Since 'bunfight' caused some interest, you might like to see another such event; this time in Birmingham (my third visit this year). The Parish is St Cuthbert's, and in Castle Vale they were celebrating their Patronal Festival on Saturday.
Sept 4 marks St Cuthbert's translation; his mortal remains got moved about a good deal when Lindisfarne was threatened by the Danes, but they ended up in a great shrine in Durham Cathedral. The Estate which comprises the parish of Castle Vale, built on the site of a World War II Royal Air Force station, was begun in the 1960s. The church dates from the '70s, the Vicarage is more recent still since the local authority wanted to exchange the site of the former house for the present smaller site next to the Church. They built flats where the former Vicarage had been.
The result is a very chic house with some very strange angles. Nothing is quite square, and there are stairs and steps everywhere. But as ever Fr James and Phaea his wife made us wonderfully welcome. We met them when Fr James was Vicar of St John 's Watford. Now he is in an equally multi-cultural area, but he seems to fit it exceptionally well.
Several of the congregation spoke to me after the celebrations about the Ordinariate, so I am glad I said something about it in my sermon. I shall append it here in case you're interested. If not, just enjoy the pictures.
He rejoices more over the one sheep…
You will know that Cuthbert, your patron, had a very different career set out for him at the start. He was to have been a shepherd; but the Lord had other ideas. His shepherding was carried out on the hills above Melrose, which is now in Scotland but was then part of Northumbria; and the priory of Melrose was the place which called him, and where eventually he became a monk. Not at once, though; before joining the religious life he was a soldier. It is likely that this was in the army of the Christian king of Northumbria, fighting against the pagan Penda, king of Mercia. The treasure hoard which made the news recently, discovered not so far from here in the West Midlands, possibly was a battle-prize from one of those wars. Certainly there was a gold processional cross, bent out of shape, in that hoard.
Now St Paul, when he was trying to spread the Gospel, said “I have become all things to all men, so that by all means I may win some". If you were looking for a Patron Saint who fulfilled that description, you could not do better than Cuthbert. A Shepherd and a soldier; a monk and a bishop. Oh, and a conservationist — more about that in a minute. Most people could find something to admire in Cuthbert, and something about him to inspire and encourage them — which is partly what a patron saint is for. The people who knew him, though, were not attracted by any of these incidental things.
What won people over to Cuthbert was his sheer goodness, and the gentleness with which he led his monks and the priests and people of his diocese. It was not only people with whom he was gentle; when he was living in his cell in the Farne islands, he ordered that special protection should be given to the iconic birds of that place, the eider ducks. As a result they became knows as Cuthbert ducks; or in the shorthand on the Northeast, Cuddy Ducks. So you could say Cuthbert might also serve as patron of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Now in those days, the Seventh Century, that is, there were some very contentious issues in the Church. Does that sound familiar? Cuthbert’s tradition was Celtic, the form of Christianity which came from the earliest missionaries from Rome. Local customs had grown up over the years, and in particular the Celtic church used a different method for dating Easter from the Roman church. Around the year 600 the Pope, Gregory, decided to send Augustine on a mission to convert, or reconvert, the English. Where the Celtic church was strong, in the North and West, there was resistance to these new Roman ideas, as they were thought.
At this time, Cuthbert was ruling the new foundation in Ripon. Many of the monks of Ripon, though, wanted to follow the Roman rite, so Cuthbert and those who had originally come with him from Melrose returned North.
On the death of the old Prior, Cuthbert took over as head of that monastery of Melrose. He did not stay there long. Just three years later, in 664, there was perhaps the greatest Church Synod ever held in England — certainly far greater than any of those argumentative tin-pot little talking shops which call themselves meetings of the General Synod of the Church of England. At Whitby, it was the entire Christian Church in England seeking to find a way of living together peaceably — and unlike the General Synod, they succeeded.
The Venerable Bede wrote about all this at length in his History of the English Church and People — England’s first ever history book. In the end, it was the King who settled the matter. Whose tradition is the Celtic Church following? St John, came the answer. And whose the Roman Church? St Peter. Then, said the King, because Peter was given authority over the other disciples, it is Peter’s rule we must choose. Thus the whole Church in England followed the traditions of Rome. So it remained for nine more centuries; until another king decided that he, not the successor of Peter, should be supreme head of the Church of England. So Henry VIII began the breach with Rome and the English Reformation.
Cuthbert, seeking above all the peace of the church, decided he must abide by the decision of the Whitby Synod. So he was sent to Lindisfarne to help them come to terms in that monastery with the Roman tradition. So Cuthbert is more than we have even said up to now, shepherd, soldier, monk and bishop. He is above all a peace-maker. We need the inspiration, and the humble leadership, of Cuthbert today. He sought above all the unity and peace of the Church. Many are thinking in the Church of England just now that the offer from the Pope is giving us all those things which were causes of offence to us five centuries ago in the time of the Reformation. We wanted the prayers of the Church to be in a language we understood, not in Latin. That we shall have in the Ordinariate. We wanted our priests to be able to be married; and so it will be, by an exceptional dispensation, in the Ordinariate. Almost all the reasons (or perhaps excuses) for our church splitting from our original foundation have been answered.
There have been people asking who should be the patron saint of the Ordinariate; some have argued for John Henry Newman, that great convert from Anglicanism. Some have thought St Alban might be a good choice. Whoever is decided as the right person, I hope that somewhere in the list of those we acclaim as our fathers in the faith there will be the name of Cuthbert.
At the Reformation, Henry VIII ordered the destruction of all the saints’ shrines in England. When his commissioners set about the shrine of Cuthbert, in Durham Cathedral, they found his body still intact after nine centuries. What should they do, they asked? Bury the saint's body in the place where the shrine stood; demolish the shrine, but do not scatter Cuthbert’s bones.
So whereas in Winchester the tomb chests of many English kings were broken and the bones thrown out, including even the famous King Canute, Cuthbert remains where he was. The Victorians exhumed him out of curiosity, and took some of the grave goods, his stole, his pectoral cross, his chalice, and placed them on display in the Cathedral. But still Holy Cuthbert’s earthly remains are there, and there they are honoured and treasured.
More important than caring for his mortal remains is for us to treasure and honour his memory. I said earlier that it was his example which is important; but better still, we can ask his prayers. As patron of this Church we have a special claim on him; may his pleading lead us to peace, and a unity in the church such as we can scarcely imagine.
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