Thursday, 7 April 2016

A landmark shrine for Bede?

Britain's first and only doctor of the worldwide church has a surprisingly peaceful corner of a city dedicated to his memory. Surrounded by the busy conurbation of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields, an enclave of riverside tranquillity has somehow survived on the very site where the Venerable Bede created history, both literally and figuratively. That this site was briefly under threat in recent months is almost too shocking to contemplate, something the national media has thankfully appreciated.

The stone church in which Bede worshipped still stands, its dedication stone from the year 685 the oldest in the country. Facts are scarce commodities if you happen to be studying the early British church, but this one is solid enough to put a dent in your head should it happen to fall on you. It won't, needless to say, since this church has been standing for 1,330 years and counting.

The building that Bede knew is so small it serves only as a little chancel to the much larger church that has built up around it, a holy space dimly lit by a row of tiny windows high up, containing fragments of 7th century stained glass. Its confines demonstrate just how far the great writer and thinker transcended both time and space.

Walking into this ancient room today, pictured above, it feels narrow and dark despite the later addition of larger medieval windows. Yet in Bede's day this was the outer limits of architecture, a marvel of carved stonework and coloured glazing that would have made jaws drop. Its preservation is remarkable, a fitting counterpart in stone to the many manuscripts that have transmitted Bede's written testimonies.

The fact that the adjacent museum, Bede's World, has managed to fit in an 11-acre working medieval farm says everything about the air of seclusion that preserves this remarkable site. A quiet enclave on the edge of a busy industrial landscape, surrounded by trees and parkland with a 7th century church at its heart. Does Christian heritage come any better than this?

Sadly though it transpires that the museum has run into difficulties in recent months. It has temporarily closed due to a lack of funding, although fortunately a possible new manager has recently been announced in the shape of the environmental charity the Groundwork Trust. I can not help wondering if the church will play a more active role in the revived centre under its new lease of life.

Mark Bryant, bishop of Jarrow, is listed as one of the trustees of the previous custodian, the Bede's World charity, which is currently in administration. Whether the church maintains its connections with the new management will be interesting to follow, and one can only hope the relationship becomes stronger rather than weaker.

The charity that used to run Bede's World explicitly lists the joint promotion of both museum and church as one of its chief purposes. Visiting this lovely and atmospheric site for research into my holy places project, it did feel there was something of a disconnect between the two centres here, which are just 200 metres apart across a small park. The Groundwork Trust has good roots in the design sector, and I felt then as now that some sort of creative landscape corridor between the two would greatly improve the historical and spiritual impact of the visitor experience.

Bede's church broke new ground in its day, the first place to show off stained glass to an awe-struck population. An innovative piece of environmental design or landmark work of art would surely be the best way to remember this outpost of creative brilliance. Government cuts are a large part of the reason why this museum has got into difficulties, economically illiterate and intellectually hostile to Britain's cultural history in equal measure. The potential of good heritage sites to generate income and regenerate place have been left to one side, but the case for funding greater integration between the Bede's World site and the church seems compelling.

The lack of relationship between museum and church was a disconnect I felt at numerous sites of national historical importance on my journeys around Britain, but it is more acute at Jarrow than elsewhere because this is such a foundational site, and because it has so much potential.

Perhaps the museum won't ever be interested in pilgrimage, and the church will certainly never regard itself as a museum. But somewhere between the two lies one of the greatest cultural and spiritual heritage centres this country has to offer.

This is after all an unusual pilgrimage site because it doesn't have a shrine as such. I can't help but wonder what effect the creation of a National Shrine to the Venerable Bede would have on the status of this interesting assembly of visitor attractions. Just 12 miles away stands another ancient church which is effectively part of this same complex, the Monkwearmouth monastic church of St Peter. Bede's monastery was known as Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, a twin monastic complex split between two locations. Although St Peter's is not as well preserved or as secluded as the Jarrow site, it contains just enough original fabric to embellish the story further.

Thus it seems to me that two of Britain's oldest stone churches and a beautiful, modern museum might benefit from a clearer focus, particularly one with such impeccable credentials as the authentic experience. It might be argued that pilgrim sites will only attract the devout, but even a brief read of Chaucer will demonstrate that this has never been the case.

I do not know any of the people involved in either the church or museum personally, but none of the press reports describing the fate of Bede's World refer to any Anglican involvement in negotiations about its future. So far it seems that the environmental charity Groundwork is being presented as the saviour, thanks no doubt in large part to the fascinating and extensive medieval farm which is part of the museum complex. The Groundwork Trust is a good fit and a laudable choice, but the church has a far longer pedigree when it comes to safeguarding space.

As my own research into the early British church is steadily revealing, protection of the landscape was once hard wired in to Christian mission. The church was once the environmental charity of its day: the National Trust, English Heritage, the RSPB, the RSPCA and Groundwork have all become worthy successors to the church in protecting the natural and built heritage of the country. But as Bede himself wrote so often and so eloquently, the early saints too would gather animals around them, preach to birds and worship among wildlife.

I will publish my discoveries in due course, and it will be another book that encourages love for the landscape. Whether the church will rediscover some of its cosmological impetus for protecting place as well as people remains to be seen, but it's a topic close to my heart, and I think as relevant today as it was in 685 AD.
(Above: the dedication stone at St Paul's Church, Jarrow. The first word dedicatio is as easy to read as Latin gets)

Friday, 29 January 2016

It's not every day you wake up to find yourself naked on the front cover of Church Times, the august publication for hard-working vicars and other gentlefolk of the Church of England. In fact - and I'll go out on a limb here - I'd even say it is not something that happens any day, since I might just have managed to be the first person who can add this particular event to my CV.

I wasn't exactly expecting it, although it's not a complete surprise because I had written a feature for the newspaper about naturist holidays and the many Christians who go on them. Church Times has a remarkably good feel for the eye-catching possibilities of all religious news, so I suppose it makes editorial sense they took the rare opportunity to choose nudity to lead this week's edition.

Last week's edition raised a small media outcry (well, Daily Mail at least) objecting to the presumably light-hearted suggestion by the Bishop of London that growing a beard might endear a [male] vicar to his neighbours in a multicultural part of London. At least this week's edition won't get accused of the same thing!

So although the cover might get a few grumbles, as I intend to explain below this topic isn't outside the realms of British culture and tradition, particularly so during our long Christian era. The article itself recounts the experiences of six CofE priests and ministers who are naturists, seven if you count me, and explains how the two sit side by side, or together for some people. I don't personally consider myself a 'Christian naturist' as a single category any more than I would consider myself a 'Christian sunbather' or a 'Christian Londoner', although in all of these the two can interact in some circumstances.

Naturists are famously shy about admitting this is something they do, but I think the best policy in all in life is to be open and honest, and take whatever people fire back at you with good grace and understanding. Not that I've ever heard any significant negative reaction to my lack of bathing attire, despite being completely open about it (and writing guide books on it a few years ago). Heck, I even ended up on the front page of The Times newspaper, which means today I have mooned at the full set of readers of papers with the word 'Times' at the end.

One of the great myths about our country is that we are unusually prudish and repressed about the human body. Looking around the world at large I'd have to say we're much closer to the opposite end of the "heavens-cover-up-the-table-leg-before-I-have-a-heart-attack" scale of sensitivity, even considering our Victorian heritage. And when it comes to nudity for mundane activities such as swimming, our history is not nearly as buttoned up as common consensus would have it. Perhaps nowadays we are among the worst culprits when it comes to conflating the two distinct - if overlapping - categories of sex and nudity. It was not always thus however. We are north Europeans too, if not quite as 'northern' or as 'European' as some of the others.

Nude bathing might seem like an exotic, continental and Scandinavian pursuit, but I've been surprised in recent years by the number of older people, men especially, who claim to have learned to swim without clothes on, in swimming pool lessons here in Britain. Unthinkable now for sure but it goes to show how far custom has changed even within the course of a lifetime, and long after the Victorian period ended.

And it's not just men either who have experienced skinny-dipping. Near to where I grew up there was a lake, called the Black Pond on Esher Common, which is secluded amid shrubs, trees and a circle of reeds. This was a ladies' bathing pond, and the custom right up until the early 1970s was for swimmers to bathe in the nude. Again it is seemingly unthinkable now, but yet within living memory, and once part of the British landscape in leafy Surrey.

These various customs represent an unbroken tradition of unfussy bare bathing that stretches back all the way to – I'm pretty sure – the birth of the human race. Christianity has rarely had an absolute problem with bathing in one's birthday suit, and even its reaction to mixed naked bathing from late Antiquity onwards has been nuanced, and never consistently opposed.

As St Augustine of Hippo himself pointed out, it's all about context:
"Because it is a shamefully wicked thing to strip the body naked at a banquet among the drunken and licentious, it does not follow that it is a sin to be naked in the baths."
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Chapter 12.
Roll forward a millennium from Augustine and the late middle ages had still not seen the invention of the swimming costume. The beautifully illustrated devotional book the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry has a charming little scene of swimmers on one of its pages illustrating the activities of the month of August. Not only are all four stripped off to bathe in public, near a road, they are clearly a mixed-sex group of adults, a woman sitting on the bank a few paces from the men enjoying a cooling dip. I defy any Christian to find such a prospect anything other than innocent, harmless and rather inviting on a hot day.

This scene is tame in comparison with what can be seen on so many medieval church walls in any case, crowds of naked figures jostling in a Doom painting. At Hardham in Sussex the local congregation sat in front of a huge wall painting of a naked Christ being baptised, which would have rather livened up any sermon on the Incarnation. Or any sermon, come to think of it. A similar image can be seen in more detail at Black Bourton church in Oxfordshire.

In South Leigh's lovely church of St James, also in Oxfordshire, the cluster of souls awaiting judgement are quite naked - apart from the bishops and royals, who are endearingly allowed to keep their hats on. Alas for the bishop of London though, it appears beards are banned in the afterlife.

Back in the world today it is not just church walls that are certified nude-free. Even the changing rooms of a public swimming pools are being altered to design out any possibility of even single-sex bare skin being seen. There are no doubt some good reasons for these moves, and I can't imagine I would have been at all impressed at the prospect of enforced nude swimming lessons, and I say that despite being a naturist for as long as I can remember. So it happens for good reasons, but I can't help wondering what the effect is of completely shutting down any sense of commonplace, mundane nudity as part of everyday life experiences for people of every age.

If the termination of commonplace nude bathing opportunities has been sudden and, despite what we might now assume, contrary to our long culture in Britain - so too perhaps the naturist movement is something of an over-reaction the other way. Mixed-sex nude bathing, not to mention socialising in a naturist environment, might well be a step too far for many people, oversteering against the tide.

But if so it is a necessary over-correction, because the body deserves better than a one-sided debate or fixed moral position, certainly in any Christian-based culture with our heritage of Greek and Roman attitudes mixed beneath the Mediterranean sunshine. The body is far too contradictory and multifunctional to be stuck in any particular box: the nude can be a symbol of innocence or licentiousness, physical prowess or weakness, confidence or humility, athletic strength or frail vulnerability, even birth and death. Perhaps, in the context of swimming, it once had no meaning at all.

Italy covered up some nude statues just this week to avoid offending the different cultural and religious values of Iran's president, classical works of art that were never intended to be offensive, and would not normally considered as such either in Europe. The same can be said of the vast amount of nudity in Christian art too, representations that are unthinkable in other parts of the world but nothing to be ashamed of.

It's probably not an exaggeration to say that people today are seeing more images of naked people, as opposed to real naked people, than at any point in human history. Perhaps there is a link between the astonishing rise in pornography and the end of mundane nudity. Like any other natural resource, the body appears now to have been removed from public space and packaged up for resale back to us, like the forests, land and water. I may be wrong but I think there is reason why the first top-shelf magazines in the 1950s and 60s depicted nudists, people outdoors enjoying the sun and water. Breach that last line of defence and the body no longer has any public space for innocence or freedom.

The numbers of nude images online must run into the millions by now, most of them in a different category to the innocuous Church Times cover. So perhaps it will encourage a few curious readers to wonder if there is another way of looking at what it means to embrace our humanity, even to peer beyond Adam and Eve's fall from grace and wonder what it was like there.

My article was slightly truncated to fit the space, but I did intend to stress out that naturists have no copyright over outdoor nudity, and anyone should be able to enjoy a skinny dip in the wild every now and then. My Christian inspiration for this ultimately derives from the idea of the baptism, being born again in natural waters wearing our original birthday suit once more, but that is a topic for another day.

One thing will say after a lifetime considering all such matters from a Christian perspective, is that from a theological perspective I can never accept that the body should be reclassified as an inherently pornographic or obscene object. Jesus had a body and it never was either of those things.