Monday, 13 August 2012

Golden legacy of a saintly boat race

As thoughts turn to the legacy of Britain's stunning 2012 Olympic Games, the bizarre consequences of a little-known boat race that once took place in Scotland's Inner Hebrides come to mind. Many centuries ago two saints had challenged each other in the task of bringing the Christian message to the people of Britain. As sporting competitions go, its progress and outcome are up there with the best of them.

The two missionaries had travelled across the sea from Ireland in their little coracle boats, vessels so fragile that the early Britons described them as leaves, blown by the wind. Spying a suitable island near the mainland, St Columba and St Moluag agreed that the first of them to touch land would claim the island as his own and build his monastery base there.

St Columba rowed the quickest and drew near to the island's shore, certain of victory as he pulled ahead of his rival on the final stretch. St Moluag is said by his colourful medieval hagiographer to have then hacked off one of his own fingers in desperation, and flung it ahead of St Columba on to the beach. From a technical point of view, he had indeed 'touched' the land first, and so the great monastic island was his: the Isle of Lismore.

Unfortunately for St Columba there were no Olympic judging reviews available at the time - this was the late 6th century. Instead the saint had to turn his boat around and seek consolation elsewhere. As silver medals go, his was to prove the most enduring and evocative of any Christian foundation in the entire country: the Isle of Iona.

Few if any pilgrims make their way to Lismore's quiet shores now, in contrast to its one-time rival at mighty Iona. After many miles walking the peaceful tracks and lanes of this beautiful sliver of land, I finally found the beach where these two spiritual athletes supposedly challenged each other. No monument marks the grassy shoreline, pictured above, merely the ruins of a cottage that once housed an illegal whisky still and some navigational buoys stored on land.

Traces of Lismore's glory can however be found at the main kirk on the island, a beautiful white-painted building. It is housed in part of the mighty cathedral church that once stood here, the rest now demolished. Like the forgotten shoreline I had the place to myself. It is an evocative place to wander through the scenes of our past glories.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Holy wells move south

It is tricky to write about holy wells and their use by Christians in Britain. In times gone by they were so widespread and popular there is almost too much to talk about. Today on the other hand their use is so rare that there is almost too little to talk about.

But the gap between the two is narrowing steadily.

On 4 June 2012 I was delighted to attend the first well dressing in Bedfordshire, which celebrated the evocative sacred spring that emerges from bedrock beneath Stevington’s parish church. It’s a site listed in my guide book, and I jumped at the chance to join such a remarkable revival, which the villagers combined with their Jubilee celebrations.

Stevington’s holy well was once used as a curative bath by a medieval hospital run by a monastery. It later became the inspiration to a famous Christian writer from a very different Christian era: John Bunyan. Over the Jubilee bank holiday weekend in Stevington, both these long traditions were remembered by a pageant play, during which a large and cheerful crowd of villagers walked from the village cross to the church, stopping to hear scenes from Bunyan’s masterpiece Pilgrim’s Progress. It ended with drinks on the beautiful lawns of Kathy Brown’s Garden, and afternoon tea in the nearby Church Room.

I’ve argued in my book that Christianity’s cultural output is much more appealing than its theological offerings. The thought occurred to me again as I joined what must have been more than 200 local people celebrating their sacred history. The Times newspaper even carried a half-page article in advance of the event, written by Kathy Brown herself.

This is after all the quintessential holiday experience: the very name holiday means ‘holy day’. In times gone by a community would stop work and hold an annual festival to mark some important date in the Christian calendar, perhaps the patron of their church, or a saint with a local connection - or indeed a festival based around their holy well. Well dressing events have proved to be some of the most enduring examples of such holiday celebrations, and are still popular in parts of the Midlands. The Well Dressing website lists over 100 villages which currently hold an annual event.

Stevington is the newest entry on the list. On display in Stevington’s church porch was the village’s very own floral panel. This sumptuous composition, pictured at the top of this post, is based on the scene from Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian’s burden falls into a cavernous sepulchre, which is modelled on the grotto where Stevington’s holy spring emerges.

Stevington’s celebration is much nearer to my home in SW London than the main Derbyshire well dressing locations, though it would have been worth driving to John O’Groats to experience something as imaginative and uplifting as this community’s lovely and lively day. The little village of Tissington in Derbyshire has the most famous floral displays, viewed by an astonishing 50,000 visitors each year.

I was preaching the night before Stevington’s well dressing at Hertford College, Oxford, and used the city’s holy well at Binsey to make a point about the popular appeal of Christian tradition. It was Trinity Sunday, and at Stevington I proudly mentioned that I had contrived a sermon which dovetailed both the theology of the Trinity and the use of holy wells into my talk. One of the villagers replied that their new vicar, Canon Peter Mackenzie, had managed to link not only the holy well with the Trinity but also the Royal Jubilee celebrations too in a single memorable sermon.

This village once helped Bunyan write one of the world’s most influential and best-selling books. Its sacred landscape has lost none of its power to inspire.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Is the sea good for the soul?

It is the world's most popular tourist attraction by far, the sea. Where else do people go when they have extended leisure time to enjoy, a place for rest and recuperation since... well, who knows how long? This may be one of the fundamental characteristics of human nature that predates all recorded history. Our attachment to natural water runs deep, a basic instinct that we now hurry to satisfy during two weeks off each year.

A new study by the British Psychological Society published in April 2012 demonstrates what most of us have indeed guessed at: the sea is a place of great psychological healing. Getting out into nature has long been known to alleviate symptoms of mental health problems such as stress and depression. It seems that the sea is the greatest of all such agents of natural healing. But have beach resorts and package holiday companies always had the monopoly of this watery phenomenon?

There was a time when religion embraced natural water in the performance of its rites, and not just pagan ones either. The first known Christian liturgy of baptism insisted that entry into the church took place not in a font or even a manmade pool, but a source of naturally flowing water. Baptismal candidates were fully immersed in front of the entire congregation of the church, and not merely naked but stripped of all artificial objects such as jewellery and hair fastenings. It was a rebirth that was as much a physical experience as it was spiritual, a ritual that included both soul and body in ways that seem alien to modern Christianity.

A Christian's immersion didn't end with this single rite of passage either. The use of water for rituals other than baptism is first recorded (as far as I can tell - feedback welcome!) in the writings of Lady Egeria, a brave Spanish pilgrim who travelled from northern Europe to the Holy Land in the 4th century and wrote an amazing travel journal. In it she describes a holy well at Aenon, near Salem, which was originally used by St John the Baptist. "Many brethren, holy monks, direct their steps hither from various places that they may wash there," she writes, and adds that she herself took part in all the customary rituals of the site. Alas she fails to tell us anything about what these 'customary' rituals involved, but perhaps she bathed there too.

Closer to home, the great bishop and abbot St Cuthbert was known to wade into the sea to say his prayers, off the Northumberland coastline at Lindisfarne and Coldingham. I've since discovered around a dozen examples of such hardy devotional practice among Britain's early saints. I did try to emulate St Cuthbert's 7th century example when I visited Lindisfarne late one summer (pictured above) and found it one of the most peaceful and moving experiences to be had at any of Britain's 500 sacred sites listed in my book. So simple too, without any artifice to separate me from creation: no church, no book, no candle, no people.

Any such use of holy water has perhaps become the most neglected of all early church rituals - in the Anglican tradition at least. Which is why it is a happy surprise to hear recently that one church in North Yorkshire has decided to incorporate its charming holy well into weekly liturgical use. During the summer months of 2012, the community at Thornton-in-Craven will hold a short Sprinkling Service every Saturday at 12 noon, from Easter week to the end of September.

The Anglican church lacks any formal liturgy for the use of holy wells, but Thornton's service is based on the form of words used in the Anglican shrine at Little Walsingham in Norfolk. This shrine contains the Church of England's most active holy well by far - though it has scant competition for such a title. A rarity still in Anglican tradition, Thornton's pioneering efforts are all the more valuable for that.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A precedent for Archbishop John Sentamu

It is a little-known fact that a black African churchman has been offered the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite being asked repeatedly to take up the job due to his outstanding intellectual credentials, however, this forgotten pioneer turned it down. And now, a mere 1,350 years later, it seems possible that another African-born prelate might finally take up the role.

The strongest candidate to succeed Archbishop Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who was born in Uganda. As prime candidate he is already following in the footsteps of St Adrian, a North African who was offered the role in the year 668.

St Adrian has been largely forgotten by the church today, despite the fact that he did accept a lesser but still highly influential role in the 7th century English church. He has had a lasting impact as a result, and could easily be described as one of the founding figures of both the church and the English nation as a whole.

His work in establishing a network of monastic schools means that he can be credited as one of the founders of our entire educational system. Oxford and Cambridge themselves later grew out of the church’s promotion of learning, which St Adrian helped to establish all those centuries earlier. St Adrian was a genius, fluent in several languages and an expert across the academic spectrum, conversant in astronomy and mathematics as much as in theology and classical Greek.

St Adrian’s formal role was abbot of Canterbury’s monastery, which meant he acted as an adviser to the Archbishops in the city.  He spent 39 years nurturing the nascent English church, and died in the year 710 on 9 January, which is now kept as his saint’s day by those who remember him. His grave site is now lost, but lies somewhere amid the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, a peaceful English Heritage site a few minutes walk from the cathedral, pictured at the top of this post. Hardly anyone else was visiting the site on the three occasions I called by to pay my respects to our history, in contrast to the bustling cathedral nearby.

He would be an apt figure to remember at the consecration of our next Archbishop under any circumstances. St Adrian’s academic brilliance also puts me in mind of our current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who was magnanimous in accepting the job despite all the difficulties and burdens that frightened off St Adrian.

On a final historical note, the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be recognised as a saint is St Boniface of Savoy, who was enthroned in 1249 and died in 1270. He too was caught up in the fiercest arguments of his day, standing between the King and the pro-democracy rebel Simon de Montford, neither of whom he managed to please entirely.

It took nearly 600 years after St Boniface’s death before he was formally recognised as a saint in 1839. Just occasionally there are people whose saintly attributes shine through rather quicker than that.