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.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Britain's holy places back on television

BBC Four is now showing the television series based on my book again:

And it will be on iPlayer for the next week or so. The one good thing about BBC Four's relatively modest commissioning budget means they tend to repeat their original programming quite often, so this is our third outing on TV.

There probably won't be a second television series in this specific format, much as I'd love to work with the same team again on such an interesting and appealing topic. However I am starting a research project in the autumn on the origins of certain holy places and practices, which should eventually result in another book. Will post more on here in due course.

Monday 30 December 2013

Full circle in 2013

A new BBC Two series on sacred sites has just been launched, ending a year in which holy places have enjoyed a relatively high profile on the television.

Sacred Wonders of Britain, presented by archaeologist Neil Oliver, takes a historian's perspective on the subject as one might imagine. The programme was shown on BBC Two at 8.30pm on 30 December, and is available on iPlayer for a few weeks.

Neil Oliver was certainly in his element in the first episode, which looked at Stone Age sites from across the country. Avebury, Stonehenge and Orkney's stone circles are familiar territory, icons of a mysterious past that fascinates us as much as it continues to puzzle.

Undoubtedly the greatest problem with describing the rituals, traditions and beliefs of our ancient ancestors is that we have almost no idea what these were. The first scraps of written information about Britain come from the Romans, several thousand years after many of our most evocative ancient sites were built. Neil Oliver tried a number of theories during his grand tour. A few touched on some of the eternal questions that religions try to answer, passing references that were more thought provoking than informative (review in the Daily Mirror).

Neo-pagans have made attempts in recent years to recreate or reinvent some of these beliefs, and with such a tempting and largely blank canvas to fill the creative process seems set to continue. One of the advisers to the programme is Professor Ronald Hutton, an expert and adherent of this revival movement.

Quite what Neil Oliver will make of Britain's Christian heritage in the remaining two programmes remains to be seen. It is possible the three-part series is only going to address our most recent 2,000 years of spiritual history in a single episode, and terminate the narrative at the Reformation. It is an alternative view to treat our country's many great religions as a sort of spiritual fossil, lifeless artefacts from an unfamiliar past. Our own series on Britain's Holiest Places stressed a continuity of use that is just as accessible and relevant today as it was to previous generations. Archaeologists perhaps feel most comfortable among the dead, but to my mind any truly holy place remains very much a place for the living.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Back after centuries of neglect

It has come racing back to life after aeons of neglect, delighting the faithful and drawing thousands of website hits… Alas I'm not talking about this blog - though it has indeed been shamefully neglected this autumn - but rather a spectacular medieval wall painting which is in the news this week after its breath-taking rediscovery at a church in Glamorgan.

The church is St Cadog's in the little village of Llancarfan, south Wales. I wrote about it in my book on Britain's holy places, even though the restoration work had only been fragmentary at the time of my visit in August 2010, revealing a few faces and a queen with a lamb on a leash. The painstaking cleaning work has revealed the largest known mural of the life of St George to be found anywhere in Britain, and restorers have recently removed the scaffolding to allow visitors a proper look.

It might make me sounds like a nerd, but I have to admit I did often wonder about what more was lying hidden under centuries of whitewash in this seemingly modest little church, with its short tower and sparse parish. The BBC News item linked above offers a long look at the central figure of St George on his horse attacking the mythical dragon, something that was impossible to make out when I visited from the scattered patches of brushstrokes that had then been revealed.

Some tales and some places linger in the memory. The rediscovery of such a vast work of forgotten devotional art in the past five years is without recent precedent. It was only the presence of a thin red line of paint high up on the wall that alerted the experts to the existence of this magnificent and extensive treasury of medieval art.

It is an irony perhaps that St George is likely to be one of the least popular subjects to adorn the walls of a Welsh church, given his close identification with the English monarchy, and in particular with the knights of the realm. And yet there he sits on a magnificent horse, shown in lingering detail on the BBC News piece.

We considered visiting this little church for a follow-up television series to our BBC Four series Pagans & Pilgrims. It is a building that vividly demonstrates the interplay of patriotism and religion in the medieval mind, and also possibly the finest Welsh wall paintings yet to be uncovered in any church.

So far our second series has not been commissioned, despite the success of the original. Even so BBC Four seems to have picked up a habit of making programmes about holy places and our country's amazing religious heritage, with two other series also broadcast this autumn: Cathedrals, which looked at the inspiring people who work at my own mother church in Southwark, and Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, a new series which seems to be showing a spiritual journey from the point of view of a benevolent but disengaged non-believer. Something for everyone there perhaps.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Back on the screens, summer 2013

Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places (the TV series) is back on our screens this summer, and hence available on iPlayer for those who missed some episodes last time round. The series was first broadcast in March/April 2013 and will be showing again starting 4 August 2013. It is based on my book, which was published in 2011.

The BBC's programme website has information about upcoming episodes and also links to iPlayer versions, which remain active for about six weeks after first broadcast.

The series proved a ratings and a critical hit. But alas it probably won't make a second series in its current guise: the subject has attracted the interest of other presenters, so the topic will at least live on. Celebrities are everything in the media, but I'm sure the power of holy places to tell their own stories will shine through whatever the format.

Sales of my book and the new iPad/iPhone version (available on iTunes) have helped open up our sacred landscape to a new generation of pilgrims, but it is the subject itself that generates all the enthusiasm. Holy places have lost none of their power to enlighten and enchant.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Holy heritage: a boost for Wales

Welsh Assembly member William Powell has called for his country to do more to promote its amazing spiritual heritage. Our recent television series has helped to raise the profile of an amazing legacy of landscapes and histories to be found in Wales.

It is fertile territory in every sense, a land full of Celtic mystery, grand ruins and striking landscapes to attract visitors from all over the world. And it also offers quieter places where local people can gain a sense of identity and connection, a community hub. Or both combined in one, as at St Davids Cathedral where the congregation recently restored its shrine to the patron saint of Wales in 2012 (pictured above in all its revived glory).

This article in Wales Online today (9 May 2013) refers to our recent TV series, which did indeed show off many of the more eye-catching sites and stories around the country. 'Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places' was funded jointly by BBC Four and Welsh-language channel S4C - which meant that two out of every six sites in each episode were in Wales. Finding beautiful places with exotic tales to tell proved to be very easy.

By way of example, the country is home to "the oldest site of ritual activity in the whole of Britain and western Europe", as the article quotes me saying. Which is true... but for the record I should add that the ancient site in question is so difficult to reach you would risk life and limb to get there if the tides were against you. It's unlikely to become any sort of visitor attraction soon, but the entertaining tale of its discovery shows just how much meaning we invest in our sacred sites.

Goat's Hole Cave on the Gower peninsula is where a slightly dotty 19th century academic discovered the ritual burial of a young man. We mentioned it in the caves episode of the TV series (described in the post below). The body was covered in red ochre and placed inside the cave with shell and bone ornaments. A ritual burial so ancient it involved the tusk of a woolly mammoth, dating back some 33,000 years.

All of this was of great interest to Professor Buckland of Oxford University, who arrived at the cave in a hurry in January 1823, following the cave's discovery by a local doctor and his curate friend the year before. Professor Buckland examined the remains at length before declaring this to be the burial of a woman from the Roman era, probably a witch of some sort. And so the burial is known erroneously as the Red Lady of Paviland.

In fact it remains to this day the oldest known ritual burial in western Europe, offering a tantalising glimpse into a world of forgotten devotions, seemingly a belief in the afterlife that we will never fully understand. Dealing with death is one of the founding principles in pretty much any religion, and Wales can proudly lay claim to the earliest such evidence in this region.

The reason for Professor Buckland's wildly inaccurate dating is also of religious origins: as a devout Creationist he believed the world to be no older than a few thousand years. An interesting handicap for a Professor of Geology.

It is a timely reminder there is much to inspire in our sacred past, and also much to learn from.