Monday, 14 April 2014

Jesus and the Psalms

At evensong in Lent we are offering short reflections on the Psalms. In the Hebrew text, both of tonight’s psalms, 61 and 62, are attributed to David. We should not read too much into this. However, it may preserve an ancient memory of how the psalms had a close relationship with kings of Israel as songs that depicted them in many aspects of royal life: coronation, wise leadership, facing the threats of invasion or famine, leading in battle and knowing either defeat or victory. If we put the psalms on to the lips of the Israelite king, we shall not be far wrong.

Psalm 61 clearly has a royal character with its prayer to ‘prolong the life of the king’ so that his throne will be protected by God. This is a lament in which the king is seeking a bigger defence than any army or fortification can provide. He looks for a place of safety in ‘the rock that is higher than I’, ‘a refuge, a strong tower against the enemy’. We don’t know what has induced this sense of helplessness: it may be the onset of war, or the imagery may be a metaphor for some other threat he faces. But there is no mistaking the ‘certainty of hearing’: he already knows that God has heard his plea, and at the end, looks forward to a good outcome for which he will thankfully be able to praise God.
The second psalm is so close to the first in tone and imagery that I see it as another song of the king. The rock of salvation, the trusted fortress is there again in contrast with the unstable tottering wall on which you lean at your peril. ‘On God rests my deliverance and my honour; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.’ So this psalm is like the 23rd, ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, a restful song of confidence in God. It is the answer to the lament of Psalm 61: God has indeed heard, and has done all that the king had hoped for. For this is his character: not only power but steadfast love belong to God, says the psalm, God’s covenant loyalty to his people especially as they are held in the person of the king.

It’s natural as we read the psalms to place ourselves within them and make their prayers our own. But before we do this, we might reflect on a very ancient way of reading the psalms which harks back to the idea that it is the king’s voice we are hearing. I mean thinking of the psalms as the songs and prayers of Jesus himself, for in the gospels, he quotes the psalms, and they are quoted of him, more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible. This is especially true of the passion accounts we read during Holy Week. So if we try to hear the voice of Jesus in this afternoon’s two psalms, what do we find?

On Palm Sunday, we recall how Jesus comes into his city as the king who is hailed as ‘the son of David’. We know that he is destined to die there, and also to be raised from death. So let us think of this pair of psalms as songs of the dying and rising king. In the first psalm he yearns to know that God has not abandoned him, in the spirit of St Luke who has Jesus pray trustingly, ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’. In the second, he finds deliverance from death, knowing that his victory comes from the one who has been with him all along. And if we read them in this paschal, death-and-resurrection way, they remind us how we walk the via dolorosa with Jesus, are crucified with him, are buried with him in baptism, and are raised with him to newness of life. In Christ there is a new creation. So we tell our own story of how God has indeed proved to be our steadfast rock, the one who is higher than we are, to whom we can safely entrust our lives for time and for eternity.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Whole Armour of God

Once upon a time in my teenage years, I was a Crusader. I mean that I attended a Bible class on Sunday afternoons under the auspices of a national organisation called the Crusaders Union. It was founded in 1900 for outreach to young people. Its badge, which I must still have somewhere, consisted of the traditional crusader emblem of a red cross on a shield, with sword, breastplate and helmet. Underneath was the motto in Greek: ‘looking to Jesus’, a quotation from the Letter to the Hebrews. We had fun, made good friends, and learned a lot about the Bible. It all went into the personal mixing-bowl we call ‘formation’, where it lodged with chorister memories, Bach, Thomas Hardy’s novels, an awakening conscience, and my first experiences of girls. It would be years before I knew enough about the medieval crusaders to question the name, but I’m glad to say that they are now called Urban Saints.

You’ll recognise the motifs on the badge from today’s 2nd lesson. ‘Take up the whole armour of God’ says Ephesians: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. The author’s appeal to his readers is vivid and urgent. ‘Be strong in the Lord…so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ Combative stuff. But it fits exactly into the world-view of the first and second generations of Christians. They believed themselves to be warriors of light and truth in an alien, hostile universe. And just as Christ in his descent into hell had harrowed it, ransoming his own and rescuing them from the demonic clutch of death and Satan, so now the church was called bravely to battle against evil by witnessing to the gospel’s redeeming power and by turning human lives round from the oppressions of terror and wickedness to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Move the clock forward by six centuries, and we come to St Cuthbert whom we celebrated last week. There is a so-called ‘Celtic’ perception of our northern saint, and there is the truth. The fantasy is that he was a kind of proto-romantic who took himself off to the Inner Farne for peace, quiet, and plenty of time to contemplate ducks. The more austere truth is that he went to the Farne to fight, Bede says, to ‘seek out a remote battlefield farther away from his fellows’.  For him, to be a hermit was to wrestle with evil, the demons within and those without. This warfare was not, or not principally, a private affair. It was an act of the church whereby the ever-threatening forces of chaos and disorder were kept at bay by those called, so to speak, to front-line service. The consolations of the Farne were, to quote the title of a book about desert spirituality, ‘the solace of fierce landscapes’. There is nothing perfumed or rose-hued about Cuthbert’s struggle for the good, the life-giving and the just. Like all who are valiant for truth, like the prophets and apostles, like the desert fathers and Irish monks, like Jesus himself, it cost him everything. He lived for it, and in the end he died for it.
Scroll on to the 12th century and to this building we are sitting in. Durham Cathedral, ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’ say Sir Walter Scott's lines on Prebends’ Bridge. Linked to the castle, it is part of a carefully conceived fortification of this peninsula against the threat of invasion. What is more, it makes a tremendous statement about the power of the neo-Norsemen, the descendants of the fiery peoples who had ravaged Cuthbert’s Holy Island, destroyed his monastery and sent its community fleeing inland for safety. The Normans, now the overlords of England, knew how to build in a way that would intimidate the Saxon natives and remind them who now held sway. But this Cathedral is far more than that. It is built as a spiritual fortress as well, for this was what a Romanesque church was. Its huge towers, massive walls pierced only by narrow windows far apart, its cyclopic piers spoke with one voice which said: this place is a bastion against the principalities and powers, those demonic spirits that make constant raids on human souls to suck them into the turbid maelstrom of the devil. Here was a sanctuary, a defended and sacred place of safety from the terrors outside against which hell would not prevail. This is a different understanding of a cathedral from the Gothic vision of later centuries, as we can see in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, where a cathedral was becoming a casket of light whose walls melted away as the radiance of heaven poured through myriad windows reflecting the glory of heaven itself.
I doubt that most of us live each moment with this vivid sense of how evil crouches at the door, as Genesis puts it, though we glimpse it from time to time, the hells human beings create for themselves, not always in places that are far away. Some of us may have looked into the abyss and wondered how we were not engulfed. So we don’t dismiss the power of evil to grip fragile lives and to crush them out of existence: this was how it was experienced for so many of our forebears, and still is for some. And we can read in the pages of the New Testament how the gospel opened the door to an utterly new world, a marvellously life-changing liberation from demonic enslavement. This explains why the spiritual combat between truth and falsehood is so clearly etched in early Christian writings, and how the daily choices between light and dark became elevated into cosmic battles between good and evil where it took angelic powers to deal comprehensively with the devil and all his works.
And now? For all that it is a good and lovely world, it is also a profoundly broken place where tragedy walks hand in hand with beauty. Very many wake up each morning to this reality: they look on evil’s mighty works and despair. And much of it, I say most of it, is our own doing as the human race, and this implicates all of us. ‘A leaf does not turn yellow but with the consent of the whole tree.’ I am not asking about whether you invoke the existence of a hostile spiritual power to explain it. We can read this language metaphorically; yet the fallen-ness of our state is an unarguable fact of our existence, those ‘great refusals’ that we are in thrall to both collectively and personally. We know only too well about our struggle to live out our baptismal promise to reject the devil and all rebellion against God, to renounce the deceit and corruption of evil, to submit to Christ as Lord, to embrace him as our way, our truth and our life. What a theatre of the soul baptism inaugurates, to fight valiantly as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants: heroic but so hard!
So Lent takes us into the desert where Cuthbert went to follow Jesus in his ordeals. Jesus knew, and Cuthbert knew, that resisting evil’s claims on us involves real battles. They knew about the re-arming Ephesians speaks about to make us strong and very courageous. To do this we must take evil seriously, be rid of the fantasy that things always improve, that human beings can on their own become better people. It is not blind optimism we need but facing the truth and being properly despondent about the human condition, for only then will we ever find real hope in God. And hope there is in abundance during Lent, for we are promised that these fierce landscapes will bring solace, and life will begin to blossom and flower in the springtime of our redemption. Soon it will be Easter when we renew our baptism vows and celebrate the Deliverer whom death and hell could not hold. Until then, in these days of Lent, we travel on with the whole armour of God to defend us, and in this desert we learn to be God’s people once again.
Durham Cathedral, 23 March 2014 (Lent 3)
Joshua 1.1-9, Ephesians 6.10-20

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Two Churches, a Bishop and a Saint: the St Cuthbert's Lecture at Darlington

It is a great pleasure to be back here in this great church to speak to you. The topic I have been given is the connections between Durham Cathedral and St Cuthbert’s Darlington. There are many, and most of them date back several hundred years, as we shall see. It is these that I want to focus on in this lecture. But not before mentioning the two literal connections that have linked Durham and Darlington in more recent centuries. I am thinking of the Great North Road, and the North Eastern Railway. The industrial development of the North East in the 19th century owed much to both these transport arteries that ran across the region from south to north. In particular, Durham’s great railway viaduct, built by T.E. Harrison in 1857, was commissioned by the Stockton and Darlington to bring trains into their new terminus at the northern end of their line from Bishop Auckland. I include this because Darlington is one of the nation’s historic railway shrines. The County Durham coalfield would never have prospered were it not for the development of the wagon-way, and then the steam engine, in this southern part of Durham’s hinterland. 

But it is to the middle ages that the closest links between Darlington and Durham belong, and particularly (though not exclusively) between this church and the Cathedral. There are three. The first is architectural, the second historical and the third, for want of a better word, religious. To see the connections I shall try to make among these three you will need to be patient. But I want to emphasise at the outset that I believe all three ultimately feed the theological and spiritual links that exist between the two places.
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My first connection is architectural. St Cuthbert’s is one of the great parish churches in the north of England. In my book, I described it as ‘one of the best examples of a town church of [its] era not just in the north but anywhere. The grandeur of this cruciform building with its splendid tower and spire is evident from the railway line… In a market town you want the parish church to be prominent enough to [‘crown’ its setting. This Darlington does to perfection. The church is an apt commentary on the civic aspirations of this place, later to be so amply rewarded by the coming of the railway, and later still by the granting of unitary authority status, unusual for a place which, despite its growth, is still experienced as a real town and not as a sprawling industrial conurbation like most of its neighbours.’[1]

But this church is particularly distinguished for its architectural excellence. While there was a Saxon church on this site, the present building was begun in the late 12th century and completed in the first half of the 13th century. This was the era of the architectural style we call ‘Early English’, the first of the three principal phases of Gothic in which all our cathedrals, churches and abbeys were constructed between the 13th and the early 16th centuries. Darlington is a particularly pure example of this, a pioneering experiment in the new style along with the great hall at Auckland Castle. Almost all the windows are narrow pointed lancets carefully arranged round the building to create a strong sense of geometry, particularly in the three banks of windows in the east wall, and two in the west.
So this was a church on which no expense was spared: this was because throughout the high middle ages, St Cuthbert’s was collegiate, staffed not by an incumbent alone but by a dean and four canons.  This is reflected in the architecture of a proud cruciform church with a crossing tower. You only find three west doors in churches that are intended to make a grand statement. Of course, the church was added to after the 13th century, particularly the windows in the aisles, enlarged to let in more light when the roofs were raised in the 14th century, and the top of the tower with its spire from the same century. Since then, the building has been much restored, especially in the 19th century in common with every other distinguished medieval church. But its essence is of the 13th century in its purest form. If we were to list the ten best Early English parish churches in north east England, Darlington would certainly be one of them. (The great church of St Hilda at Hartlepool would be another, as would Hexham Abbey, and if we were allowed to include monastic churches, Brinkburn and Tynemouth Priories would be on the list too. Honorary mention should also be made of Ripon Cathedral which may have influenced the design of this church.)

But this lecture is about links between this church and Durham Cathedral. The reason architecture is my first connection is that the Cathedral, too, has an example of the highest achievements of 13th Century Early English.  This is the Chapel of the Nine Altars that surrounds the shrine of St Cuthbert. We think of the Cathedral – rightly – as one of the world’s finest Romanesque churches, yet it also contains one of its highest achievements in early Gothic, ‘one of the most beautifully proportioned monuments of the Early English style at its ripest’.[2] In that mighty eastward extension of the quire, with its majestic transepts, you can see the same distinctive strengths as here in Darlington, particularly the geometrical array of lancet windows lined up along the east face surrounding the rose window in the midst.

The history of the Nine Altars is, however, rather different from St Cuthbert’s Darlington. Two motives underlay its construction. The principal reason for creating such a huge volume at the east end was to promote the pilgrimage to Cuthbert’s shrine. In the 12th century, many thousands of pilgrims had made the journey to the shrine, for Cuthbert was without doubt England’s premier saint. However, the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 had the effect in diverting vast numbers of pilgrims southwards, as we know from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Cathedral Priory was in danger of losing large revenues that accrued from the pilgrimage. So they set about energetically promoting the cult of Cuthbert, and reorganising the space around his shrine both to emphasise its central significance for Durham and the north, and also to create better flows of large crowds around the feretory itself.

In the shrine, you can see the original Romanesque apse, the eastward termination of the Cathedral marked out on the floor round the tomb. This had already proved impracticable because of the constructed circulation space, and it did not enhance the dignity of this spiritual and emotional heart of the Cathedral. It was the 13th century Bishop Richard Poore who instigated this new building, though he did not live long enough to begin work on it. He had been Bishop of Salisbury and had been the mind behind the construction of its great Cathedral of New Sarum. Like this church, it is an extraordinarily pure example of Early English, probably the best in England. So who better to design the new extension at Durham than Bishop Poore’s great master mason at Salisbury, Richard of Farnham (as we suppose). The result is an uncanny imitation of Salisbury, the only significant difference being that instead of the black shafts of Purbeck Marble he had used to such effect in Salisbury, here he chose the indigenous Frosterley Marble instead – not, of course, a true marble but a limestone that polishes up to produce a reflective marble-like surface.         
The second reason for constructing the Nine Altars Chapel was a direct imitation of a similar arrangement at Fountains Abbey. Here, the great Cisterician Abbey had solved the problem of how to allow each of the many priest-brothers of the community to celebrate mass at one of the Abbey’s altars within a reasonable space of time, as the priestly rule of life required. So they lined up nine altars against the east wall of the eastern transept, and this was the arrangement that suited the equally populous Benedictine community at Durham Cathedral Priory.

What is it about the Early English Gothic style that is both distinctive and compelling? Its importance lies in that it introduced an entirely new concept in both the theological vision of a great church, and the engineering principles that gave it physical expression. Great Romanesque buildings like the Cathedral had solved the problem of how to build on a grand scale without the threat of collapsing vaults and toppling towers. But this could only be achieved in the 11th and 12th centuries by conceiving them as a kind of fortress with thick walls, giant piers and great buttresses, with narrow windows that were sufficient to let in a certain amount of light, but small enough not to compromise the structural integrity of the wall. This matched the Romanesque concept of a spiritual castle whose role was to contain a sacred space as a safe space, securely defended against the assaults of Satanic enemies. A Romanesque church is, in one sense, a defence against fear and anxiety.

The Gothic style was changing that. It emerged in France with the construction of a new cathedral at Saint Denis, now a suburb of Paris. The great Abbé Suger’s vision was of a temple that would be filled with light and splendour, an translucent casket that would reflect the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem. To achieve this, he needed to abandon the Romanesque idea of the fortress, and imagine walls built not of stone but of glass; and to emphasise not so much the length of a great church as its height through its soaring verticals culminating in a vault or tower. By the end of the 12th century in France, structural engineering had developed to the point where this could begin to be the reality. So great churches in the new Gothic style, the continental equivalent of our Early English, sprang up all over northern France: at Nôtre Dame in Paris, at Sens and Vézelay in Burgundy and at Chartres.
Gothic crossed the Channel with the building of a new quire at Canterbury Cathedral whose mason, William of Sens, had built the great cathedral there. But it is interesting to see how slowly this style reached Northern England and Scotland. By 1170, Gothic was becoming the norm in France and was beginning to be adopted in southern England. But in Durham, they were still building in the older Romanesque style as we can see from the Galilee Chapel of the Cathedral. Here, there is a quite new concept of lightness and grace, which anticipates Gothic, yet the design is still unambiguously Norman, as it is in Dunfermline Abbey and St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, both very late examples of Romanesque. In the north, it was only in the 13th century that Gothic began to make itself felt. This church, and Durham’s Nine Altars are among its prime achievements; and this first of my three connections is a good reason for celebration.

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My second connection is historical. I have talked about the Bishop who inspired the Nine Altars at Durham. But who was behind this great Early English Church here in Darlington, and why was it significant?
The answer is: another of Durham’s bishops, a predecessor of Poore. Hugh le Puiset held office from 1153 to 1195, an extraordinarily long incumbency. He was one of Durham’s great prince-bishops who relished nothing so much as an ambitious construction project to which, no doubt, he was pleased to see his nickname Pudsey attached. He was a high-born Frenchman, a nephew of King Stephen of England and of Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and one of the most influential men in the kingdom. He was elected Bishop by the Cathedral Chapter at the uncanonical age of 28, though not consecrated until the following year, owing to the hostility of the Archbishop of York who had contended the election: the ecclesiastical politics surrounding his accession to Durham is a story to go into on another occasion. In 1189 he purchased the offices of Earl of Northumbria and Sheriff of Northumberland for £2000 and paid a further £1000 for the office of Justiciar and a release from his crusading vow, though it was said that God would not be pleased with a bishop whose loyalty to both a heavenly and an earthly king was compromised. And this was a real risk, for ‘he was determined not to allow the grandeur, wealth, or magnificence to be abated one jot. Untouched by either the clerical zeal of the Gregorian reformers or the humility beloved of the Cistercians and their admirers, he pursued the life of an old-fashioned late-Frankish aristocrat’.[3]

His legacy is everywhere in North East England. By acquiring the Wapentake of Sadberge near here, which had once been part of Northumberland, he fixed the Tees as the southern boundary of his County Palatine. In addition to his castle at Northallerton, he rebuilt the border fortress at Norham in stone, in the northernmost detached parts of the Durham Palatinate, not to mention a new bridge over the Tweed at Berwick. He founded Sherburn Hospital for lepers near Durham. In his episcopal residence of Durham Castle, he constructed the gallery that runs across the inner bailey, where we have one of the best Norman doorways in England leading up into the residence proper. We owe to him Durham’s fine medieval bridge that linked the episcopal and Priory lands on the peninsula with the ancient borough of Elvet.

In the Cathedral, his outstanding achievement was to build the new Galilee as a Lady Chapel with a shrine for St Bede. The original plan had been to place this at the east end, where the Nine Altars now is, but the ground proved unstable, it was said (without foundation) because Cuthbert did not approve of a place of worship for women so close to his shrine. He also commissioned the great Puiset Bible, one of the outstanding manuscripts to have survived from the Cathedral Priory’s great library, and still in our collection as Manuscript A.II.1: four great volumes containing more than 130 square metres of parchment, nearly 7 miles of writing and with a combined weight of more than 100 lbs.[4] We do not know whether he commissioned this beautiful work for the Cathedral Priory or for his own use, nor where the writing and illumination was done.

Another of Le Puiset’s great achievements was the production in 1183 of the so-called Boldon Book. This was a survey of the estates, revenues and customs of the Bishopric of Durham in the 12th century. It only covered lands belonging to the Bishops and which were subject to taxation by him rather than the Crown: 124 estates in County Durham and 16 in its detached parts in Northumberland. It did not include estates belonging to other land-owners such as the Cathedral Priory, itself richly endowed with property bequeathed to the Community of St Cuthbert. The book is named after the township of Boldon whose 22 tenant-farms are listed with together with their rents in money and in kind and other obligations are listed. In other places where there were episcopal villeins, their duties are listed ‘as at Boldon’. Here in Darlington, there were 48 villeins or bondmen out of 70 tenant farmers in the Bondgate community who gave their name to the street. Like the Domesday Book of the previous century, which did not cover lands north of the Tees, it is an invaluable source for our understanding of society as it was evolving in the century after the Norman Conquest.[5]

What about Le Puiset and Darlington? His achievement was substantial, and indeed could be said to have shaped the centre of this town as we now have it. He was said to have built a manor house on the site now occupied by the town hall, a southern ‘office’ for the administration of his large and complex diocese. His square market-place, the ‘borough’, was lined on three sides by burgage plots and tenements. On the fourth side, toward the east, stood the church with its churchyard skirting the River Skerne. And this church was the focus of his ambition for the town which by his time had already become a substantial centre of trade and economic activity in the Tees Valley.

I have already mentioned that St Cuthbert’s was collegiate, staffed by a Dean and four canons whose prebends were endowed by Darlington itself, Cockerton, Blackwell and Archdeacon Newton. But this foundation is the heir to a longer history that establishes another connection with Durham. Lands in Darlington had been given to the Community of St Cuthbert by the Danish-Yorkshire nobleman Styr, son of Ulf a few years after the arrival of Cuthbert’s Community on the Durham peninsula in 995. This donation may reflect shifting power-alliances in the 11th century that consolidated Northumbria’s position.[6] But all this changed in 1066. As a result in 1083, the Benedictines were brought from Wearmouth and Jarrow to Durham as part of the Norman bishops’ project of suppressing Saxon religious communities in their cathedrals for the more rigorously disciplined life lived according to the monastic Rule of St Benedict. These displaced secular canons were dispersed to a number of other churches in the region, St Cuthbert’s Darlington, belonging to the patrimony, being one of them (a chronicler called Galfrid of Coldingham says so in his 1192 account of Le Puiset’s career).

Le Puiset’s contribution was to formalise the College that held jurisdiction over the church at Darlington, and to plan for its rebuilding in a style worthy of its dignity and importance. Galfrid says that ‘amid the vicissitudes of so many storms he did not desist from the erection of the Church of Dernington...’ He did not of course live to see the church he planned, but he was its principal begetter and patron. We have already seen that his ‘church’ in Durham Cathedral, the Galilee Chapel of the 1170s, was still clearly Romanesque in style. By the end of the century, Gothic influences were beginning to be felt in the emergence of what is known as ‘transitional’: not purely Romanesque any more, but not quite Gothic either. But as this building progressed, Gothic took a firm hold, and the result is the majestic, exquisite Early English building we are sitting in, with its clear architectural links to the Cathedral’s Chapel of the Nine Altars which followed it.

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My third and final link is spiritual. You have wondered why I have taken so long to come to it. And of course, it is as much to do with history as with spirituality, yet I fancy we all this connection as the one most likely to influence the way our two churches understand and practise the Christian faith today. I am thinking, of course, of St Cuthbert himself. 

Ten years ago my lecture was called: St Cuthbert: A View From Durham.  I wanted to suggest how, viewed from his shrine in Durham, the long history of the Cathedral has added many layers of meaning to those foundation stories we tell about him that have come down to us from Saxon times, particularly through the writings of Bede. In some ways, what Cuthbert represented to the Normans who built the Cathedral as his shrine was not altogether the same as it had been for the Saxon community of monks who first arrived on the peninsula in 995. To them he was their humble saint who lived in the utmost simplicity.
The Normans never forgot this. Indeed, Cuthbert was intensely useful to them in winning Saxon hearts and minds to the new England they were inventing. To ally a native Northumbrian saint to the Norman cause, with all the spiritual authority and power he wielded, was a shrewd political act. Cuthbert remained central to the self-understanding of both the bishopric of Durham and the Cathedral Priory throughout the middle ages. When the Priory became involved in litigation in the 14th and 15th centuries, as it often did, the Chapter justified it on the grounds of defending the honour of St Cuthbert. However they transplanted his memory into a world where power-relations had become all-important, following the Norman Conquest, and this was a world away from the simplicity of the Saxon Northumbria Cuthbert knew. It is a matter of endless fascination how meanings acquire different depths and patinas with the passing of centuries. We shouldn’t be surprised by this: it is the same with any great historical figure who has the power to touch and change lives, not least Jesus Christ himself. So I spoke about the unease the simple Anglo-Saxon Cuthbert might have felt at the prospect of being interred at the heart of a vast fortress-like cathedral built by a people hated by the Saxons: the French Normans, the ‘Norse-men’ descended from the same war-mongering tribes who had destroyed his monastery on Lindisfarne after the community abandoned it for fear of them in 875. We know from Bede that Cuthbert wanted his body to rest on his beloved Inner Farne, but reluctantly accepted that his brothers would wish to bury him on Holy Island itself. How much more strongly would he have felt about Durham!

The link with Darlington is, historically, through this church’s dedication to St Cuthbert. That could tell us any of a number of things. It could suggest that there was a memory of Cuthbert himself preaching here, as is claimed at St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, a Church of Scotland church that is said to be the oldest attested Christian site in Scotland. I do not think this is likely here in Darlington, although we do know that Cuthbert will have passed this way during his time as guest-master in the monastery at Ripon founded by Wilfrid in 672.
More plausible is the tradition that the Community of St Cuthbert stopped here on its final journey from Ripon to Durham in 994 or 995. Most of the medieval churches dedicated to him commemorate a site where the community halted on its pilgrimage with his body. One way of reading this extraordinary journey around the north of England is as the community’s visitation of its lands, a peregrination that, as I said ten years ago, perhaps contributed to the early sense of ‘northern’ identity, the very idea of north-England that was emerging in Saxon times. As we have seen, perhaps on the basis of their presence in Darlington, the nobleman Styr gifted estates here to the community 20 years later as part of what had become designated the ‘patrimony’ of St Cuthbert with its inhabitants being known as the haliwerfolk, the ‘people of the saint’. What we do know, as we have seen, is that when the Saxon canons were ousted from Durham by the Benedictines introduced in 1083 by William the Conqueror’s Bishop William of Saint-Calais, some were sent to Darlington on the grounds that since St Cuthbert also held estates here, they were continuing to serve the saint on his own lands.

So both the name and the history of St Cuthbert is the central link between our two churches. You may like to know that since I last came here in 2004, the Cathedral has formally recognised this. Throughout the middle ages, it had been dedicated to ‘Our Lady and St Cuthbert’, a common dedication for churches founded where Cuthbert or his community had worshipped on their travels, such as the great church at Chester-le-Street, Durham’s first cathedral. In honour of this, the Neville Screen behind the Cathedral’s high altar once had a statue of the Virgin Mary at its very centre, with St Cuthbert on the right (and on the left, St Oswald, the royal founder and patron of the Northumbrian mission whose head is also interred in Cuthbert’s shrine). In 2005 the Chapter took the decision to reverse the act of Henry VIII in removing Cuthbert's name from the Cathedral's title. This was achieved through the legal process of revising the Constitution and Statutes and renaming it as ‘The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham’.
Symbolic of this, we also received in 2010 the Cuthbert Banner, a re-imagining by the Northumbrian Association of the medieval banner that used to hang near his shrine and which was burnt at the Reformation. It was said to be the most popular and effective battle ensign in England according to the 12th century chronicler Reginald of Durham.[7] It is lovingly described in the manuscript known as The Rites of Durham,[8] a late 16th century text written by someone who could remember the Priory as it had been just before the Dissolution. The banner was said by the author to have been ‘injuriously’ burned by the reforming Dean Whittingham’s wife Katharine ‘in the notable contempt and disgrace of all ancient and goodly relics’.

What then of the spirituality of St Cuthbert as we understand it both here and at the Cathedral? My last lecture here outlined how I believed St Cuthbert held abiding significance not only for understanding the history of Christianity in the North East, but for our practice of Christian faith today. You can read my earlier lecture again, if you wish, but ten years on, I do not think I would want to alter very much of it.  However, I would perhaps want to express them in a more nuanced way. So here are the insights I distil from the last decade of living in Cuthbert’s Cathedral and serving under his protection. Perhaps they can add to and nuance what I said in my Cuthbert Lecture 10 years ago.
First, I want to use the word inspiration of the way I have come to experience Cuthbert. I am sure I speak for many of you in this. I am sure that the saints are meant to inspire us in all kinds of dimensions of life. But I have the sense that in Cuthbert so many human and Christian virtues converge and cohere. I have no doubt that this is due to the sheer intensity of his spiritual vision, an aspect of his life that Bede’s writings relay to us as vivid and fervent to a degree that was legendary even in his own lifetime. Only this immediacy of spiritual experience can explain the extremes to which he took his askesis, that is, the discipline with which he shaped his entire life to equip him for the way of discipleship. This was why his memory was revered by the community he left behind, not simply those who had known him but the generations that followed, and who as an act of both piety and love bore his sacred body on their long journey as they sought for him and for themselves a permanent place to rest.

We who inhabit Cuthbert’s places today are heirs to that tradition, where he remains as much an inspiration in our own era as he was in Saxon and Norman times. And in these places especially, like yours and mine, we have always honoured him for his simplicity, his humility, his holiness, his compassion for other human beings, his closeness to the natural world, his ardour for God. You could call him England’s St Francis; or perhaps it would be better to say that Francis is Italy’s St Cuthbert, so close are they in many important respects, not least the loyalty and love they have elicited in those who have followed them.  What they both had is what Jesus calls in the Gospel ‘purity of heart’[9]: being ‘single-pointed’ as Buddhists saying, having one sole purpose for being alive, to live for God, for the human family and for his fellow-creatures. 
Second, I want to speak about the need for what I call critical imitation. Being inspired by someone does not necessarily mean that we can or should emulate them in all respects. Cuthbert, who was importantly inspired by the Egyptian desert hermits and the early Irish monks, did not imitate them in all respects. For example, his call to the hermit life, which lay at the core of his understanding of himself, did not take him to the extremes of the stylites who lived as solitaries on the tops of pillars, or the Irish monks who set out to sea beyond the reach of the mainland to exist on isolated rocks and islets. Nor did the community on Holy Island regard Cuthbert’s hermit-life on the Inner Farne as something to be imitated by most of their number. Still less was this the case for the Anglo-Norman foundations that succeeded the Saxons’ whether at Lindisfarne, Durham or here at Darlington.

One of the problems with saints who are as attractive to posterity as Cuthbert and Francis is what to do with what you might call their radical goodness. One response is to distance ourselves from their age and say that such lives belonged to a simpler, less complex era and could not be lived amid the bewildering demands of modernity. The other is to transfer the distant past directly into the present and try to embody its insights regardless of greatly altered contexts. I am not convinced that either approach is workable. It seems to me important to interpret Cuthbert’s life in ways that are true to the profoundly religious spirit of his life but without necessarily emulating its more extreme manifestations. I am thinking of the Irish habit of spending whole nights in the sea reciting the psalms, an activity we know from Bede that Cuthbert engaged in.
‘Critical imitation’ means learning from the past but not allowing it to seduce us into thinking that we belong to it. It means not forgetting the century we ourselves live in, where we are called to obedience as Christian disciples. This is why the later history of Cuthbert as a Saxon saint who was adopted by the great Anglo-Norman institutions of the North such as the Cathedral and this collegiate church is so instructive. It shows us how later generations wanted Cuthbert as their patron and fellow-traveller, but as their contemporary as well as the icon of a long and noble tradition. St Cuthbert of Durham is not altogether the same as St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, as I argued last time. But he remains the source and inspiration of the Cathedral’s life where his shrine is the spiritual and emotional heart of the building, however little this would have made sense to the saint himself. In 2004 I said here: ‘Placing him within the frame of a Benedictine Cathedral Priory was a way of claiming his universal significance for times very different from his own.  It was… a paradoxical thing to do.  But it rescued him from the fate of being locked up in the remote past.  It made him a contemporary of pilgrims of all ages.’[10]

So my third and final insight has to do with how I believe Cuthbert can function as an institutional conscience for organised religion in this part of England. This, I think, is the thread that perhaps binds the perhaps disparate themes of this lecture together. What we have explored has been the relationships between two great religious institutions, this collegiate church of St Cuthbert and our Cathedral. The links between the architectural styles in both, together with the crucial part played in both by Bishop Le Puiset, both represent the achievement of what is called Christendom in both places. Christendom means the expression of Christianity as it is embedded in the public institutions of a nation’s life. The Cathedral represented a divine authority conferred on the Bishops of Durham as Counts Palatine, holding temporal as well as spiritual authority. The king’s writ did not extend into the Palatine County because the Bishop was already sovereign there. This expressed the English ideal of Christendom in its most developed form. This church too expressed an aspect of that ideal in which the whole life of this town and parish was lived out in subjection to the rule of God expressed through the persona of his Bishop. 
This was the world that Cuthbert and the northern saints could not envisage since it represented developments that, while indeed already present in the relations between Saxon rulers and the church, were only brought to fruition in an explicit, conscious way in England with the Norman Conquest. However, all institutions, even religious ones need salvation no less than individual people. The larger, wealthier and prouder they are, the more they are likely to need it. They can behave badly, be seduced by power and prosperity, become almost irredeemably corrupt. The history of Christianity leaves us in no doubt about that. So I like to think that in Anglo-Norman Durham, their cult of St Cuthbert was a way in which large complex institutions like the Cathedral could test their motives and aspirations against the purity of heart of the man who lay buried in the shrine. Perhaps this is easier to appreciate now than before the Reformation.  Then, Cuthbert’s shrine had become the elaborate construction laden with gold, silver and precious jewels that is described in The Rites of Durham. It is hard to think that it was close in spirit to Cuthbert the humble man of Lindisfarne.

However, the sacrilegious and destructive act of King Henry’s Commissioners, when they hacked down the shrine in 1537 during their infamous visitation of the Cathedral, perhaps did it a spiritual favour. They left nothing above ground, only a coffin interred underneath the raised platform called the feretory, where the shrine had been. Later, the black stone slab we see today was installed over the place. It simply bears the saint’s name: CUTHBERTUS, so much in keeping with the spirit of his beloved sea-girt places where he lived and prayed and served and loved. Today, the shrine stands as an enclosed place apart at the east end of the Cathedral. It indisputably belongs to the very centre of the Cathedral, for without the shrine, there would be no Cathedral and no Durham. At the same time, it somehow stands apart, a place in which to be still, and remember, and ponder, and see things in a fresh way, and God willing to find a new sense of connection with the island saint whose name we bear.
In this sense, Cuthbert is the redeeming conscience of the Cathedral and by extension, of his ancient Diocese that once covered the North East of England. He recalls our churches, such prominent symbols of a Christendom that has come and gone, to what must always lie at the centre of their vocation. He reminds us that we are only true to our vocation insofar as we are true to the gospel of Jesus Christ by which he lived and died. That gospel is, of course, the deepest connection between St Cuthbert’s Darlington and our Cathedral. It is all that ultimately matters.

The St Cuthbert’s Day Lecture given at St Cuthbert’s Church, Darlington, 18 March 2014

[1] Sadgrove, Michael, Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England, 2013, 125.
[2] Pevsner, N. & Williamson, E., The Buildings of England: County Durham, 1985, 23.
[3] Barrow, G.W.S., ‘Puiset, Hugh du’  in DNB.
[4] Gameson, Richard, Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral, 2010, 78.
[5] Harvey, P.D.A., ‘Boldon Book and the Wards Between Tyne and Tees’ in Rollason, Harvey and Prestwich, eds., Anglo-Norman Durham 1093-1193, 1994, 399-405
[6] Aird, William M., St Cuthbert and the Normans: the Church of Durham, 1071-1153, 1998, 49-50.
[7] Dobson, R. B., Durham Priory 1400-1450, 1973, 27.
[8] Rites of Durham, being a Description or Brief Declaration of all the Ancient Monuments, Rites and Customs belonging or being within the Monastical Church of Durham before the Suppression, Surtees Society 1903, 26-27
[9] Matthew 5.6
[10] Sadgrove, Michael, St Cuthbert of Durham: a Perspective of 900 Years, the St Cuthbert’s Lecture 2004 (unpublished).

Sunday, 9 March 2014

On Seeing and Remembering: Some Theological Reflections on Photography

I want in this paper to reflect aloud on photography and its theological dimension. I am conscious that I am doing this in a city that can claim to be the cradle of the photographic image in the UK. It was here in St Andrews that pioneering photographers such as Robert Chambers, and John and Robert Adamson perfected what was first called the calotype in the 1840s. They used it to document the life of this city, its ancient buildings, its rich and its poor, its geology and its landscapes. St Andrews was the first city in the world to be systematically recorded through photography. Both natural and social science as well as the arts and humanities were quick to appropriate the photographic lens as a vital recording and analytic tool to complement the ever more exacting role it was already playing in the microscope and the telescope.

So light and lens played a key part in this late flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment in the mid-19th century. This is the theme of an engaging book[1] by Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews that charts the work of those early photographers. He suggests that there was something about this place that was conducive to photography. Its ruined medieval buildings that spoke so eloquently about the history of Scotland, its dramatic shore-line rich in evidences of ancient geology and palaeontology, its beautiful hinterland, civic pride and civic decay. These were the immovable givens that created a fitting context for the new science. But there was also the life of the city itself which was compact enough to embrace within a small space the extremes of privilege and poverty, the contrasting lives of academics and artisans, portraits of the great, the good, the scoundrel and the plain ordinary. And to catalyse all this intellectually, there was the ancient University itself, together with a newly founded Lit and Phil, always the symbol of a thriving intelligentsia in a decent Victorian town.
But Crawford’s book also charts the rise of a photographic aesthetic, the debt early photography owed to painting and engraving, and the ways in which photography was breaking out of old artistic traditions to create new ones. The pioneers were perhaps not always aware that they were embarking on a new kind of journey, and that today we would be as interested in their photography as an activity and an art as we are in their product, those marvellous and invaluable documentary photographs so many of which survive. Crawford references theorists such as Barthes, Sontag and Berger to explore the work of the pioneers and its influence in the history of photography. Of that history, you and I and everyone else who decides to take a photograph is a part. We should not underestimate how 19th century ways of seeing the world have coloured, mostly unconsciously, our view not only of what a ‘photograph’ should be, but what the world itself looks like.

I emphasised the phrase anyone else who decides to take a photograph.  I did this because I want to discuss photography as willed and intentional: a decision, not simply an activity. The vast majority of photos taken these days are either snapshots or illustrative documentary images. I don’t want to decry the role of either, even when I suspect that the behaviour of tourists with cameras at historic sites or on the beach is as much a kind of expected ritual as it is the need to record something and memorialise it. When I first visited the Holy Land, I was the only person among eighty who did not bring a camera with me. In those days, I had no interest in photography. When someone asked me why I hadn’t brought one and wasn’t conforming to the expected ritual behaviour, I said, a trifle pompously, that I preferred to write a journal of my experiences instead. I still have it, and it has served me well, though as I now read it I can already see hints of the photographic perspective I would have brought to what I saw and experienced. I remembered this when I wrote my book on the Christian heritage of North East England[2]. I did most of the photography myself, and found that the task of weaving text and images into an intelligent whole was both fascinating and demanding. It was much more complex than simply asking whether the written text should lead the images or the images the writing; for both are ‘texts’ in their own right. And although I did not make anything of it in what I wrote, I am aware that what the book called for was an intelligent inter-textual approach.  
So my love-affair with the camera, or rather, not with the camera but with photography, does not go back more than a decade. You may say that this hardly qualifies me to speak or write about it. However, when later life with its hard-won capacity for reflection brings with it some new discovery, the comparative rarity of that experience does seem to make it worth pondering, particularly for theologians whose business it is to ponder. So let me try to do this aloud.

Like the Victorian pioneers here at St Andrews, I owe this new-found opening to a particular place: Durham. Like St Andrews, it too is a compact and photogenic city that offers endless possibilities for photographers. The Cathedral and castle perched on their rocky acropolis with the river flowing round the peninsula, the narrow medieval streets, the liveliness of a university, commercial and once industrial environment, the landscapes of the North Pennines and the coast all contribute to Durham’s sense of place. Most of what I have learned about photography I have learned there.
But in reflecting on the past decade, I am aware that it is not simply the product of photography that intrigues me –using the technology, setting aperture, white balance, ISO, photo-shopping and so on. These are the themes of countless manuals and text books and they can only take you so far. It is the verbs – what a photographer is doing with his or her camera, what the vision is, what the personal perspective, why, how he or she composes the image, what meanings resides both in the image and the activity of creating it and how they are elicited. This to me makes photography important as a metaphor of so much else, not simply in human life but in the realms of the theological and spiritual as well. And while I don’t claim any great merit for my own photography, I can at least speak about them out of the experience of having created them myself, and in the case of those that have especially intrigued me, gone on to think about the meanings I associate to them. I want to do this by using a handful of theological ideas that I hope may help us to explore some of these, to me, central verbs of photography.

                                                              *******
Let me begin with the idea is disclosure. It is a commonplace to speak about visual art as disclosure, yet in the case of photography, the resonances are particularly suggestive. This is because the essence of photography lies entirely in the character of light and how the human eye responds to it. Those two things cannot be separated, for at its heart, photography is about a new way of seeing or, if you like, an opening of the ‘doors of perception’ as William Blake put it. To the pioneers, photography was a revelation of things not seen before, of a world apprehended in entirely new ways, whether it was landscape, architecture, geomorphology, botany or human life. The camera, therefore, soon began to be understood not as an unwelcome, obscuring technology that intruded itself between observer and the observed, but as an extension of the eye itself, as organically related to the human body as the painter’s brushes or the musician’s violin. 

Photography sometimes plays on this aspect of its own art in self-referential films and images. I am thinking of the film Blow Up, where a photographer enlarges a routine image only to discover that he has unwittingly captured a murder on film. I have had this experience once or twice. One of my earliest images I have kept is a night-time scene in Durham city-centre. There used to be a famous block of eight red telephone boxes in the market place. In urban settings at night, there is nothing so forlorn, sinister even, as an empty telephone box. With my daughter’s cast-off compact camera that I used in those days, I photographed the empty scene under the harsh yellow glare of the sodium lamps. When I examined the image, I found that the square was not empty at all. There was a young man standing by the telephone boxes watching me at work. At once, the image took on quite a different meaning from the intended one because it now suggested a narrative. Was he waiting for a call? Or was he about to make one? If so, was it a lover, or maybe a crime in the planning, or perhaps (because there is no limit to what the imagination is capable of in the small hours) he was even stalking me, so intense was his stare. It was my first experience of an objet trouvé, an unwitting disclosure within the image that can completely change the way it is read and even subvert it entirely.

We know how pervasive images of light and perception are in the discourse of religion. Ideas like revelation, enlightenment, epiphany, illumination and eikon are among the most common in the language of faith especially in connection with the Incarnation. The Fourth Gospel, to take only one biblical text, begins, in an echo of Genesis, with the proclamation of the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot extinguish. Jesus proclaims himself to be the Light of the World. A central narrative concerns the healing of a man born blind who joyfully greets a world he can now see. And if later mystical theologians suggested that the truth of spiritual experience was more rich and complex, more chiaroscuro than a straightforward linear movement from darkness to light, the metaphor still remains firmly in the arena of visual perception. For the Greek church in particular, no doubt influenced by neo-Platonism, the idea of photismos, illumination, was a central word in the vocabulary of baptism and the spiritual path.
[3]
This is where photography seems particularly well placed to offer theological and spiritual commentary on the faith tradition.  Precisely because the camera is an extension of the eye, attention is focused not only what the photographer sees and decides is worth recording, but also on how he or she does this. That is to say, it is fundamentally responsive to what is ‘there’. To me, photography only becomes an art when it finds its own authentic language, its ‘word’ that says ‘let there be light’ through the camera lens and let light do its creative work on film or digital sensor or in the light box. It becomes a form of speech that responds to whatever it encounters through both eye and lens and the decision of the photographer that here is something worth seeing. Zola said, with all the confidence of his century’s belief in the power of technology, that ‘seeing means having photographed it’; that is to say, we only truly ‘see’ when we make the choice to ‘focus’ (a suggestive word) on something in particular rather than everything in general – which in practice means nothing at all. The decision to place a frame round a small sector of reality, is not simply a description of photography but of any truly authentic act of seeing. David Brown quotes Browning’s ‘Fra Lippi Lippi’ to make the point:

            For don’t you mark? We’re made so that we love
            First when we see them painted, things we have passed
            Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
            And so they are better, painted – better to us,
            Which is the same thing. Art was given for that.
[4]
Framing is central to the photographic project. Early photographers influenced by surrealism found that juxtaposing random objects or points of focus in an image and placing a frame round them established unexpected connections in the mind of the photographer. As in theatre and film, the photographic mise-en-scène is what created meaning, even the apparently pointless, not to say meaningless. We could say that photography pioneered essentially postmodern readings of the world in which the frame created endless possibilities of bricolage. The act of framing is perhaps an interesting analogy of how religion might understand providence. In the baffling cosmos inhabited, for example, by wisdom writers like Job and Qoheleth, where theodicy cannot work because no laws seem to govern change and chance, the only way to elicit meaning out of existence is to put a frame round a part of it and reflect on the connections that emerge. This is the subjective judgment of faith, not the objective act of description. Within that frame, a tiny fragment of chaos might appear after all to be susceptible of being ordered in the eye and mind of the beholder. This approach to the ordinary in all its incoherence and perplexity is well embedded in mainstream ‘art’ photography where even the detritus of human life or civilisation frequently constitute the content of an image that makes us look at them in a new way.  This is, I think, close to what David Brown calls ‘enchantment’ in his essay on the discernment of the divine in both the natural and cultural contexts.[5]  For him, the religious quest is not restricted to revealed religion or ecclesial liturgy but often finds its most fruitful expressions in the experience of the ‘ordinary’ in ways that not only ‘make connections’ but engender a new vision or way of seeing.

I think this is what Leonardo da Vinci meant when he said of painting: ‘where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art’. Spirit could mean the human spirit or the Spirit of God. I like to think it means both, that is, the action of God’s Spirit within the human person in the way Paul speaks about when he says that the Spirit within us echoes the pangs and prayers of a created order longing for freedom[6]. We could say that it is an act of recognition: the Spirit within recognising the Spirit without. When, so to speak, the circuit is complete, there is not only recognition and prayer but art. So it is a profoundly theological statement about the character of art that links creativity and interpretation to the responsive, recognising soul of a person or community.  That reality will not be all light or all dark – if it were, there would be no photographic image. It is in the infinitely complex lands in between, in the interplay of light and shadow, life’s greyscales if you like, where life is lived and the creation waits for us to respond to both its beauty and its pain. It is when the photographer understands what he or she is trying to do, and has some sense of why, and sufficient understanding of the art, the craft and whatever technology is serving them, that real disclosure happens. A photograph becomes (to use a suggestive word) not simply a picture but an icon, an ‘image’ that marries the subject to one person’s perception of and response to it. What is more, like an orthodox icon, the image is not only ‘written’ by the photographer as a responsive act, but also draws the observer into itself to experience its life from within.
Here, there are decisions to be made about the photographer’s intent. I am not talking about how an image is composed in the viewfinder (I take it that because photography is about the eye and how it sees, the viewfinder is a required necessity. The LCD ‘live-view’ is only for use in awkward positions where the viewfinder is inaccessible. But it is almost impossible to find a decent compact camera these days that has one. It’s a sign that mass photography in the digital age when even the camera itself is under threat from mobile devices has all but abandoned the idea of seeing).  Before that, he or she has to decide what the intent of the photograph is to be. Take landscapes. When you live in the kingdom of Fife, or in North East England, it is impossible to resist the allure of photographing coast, countryside and natural or human heritage. You set out to create an image that is ‘beautiful’, awe-inspiring or as the immediate forebears of the first photographers would have said, picturesque or sublime. Images like these are the staple of picture books, calendars and post cards. They are colourful, pretty, easy on the eye, and post-production editing will remove any blemishes and perfect the subject. But such images, even when taken by the best of professional photographers, often seem to have a conventional, stylised quality about them; they lack vitality, fall into cliché. This is the problem with the view of Durham Cathedral from the bridge, as it is of many great landscape features and buildings. The question is, how can the familiar become a true disclosure, invite us to see in a different way, open the doors of perception, challenge us to a new vision? Or to use another theological image, how can a photograph transfigure our view of the world, invite us into a more contemplative way not only of perceiving a landscape but even of inhabiting it, or to put it into a different category of theological thought, sacramentalise our vision of reality?

An important word in this context could be insight. Wordsworth, in his ‘Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey’ speaks about ‘seeing into the life of things’. It is a great phrase that does not need to read simply as part of the romantic vision of the world. It is closely akin to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘inscape’, a way of achieving this contemplative way of seeing that photography invites us to explore. And we should regard ‘seeing’ as an active, not a passive, process, for as I suggested, the latter is not really ‘seeing’ at all, not in the sense of noticing and paying attention. We are familiar with the capacity of a photograph to change our view of things. I am thinking, for example, of how war photographers have unexpectedly influenced public opinion through widely-circulated images of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Iraq to take some well-known examples. Documentary photography of the Great War, only slowly and reluctantly released to the British public at home, markedly affected their perception of the war and the true horrors of mechanised armed conflict. Or in a genre more familiar to me, the images of gothic cathedrals by the great early 20th century photographer Frederick Evans that respond with such grace and insight to the vision of heavenly harmony, order and light, the kind of understanding Abbé Suger brought to the world’s first Gothic cathedral at St Denis in the 12th century.[7] This is not to say that the photographer’s intent is necessarily conscious. But it is to suggest that there are times when the photographic image speaks in ways that awaken the conscience and activate the will. An image can have a transformative effect, become a living word that challenges the status quo and demands a change of attitude.
I link this with the frequency with which Hebrew prophets were galvanised by their ‘seeing’ something that re-shaped their vision. ‘He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “a basket of summer fruit’”.[8] ‘“Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a branch of an almond tree”’.[9] The seeing, the noticing, the attentive response, all lead to the prophet’s act of recognition of what the Lord is saying. The association suggested by the word-play (in these two cases) drives the meaning far beyond a surface reading of the image itself, into the image in a way that constitutes not only a new insightful awareness on the prophet’s part but an imperative that comes to direct his career. In a fascinating narrative at the beginning of the Fourth Gospel where, as we have noticed, light and sight are key themes, the Messiah comes to be recognised first by John the Baptist and then by a succession of disciples: all on the basis of seeing and recognising. Jesus is the homme trouvé in the human landscape. ‘Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see”.  We should not ignore the resonances of that verb for St John. Not only that, but the connection is established in the reciprocal act of being seen and recognised as well. ‘Nathanael asked Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” [10] This playful exchange does not feel far away from the dynamic of photography where recording an image is an act both of sight (in this elevated sense) and recognition. We might even take it further and ask whether it makes sense to say that the subject of the image sees and recognises the camera before ever the camera recognises it. 

The Fourth Gospel, however, tantalises us with its subtle use of the imagery of seeing. One of its central narratives, is the healing of the man born blind. The evangelist links this at the outset with Jesus’ proclamation ‘I am the light of the world’. As one of the Johannine ‘signs’ of messiahship, the journey from blindness to sight is a metaphor of the dawning of inward conviction about Jesus, and this in turn leads to a protracted debate with the Pharisees about who can and cannot ‘see’ in its profoundest sense.
[11] This understanding is carried into the upper room discourses where Jesus says ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.[12] But in the resurrection narratives verbs of seeing are given a new twist. Mary Magdalen announces to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’, yet sight turns out not to be the central issue after all. When it comes to Thomas, Jesus says: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Happy are those who have not seen, and yet come to believe.’[13] And precisely this, or something like it, turns out to have been the journey the ‘other disciple’ has already made earlier at the empty tomb. ‘He saw, and believed’ it says[14] –not in Thomas’ way, gazing on the risen Jesus for himself, but taking in evidence of the empty tomb and inferring resurrection from it, despite not yet ‘understanding the scripture, that he must rise from the dead’.

So the new beatitude of Easter turns out to be about not-seeing. And this too is suggestive for photography. Even before the digital age one of the principal threats to photography was its own promiscuity, both as to content (photograph everything for the sake of collecting and hoarding images) and technique (the ‘scatter-gun’ approach – don’t bother to compose, just take hundreds of rapid-fire shots in the hope that one of them may be worth preserving). Digital technology and television have made the risk of debasing the purity of the photographer’s vision infinitely higher. Susan Sontag discusses the effect of the superfluity of images on contemporary sensitivities, particularly in relation to suffering. ‘An image is drained of its force by the way it is used, where and how often it is seen….Image-glut keeps attention light, mobile, relatively indifferent to content. Image-flow precludes a privileged image… A more reflective engagement with content would require a certain intensity of awareness – just what is weakened by the expectations brought to images disseminated by the media whose leaching out of content contributes most to the deadening of feeling.’[15] She speaks about ‘war-tourism’, underlining the danger that the photographer observes but never participates. We could say the same about mass tourism’s effects on photography. Perversely, mass photography subverts its own function by contributing to ‘not-seeing’, not as a gospel benediction, but as a reversion to a kind of blindness or at least to a distorted vision. In this case, photography would turn out to be a curse. 
Does ‘not seeing’ imply the superiority of text over image (for example, ‘understanding the scripture’, in John’s phrase)? If so, might we follow Sontag in exploring how an image without a caption, an epiphany without a story, is incapable of communicating unambiguously because context and narrative are missing? Or does the Fourth Gospel move us into an altogether different cognitive world in which words and images fall away because all are provisional? If so, and we find ourselves in the borderlands of the apophatic way, the via negativa, then not just a particular photographic image but photography itself is under judgment, together with all the visual arts, because the activity of physical sight is merely a temporary state. In a universe where there is, to quote John Donne’s famous sermon, ‘no darkness or dazzling but one equal light’, there can be no photography and no visual art.

This leads me to turn finally to another aspect of photography with suggestive theological associations. This is the idea of memory.  I am tempted at this point to divert into an important aspect of photography which is its memory of the long tradition of visual art. Commentators have long observed how, for example, war photography can sometimes uncannily replicate images of the Pietà, Via Dolorosa and Crucifixion in the way perpetrators of violence and especially their victims are portrayed.  Like other texts, photography can reference the tradition consciously or, I suspect more often, unconsciously. But it is rather different aspect of photographic memory that I want to explore here.
Theorists of photography often draw attention to its elegiac character. It preserves memories that are already in the past when the image is captured. It is like looking up at the night sky and knowing that what we see is a journey not in the present but into the past. Photographic landscapes and townscapes show what places once looked like: they are familiar yet not familiar. Francis Frith’s great harvest of photographs of both British and overseas sites as they were in the 19th century is probably more popular now than ever. Eugene Atget’s classic oeuvre documenting Paris before Haussman’s re-engineering of the city holds the same appeal as do Dorothea Lange’s wonderful photographs of the Great Depression. As I have already said, the St Andrews pioneers produced a marvellous series of images that are invaluable in understanding the social history of this city and its people. Portraits are especially powerful in this respect because they preserve faces of people who are distant, have aged or have died. The dead in particular may have no other memorial but for a photograph: even unidentified, they are memorialised and live on: gone but not forgotten.

In the film Dead Poets’ Society, the teacher takes his class of boys to look at the faded curling sepia images of the school’s past sporting heroes lovingly preserved, with trophies and other past memorabilia in glass cases. ‘Where are they now, these people?’ he asks the boys rhetorically. ‘They are food for worms.’ But not just that, because their conserved images become, in the film, a life-changing tool to help the young discover their place in the world. The lesson these images of dead people teach is: carpe diem, seize the day, live in the present because the present is a transient gift. In the language of the Ash Wednesday liturgy that echoes the book of Genesis, ‘Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ As a memento mori, photography performs the vital pedagogical function both of highlighting our mortality and to helping us to grasp life’s potentiality while we have it. We can read an old photo merely as nostalgia. But its poignancy originates in a deeper understanding of how it mirrors our condition. One day, we shall be remembered in this way ourselves.  Susan Sontag coins the phrase ‘melancholy objects’ for photographs[16], claiming that as soon as the image has been taken, it becomes one. ‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing.’[17]
In an important passage in his classic work on photography, John Berger writes:

           Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion coincides with the rise of the photograph. … The faculty of memory led men everywhere to ask whether, just as they themselves could preserve certain events from oblivion, there might not be other eyes noting and recording otherwise unwitnessed events. Such eyes they then accredited to their ancestors, to spirits, to gods or to their single deity. What was seen by this supernatural eye was inseparably linked with the principle of justice. It was possible to escape the justice of men, but not this higher justice from which nothing or little could be hidden. Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned. If all events are seen, instantaneously, outside time, by a supernatural eye, the distinction between remembering and forgetting is transformed into an act of judgment, into the rendering of justice, whereby recognition is close to being remembered and condemnation is close to being forgotten. Such a presentiment, extracted from man’s long, painful experience of time, is to be found in varying forms in almost every culture and religion, and, very clearly, in Christianity.[18]
As Berger acknowledges, this taps into a rich vein of Judaeo-Christian understanding that celebrates memory in this dynamic way. To re-enact the Passover haggadah is ritually to remind the community of the covenant that God’s redeeming activity in history has not been forgotten, that God himself has not been forgotten. But the heart of the ceremony is more, I think, to make conscious and explicit that his people have not been forgotten by God. They exist, are redeemed, are here because they have not been forgotten. God has remembered. At the elevation of the bread and wine in the Christian eucharist, precisely this not being forgotten is ‘offered’ to God in memory of the saving work of Jesus. Memory kept alive with power to transform the present and future is what the New Testament means by anamnesis. And this is perhaps a uniquely powerful function of photography – to enable past moments, chronos as well as kairos, to live again in the present.

Berger goes on to say that ‘the spectacle creates an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable…The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget’.
[19] Berger’s point as a Marxist theorist (and here he follows Sontag) is that this god is a capitalist deity that devours photographic images to feed its self-serving avarice. For him a debased photography does two things. It supplies a never-ending flow of still and moving images to service mass consumption, and thanks to its omniscience, makes possible Orwellian systems of surveillance and control. The first serves forgetfulness (don’t remember what you already have or what you have seen – crave what is new); the second, a malevolent form of recall where remembering has the potential to become an oppressive, destructive act.

But Berger wants a world in which an alternative, purified photography ‘remembers well’ so as to create better futures for humanity. ‘The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.’[20] This calls for a re-examining of the photographer’s motive in an almost vocational way that serves not the purposes of pleasing or shocking for their own sake, but the subject itself, in an encounter in which the integrity of the subject is met by the photographer’s own integrity. Cor ad cor loquitur is the watchword not only of the writer or composer but of the photographer as well.
Anamnesis is about this encounter between the remembered and the remembrancer (to revert to an old-fashioned word with the connotation of making memory a pious duty). This belongs both to the realm of purified liturgy and purified photography and is a theological task because both perform an essential ritualised function as it were on God’s behalf. In the liturgy, God remembers. And if the camera is Berger’s all-seeing representative eye that observes, records and captures reality, then by allowing it not simply to see but to see into (or for that matter, choose not to see) can also be said also to be a theological and spiritual work in which the photographic image can play a truly redemptive, transfiguring role.

It would take a von Balthasar to do justice to how a theology of light could articulate photography’s role in seeing and disclosing the beauty and the tragedy of the world as essentially theological in character. However, he did not, to my knowledge, discuss photography at all in his exhaustive studies of theological aesthetics. It is interesting to ask why photography, compared with painting or film, is under-explored by theologians. Perhaps it is time to put this right.
Given at the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Andrews University, March 2014


[1] Crawford, Robert, The Beginning and the End of the World: St Andrew’s, Scandal and the Birth of Photography, Edinburgh 2011.
[2] Sadgrove, Michael, Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England, London 2013.
[3] Nichols, Aidan, The Word has been Abroad: a Guide through Balthasar’s Aesthetics, 1998, 29-30.
[4] Brown, David, God and Enchantment of Place, 2004, 107.
[5] Ibid, especially chapter 1.
[6] Romans 8.22ff.
[7] Peterson, Brian, ‘Frederick Evans and the Theology of Light’, http://www.nccsc.net/legacy/frederick-evans-and-the-theology-of-light.
[8] Amos 8.1ff.
[9] Jeremiah 1.11-12.
[10] John 1.29-51.
[11] John 9.
[12] John 14.9.
[13] John 20.29.
[14] John 20.8.
[15] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, 94.
[16] Sontag, Susan, On Photography, 1977, 51ff.
[17] Ibid., 15-16.
[18] Berger, John, Understanding a Photograph, 53-54.
[19] Ibid., 55.
[20] Ibid., 57.