Yesterday, with two dozen others, I stood beneath one of the most famous trees and shrubs in England. We spent the best part of a breezy hour at Sycamore Gap, a location on Hadrian’s Wall that is instantly recognisable from one thousand photos such as this one. Just like the Angel of the North, it has become one of the emblems of North East England. We’d trudged from your Sill there, the Northumberland National Park’s new visitor centre on the Military Road not definately not two of England’s best Roman sites, Housesteads and Vindolanda. Above us, the rugged whin sill carried the Roman Wall on its long march eastward from the Solway to the Tyne.
Across the valley, the high fells of the North Pennines still bore snowy evidence of the recent blizzards. Closer accessible, frogspawn proliferated in an unpromising muddy puddle. A herd of Hereford cattle, presided over with a noble bull, gazed at us as we exceeded among them dolefully. I mention these details because our promenade was the centrepiece of an event concentrating on the church’s ministry in the countryside.
Branded as a “contextual practice workshop on panorama and faith”, it was designed as the first in a series of study times on the rural strand of the Diocese of Newcastle’s strategy. I did so wonder if the name of my reserve Landscapes of Faith have been plagiarised. Under the sycamore tree, the discussion continued more informally.
We observed that here by the Wall, we were standing up at the northernmost advantage of the Roman Empire, a place proclaimed by its historic personality as a threshold between different domains “inside” and “beyond”. This led to a discussion about the relationship between built and natural history, how we conserve both and promote them for the general public to enjoy and learn from. We explored how the Park managed the tension between conservation and travel and leisure. Even as we talked, a few stalwart walkers passed by. A lot of people walking Hadrian’s Wall Path pause at Sycamore Gap for a rest.
With our group populating that cherished spot, its associates putting on the intentional look of being there On Business, a few ramblers were wondering and wished to overhear. I spoke up and – greatly daring – asked if I could theologise for an instant. This is permitted but one of the organisers (our parish priest as it happens) was taking a look at his watch.
Well yes, I could speak for Tynedale, I suppose. I made two factors. The first was that people were standing in our benefice (now known as “Parishes by the Wall”). Well, if not, then almost. My second point was to link this landscape to the northern saints. For we were position in the Tyne Gap corridor through which Cuthbert would assuredly have walked on his journeys between Hexham and Lindisfarne (of which he was successively bishop), and Carlisle where Bede tells us he used to preach.
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Back in the Sill, of the morning hours we drew collectively a few of the many threads. We asked one another how we might discern God in these landscapes, where we found meaning in them, and the type of faith was formed among them. I held arriving to the Wall structure and the tree in their liminal environment back again. I conjectured that perhaps this tough landscape suggested a spirituality of solitariness, like the Irish hermits or the desert fathers.
Their craving for eremitical solitariness (like the sycamore itself) was not at the expense of living in romantic relationship, or their owned by monastic communities. However the askesis of aloneness, its self-discipline, called for spiritual qualities of a distinctive kind. We know that Cuthbert craved this type of life, which explains why he created his own hermitage on the remote control island of the Inner Farne where he was to die. Maybe local cathedral life and objective in these upland valleys must ponder how it shows these and other insights suggested by the landscapes in which these are set. The suburban style of the gathered Sunday congregation won’t easily result in this difficult Northumbrian environment.
Parish, meaning the whole population who “live around” (as the word paroikia actually means) is everything in these places. It really is caught by you in the poetry of R. S. Thomas who himself knew “the solace of brutal scenery” intimately, and immortalised the rocky “skull beneath the pores and skin” in his work. I wonder whether northern theologians and church leaders shouldn’t join forces with the artists, the storytellers, the poets, the local historians and the cultural geographers who’ve taken the difficulty to get to know and love these places with interest. This engagement with this outrageous northern terroir could be extraordinarily productive. Could that be an idea for future workshops on ministry and mission in the remote countryside of the far north of England?
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