The View from the (vacant) Rectory - March 2019
A few weeks ago, towards the end of January, Henry Roberts and I travelled to London to view the exhibition, "Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War". One of the many attractions of this great exhibition was the fact that it was being held at the British Library; once we arrived (on time) at King's Cross, we had just a few minutes walk past the front of St Pancras Station and Hotel, and we were there.
Entry to the exhibition hall took us into a totally different era, from the busy world of the 21st century on Euston Road to the apparent silence of the 5th. The Romans had recently left, and groups of Germanic-speaking people came across the North Sea to Britain. These people, later described as Saxons, Angles and Jutes, began to settle, and the theme of the exhibition was the establishment of their rule and influence across that part of the British Isles which we now know as England ("Angle-Land").
We saw, at close quarters, literally hundreds of priceless objects - books both sacred and secular, jewellery, weapons, coins, medals, pictures, busts, statues, charters, letters, legal documents - all loaned by museums throughout Europe, and indeed across the world. The arrangement was chronological, illustrating the history, literature and art of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until their disappearance in the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Of especial local interest to us, of course, was the Guthlac Roll, depicting scenes from the life and death of our patron saint, as copied in the stained glass of the chancel windows in our church here at Market Deeping. There were many volumes of scripture, mainly the Gospels, all beautifully handwritten, many illustrated in great and colourful profusion. Perhaps most famous were the Lindisfarne Gospels, but my eye was caught by the Codex Amiatinus. Many years ago, on our first visit to Florence, Ivy and I saw this great volume in the Laurentian Library (designed by Michelangelo).
At that time, the Codex was described as the earliest complete Latin Bible, created in Italy in the 6th century. Recent scientific/forensic examination has revealed that it was in fact created in the 8th century at Wearmouth or Jarrow in Northumbria, and taken by Abbot Ceolfrith to Italy as a gift. This evidence has persuaded the Italian authorities to allow the Codex to leave Italy for the first time since it was taken there by Ceolfrith's monks 1300 years ago, following the Abbot's death in France.
Like so many of the things we saw in the exhibition, this Codex is a thing of great beauty, but also of great significance in the history of our country, and indeed of Christianity. We saw the work of artists, many of them monks, who devoted their great artistic talents to the service of their Church and their God. Those Anglo-Saxon centuries were not the Dark Ages about which we were taught (or more often not taught) at school; they were illuminated by the light of great art and of the Gospel. At the same time we saw the work of kings whose aim was to unify England, notably Alfred the Great in the second half of the 9th century, and his grandson Aethelstan, the first to call himself "King of the English" 50 years later. What we saw was evidence of a hard-won continuity throughout this period, a continuity interrupted in 1066 by the arrival of the Normans. Concluding the exhibition were two of the surviving three copies of the Domesday Book, compiled at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1086. It gave a comprehensively detailed picture of his kingdom 20 years after he had earned his nickname by conquering it at Hastings, and preserving a different continuity with Anglo-Saxon England.
In a sense, our lives are spent in a constant effort to maintain continuity of one kind or another. This is certainly true of our church lives and activities at the moment, where we seek to ensure the preservation into the future of what has been best in the past and the present. In a sense it is true also of the hectic political life of our nation, so let us continue to pray constantly for God's guidance and help in discerning and ensuring that continuity in the life of both church and nation.