Thoughts of another definitive synod

31 October 2014

Hexham's Celtic heritage makes it well worth a visit, says Paul Vallely

MY CHIEF memory is that my knees were red raw from the chill wind blowing off the North Sea. It was my first year as a Boy Scout (16th Middlesbrough, St Mary's College Troop), and we had been asked to take part in the 1300th anniversary of the Synod of Whitby. As schoolboys, we were not quite sure what that meant. But something important in history had happened locally, and that was enough.

The years have filled in only some of the gaps. The council, under King Oswiu of Northumbria, had political as well as religious significance in uniting the Celtic and Roman halves of the English Church in a common date for the celebration of the date of Easter, and resolving esoteric differences in the shape of the Roman and Ionian tonsures.

In later years, when all things Celtic came romantically into fashion in church circles, Whitby, in AD 664, seemed to be a decisive battle between a messy, awkward, spontaneous, audacious yet vulnerable Christianity, contrasted with another style characterised by rigorous legalism and institutional power. The goodies had lost out to the baddies in this caricature.

It lingers. The notion of a Celtic Church remains "maddeningly ineradicable from the minds of students", in the words of the late Patrick Wor-mald, the great expert on the Venerable Bede and his epoch. Some chauvinist Scots historians still proclaim a caesura in the history of the Scottish Church between 664 and the Reformation.

Last week, I went to Hexham. My father had always described it as his favourite English town, dating from the time he had spent some time there on a training course. But we had never been. In boyhood, we had habitually looked south - to the north Yorkshire moors and the Yorkshire Dales - rather than to the north.

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My Dad was right. The border town of Hexham is like a little York, without the tourists. Its Abbey is not so grand as the Minster, but it is intriguing. It is, with its great transepts almost as big as its nave and choir, distinctively a priory, and it is easy to see why Stephen of Ripon, in the eighth century, described Hexham Abbey as the most magnificent church north of the Alps.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, the building became the parish church of the little market town, and separated from its former monastic buildings - until last month, that is, when a grand £3-million, year-long project reunited the two (News, 24 October).

The restoration is well worth a visit. This has been a site of Christian worship for more than 1300 years, and its artefacts tell a story of a journey in faith: the Celtic cross of Acca, the Saxon crypt and frith stool of Wilfrid, the Early English lancets of the Augustinian canons in Norman times - and their dramatic stone night-stair from the dormitory direct into the south transept - the prodigal triptych of the Ogle chantry, and the panel paintings behind the pulpit in which Death dances around cardinal, king, emperor, and pope.

There are, I found, many more gaps to fill. It is a patrimony well worthy of exploration.

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