Back to school

Cranmer Hall is that part of Saint John’s College, Durham, which houses and educates putative ministers and priests of the Methodist and Anglican Churches. It was my happy duty last week to spend a couple of days and a night in Durham: living, worshipping and talking with the students as they went about their daily business.

Durham is a wonderful city, and one that I have visited on many occasions: including one riotous and very enjoyable night many years ago in the ‘olde’ Shakespeare tavern, situated on the steep hill that leads through the, still, cobbled streets to the cathedral green. The last time I found myself in this rickety old place, with its wooden floors that used to cockle and buckle like the deck on an ancient ship, I was nurturing what eventually became a lifelong passion-real ale-by sampling their ’80 shillings’ brew. Later, my comrades and I tottered out of the pub into the summer sun to find ourselves confronted by the blinking eyes and fantasically bushy eyebrows of that saint in our time: Archbishop Michael Ramsey. As if you bump into such a great man everyday, we three young priests wished him a ‘good afternoon Archbishop’ and staggered on our way. I remembered that hasty brushing of shoulders with a saint when I stood in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral at the Lambeth Conference this summer and read the, excellent, memorial to him that is there fixed to an ancient wall. Humble in death as in life, no-one quite knows where his ashes are buried. I re-call also the famous occasion when this important man and beguiler of popes visited my college-King’s in London-arriving in a chauffeur driven Morris Minor!

Now, the toppling floorboards of The Shakespeare have been levelled out for more contemporary steady young things; the cobbled street can only be accessed by authorised cars and 80 Shillings ale is no longer sold, only more ‘faux’ traditional new brews like ‘Waggledance’. Durham Cathedral, however, remains the same ( and its impressive Norman construction, soaring over the river meandering lazily below, still causes the breath to catch when you first glimpse its  bulk on entering the Green. Inside, you are treated to one of the few indigenous saint’s tombs which survived the reforming zeal of the Protestant Reformation: that of Saint Cuthbert . Sadly, nothing remains of St Hugh in our own Lincoln Cathedral: his bones possibly thrown in the River Witham by some angry faced fanatics. The little raised platform that contains Cuthbert’s memorial slab still gives the impression of the exotic place of pilgrimage it would once have been: although, now, altogether more restrained and ‘Anglican’. A delightful lady called Isobel introduced herself as a guide and took me on a gentle and informative tour of the building, pausing for me to take in the Venerable Bede’s tomb and to wonder whether his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples’ really was true to life in all its parts, or whether it contained also that layer of Celtic perception of reality which invested all things with the sacred and mysterious, in which all that we sense and perceive are ‘accidents’: symbols of the deeper realities which they both hide and allow a gateway to. A trip around the St Cuthbert exhibition: including his pectoral cross and, remarkably, his coffin with Celtic designs, concluded my re-acquintance with one of the great buildings of Europe and perhaps the World.

Sadly, once you have ‘done’ the Cathedral, there is not much else in Durham to attract the tourist other than the general ‘ancient’ ambience and old world feel (come on Durham, get your act together). However, Cranmer Hall beckoned.( I spent a few happy moments saying the Office with the students in their splendid and tastefully re-ordered medieval chapel; attended a lecture on liturgy for the first time in thirty-odd years; met and had a meal with the two delightful young ordinands who will come to our Diocese next year; chatted with a few lecturers and had a tour of the College where some fifty-odd people are now in training. It struck me that these, predominantly young, people were in a direct succession with Cuthbert himself: seeking out what is true and meaningful in life; desirous of serving others and spreading a little love and compassion around and generally eschewing all that we are told makes the ‘good life’: riches, possessions and material gain. In their easy contentment and excitement about facing a life of ministry, they seemed to have unconsciously captured a little of the spirit of ‘Cuthbertus’. It is unlikely that their, hopefully long and happy, lives will see them remembered like the Saint, but there will be those whom they baptise, marry and bury; comfort in grief and support in sorrow; laugh and rejoice with and to whom they offer just a glimpse of a greater Reality and a deeper Truth, who will never forget them and in whose memory they will be eternal. Like me on my way to Cuthbert’s tomb, they have begun a pilgrimage: and what a great and wonderful journey it will be.


~ by Tim Ellis on October 14, 2008.

One Response to “Back to school”

  1. Glad you enjoyed your visit to Cuthbertsland – but sorry you didn’t call in at the Deanery!

    Your old colleague, now the Dean,

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