and far-reaching nature of his learning;
his living out of the Christian life in the local confines of Wearmouth and
Jarrow, while reaching back to the sources of his country’s history and out
into scientific understanding and Biblical scholarship. Bede was the first
writer to have a sense of what it was to be English, but he did it to root a
nation in the Christian faith he wished it to possess. And still less-
remembered there’s Benedict Biscop who travelled widely and brought back
into the local the riches of learning, liturgy, music, craftsmanship in building
and (notably) glass! As well as Hilda - apprenticed as Abbess in Hartlepool
before taking on Whitby - ruling over a community of men and women and
being a presence which allowed the Church to move forwards when so
easily it could have been divided. How did she do it? We don’t know; but
that she did it might inspire us. Perhaps she was encouraged by the songs of
Caedmon, who never wrote down his verses, but reminds us that the heart
which is full does not pull down but builds up and gives life.

The point of all these local saints - and many more - is that they give us a
starting point on the Christian journey. When I joined Facebook, after
getting over the shock of the first screen which opens up in this area telling
you, “You have no friends in Newcastle,” the Rector of Jarrow sent me the
suggestion that I make friends with Our Lady of Walsingham. “You may
know Our Lady...” the message from Facebook goes. I’d rather forgotten
that I’d clicked on the suggestion, until the other day when I saw that her
online presence had still not answered my Friends request. So I clicked on
her icon again, only to get a message, “Our Lady only shares certain
information with everyone.” I felt quite disheartened - maybe that’s what the

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secrets of Fatima are about! But the real saints of flesh and blood are all
about us. They grew through their understanding of Christ, and called others
to share it. They leave a legacy in history but their presence is still to be felt.
As our Old Testament reading puts it:

Their descendants shall be known among the nations,


and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people
whom the LORD has blessed.

And we are a people whom the Lord has blessed.