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word from Wormingford

Do not spare that tree, Ronald Blythe tells the woodman

TWO young Mancunian executioners arrive at the door, sweetly smiling, as executioners do. They wave the warrant in my face. See, my signature. The oak stump must die. For too long it has put out tentative approaches to the farm generator, causing a nervous frisson through the neighbourhood.

The executioners quell its suspicions by appearing in a pretty little van called Contract Arborists, and not an axe in sight. The oak stump is about 12 feet high and 50 years old. A Reine Victoria rose clings to it in summer. But this is winter; Lent, even. So a sad whine fills the valley as the woodmen do then- duty. All morning they work, coppicing hazel, banking sawdust, now and then going off on scampers in the dank meadow like puppies. The generator looks sparky.

I preach on St Cedd at evensong, sensing that this is what he might like. Not that it is his day, but it is nice to be talked about when it isn’t one’s day. Lindisfarne was a Celtic university, art college, and theological training centre, which trained 12 Saxon boys to become missionaries to their own people, who distrusted Celts, finding them too happy. Life had to be grim if Valhalla was to be a treat.

When he grew up, they sent him to the East Saxons, who lived in an oak wood, worshipping trees and weather. Carrying a beautiful painted book above his yellow head, Cedd talked of love. Not liking forests, he found a ready-made church on the Saxon shore named Othona, where he could sing along with the tides and sea birds. Two of his tree churches remain, Polstead and Yeldham, and we hiked to look at them when we were children.

There is an Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Husband’s Message”, which might almost be describing Cedd’s mission to Essex.

Now that we’re alone I can explain The secret meaning of this stage. I

was once a child, But now one of the sons of men,

living far from here, Sends me on errands over the salt

streams, Commends me to carry a

cunningly carved letter. At my master’s command I have

often crossed the sea,

Sailed in the ship’s hold to strange

destinations. And this time I have come

especially

To show assurance in your mind About my lord’s great love for you.

Kevin Crossley-Holland translated this, and it has an open quality, which allows an immense idea to enter.

As I preached — if one can call it preaching — it poured, the rain splashing on the church roof, just as it rained when I walked to Lindisfarne, torrentially, the Northumbrian sea stabbed and pricked with water-javelins, my body, too. And the Celtic Jesus remained soaked in the rocks. But when I read poems at Othona, that barn of a shrine howled drily in the east wind.

Cedd’s pulpit oak at Yeldham is corseted in iron stays, and quite dead. But his pulpit oak at Polstead has been born again.

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