When I first started as Dean in 2016 my then PA Pat Jewitt would come in with my mail. Most mornings it was ordinarily boring. Then every so often she’d declare ‘Upton Park.’
Would you have known why?
When I first looked quizzical she enjoyed enlightening me. Beyond Barking, she declared. When I still looked quizzical she said, slightly exasperated by my slow wits – ‘the District Line?’
For a letter to be beyond Barking put it in a category that might, or might not, require a response. If a response then usually great care is needed, for the surface ‘craziness’ might need careful handling.
On 11 October, 675, Ethelburga, the Abbess of Barking died. The Church remembers such people. She was the sister of Erkenwald the Bishop of London and the historian Bede suggests she probably owned the monastery at Barking, as well as being its Abbess. Monasteries were havens of security and safety in a chaotic world, where invasion by the Danes was a growing threat. Nothing much is known of her, though Bede tells of many miracles.
I guess I want to put in a plea for the barking of this world. Sometimes because they are barking, they will go beyond barking too – they won’t know where to get off.
In us too – what of the big picture that we lose sight of so easily in the routines and busyness of our lives? What of our contemplative spirit, of art and those things that stir us deeply, that are somehow different to the offerings of contemporary culture?
St Ethelburga was inspired by Benedict. She, like others, led a small group of monks and nuns to chose places like Barking, Worcester, Bury St Edmunds to settle – yes, in the midst of a chaotic world. Bringing order where there was none. Offering something so deeply counter-cultural that eventually Benedict’s Rule became a profound influence on the institutions of public life, giving necessary defence against the chaos of arbitrary power. Who knew then, that this impulse to settlement would give us the backbone of civilisation as we know it? Then, it was barking mad.
You can see why, as we remember Ethelburga, and call to mind the countless others who have embraced the religious life. They responded to something that can’t be contained or controlled. They would have called it the call of God.
At the Cathedral we try to honour that call – even though it can seem crazy to others. We try to inspire with something that takes humanity beyond the routines and busyness of life. We try to offer a place of thoughtfulness, and carefulness, of inspiration and beauty to inspire the soul.
Because, who knows? We may find ourselves in Upton Park, and be surprised by the Kingdom of God.
-- The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward is Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral