SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
The Eagle has Landed!
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
Do you recall the film of Higgins novel (Michael Caine 1976) and the plan to capture Churchill in WW2 or does the phrase summon up the words of Armstrong taking those tentative steps on the moon? The first a failed attempt and the latter a signal to a waiting earth that the Apollo mission was complete. I guess in the Cathedral we are still somewhere in the middle of any progress statement, though I hope that we are heading in the right direction. Not that things are going wrong, or that we have been tricked by an impersonator but neither is the mission complete – will it ever be, I sometimes ask? But in a very real sense this week the eagle landed. Now to be honest it hasn’t flown far but to be fair it was a precarious journey – along the cobbled scruffy back lane we call ‘bin alley’ to be precise. There wasn’t much flight too, rather it was a ‘cart and wheels job’ but that doesn’t sound quite so exciting, authentic or daring for a rare old bird. Anyway, it happened and safely too, now the grand brass eagle has been bolted down and proudly rests on some old railway sleepers at the west end of the Quire. We’ve clipped her wings, so to speak, so that she’ll stay there for the next year. We’ve also put her (is it a her?) to use at each Evensong and on Sundays. Dignified with the reading of the scripture and the preaching of the word from her wings. So, for now at least she’s thankfully doing exactly what she was made for.
Have you ever wondered why some churches have an eagle for a lectern? Tradition calls it back to the Gospel of St John. The Gospel, you will remember opens with that majestic and deeply poetic prologue that begins, well at the beginning! And in the beginning is ‘the word’. The ancient symbol of the fourth evangelist is the Eagle, it is a fitting symbol. The royal eagle was known for grace, strength, keenness of vision and powers of flight, so the most royal of scriptural writers, soars to heaven itself to open his great Gospel of the eternal God, Creator and Redeemer. Therefore there grew a custom of brass Eagle lecterns, with talons grasping the world, and wings spread wide to carry the Scriptures to all the corners of the world. They were certainly the fashion before the Reformation and all the great churches would have at least one. Sometimes they were not just lecterns as their beaks slightly ajar were ready to receive the ‘Peter’s Pence’ (or what was in reality a papal tax). Often there would also be a slot in their wings to take the money – an elaborate donations box. They fell out of favour in the Reformation period which may feel like a strange irony as one of the key drivers of the Reformation was giving public access to the Bible. Some even began to think that they were blasphemous as they promoted the Eagle as a God. In Cromwellian period the remaining examples were often vandalised, the donation slots blocked up and often some of the talons cut off. In the Victorian period, with the rise of the Oxford Movement, it became the fashion again to make one for the church, more often in wood. Today only 45 examples of pre- Reformation Eagles remain and ours in Newcastle is one of them …. she is old bird to treasure, that’s for sure!
She stands at 5’10’’, beautifully cast in brass with no sign of a Peter’s Pence or a donation box slot, though the right foot talons grasping a globe have been deliberately cut. Of course, we don’t know by who, perhaps an accident or maybe a Puritanical vandal – another riddle! The lectern part is ingeniously adaptable and at its foot the middle column spreads to three stays each finished with a small lion. It is good to see her back in use.
Which reminded me that among our treasures we have the most wonderful bible – wouldn’t it be good to see it rest on the eagle’s back one day. Sadly, that won’t be happening very often as the Bible is a treasure too easy to ‘lift’ and we couldn’t bear to lose it. It is known as the Hexham Bible – not because it belonged to Hexham but because it was produced in the Abbey there. Written on beautiful velum in Latin it is equally beautifully illustrated. It dates from the 14th Century, bound in a wooden cover with a chain attached to keep it safe from pilfering hands. Sometimes we bring it out, most recently for the new Dean to rest his hand upon when he swore his Oaths at his induction – what an honour. Indeed, the inscription on the inside of the wooden cover declares that this precious book ‘belongs to the Vicar and Churchwardens of Newcastle Parish Church.’ It is probably the most expensive article in my possession, well in simple monetary terms, but it’s not for sale!!!!!
These two treasures, one proudly standing in the Quire (though securely bolted to the floor) and the other usually locked away for safety in the great Cathedral safe remind me just how important the scriptures were to our Christian ancestors. With love, devotion and great skill they carefully copied them out and ensured they were in safe hands, in displaying them for reading they placed them on the wings of beautifully crafted eagles to declare that the written words would help us soar to heaven. Yet in a strange way they each display a different understanding of God’s word in the scripture and liturgy. The Reformer’s desire to give the populace access to the scripture (a dangerous and radical idea at the time) was overtaken and delivered by the arrival of the printing press. Nowadays the scriptures are translated into the vernacular of many countries and peoples. [Indeed, the whole Bible has been translated into 698 languages and the New Testament a further 1548 tongues.] Since the Reformation the eagle has flown far and wide!! Yet even in my lifetime the radical nature of the scriptures has made Latin American juntas and Communist regimes weak at the knees with worry of revolution in its words. Even if in the West we have sometimes too easily domesticated it into old phrases and Sunday school stories.
Over the last two centuries however, we have become accustomed to different approaches to the Holy Book. Few today would give them the same reverence as in days of the scriptorium in Hexham or the casting workshop of our Brass Eagle. Many today would discard the scriptures altogether as irrelevant, not remotely aware of the treasured phrases and leaning within. Others are suspicious of a wild fundamentalism that can accompany an over literal reading. Yet we as a church still hold fast to the belief that the scriptures ‘contain all things necessary for salvation.’ I have, over many years, been through my own struggle with these precious words. How do we make sense of them for today? How do we approach them with a little more intelligence? How do we not lose or overlook the mysteries that they teach? But how do we do this as people of our time, people rightly not prepared to ‘swallow’ anything without critical thinking? People rightly afraid of rigid ‘truths’ and dogma that can have terrible consequences so alien to our understanding of the God of love in Christ? In short, how do we give God’s Holy Word its rightful and necessary dignity and respect in our community without making the very ‘Word’ itself into an idol?
I have lived with this challenge for many years and perhaps unsurprisingly the greatest help that I received came from quite a different direction than I would have expected: A good holiday read in fact. A novel, read by the pool on the sunlounger! The novel by Chaim Potok, called ‘The Promise’ is the second part of the story of two Orthodox Jewish boys in New York. They strike up a deep and unusual friendship because one Danny is the son of an ultra-orthodox Rebbe, the other Reuven is the son of a more liberal (though still orthodox) Rabbi and Biblical Scholar. While Danny leaves his roots to train as a psychologist, Reuven trains to be a Rabbi. To achieve his ordination at the end of his studies he is required to get a ‘schmica’ from his teachers. He is a brilliant scholar but for his strict teacher he has adopted too much critical theory in his study of the Torah. The tutor, a fierce rigid scholar, refuses to sign his paper. Then he quite suddenly changes his mind. As he signs the ‘schmica’ he says this to the bewildered Reuven:
‘I did not want to give you smicha, Reuven, I still not approve of it [Note from me. This is a reference to the way Reuven studies the scripture] I will fight you when you teach it. ….Once I had students who spoke with such love about Torah that I would hear the Song of Songs in their voices….. I did not hear the Song of Songs in America until I heard your voice at the examinations. Not your words but your voice. I do not like the words. But the voice…’
So, the eagle has landed in the Quire and the Hexham Bible is back in the safe but we are left to work out how we will treasure the Scriptures in our transformed Cathedral community. We will continue to put copies of the scriptures open for all to see around our church. We will continue to have gospels to give away for any who would receive and read. We will continue to offer opportunities for bible study. But I know that the only version of Scripture worth having among us is the AV – the Active Version: Scripture fresh and alive in our lives as we share in the love of God. Will those who come among us hear the Song of Songs in our voices?