The Lastingham Group of Churches

Lastingham, Hutton-le-Hole, Appleton-le-Moors, Rosedale & Cropton


      York  35 miles   ·   London  242 miles

Lindisfarne 126 miles   ·   Canterbury 310 miles    ·    Rome ~1140 miles   ·   Jerusalem ~2290 miles    

Whitby  28  miles   ·  Scarborough 23 miles   ·   Pickering 7 miles   ·   Kirkbymoorside 5 miles


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Lastingham: a Surreal Place?

This 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.  


It was 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 surreal!

Surrealism, 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.

One 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.

Well 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 self-congratulation.

Holy ground, hard times 

Here’s another juxtaposition which will perhaps make us pause and think.

On 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 begin: 

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.

On 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.

Let’s 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 the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.  Well this is certainly happening here this morning, musically at least!

This 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. 

One 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?  What desert?

‘What 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.

In search of a golden age

Back 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.

But 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.

The vulnerability of our church tradition and culture

What 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.

Rather it is a time, first of all, to acknowledge how vulnerable is so much that we take for granted.

And 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? 

As 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. 

Thank you

To 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.   

The need for watchfulness and self-criticism 

It 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. 

If 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.

What 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 spirit.

This 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.  

May this church, all five our  churches, blossom as a rose. May God give us the resources!

  © ASF 2006

For a history of Lastingham Church, click here.




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