The Right Reverend Stephen Conway, Area Bishop of Ramsbury
Preached on 19th March 2005
(St Cuthbert's Day)
by The Right Reverend Stephen Conway
Anyone who knows me will appreciate that cats feature pretty centrally, namely two beautiful Burmese terrorists. It will not surprise you, therefore, if I sing the praises of a novelist for young people called Robert Westall. Westall writes dark and interesting stories about very intelligent cats who rescue human communities from disasters which they have brought upon themselves. Given that I am only young at heart and still enjoy these novels, I became emotionally involved in a recent Radio Three debate about the current dominance of children's literature, with Rowling's Harry Potter and Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy leading the way. This was being deplored for some reason. I cannot see why, since the vast majority of the male population of this country and a significant proportion of the female population, too, reads no fiction between leaving school and beginning to read to their children and grandchildren. In other words, for most adults the stories which stay with them are the stories of imagination and daring which are said to be for children, stories which wonderfully and brazenly plunder fundamental human archetypes and symbols.
So, as you may have gathered, I am all in favour of it, but what has this got to do with St Cuthbert? Well, Robert Westall's best book which is not about cats is called The Windeye and it is a time-shift novel set in Northumberland in which children set out in a particular magical boat which transports them back to the time of St Cuthbert's retreat to the Inner Farne. It also relates to the time of the first Viking threat to Holy Island which had precipitated the wanderings with Cuthbert's body which eventually led to the foundation of this Cathedral. The book wonderfully conveys both the strangeness of those times to us but also the extraordinary immediacy of the spiritual realm. What comes across from a child's perspective is that Cuthbert is grumpy and has very smelly boots. But his being grumpy and smelly is entirely consistent from the same point of view with his not wanting to be distracted from the most courageous journey of the ascetic, to be wholly given to God in the battle against sin and all that is not God.
I commend the novel to you if you have not read it; and I also commend all current schools' policy to encourage boys to read stories. There was a generation of writers of superb historical fiction for children in the 'fifties and 'sixties which certainly sent me to university to read history seriously. I also remember vividly at the age of ten reading a novel about a young novice on Holy Island at the time of the first attack by the Vikings on 8th June 793. A lot happened in the intervening years; but who can tell the unconscious pull of this region and its holy women and men upon unworthy southerners like me?
We must not under-estimate the power of stories in Cuthbert's own formation. We rightly celebrate him today as a glorious shepherd of souls for Christ, who went into the hills and high valleys to preach and heal and bless among the otherwise forgotten poor. But this vocation did not appear from nowhere. That dreaming shepherd boy on the hills above Melrose had been filled with stories about the transforming ministry of holy St Aidan. He was so attuned to the heroic humility of the bishop that he could sense the passing into glory of the saint. He may not have been schooled by Aidan, but he was taught by people who had been so schooled themselves. Cuthbert's active ministry as a missionary and bishop seems to have been based very closely upon what he had learned about the gospel of Jesus Christ through the modelling of his predecessor.
The difference is to be found in the greater contrast between active ministry and retreat from the world. In The Windeye Cuthbert appears mostly to be an elusive figure, not involved in the predicament of the youngsters; but when it counts his mysterious intervention is crucial and literally life-saving. In his ministry there is no doubt that Cuthbert's longing was always to go after the one sheep which was lost and to leave the ninety-nine to those with a more settled approach to ministry. For Cuthbert, however, being on the frontier was not just about praying with the lost sheep in person, but praying for all lost sheep, including himself, almost literally at the edge of the world, and singing God's praise with a choir of seabirds and seals rather than monks. Out of the stories about and connections with the inheritance of the saints, Cuthbert was transformed by the Spirit of God to be a person who would carry forward the story of salvation in his own way and whose fervent preaching connected the story of salvation with the stories of people's lives.
We are more blessed than any Cathedral in this country in that we guard the relics of at least four great saints - Cuthbert, Bede, Aidan and Oswald. When we go to Holy Island, if the tide is right, we can stand on St Cuthbert's Island where he prayed. Down the coast, in Bambrugh Church, we can stand at the spot where Aidan died. We can get over-attached to relics, of course. I have been offered an extra relic of Bede, but only on condition that the reliquary be carried in processions and be available for the faithful to kiss. There is an on-going discussion with my colleagues in the Chapter...
Of course, bones are bones. Taking a party of Presbyterian schoolboys to see the well-preserved but blackened body of St Clare of Assisi as I did some years ago quite put them off their ice-creams. Nonetheless, the presence of the body of Cuthbert and his mentor in the same place is of immeasurable significance to us. These bones are anchors of the Spirit and of the imagination for us. They literally and symbolically hold the DNA of the stories of these who are our forebears in the faith. We know that the saints are properly gone from us to their reward in heaven and yet we celebrate their palpable presence among us whenever we join with them in the praises of God, in praying for the coming of God's kingdom and in following them in shepherding the lost.
Relating to Cuthbert today is, therefore, analogous for me to thinking about Christ's presence in the elements of bread and wine. We might well debate the exact nature of Christ's presence and how it can be both local and universal; but we know that Christ's presence is real and transforming in the consecrated elements of bread and wine. One ecumenical way of talking about the process is to talk about transignification. To paraphrase St Augustine, the bread and the wine fully take on the character of what they signify, that is, the Body and Precious Blood of Jesus. Again we celebrate with Augustine that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is continued by our becoming what we eat, the Body of Christ. In other words, each of us becomes a real presence in so far as we live the eucharistic life. Just as the Western tradition downplays the role of the Holy Spirit in enacting the presence of the glorified Christ in the Eucharist, so we can fail to notice the ways in which the Spirit is enacting God's reality in making us a presence which makes a difference in the world.
I look in the mirror and wonder how I got to be like this. After all, this flesh is a sign or symbol of the whole of me as a person. Very often, I realise, and as my friends tell me, the lights are on but there is nobody at home. Being real is not always easy for us. We make so many compromises. We can become a parody of our true self. The story of our lives can take several wrong turns. In his book, Lost Icons, Rowan Williams laments the early targeting of children as consumers. If only we could have Harry Potter without the merchandise. The Archbishop demands space for children to establish an identity based not upon shopping but upon a capacity for wonder and for the inhabiting of stories. People like Cuthbert who are saints have not lost that capacity for wonder. Just as he unconsciously began to put on the mantle of Aidan as he drank in his story as a youth, so he took on some of Aidan's character and then made it his own. The holiness which signified Aidan's life and summed him up as a person became deeply embedded in Cuthbert's identity through the process of imitation. He became a real presence all the more richly by moving in Aidan's wake. When we receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, of course they are symbols; but in a wonderful sacramental exchange we are called into the whole reality of the person of Christ, just as completely as Joseph holding Jesus on his lap in Nazareth or Mary holding his ravaged body at Golgotha. The startling thing about the saints is that they are real to the whole of themselves in the presence of the Saviour.
Now, as Canon Treasurer, I cannot help but give a plug for the new Cathedral guidebook, being sold at a special Cuthbert-tide rate, so buy your twenty copies today. The book has a lot in it about this wonderful building; but from page one it makes it clear that this is the shrine of St Cuthbert, a place where - like the other churches represented here - people expect to encounter the majesty and glory of God. We are called upon afresh to inhabit Cuthbert's story so that we might more clearly be real presences of Christ, and be his Body across time and space with all the saints. Just as Cuthbert did not become a saint overnight, we are gradually being realised as real presences of Christ through our participation in the Eucharist. Whenever we make our communion at the rail, the curtain of time and place is swept aside and we are in deep communion with the saints and faithful departed in the one undivided fellowship of Christ. It is no accident that Cuthbert's shrine and the high altar are near each other, or that we sometimes use Bede's tomb as an altar itself, because these spots are wells of resurrection life, anchors of the hope which is set before us.
I love the Harry Potter series and look forward to the next episode. It pains me, naturally, that Canon Treasurers in other cathedrals seem to be stuffy about our having had the film set and not them. What delights me is that we did not become too widely known as the Harry Potter cathedral. Good as those stories are, we are glad that the growing number of school children who come to the Cathedral come to hear the story of Cuthbert, and then come back with their families to tell them the story, too.
The prophet Ezekiel sought to shepherd the Jews in their exile and received a hopeful vision of dry bones being given sinew and flesh. We put flesh on our faith today by our association with Cuthbert. As a Church, we live in liminal times, on the edge of things as Cuthbert did. He was part of a Church in which communion was stretched to the limit by controversy over how the Church should define itself. What he did not let happen was for this to distract him from looking outward in mission or inward to the deepest possible conversion of life. Under Cuthbert's protection, equally here at the Cathedral and in all churches dedicated to him, may we be resolute in looking likewise. With Cuthbert, let us put our boots on and we ready to enter Jerusalem with Jesus. Let us journey with our smelly sins to be washed clean by the Servant Lord and to be set free by his precious death.