Friday, 7 October 2016

Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England

I have been preparing this lecture at my desk in the window of my study. We live in the Tynedale village of Haydon Bridge a few miles upstream from Hexham. Appropriately enough for a superannuated clergyman, our road is called Church Street. If I look to the right I can see across the road the Georgian parish church where we worship every week. If I look to the left, beyond the railway line, the valley side sweeps majestically down from the ridge where there is a clump of trees marking an enclosure. They are still rich with foliage, but in winter, I can glimpse what lies behind them: the little “old” church of St Cuthbert, now all but abandoned when the medieval village of Haydon migrated down the hill to the more sheltered location where we live, the ancient river crossing where, as the border reivers knew, there has been a bridge across the fast and turbulent South Tyne since time immemorial. Here the Greenwich Commissioners built a new church in 1791 in unadorned village Georgian with a pretty pagoda on the west tower. It too was dedicated to St Cuthbert. The Victorians found it too plain so they gothicised the windows and put coloured glass in, some of it by Kempe and very good. It has some pretty arts and crafts furnishings. 

But although it is a push up a steep hill to get there, and there is no electricity so no heat or light, the old church remains the spiritual and emotional heart of the community. It lost its nave in the eighteenth century when its stones were used to construct the new church. But the chancel remains, an exquisite early gothic jewel in a lovely walled churchyard screened by trees, a haven for wildlife. Inside is a Roman altar that now serves as the font, a reminder that we live in the borderlands of a once vast world empire whose wall stretches across Britain not five miles to the north, and just a mile or so south of the Roman road called Stanegate. It was a moving experience to baptise the Vicar's daughter in that font this year. Once a month the candles are lit and we gather in the Old Church for evensong in muddy boots wrapped up in cagoules, and enjoy hot tea or wine and canapés afterwards before tramping back down the hill and homewards across the fields. 

Much of the North East’s Christian heritage is encapsulated in that view from my window. For Haydon Old Church marks one of those sites where, it is believed, the Saxon monks of Cuthbert’s community stopped on their long journey around the north with his body and the gospel book written in his honour, the great volume we now call the Lindisfarne Gospels. Some villagers will tell you that in his lifetime, Cuthbert himself travelled along Tynedale and stopped to preach here on his journeys between Hexham or Lindisfarne and Cumbria where Bede tells us he regularly went. There is a chain of Cuthbert churches scattered across Tynedale and Redesdale. I think we can safely say that wherever you find a medieval church dedicated to him, you can presume a direct link either to the saint himself, or to his community and the estates they possessed.  

Looking out at these two Cuthbert churches, I am inevitably made to think of journeys. In comparatively recent history as things go, church and village migrated downhill, a journey that was no doubt associated with early industrialisation in the Tyne Valley, for lead was mined all over the North Pennine dales, and in places coal too: we live in a house that was once the home of the pit manager at Bardon Mill. It was named after a Tyneside colliery ship that went down with the loss of all hands in the 1880s. The North East was among the first places in England to embrace the industrial revolution. It did this with real enthusiasm, as the nineteenth century confidently committed itself to vast enterprises in railways, ship building, steel making and coal mining. In 1789, the painter John Martin was born in Haydon Bridge. His huge canvasses are well known: you can see some of them in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and at Tate Britain in London. Much of his work echoes the steep-sided hill country of his native Tynedale. But in his most famous apocalyptic paintings such as The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and The Last Judgment, you seem to see in those vivid oranges and reds the fires of the North East’s blast furnaces, the colossal engines of locomotion and mining, a landscape whose appearance has been transformed by the revolution the artist was living through. That he turned to the medium of industrial landscape to depict scenes from biblical narratives is itself a metaphor of how faith was needing to be re-forged in the fires of an entirely new social environment. This is a central part of the North East’s religious history because it sets the scene for how faith has been and is still experienced and expressed in our own bewildering, and sometimes apocalyptic, times.  

John Martin was baptised in Haydon Old Church. What did he know about Cuthbert and his wandering community, I wonder? For that tiny church takes us back to a memory a thousand years old when Cuthbert’s community travelled this way in the ninth and tenth centuries. So inside it you feel the pull of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where Cuthbert had been prior and then bishop and where, after his death in 687, his shrine was set up and honoured. It was from there that his community set off in 875 in search of a permanent home. But Haydon also points us forward in time to Chester-le-Street where the community settled for more than a century on the site where the lovely church of St Mary and St Cuthbert with its octagonal spire now stands. And you inevitably feel the pull of Durham up there too, for from Chester-le-Street, they migrated to the peninsula called Dun Holme where they arrived in 995. There a Saxon cathedral was constructed, to be succeeded by the great Romanesque church we know and love today. But the important thing about Durham is that in essence, it’s no different from Holy Island, or Old Haydon, or Chester-le-Street. In these places and many others, a church was built to house a shrine, built around Cuthbert and the memory his community preserved. Durham is not a church with a saint’s shrine inside, but a shrine around which a cathedral has been built. 

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I have served as a priest in North East England for a significant proportion of the 40 years since I was ordained. In the 1980s I was vicar of Alnwick for five years, the first time I had lived outside London and the south where I was born and brought up. It was eye-opening to discover the wealth of the North East’s Christian heritage. I had read about the northern saints of course: I bought my first copy of Bede’s great History as a teenager new to Christian faith and how glad I am that somebody told me that it’s a book every Englishman (and woman) should read often. But reading even the incomparable prose of a great writer like Bede is not the same as walking the landscapes he writes about, inhabiting them for yourself, reflecting and praying in these ancient holy sites. It profoundly shaped my spirituality and ministry at a highly formative time in my life. Sixteen years later we came back to the North East when I was appointed Dean of Durham. There I found myself in the role of guardian not only of a building that the whole world loves and the north is immensely proud of, but also of the shrines of no fewer than three of the founding saints of the Saxon church: Oswald, Cuthbert and Bede. To spend twelve years in Durham was the greatest privilege of my life.

I learned a lot about heritage and how we promote it during those years. When we think of the legacy of Christian faith in this region, we tend to call to mind the headline sites associated with it like Holy Island, the Inner Farne, Hexham, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Hartlepool, Auckland Castle and Whitby. And of course Durham Cathedral. The late and much-missed development agency One North East ran an imaginative campaign to promote the region in the UK and overseas. You’ll recall the strap line Passionate Places, Passionate People that accompanied beautiful images of these places and enticed southerners to try the North East out for themselves. They were on to something that caught the spirit of the North East. I’m not sure I ever understood what a “passionate place” really was, yet the epithet felt right. Tourism-speak uses words like iconic to describe them – a little too freely perhaps, though who is going to argue that anyone who is serious about getting to know the area needs to put them on their “must-see” list? 

But if you want to touch the soul of the North East, you have to venture off the main tourist routes and explore the by-ways. The little church at Escomb, for instance, in its circular churchyard in the middle of a housing estate in a County Durham pit village. It’s an intact Saxon church, one of the very best in England. It was there in the time of Bede and it is still there fulfilling its original purpose as an ordinary working church where people worship and pray. Or Lady’s Well, a secret little place at Holystone in Upper Coquetdale where there is a pool overhung by trees and a stone cross that marks the memory of many hundreds of convert baptisms there. Or the little medieval church of Edlingham next to its ruined castle and railway viaduct set among the lonely heathery sandstone hills of Northumberland with mighty Cheviot rearing up behind: I was vicar there too and sometimes in midwinter (if I even succeeded in getting out there across the snowy expanse of Alnwick Moor), I had to break the ice in the cruets for water at the Sunday eucharist. Or the Norman chapel secreted deep within the keep of the fortress at Newcastle where the Victorians drove the East Coast railway line right across one of England’s mightiest military monuments. Or the church at Newbiggin-on-Sea perched in splendid isolation on the edge of the North Sea where the east winds howl around its precarious gothic fabric. Or Arts and Crafts done to perfection in the early twentieth century church of St Andrew’s Roker, a building of national importance that far too few know about. I could go on. 

In my book Landscapes of Faith I talk about the religious “sense of place” the North East has. What is unique about it is not how well marked the region is with the traces of Christian faith across the centuries. Cornwall, Ireland and Brittany can claim as much, as can the sites on the great pilgrim routes of Europe such as the roads to Santiago da Compostela across France and Spain. It is, I think, that the lives and stories of its Christian communities are so well documented from Saxon times right up to the present. This is a peopled heritage. It carries human memory and lived experience. And this is the next point I want to make about how we respond to the wealth of religious shrines and sites that we are fortunate enough to inherit in the North East. 

One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing in most of the places where I’ve ministered has been to write a guide book. There is no better way for a new priest to get to know his or her building, the place where it’s set, the story of the community for whom it has been a cherished symbol of hope and aspiration usually for many centuries. When I came to Durham Cathedral, the guide book was up for review. I’ll have a go, I offered, a trifle rashly I now think. In the introduction I wrote about what I thought were the three great emblems of the North East: Hadrian’s Wall, the Angel of the North, and Durham Cathedral. If you live in the region, you set your eyes on any one of these and think to yourself, this is home; this is where I belong. 

Not long after the new guide was published, a visiting Czech professor of architecture asked if he could see me. He wanted to discuss my claim about these three regional icons. He said: you’re not comparing like with like. You haven’t considered the human dimension of these sites apart from their emotional impact on people. Durham Cathedral has a dense human texture. People have worshipped here, worked, studied and prayed in and around this building for a thousand years. They still do. By contrast, Hadrian’s Wall lost the human texture it once had as a working fortification when the legions left Britannia in the fifth century and it became merely a memory. And as for the Angel of the North (I sensed a slight sniff at this point), it has no human texture at all, no community for whom it has any existential significance. It is just a piece of public art – fine enough in its brutal way, but nothing more than a huge weight of rusting iron stuck in a hole in the ground.

I have thought about that conversation a good deal. He overstated his case, of course. People who live in Gateshead near the Angel of the North like my friend the Bishop of Jarrow tell me that this remarkable sculpture has spawned a great deal of surprising human activity. Couples come there to pledge their commitment or renew their marriage vows. Children’s naming ceremonies take place there. Mining communities honour the memory of the pit that once stood there and to which the Angel is a conscious homage by Anthony Gormley. Churches hold faith events round it. Similarly, Hadrian’s Wall has become the backdrop of an astonishing variety of activity along its length, some of it scholarly and archaeological, much of it tourism-related, promoting its wonderful landscapes for the enjoyment of walkers, heritage enthusiasts and nature-lovers. 

But there’s still a truth in what my Czech friend had to say. It’s that neither the Angel nor the Wall is home to a permanent community in the way in which the Cathedral is. Like the vast majority of our built religious heritage, the Cathedral is still what it was constructed to be, a living, working, praying community of men, women and children. I call this the human texture of heritage and it is immensely precious. I think I am right in saying that what fascinates people when they visit palaces and country houses is not only their architecture, art and landscape setting. It’s the human texture of these buildings. They were once the homes of real people. The best of them still are. Compare two of the castles of the Dukes of Northumberland, Alnwick and Warkworth. Both are splendid. But while one is an empty shell, the other is the family home. Compare the noble ruins of Lindisfarne Priory or Rievaulx Abbey with the parish church on Lindisfarne, or with Durham Cathedral. Ruined heritage is hauntingly beautiful, as the Romantics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries discovered, so much so that they created faux-ruins to adorn their landscape parks and gardens. But heritage that is “inhabited”, that has a living human texture, has an altogether different quality. It has “soul”. 

And this is vital for the way in which we interpret and promote it. I think it is only in our generation that we have begun to recognise the importance of this. The evidence is striking. In the 1950s and 60s, when my parents took me round our great national monuments, cathedrals, abbeys, castles and stately homes, I used to collect Pitkin guides as souvenirs. They were immaculately produced and illustrated but the photography studiously avoided including human beings engaged in ordinary human activities. There would be images of people prominent in the history of the place, usually the great and the good. You might have pictures of royalty ceremonially visiting, or a cathedral chapter posing in their chapter house. But quotidian activity of people doing ordinary things, or guests enjoying their visits was something you glimpsed only very rarely. The effect was to construe these places as museums and inculcate correct behaviour proper to such places. You could look across ropes or through glass, but it was at a distance. You were deferential, told not to make a noise, not to touch, not to intrude on the hushed sanctity.

Now all that has changed, and vastly for the better. You only have to look at today’s guide books to see how lively and populated they are. Gone is the formal distance that was once evoked between observer and observed. People are enjoying themselves! Interactive engagement is the name of the game. Children are not just tolerated but invited and welcomed. Heritage and history have been humanised. And this is all part of the welcome emphasis placed nowadays on what public funding bodies call “access to heritage”. Accessibility is not simply about making physical access feasible for as many as possible, though that is immensely important. It’s about humanising the past so that it can be experienced as a present reality. Human texture has the effect of making it tangible to people so that they are drawn into something that they belong to and are part of. It affirms what is central to understanding and caring for our heritage, that it is for everybody. It is not for the privileged few but for all. It’s about inclusion. 

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Inclusion means two things in particular: hospitality and interpretation. How we welcome people to heritage sites, and how we help them to be drawn into their stories and all that they mean, are vital for all who open up heritage to the public. But it is especially important when it comes to religious heritage. This is because the “religious” is already replete with meanings and associations, memories and aspirations, longings and fears and hopes. So the quality of the welcome at the porch of a cathedral or church matters as a theological and spiritual statement of what a sacred building stands for – its purpose, its values, its way of treating people. 

As a theologian, I see Christian hospitality as an expression of how God is towards his creatures. You can picture the act of creation as God opening the door and standing back behind it, as it were, so as to create “space” for the universe to spring into being and have its own existence. This is how we open our own front doors to our guests: we invite them to occupy our space and make it their own. In the training we gave to the hundreds of volunteers in Durham Cathedral whose privilege it was to welcome visitors and help them find their way around, we would say: you are the human face of the Cathedral to those who come through the door asking to share its space. How you welcome visitors makes all the difference, for good or ill. And because Durham had been a Benedictine priory in the middle ages, we would quote from the Rule of St Benedict which offers the other face of that theological insight about “making space” by saying: “receive guests as if they were Christ himself”.  The point about a sacred place is that it is God’s before it is ours. Therefore if it is going to receive guests with genuineness and authenticity, it needs to embody the values that matter to God himself.

Putting it that way makes it sound portentous and grand. But it has very practical consequences. Take one example that you will all have thought about. It’s the vexed question of admission charges to cathedrals. Everyone who works with heritage knows how very expensive it is to maintain. On top of the crippling expenses attached to keeping the fabric in good repair, you have the costs of making the visitor offer as excellent as it can possibly be so that people experience it in ways that are unforgettable and life-changing. So we have to factor in signage and interpretation, staff salaries, electronic and print guides and materials, the hard infrastructure of toilets, restaurants and shops and the wages of those who run them, advertising and promotion, and finally the burdens of compliance, especially safeguarding, and health and safety. You learn a lot about all these things when you are a dean. And you lie awake at night worrying about how you can possibly balance the books in the light of them. It’s not surprising that admission charges are now the norm in the big medieval cathedrals. No cathedral chapter has wanted to impose them, but the annual accounts are facts on the ground that can’t be evaded. Besides, people value what they pay for. What is more, in places like St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury where there is a huge footfall, over a million people a year, the admission charge helps to “calm the nave” and preserve the fabric from erosion by consciously limiting the numbers. 

In Durham, the Chapter steadfastly refused to go down that road. Our footfall was around 700,000 annually. We didn’t ask whether people had come as worshippers, pilgrims or sightseers, to enjoy the music and the arts, to shelter from the rain, to meet their friends in the restaurant or to take the short cut to and from the city centre. A guest is a guest is a guest. And, we argued, because the Cathedral is God’s space, and because God’s welcome is unconditional, generous and free, we should not impose a charge. Now, admission charges are not in fact something new. In the nineteenth century, if you wanted to visit Durham Cathedral, you knocked on the north door, and if you were lucky, a verger heard you and would let you in for the price of sixpence. But charging does raise questions about the contract that is set up between visitors, worshippers and pilgrims on the one hand, and the space on the other. When you pay, you have different expectations of the place and its resources and facilities, possibly even of God too. It’s a tricky marriage of idealism and pragmatism that charging cathedrals have to manage if they take their sacred space seriously and guard it from the corrosive effects of monetisation. Putting a price on everything, a habit that is endemic in our culture, can blind us to what is of true and lasting value. Church heritage could model something different, point to another set of values and invite people to think about them. Hospitality can challenge us to new ways of seeing things.

I said that “inclusion” means both hospitality and interpretation. Let me say something about the part interpretation plays in how we help guests make sense of what they are experiencing. Speaking again as a theologian, I believe that the entire task of Christian ministry, scholarship and outreach comes down to interpretation. Pilgrim’s Progress features “the House of the Interpreter” where the journey is made sense of and the destination understood. As a preacher, my responsibility is to handle the ancient text of the Bible and Christian tradition by asking not only what it meant but what it means today, and not only in generic terms, but specifically, to this community in this place at this time in our history. Heritage is just such a text that comes to us out of the past, whether it’s the recent past or antiquity. The ancientness of a sacred building like Durham Cathedral is part of what is both enticing and alienating about it. We love it because it has endured for so long, yet its very age can puzzle us. Why is it here at all? What did it mean to those who built it? What did it represent to the generations of pilgrims and worshippers who came to pray within its walls and reverence its shrines? And what does all this say to today’s guests, many of whom come from other faith traditions than Christianity, or have had no experience of organised religion in any shape or form?

As soon as we try to respond to these questions, we recognise that they are far from simple. At one level, it’s obvious (and true) that the Cathedral was built to bear witness to the reality of God. The worship of God has always been its primary role. But then, as I’ve said, its origins lie with St Cuthbert and the quest of his community for a permanent shrine. And then again, think about its position and landscape setting. It is so clearly a fortified, defended space, perched on its acropolis next to William the Conqueror’s castle, appearing for all the world to be one great defensive structure to keep the enemy at bay, those wayward Northumbrian Saxons and marauding Scots. I often used to say to visitors that Durham was as much a statement of brutal Norman military might as it was a shrine to a humble saint and a temple to the Almighty. Despite its celebrated beauty, Durham speaks volumes about political hegemony and the uses and abuses of power. Sacred space has its shadow side and we must tell the truth about that too.

But we owe our visitors more than simply an historical perspective. The “text” of a sacred building is not only its past but its present. I spoke earlier about the human texture of heritage that is alive. I have found that usually, people are genuinely interested to know what goes on in a cathedral, just as they are when they visit a stately home that is still lived in. When we stand in the Cathedral quire and tell them that each day, morning and evening prayer are celebrated in this space, precisely where the Benedictine monks gathered for daily prayer in the middle ages, they are fascinated and even moved. And even when casual visitors who have not checked the website turn up to find that they can’t walk round the church because a service is going on, they are often content to stand at the west end, or if they are brave enough, sit in the nave and witness it for themselves. 

But as I have said, it needs explaining and interpreting in a secular age. You can’t assume that visitors will know what the font is, or the altar or pulpit, or a saint, a bishop, a monk or a dean. When I was a minor canon of Salisbury Cathedral in the late 1970s, the then dean wrote what he called a “reflective guide” that didn’t simply describe the building but pointed to some of its meanings, and the significance of each particular part within it. It invited the visitor to become a participant, even for a few minutes, that is to say, not just to observe, but join in, feel the spiritual grain of the building, align his or her story to its own and perhaps understand themselves in a new way. Nowadays, all cathedrals talk readily about “turning visitors into pilgrims”, a phrase I find a trifle manipulative if I am honest. Good hospitality doesn’t require guests to conform against their will or be required to take a particular view. But I like the notion of “seeing in fresh ways”. I like the invitation, “This is how we see things. Maybe you can too?” This is surely part of the transformative effect that all heritage can have, and sacred heritage in particular. 

And this is where, in Durham, we made an important link between interpretation and hospitality. If admission to the church was going to be free, how would we balance the books? Our answer was to create the facility called Open Treasure about which I’m sure you have all heard. Better still, I’d love to think you have visited it in this first summer it’s been open to the public. I want to end by saying something about it because this project seems to me to embrace so much of what I believe about religious heritage and what we do with it. And as I do this, I want to recognise how much activity is going on across the North East to do creative things with sacred heritage. I’m thinking of the new exhibitions at Hexham Abbey, for example, and the eye-watering developments at Auckland Castle with Kynren having proved such a success in its first season. 

Durham Cathedral is a world class building in a world class setting. This was recognised by the grant of World Heritage status to this unique site more than thirty years ago. I don’t approve of rating cathedrals by stars, but I am glad that in his book England's Cathedrals which has just been published, Simon Jenkins gives Durham the five it deserves. But the building, its arts, furnishings and its landscape setting, marvellous though they are, are not everything. Its collections are world class too. And it was becoming clear during my time as dean that we needed to do more justice to our infinitely precious artefacts from Cuthbert’s era, our books and manuscripts, our Saxon fabrics, our Roman, Saxon and Norman stones, our treasures that span two thousand years of northern history. What is more, we needed to do justice to the equally cherished spaces around the cloister that constitute the best surviving set of monastic buildings still in use for their original purpose anywhere in Britain. Open Treasure is the result. I am immensely proud to have been part of its story. 

That name "Open Treasure" says precisely what we believed about our sacred heritage: that we needed to open up these marvellous artefacts and marvellous spaces to as wide a public as possible. We wanted to extend an invitation to come in, discover, learn and enjoy. But we also wanted to say that there was more to “treasure” than simply spaces and artefacts. These represented an intellectual and cultural history, and above all, the spiritual history of a community of faith, so the people of the place were a vital part of its “treasure” too. We wanted to help people grasp this, not simply as a past reality but a present one too. So the timeline through the monks’ dormitory and the great kitchen takes guests through a display that presents the community of the Cathedral and Diocese as they are today and invited them to think about how they too fit into this long story that continues into the future. 

But more than that, the phrase “Open Treasure” evokes two sayings of Jesus in the gospels. One is about how the wise steward brings out of his treasure “things old and new”; the other reminds us that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. And that takes us back to the task of interpretation which is what Open Treasure is all about. For we cannot interpret the past without also recognising the present tense of our lives and the future tense that lies ahead. We can only look back from where we are today and hope to be tomorrow. So to tell the story of a faith community is inevitably to pose questions about its identity and purpose now. The hope is that by opening the treasure, there will be discoveries not only about history and heritage but also about human life as we live and experience it today. We would have failed in our interpretative task if we had evaded that requirement.

How does all this speak into the financial challenges our stewardship of heritage inevitably poses? Well, the origins of Open Treasure were not simply the need to rise to the challenge our collections posed and present them in the best possible way. There was a hard business case that said: if we are going to maintain free admission to the church, we need to earn income in some other way. Paid admission to the exhibitions was our answer: to make our heritage work for us by using it to help fund the costs of the sacred space itself. (Under the same rubric of letting heritage pay for heritage, we were glad to send one of our copies of Magna Carta on tour to Canada during the 1215 celebrations, a project that proved exceedingly exacting but which did earn a welcome six-figure sum for the Cathedral at a time when we were under particular financial pressure.) 

It is too early to tell what benefit Open Treasure will bring to the Cathedral’s bottom line. The Cuthbert treasures will not be installed until next year when the environmental monitoring of the Great Kitchen will be complete. His pectoral cross, coffin, portable altar and comb are always going to be the big draw - they are of cultural and spiritual value beyond compare. The hope is that in the future, when the Lindisfarne Gospels return to Durham as has been promised every seven years by an agreement with the British Library worked out before the 2013 residency, they will be exhibited in their historic home, the Cathedral precinct where they belonged to the monastic library throughout the medieval period. To bring Cuthbert and his gospel book back together again for three months in the very place indelibly associated with both of them would be marvellous. It would of course bring thousands of people through Open Treasure as genuine pilgrims for whom it would offer a profound spiritual experience. We shall have to wait and see. But we know that the secret of successful visitor facilities is to maintain ever-changing exhibitions alongside the permanent displays so as to bring visitors back again and again. That is the ambition. If it works as we hope it will, it should make a real difference to the Cathedral’s financial sustainability. 

But above all, it will have demonstrated the Cathedral’s belief in the importance of hospitality and interpretation. As the National Trust knows better than anyone, you can never invest too much in these. For each is a part of the other, and without them, heritage will never find a voice with which to speak into human life today. This always matters for our self-understanding, knowing who we are and where we come from. But as a person of faith, I want to suggest that it matters most of all when heritage has an explicitly sacred dimension. “They being dead yet speaketh” says the miners’ banner that hangs in the south transept of Durham Cathedral alluding to the Letter to the Hebrews in endearingly confused grammar. It’s our responsibility to make sure the capacity of the past to speak is as articulate and persuasive as it can be.

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I began with the view from my study window 40 miles away in Haydon Bridge, and the journeys of Cuthbert and his community. Open Treasure has brought us back to Cuthbert and to the long and wonderful story of Christian faith in North East England. I have only been able to touch on a little of it. But I’ve wanted to try to say something about the importance of religious heritage in telling a story not only about where we have come from in this region, but who we are now, today. 

We know that “church heritage tourism” is on the increase. Why this should be in an increasingly secularising society is worth speculating about. I am no sociologist of religion, but I wonder whether the dwindling of commitment to organised religion isn’t being misread in some circles as a decline of interest in the realm of what we can call the spiritual and the sacred. My lifetime in public ministry suggests to me that these elusive, mysterious aspects of life continue to fascinate and engage people very widely indeed even if they are increasingly disinclined to resort to organised religion to pursue them. “Believing, not belonging” has become the catch-phrase of those who recognise this phenomenon. No doubt nostalgia for a lost era of religious belief comes into it too; as Matthew Arnold’s great poem pictures it, we stand on Dover Beach watching the sea of faith recede. Some welcome the tide going out, but I suspect that for many, it’s a matter of wistful regret even if they remain observers rather than participants. Perhaps church tourism offers them the chance to touch the sacred without the entanglements of “belonging”, signing up to organised religion. If so, then it is all the more important to make sure that those of us who have the oversight of our magnificent religious sites help our guests articulate and respond to whatever it is they are experiencing: not to require that their experience takes this shape or that, but simply to make sure that they remain open to the possibilities of living with a deeper awareness as a result of having crossed our thresholds and – who knows – find themselves experiencing a transformation scene. 

Lecture to the County Durham division of the National Trust, 6 October 2016

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