St Aidan's Orthodox Church

Orthodox Northumbria

  Orthodox Northumbria – Lindisfarne

The planned holiday having collapsed, a new approach was needed. The north east of England provides some good examples of early Christian churches and a trail round some of them seemed inviting. The first stop was at Escomb near Bishop Auckland in County Durham. It was open, and beautiful in its Saxon simplicity. The guide book says:

“There is about the Church at Escomb a sense of mystery. There are questions that have no ready answers, and a sense of some deep experience that remains forever just out of reach. In its most simple and basic form the survival and continuity of this little church speaks of God’s eternal presence in the midst of our human frailty and transience.

We cannot tell for certain just who built the church; when it was built or why it was built in this particular location.”

The date of building is given between 670 and 690AD, i.e. just after the death of St. Aidan and during the time when St. Chad was bishop of Lichfield. Since then it has been used almost continuously as a place of worship. The sanctuary is divided from the nave by a very solid stone screen with a lovely rounded arch, the stones of which are thought to have come from a old Roman fort at near-by Binchester. But the all-pervading sense of awe and mystery made this Orthodox pilgrim think it would be quite easy for us to walk in and serve a Liturgy in the manner similar to those who built it 1300 years ago.

About the same time as Escomb was being built, not very far away St. Benedict Biscop was busy constructing the twin monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow (in 674 and 682 respectively). By contrast they both have the feel of a more western style of architecture and because St. Benedict Biscop was a devotee of Roman ways, may have from the start, not followed Celtic practice in worship. Nevertheless they are both worth visiting. Because of his love of things Roman, their founder named them after the great saints of that City – St. Peter at Wearmouth( modern day Sunderland) and St. Paul at Jarrow.

The Venerable Bede is connected with both monasteries. He was taken as a young boy to Wearmouth but grew to manhood in Jarrow where he became the most celebrated scholar of his time. He dominated the intellectual life of Europe for about four centuries and he died in his cell at Jarrow on the eve of the Ascension 735, aged 63. His bones now rest in Durham Cathedral.

Going north for the first time through the Tyne Tunnel brought me to the Norman parish Church of Our Lady, Delaval. This was built in 1100 and consecrated in 1102. As the Norman name indicates, it was built by Hubert de Laval, nephew by marriage of William the Conqueror. Hubert, like so many of his time, became an important overlord with lands given as a reward for assisting William to conquer and also as a pledge that he would keep the local natives in subjection.

But even though the Church was built after the Conquest, old habits died hard and still a solid stone screen separated sanctuary and nave. Again the building has been in constant use — for long enough as a private chapel to the manor house but in 1891, Lord Hastings presented it to the C of E as the Parish Church of Our Lady and he remains Patron.

In an interesting way, these four churches, Escomb,Wearmouth, Jarrow and Delaval, mark the transition from the Orthodox heritage to the brash new Western-style church which was emerging and which is seen in real magnificence in Durham Cathedral itself.

The next objective was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne now connected to the mainland by a causeway over which you can drive only at low tide. But once over, the Island has an atmosphere of peace and stillness which is soon apparent, even though during low tides there were visitors a-plenty.

All the church buildings on the Island are of Norman origin. The ruins of the Benedictine Priory(built in the 12th century) replaced an earlier Celtic monastery and church that St. Aidan had used as his base for mission and where St. Cuthbert was buried in 687. Because of Viking raids, the monks fled in 875 taking with them the Body of St. Cuthbert. The island may have been uninhabited for over 200 years until, in 1082, Benedictine monks were granted the See of Lindisfarne but they re-named their home ‘Holy Island’. By 1120 they had re-built the priory and dedicated the church to St. Cuthbert. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, the Crown assumed control and the Island became a military stronghold.

The roofless Norman Church is the most spectacular feature remaining of what must have been an impressive priory. It was cruciform in shape and at the crossing there still remains one diagonal vaulting rib called the Rainbow Arch. This and the carving on the arches and pillars suggest that it was built by the monks who also built their motherhouse of Durham Cathedral.

The present Parish Church of St. Mary was built between 1120 and 1145 but the chancel was added later. Today’s beautiful reredos contains icons of some of the Saints of Lindisfarne and in front of the altar is a magnificent carpet made in 1970 depicting a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. There is also a modern copy of this famous Book in the Church — a reminder of the brilliance of the Celtic monks whose calligraphy is unequalled. The Gospel book was written by Cadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne 698 – 721 in memory of St. Cuthbert. The original is now in the British Museum and is a very important part of our heritage.

Lindisfarne is often called the cradle of Christianity in this country and St. Aidan has a better claim to be called the apostle of the English than St. Augustine. As Magnus Magnusson says :

“Saint Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, kindled the lamp of Christianity in the North of England. It was a lamp whose rays would illume the civilisation of Western Europe and give Lindisfarne a Golden Age whose afterglow confers upon the little island still an aura, an ambience, of remembered graces.”

Fr Deacon John-Mark Titterington