Yesterday, with two dozen others, I stood beneath one of the most famous trees 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 a thousand photos such as this one. Like the Angel of the North, it has become one of the emblems of North East England.
We had trudged there from The Sill, the Northumberland National Park's new visitor centre on the Military Road not far from two of England's best Roman sites, Housesteads and Vindolanda. (I say trudged because the thaw had left the path exceedingly boggy; indeed, one poor woman measured her length in the mud and had to be pulled out by three of us who were with her.) 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 at hand, frogspawn proliferated in an unpromising muddy puddle. A herd of Hereford cattle, presided over by a noble bull, gazed dolefully at us as we passed among them.
I mention these details because our promenade was the centrepiece of an event focusing on the church's ministry in the countryside. Branded as a "contextual practice workshop on landscape and faith", it was designed as the first in a series of study days on the rural strand of the Diocese of Newcastle's strategy. (I did wonder whether the title of my book Landscapes of Faith had been plagiarised. If so, it was in a good cause.) Our speakers shared insights into the aims of the National Park, its geology, land forms, flora and fauna, the effect of human activity on the natural environment, the rural economy, and the role of memory and storytelling in giving depth to the texture of centuries of human interaction with the landscape.
Beneath the sycamore tree, the conversation continued more informally. We noted that here by the Wall, we were standing at the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire, a place marked by its historic character as a threshold between different domains "inside" and "beyond". This led to a discussion about the relationship between built and natural heritage, how we conserve both and promote them for the public to enjoy and learn from. We explored how the Park managed the tension between tourism and conservation. As we talked, a few stalwart walkers passed by. Most people walking Hadrian's Wall Path pause at Sycamore Gap for a break. With our group populating that cherished spot, its members wearing the intentional look of being there On Business, a few ramblers were curious and wanted to overhear.
I spoke up and - greatly daring - asked if I could theologise for a moment. This was permitted but one of the organisers (our parish priest as it happens) was looking at his watch. Well yes, I can talk for Tynedale, I suppose. I made two points. The first was that we were standing in our benefice (now known as "Parishes by the Wall"). As we looked south across the Tyne, we should notice (I said) that running through our parishes were no fewer than three key institutions in our county: a national park (Northumberland), a world heritage site (the Roman Wall) and an area of outstanding natural beauty (the North Pennines). Was such a confluence unique? Well, if not, then almost.
My second point was to link this landscape to the northern saints. For we were standing 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. Ancient churches dedicated to St Cuthbert such as at Carlisle itself, Upper Denton (probably), Beltingham, Old Haydon and other places plausibly preserve the memory of the travels of the Community of St Cuthbert as they wandered across the north of England in search of a permanent home for the Lindisfarne bishopric, the saint's relics and the Lindisfarne Gospel book. Indeed, cultural geographers of the north speak about how those sacred journeys helped create the very "idea of north". I suggested that we were looking out at a landscape of faith where meanings were inherent not only from prehistoric and Roman times, but from the Saxon and later medieval periods as well.
Back at The Sill, we drew together some of the many threads of the morning. We asked one another how we might discern God in these landscapes, where we found meaning in them, and what kind of faith was formed among them. I kept coming back to the Wall and the tree in their liminal setting. 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 relationship, or their belonging to monastic communities. But the askesis of aloneness, its discipline, called for spiritual qualities of a distinctive kind. We know that Cuthbert craved this kind of life, which is why he created his own hermitage on the remote island of the Inner Farne where he was to die.
Maybe local church life and mission in these upland valleys needs to ponder how it reflects these and other insights suggested by the landscapes in which they are set. The suburban model of the gathered Sunday congregation won't easily translate into this tough Northumbrian environment. Parish, meaning the entire population who "live around" (as the word paroikia literally means) is everything in these places. You catch it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas who himself knew "the solace of fierce landscapes" intimately, and immortalised the rocky "skull beneath the 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 social geographers who have taken the trouble to get to know and love these places with passion. Such an engagement with this wild northern terroir could be extraordinarily fruitful. Could that be an idea for future workshops on ministry and mission in the remote countryside of the far north of England?