Sacred Places Journal
7 October, 2001: Durham: Barriers Met, Barriers Overcome
For more intimate Sunday morning worship we seek out a parish church instead of attending the cathedral, which promises to be packed for an ordination service. We choose St. Oswald's - Elizabeth for the liturgy, I for the name. Oswald, King and martyr, became a Christian while in exile on Iona. In 633 he prepared to lead the English troops against the invading Britons from the west. Before the battle he erected a large wooden cross. In gratitude for victory he asked the community on Iona to send a monk to evangelize the Northumbrian English. They sent him Aiden, who established a monastery on Lindisfarne. Bede records how Oswald went around with Aiden, translating Aiden's Irish into English so his subjects could understand the Gospel.
It is Harvest Festival at St. Oswald's. I am confused. "But we had Harvest Festival two weeks ago in London." I learn that Harvest Festival is neither a liturgical feast, nor a national holiday, but instead is a folk festival, and therefore it is held when it best suits the local people. How different the occasion is here in the midst of a vast farming region, compared with the one in London. St. Oswald's is awash in home-grown produce. The entire wainscoat rail around the sanctuary is lined with apples, fruit still-life arrangements fill window sills and plinths. The vicar, who wears St. Cuthbert's pectoral cross embroidered on his vestments, jokes of his danger of being hit by falling pineapples (not home-grown) perched atop the rood screen.
But he does not joke in the sermon. This is an area where harvest is serious life-and-death business. And this year with disaster following disaster: mad-cow disease, flooding, foot-and-mouth, and now the threat of war, no one is joking. He takes his text from the Psalm: "How can we sing the Lord's song in this land?" "We need to set up the cross in the field, as Oswald did on the battlefield and as we all must in the field of our lives. By following the cross of Christ, we can find the peace and enter into the thanksgiving that makes sense of our life. And then be with others in their pain.
"God doesn't 'fix' things, but all good things flow from Him to us at the point where the pain is. 'I am with you,' He promises. This is the power of hope."
Later the vicar says to his American visitors, "The recent events have narrowed the Atlantic." Then he introduces us to his youth minister-Lee, an American United Methodist and recent graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary.
I tell Lee of the vision of Epworth Chapel on the Green to bring back together again the energy of Wesleyans and the strength of tradition of Anglicanism. He is enthusiastic and tells me of several such efforts here in England. When we arrive back at the priory after a beautiful walk along the River Wear, just such an Anglican-Methodist group is meeting here for the day.
We join our host monks for mid-day prayers and Sunday dinner-a festive occasion reflecting the fact that every Sunday is a little Easter. One project of the priory is to provide scholarships and housing for international students to study theology and related topics at the University of Durham, so the conversation is lively with students from Romania, Germany, Russia and America.
Elvet Bridge at Durham City Centre
Then Elizabeth and I set out for our Sunday afternoon treat-a long country ramble. Again, I delight in the medieval square, where a bagpiper is playing, and the powerful beauty of the cathedral where peals of change-ringing issue from the tower. We are fortunate that most of the public footpaths are posted, "Path is Open." But then we come to two still marked "Do Not Enter" in giant, hand-painted red letters. A disinfectant-soaked carpet is spread across the entrance to a farm we pass, and we recall the vicar this morning speaking of the fear and isolation that disease visited on the area.
It is starting to rain when we turn back. At Stone Bridge we take refuge in a pub and put our feet up before catching a bus back into town. We have missed evening prayer in the chapel, and the drenching rain and our sore feet deter us from taking part in the candlelight procession to the cathedral for a special students' service. Besides, we need to pack, because tomorrow our destination is a spot I've waited years to visit-The Holy Island of Lindisfarne.