Sermon: Ministers of St Cuthbert
Preached on 19th March 2010
(The Eve of St Cuthbert's Day)
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
One day in the 15th century a man came to Cuthbert's shrine all the way from Devon. A scrap of paper in our archives tells us that he was in ‘great madness and bodily disease. He slept in the feretory, as pilgrims sometimes did while they waited for an answer to their prayers; but his sleep was ‘sore vexed with many groans and sighs'. The kindly feretrar, the guardian of the shrine, had no doubt seen many in this state of distress. As the man slept, he poured holy water on him; and when he awoke, ‘he was in whole mind and his bodily disease was suddenly taken from him'. He said that in his sleep there came to him a bishop, the fairest man he ever saw', and touched him on his body, and then when his suffering was becoming unbearable, ‘he grasped hold of him and with that took away all his pain and sickness of body and mind'.
To the monks of Durham Cathedral Priory, Cuthbert lay at the heart of their very identity. Their power and wealth and influence came from him; they saw themselves as the guardians of his memory, his heirs in a legal as well as a spiritual sense; by taking vows they had entered into a covenant with their saint and called themselves ‘ministers of St Cuthbert'. Any assault on the Priory or its lands or its officers was an attack on the great saint himself, and the community would go to great lengths to retrieve and secure his honour. He was the guarantor of prosperity and success, not only for the convent but also for the city and the Palatinate, the lands between the Tees and the Tyne and its northern outliers over which the Earls Palatine or prince bishops held sway for so many centuries. These estates had been bequeathed to Cuthbert and his community: they would always be his and his people the haliwerfolc were bound to him in fealty. So when in the 1420s the sub prior preached a sermon bewailing the poverty and plagues that had overtaken Durham, he attributed it to a waning of devotion to the saint. ‘St Cuthbert sleeps because he shows forth no miracles, nor lends his aid to his people as formerly he was wont to do. In very truth we are the cause because we do not lend our devotions as we ought.'
Tomorrow many of us will be on Holy Island to remember our saint; and from there we shall make a pilgrimage back here to Durham recalling the journey of the monks who brought him here and installed his shrine on this peninsula more than a thousand years ago. Fenwick Lawson's sculpture in Millennium Square, ‘The Journey', interprets the last stage of this extraordinary long march that came not only to define Durham but to shape so much of the memory and culture of north-east England. You glimpse in the weary but determined faces of those monks bearing their heavy load something of what it meant to be ‘ministers of St Cuthbert'. In 995, prince-bishops, Palatinate and Priory all lay in the future and who could have glimpsed then what this place would become, this amazing church built around Cuthbert as the north's greatest shrine?
The story of Cuthbert as he was honoured after his death is as rich and fascinating as the events of his life. From it we see how this Cathedral is not only the greatest physical legacy of the cult of St Cuthbert in the middle ages, but an enduring symbol of how he and the other saints of the north continued to inspire devotion. When the Priory was dissolved in 1539, the newly constituted secular cathedral inherited not only a building and its lands. A whole tradition passed to it, a memory and a common life of prayer that looked back to its origins on Lindisfarne in the days of Aidan and Cuthbert. The Dean and Chapter became the legal guardians of that memory; like their forebears they too were ministers of St Cuthbert and although they did not always consciously know it, they remained his legatees and beneficiaries, champions of his honour.
This is still, I believe, our distinctive vocation here in this Cathedral church that bears Cuthbert's name. What might this mean? It is easy to be seduced by the rhetoric of Northumbrian regionalism; harder to say how Cuthbert might or should shape the mission of this place in the 21st century. It sounds eccentric to say that we can still be proud to take our cue from the medieval Priory that was so jealous of Cuthbert's honour. But we must be clear what we are defending and not defend the indefensible. And here is what I believe it to be: the memory of a man whose humility, simplicity and submission to God were legendary even in his lifetime: ‘the fairest man you ever saw' maybe. The shrine as it now is, that stark black slab with Cuthbert's name on it is more eloquent, more true to Cuthbert of Farne than the medieval shrine could ever have been. And when I say that the Cathedral Foundation today is called to be the guardian of Cuthbert's memory, I am thinking of the simplicity of that holy place that we so much cherish.
In the Cathedral collect for today ‘we rejoice with all our hearts in Cuthbert, glory of our sanctuary and ever-living symbol of our apostleship'. What is ‘glory'? The prayer goes on to explain. ‘Help us to follow his example by the simplicity of our lives and by the power of our witness.' In our reading from St John, which the young Cuthbert first learned from his prior Boisil, Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.' St John tells us that the glory of Jesus is his self-giving love, his life laid down for the world. This passion and death we shall soon celebrate in Holy Week. Cuthbert strove to live it out as a leader of the church, evangelist, pastor and man of prayer. He did it by renouncing wealth, privilege and power in order to cultivate simplicity and walk the path of the cross.
This is the Cuthbert-shaped vocation that belongs to us here in his Cathedral. Why is that different from the vocation of every Christian and every church given in baptism? It isn't: we are all called to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. But vocation has a particular identity that is formed and lived out in particular places and times. The story we tell in Durham cannot but symbolise our apostleship and colour how we speak about Jesus Christ. The power of this place, says our collect, is linked to the witness we bear to Christ and the simplicity and grace with which we live together in his name and inhabit this house of prayer. To love Cuthbert, to defend his honour, to be his ministers, is to live out his way of understanding the cross, or to try to. I hope this means endeavouring to plumb the depths of human and Christian living, to give up our fruitless attachments to the superficial and transient and reconnect our selves to the sources of true and lasting joy. As we stand at the threshold of the passion, we have our yearly opportunity to rediscover the mystery of the cross, to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ who is the good shepherd and guardian and lover of our souls.