I like this time of the year, when the crowds diminish and our area regains some of its characteristic emptiness and peace. The sea this morning was gentle and still, high tide nipping at our toes as we dodged the seaweed and the temptation of eating it. The end of summer is a fitting time to celebrate one of our most significant saints, perhaps the most important man in the history of Northumberland and, when it comes to the history of our country, one of its most unlikely but profound influences. For it was St Aidan who, as a man of God and an ascetic in a time of self-servers, brought Christianity to the people of the north, and from here a different view of life spread out across the land.
The beautiful shrine in this picture was erected over the spot where Aidan, Irish missionary to the English, declined and then died in 651. Bamburgh church, where you will find it a stone’s throw from the high altar, is rare if not unique in housing the very spot where its patron saint departed his life, under the tent which was thrown over him where he lay exhausted by a life lived for others, leaning against the beam which remains within the church. This time last year the Archbishop of York inaugurated the new shrine which beams with lovely candlelight reflecting the great saint’s continuing presence in our midst. Yesterday was St Aidan’s feast day so, after a liturgy in which his work and legacy were recalled and pondered on, the congregation gathered around it to hear Bishop Frank White read St Bede’s narrative of how the dear man died.
In life, Aidan knew both rags and riches, identifying with the needs of the poor by meeting them on foot on his perambulations throughout what was then the kingdom of Northumbria. There cannot be a pathway around here he has not walked before us; indeed, his spirit on the beach is very strong, his footsteps still visible to those who look for them. Kindness, generosity and compassion guided St Aidan’s telling of the Scriptures, whose loving message he knew to be so vital if people were to move forward together into a future free from barbarity and in-fighting. These were messy times and odd bedfellows found themselves on the same side. Aidan’s patron, King Oswald, had himself been supported by pagan tribes when at Heavenfield near Hadrian’s Wall he took on Cadwallon of Gwynedd, a British leader of Christian descent who had allied himself with the pagan Saxon, Penda of Mercia, and threatened the independence and values of Northumbria. With Aidan to lead him, Oswald was able to bring unity and peace, mutual respect and freedom to live and think, governing from the mighty stronghold of Bamburgh from which, through St Aidan’s influence, the poor of this area were provided for, both in body and mind. The monastery of Lindisfarne, founded by Aidan, became a lasting legacy of teaching and learning during a golden age which endured until destroyed by Viking invasions in the eighth century. Every day when we look out across the sea we think about the little craft which brought Aidan here; the mooring place at Monk’s House, where stream and sea significantly meet, is a place I jump for joy.