ARTICLES, SERMONS & DISCUSSION
Lastingham: a Surreal Place?
is the sermon preached by the Vicar at the Benefice and Friends Festival
Eucharist on the Feast of St Cedd, Sunday 29 October 2006.
Two choirs led the singing, our own choir and the Cantemus
Singers from Spalding, Lincolnshire, who had also given us a lunchtime
concert, (Mendelssohn to Les Misérables’) the day before.
Hours before this, two thirds of the lead had been removed by
thieves from the roof of the North Aisle.
Eric, Musical Director of the Cantemus Singers here today, who at their
‘Mendelssohn to Les Misérables’ concert yesterday used about this
place the word surreal. We
are very fortunate to have you to sing much of the Byrd Four-Part Mass
and to join forces with our own choir. But Eric, you did use the word
so the dictionary tells us, is a 20th century avant-garde
movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative
potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational
juxtaposition of images.
of the juxtapositions Eric had in mind was, I suspect, the warm candlelit
church on the one hand, and on the other the spectacle of piles of lead
on the ground along the north wall, which had been removed from the roof
by thieves just a few hours earlier.
surrealism, as I said, is supposed to unlock the
creative potential of the unconscious mind. Surrealism says: we take
far too much for granted; we need to be jolted out of our apathy and
ground, hard times
another juxtaposition which will perhaps make us pause and think.
the one hand
we say this church is a holy place. At the third Lastingham Lecture
yesterday Dominic Powlesland told us this whole area could be considered
as sacred space ever since prehistoric times; something that was
amplified, he said, by the Romans, both pagan and Christian, in their
different ways; and in due course found its expression here at
Lastingham, in this holy place which St Cedd founded. A holy place
indeed, and visited each year by
so many visitors and pilgrims. Someone
has placed in the Crypt those oft-quoted words of T.S Eliot, which
are not here to verify,
yourself, or inform curiosity
carry report. You are here to kneel
prayer has been valid.
the other hand,
when we actually look more closely into our long history, we see that in
this supposedly holy place, ‘where prayer has been valid,’ there
have been many difficulties.
first go back to St Cedd: what did he hope Lastingham church would be?
The answer is clearly given in the passage from Isaiah that we heard
just now: that
is the passage Bede quotes in the account of the founding of this
church, in a chapter of his Ecclesiastical
History devoted entirely to Lastingham, which, famously, refers to
as a somewhat wild place! Some
say this was just a literary device to frame up a good story, but
Bede knew his Lastingham well: it was the monks of Lastingham who
taught him Latin.
theory, believed by both Michelle Brown and Richard Morris is that this
stuff about the desert blossoming as a rose is rather more than just a
literary device. Cedd’s prayer really was that this should happen.
desert?’ you may ask. Well, the Romans had left more than two
centuries earlier. Civilisation as one knew it had come to an end, and
the infrastructure of the Romano-British church would have crumbled. And
surely there can be little doubt that, very much as we are experiencing
today, the vacuum so created was filled easily enough, with the
equivalent of our nasty spook-masks, which are displacing the old and
beautiful feast of All Saints? It
was Michelle Brown in the first Lastingham Lecture who suggested that
Cedd wanted Lastingham to become a kind of spiritual outpost beyond
the borders of a decaying civilisation. This could
symbolised by its position on the boundary between farmland and
wild moorland; and today, by being a place uncontaminated by shops and
street lights. Here, he prayed, the desert would blossom as a rose.
Lastingham would be a holy place, set apart.
search of a golden age
now to my contrasting picture. Within a century and a half the
Danes had almost certainly destroyed most of the church here. After
being derelict for a couple of centuries, Stephen of Whitby had tried to
rebuild it as a Benedictine Abbey, but for some reason survived here
only ten years. (The building we are in today would have been just the
chancel of a far larger church.) So then we were derelict for a further
century and half. In 1559, less than 40 years after Henry VIII
had broken away from Rome, a royal visitation found this church to be
‘in ruin and decay.’ In the 18 century, Holy Communion was
celebrated only three times a year (as was not uncommon then). One vicar
at that time never turned up at all. The assistant curate, Jeremiah
Carter, held the fort and played his fiddle in the Blacksmith’s Arms
– the one Lastingham story everyone remembers!
The Crypt was misused. By the 1820s the roof was leaking badly.
In the 1850s the vicar had to write to the parishioners to say that
‘the organ, like many parts of this ancient fabric had fallen into
decay.’ Fortunately, in 1879 Dr Sydney Ringer stepped in and hired one
of the best architects in the country to create the fine and
acoustically successful restoration we have now.
when was that golden age everyone seems to remember?
For much of our history the desert was - well, very much of a
desert, and without all that much blossoming.
vulnerability of our church tradition and culture
I am trying to say is that Dedication Festival is not a time for vague
thankfulness for an unexamined past, for ever congratulating ourselves
and saying, Aren’t we lucky to have this wonderful building.
it is a time, first of all, to acknowledge how vulnerable is so much
that we take for granted.
then to search our own hearts and ask an important question: How far are
Cedd’s aims being fulfilled here? What is God wanting from us, as a
church, here and now?
Michelle pointed out, there are remarkable similarities between Cedd’s
age and our own: civilisation as people knew it had crumbled: hence,
surely, Bede’s allusion to Isaiah: that the desert should blossom
as a rose, and rejoice with joy and singing.
this end concerts and lectures and suppers and parties will all help to
foster a place of friendship and joy and singing. So well done and thank
you to all concerned, not least to Churchwarden Mary for her precision
organisation, and even getting the roof made watertight before the
concert began at midday! And
to Eric and the Cantemus Singers, and to our own Choir, and to Dominic
who lectured to us, and to all who prepared the church, and to those who
did the catering for the Friends Supper last night.
need for watchfulness and self-criticism
is very important that we continue to practise a disciplined self-audit,
so that we do not get distracted by secondary things and lose the plot.
If this church were to become no more than a commodity in the
heritage industry, well I call that redundancy.
all the lead were to be taken off the roof, and if ever the
building itself were to fall down, what would remain? Would there still
be a church here in Lastingham? In our darkened civilisation, would
there still be a group of people meeting round the Altar,
affirming the light of the Christian Tradition; so that the
desert might blossom as a rose? This is what matters in the long run.
flowers will grow in the desert? There will be no space for cynics and
pessimists. Some of the flowers must be, apart from music of course! –
the flowers, of truthfulness, humility, compassion, and generosity of
will not happen automatically: we shall need to stay awake, and among
other things to try to release, in the phrase I used earlier, to release
the creative potential of the unconscious mind.
this church, all five our churches,
blossom as a rose. May God give us the resources!
© ASF 2006
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