Rebuilding the Ruins

Ancient Ruins

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Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

Picture courtesy of en.wikipedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0

Although I grew up in Derbyshire, I was born in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast, which I visited on family holidays as a child. Standing high on the headland above the town are the ruins of the Abbey - in its medieval incarnation of a great building of worship in the Benedictine tradition. It was destroyed in 1540 under Henry VIII, like so many monastic foundations, as our own Protestant tradition took root. The ruins were then ravaged for centuries by erosion and icy wind off the North Sea, and hit by German naval strikes during WWI.

The Christian whakapapa of the site is traced back to the influential Anglo-Saxon double monastery (for both monks and nuns), run by its Abbess, Hilda (c.614-680 A.D.). It was part of a network of monasteries including the now more famous Lindisfarne, which grew across the kingdom of Northumbria and beyond.

Hilda was Northumbrian royalty, born into a deeply divided, tribal warrior society, which was slowly hearing the gospel through missionaries from both Rome and Ireland (Celtic). Hilda was baptised and became attracted to the monastic way of life.

She was influenced by the Irish monk Aiden of Lindisfarne, his Celtic tradition, with its emphasis on humility, poverty, creation, and living skin to skin with the suffering, contrasted with the Roman tradition with valued beautiful buildings of worship, structure and obedience to church doctrine. Aidan’s monks would give away any money immediately, sometimes using this to buy the release of slaves. In any place they would go, even if on retreat, they sought out the person most in need to come alongside and care for. This was the tradition into which the royal Hilda chose to step.

Hilda’s monastery became known as a place of excellence in learning, yet it looked very, very humble. There were no posh dwellings, yet it was frequently visited by royalty and the religious movers and shakers of its day, as well as the poor and needy.

Hilda was able to hold diversity in unity, without compromising what she believed and yet doing so in such a way that people from all walks of life and spectrums of belief called her “mother”.

Every place, every story has its light and its dark. By the 9th century, Viking raids had all but destroyed Hilda’s monastery. It would not be until after the Norman invasion of 1066 that the site was re-invigorated by Benedictine monks. Their order had beautiful origins, but became synonymous with exploitative wealth and male-dominated leadership. In the 19th century Whitby became famous again as the setting for Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula, and today the town is filled with occult shops or sanitised vampire merchandise. There is little left of Hilda and the vibrant life and mission that existed on this site for hundreds of years. But that’s the thing about ruins. They can easily lead us to miss what they once contained. And yet for those who have ears to hear, the weathered stones of the Abbey are filled with stories of faithful followers of Jesus and the impact they had on their generations.

What are the stories from our ruins that we need to re-claim and re-tell about how God has worked in our land and in the rubble of our lives?

- Bishop Ellie (adapted)