Andrew Tremlett reflects on the Northern Saints

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ [Jer. 1]

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell—one time Chaplain of Keble College, Bishop of Basingstoke and then of Europe, ecumenist and bridge with the oriental Orthodox world, who died in June—was a beloved spiritual director, guide and friend of mine for many years, as I am sure he was to many of you.

I first met him eye-to-eye across a viva voce at Oxford. Needless to say it did not end well, but the friendship nonetheless flourished.

At Geoffrey’s funeral in Chichester Cathedral, Rowan Williams spoke movingly of Geoffrey’s depth of spirituality and his sense of connectedness with the roots of the Anglican tradition, exemplified in his joint editorship—with Williams and Bishop Kenneth Stevenson—of Love’s Redeeming Work, a compendium of Anglican writing.

One of the works Geoffrey selected for that publication was a letter by Shirley Carter Hughson. He was born in South Carolina, USA and became a monk of the Order of the Holy Cross. The letter is about solitude and the communion of saints:

‘He who is “in Christ,” is never solitary in the sense of being isolated from others… He cannot be unalive to that ultimate, triumphant sense of unity with his brother whom he sees in the place where every man stands before God. He can have no sense of antagonism or indifference towards any human being, for though there are those who are not yet reborn, yet he sees in every man a potential child of God, a potential brother in Christ, a potential member of the same heavenly family in union with which he rejoices. Those who love solitude rejoice in it, rejoice in that condition which alone can make them conscious of the “great multitude which no man can number of every nation and kindred and tongue which stand before the throne and before the Lamb.”’

However alone we may feel, nowhere in England are we more conscious of the company of saints than when we stand in here in Durham Cathedral: Cuthbert to the East, Bede to the West, Oswald joining them in prayer. We are surrounded visibly, physically, purposefully and prayerfully.

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Bishop Geoffrey, Brother Hughson OHC, Cuthbert, Bede, Oswald, Hild, Margaret: all called by God before they were born.

When Cuthbert’s body was brought to Durham in 995 the Cathedral, as we now know it, did not exist. Cuthbert’s coffin lay first in a temporary church and then in the Anglo-Saxon ‘White Church,’ which was begun in 996 and finished in 1017. 4 September has long been venerated as the anniversary of that enshrining in 999 of the body of St Cuthbert in the original ‘White Church’ prior to the building of the present Cathedral.

The present cathedral was begun in 1093, after a community of Benedictine monks from Jarrow had been established there to succeed the Anglo-Saxon community which brought Cuthbert’s body to this site. Eleven years later, as soon as the east end of the church was ready, a great and solemn festival was held to ‘translate’ Cuthbert’s body into the new cathedral. The Rites of Durham describes the ceremonies that surrounded the moving of Cuthbert’s body on 29 August 1104.

The permanent exhibition from July of the Treasures of St Cuthbert within the Great Kitchen had something of that sense of occasion—that something really significant was taking place—of Durham re-finding its roots in the Holy Island tradition and being able to share that with a regional and global audience.

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ [Jer. 1]

However, in the company of all these saints, I want to mention not one of the ‘greats’ but rather a remarkable local man, Sunderland-born Eric Bowman, who was devoted to this festival, travelled whenever he could from London to be here, and in his last months asked me to pray for him at the Shrine of St Cuthbert. Many of you will, I think, have known or recognised him.

After service with the parachute regiment, Eric joined the BBC, learnt Arabic along the way and was stationed in Beirut. He later became the manager of the BBC’s Arabic Service and director of their monitoring service—keeping tabs on news from across the globe and sharing insights with government agencies.  Bill Rogers, broadcaster and former colleague of Eric wrote a lovely piece about him:

‘I was too lowly to be issued with a brick mobile phone, but Eric used to keep tabs on me with a pager… vital for summoning me to Friday panics to re-write business cases, and then, perhaps, relax with a glass of dry white. I managed never to tell Eric that sometimes I told fibs about broken pagers; I left his service with over ten of the infuriating bleepers, which he just kept issuing and issuing…’

Perhaps that speaks to us of a God who does not just know us from the womb, from before we were born, but who time and time and time again speaks to us, messages us, reaches out to us through the lives of Cuthbert, Bede, the whole communion of saints.

So let me ask you: do you believe those words of Jeremiah? Do you believe that, before you were formed in the womb, God knew you? That before you were born, you were consecrated? That you were appointed a prophet to the nations? Because, if so, this feast of translation, this wonderful celebration of Cuthbert and all that he has meant through the ages, can never be enough, can never be sufficient.

If God has known you in the womb, if he has consecrated you before you were born, has he not also, then, appointed you as a prophet to the community you live in and serve, as a healer of the broken hearted, as a shepherd to the lost, a support for the weak?

So make a vow to the Lord that when you visit the Shrine, you will attend to God’s call on your life, whatever that may be. And may God bless you as you journey on.


The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett is Dean of Durham. This sermon was preached on Saturday 2 September 2017 Feast of Translation of the Relics of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral.