Bewcastle is a remote, small, scattered community of farmsteads and dwellings located in the heart of the disputed English Borders, around 15 miles north east of Carlisle, with a history that stretches back beyond Roman times.
It is centred on the church, sited in the remains of an irregular six-sided Roman fort, 6 miles north west of the Roman fort of Birdoswald (Hadrians Wall), on the Maiden Way. The fort itself is probably built on the site of an earlier Celtic shrine. The remains of a medieval castle also lie within the boundaries of the fort.
At the heart of this community lies the 8th Century Saxon Bewcastle Cross, beside the entrance to the church, still located in its original position. This cross is unique in England, although it has a slightly older sister at Ruthwell in Scotland. It has the oldest recorded sundial in Britain on its south face, at the neck-level of Christ on the west face. The detailed and highly developed iconography on all four faces of the cross reveal an extraordinarily rich theology that is cosmic in scope, and devotional and liturgical in purpose. It formed the cynosure of a worshipping, Christian community, that linked with Lindisfarne and Jarrow in the east, and possibly Whithorn in the west.
The history of Bewcastle in many ways forms a microcosm of the world today. It was the site of pagan worship in prehistoric times. It has experienced the occupation of foreign invaders under the Romans, north of the Wall, along with the continuous frontier battles and skirmishes. It was subject to the oppression of powerful feudal overlords under the Normans. It was long the land of terror wherein people lived in constant fear of their lives and their livelihoods, with the ongoing bitter and brutal disputes between neighbouring families during the times of the border reivers. And it was home to a centre of peace, worship, and hospitality in the time when St Cuthbert’s ministry extended from coast to coast. The present church is dedicated to him. The cross has stood silently as testimony to the peace Christ died to bring throughout much of this turbulent history.
So, why Bewcastle?
The Saxon cross outside the present church is all that remains of the community of prayer that once lived here. They were times both of peace, when according to Bede “a woman with a newborn child could walk throughout the island from sea to sea and take no harm.” But it was also a time of violence between kingdoms. Although the Church was comprised both of royalty and peasantry, all who chose to join orders chose a life of poverty and service. The independence of the Church was vital to its integrity. Aidan challenged the king, and gave away his personal gift of a prize horse to a passing beggar. The overbearing power of the Normans, who stamped their heavy-handed political and religious authority in the shape of massive stone cathedrals and churches across the land, had not yet arrived. Neither had the European monastic reforms of the late 10th Century that resulted in ‘closed orders,’ a separation from the world, and a more authoritarian application of the ‘rule of life’. During this early medieval period, there was an openness and cross-fertilisation between the northern and eastern Anglo-Saxon Christians and the Celtic Christians of Ireland and western Scotland, of which the Bewcastle Cross is testimony.
So the Bewcastle Cross stands and speaks to us from the ancient Church, calling us to question our borders, and reconsider our relationships with the state, within our communities, and with our neighbours.
But the iconography of the Cross goes much further. The Bewcastle Cross is made of stone, but it is an image of the Roman instrument of torture made of wood – from a tree. It is a tree of stone. It is the tree on which a criminal was hung. But anyone who hangs from a tree, says the Bible, is cursed, echoing the curse of Adam and Eve who ate from the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. And yet this tree has become a tree of blessing, because the One who was hanged on it died, was buried, rose again, and thus overcame death. So the paradox arises that the tree of cursing becomes the tree of blessing. The Anglo-Saxons understood this paradox and had an enormous reverence for the sign of the cross, which was, for them, the most powerful symbol in existence.
The west face of the Cross, that faces you when you first encounter it, presents three panels: John the Evangelist as the falconer at the bottom (the writer of the fourth Gospel); Jesus Christ, blessing those who stand before him (us), uplifted by the wild animals in the middle panel; and John the Baptist, carrying the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world in the top panel.
The message is simply this. Christ, mysteriously revealed in the Gospels and attested by the Church, who gave his life as the sacrifice for the sins of the world, is proclaimed by Creation to be its Lord. And he blesses all who come to him.
On its east face is a single panel that stretches from the foot to the apex. This is the panel that faces the rising of the sun, itself an icon of the second coming of the risen Christ, the dawning of the new era. It is the direction in which all worshippers traditionally face in church buildings throughout the world. This side of the cross, which looks towards the coming Christ, therefore expresses the hope of the second coming, the hope of all Creation. So what is in this panel?
A single vine. It scrolls its way in a circular movement all the way from earth to heaven. The vine is heavy with enormous bunches of grapes. Within each of the seven loops is a creature, some mythical, some real, gorging itself on the fruit of the vine. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as the vine and his followers, the Church, as the fruit. This, then, is the Church, growing from Christ. But it is a Church intertwined with all the creatures of creation – birds, mammals, fish (the mythical creatures are, in fact, a combination of fish and mammal). They are grasping the vine, actively and hungrily feeding from it. The Church, here, is the blessing that sustains Creation.
But what is the Church? Certainly it is not limited just to the Institution with which most people associate it. Rather, as St Irenaeus described it 1800 years ago, where the Spirit is there is the Church, and where the Church is, there is the Spirit. So the Church has to do with the Holy Spirit, with fire and holiness, with redemption and compassion, for the Spirit is the Comforter and the presence of Christ. The Church is wherever someone is touched by the Spirit, opening themselves to the silence of the Cross. And in this opening lies the hope and the future of the whole of Creation. For each person holds the entire cosmos within them.
So the Bewcastle Cross speaks of the integrity of Creation and its hope for the future centred on the renewal of humanity through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
This integrity of humanity with creation, and its single hope and destiny, is a radical message to us today, that requires of us an equally integrated response. Our hope is that the vision for the Bewcastle House of Prayer, drawing its theology from the Cross, gives expression to that integrity.