The Bishop’s Ministry at Auckland Castle

Meeting of Church Commissioners and Auckland Castle Trustees, Directors and Supporters
Auckland Castle, July 13 2005
Briefing paper from the Bishop of Durham


In his briefing paper, the Secretary to the Commissioners has highlighted as the principal question before us: ‘how do the retention of the [Zurbarán] paintings, and the Bishop and his family continuing to live at Auckland Castle, support his ministry in the diocese of Durham?’ While I believe the questions should be put the other way round (castle first, paintings second), and while we must not sideline other questions of history, heritage, culture and society, I accept that this is is indeed the key question and will attempt to address it here. Much could be written; I will keep this briefing paper fairly short and happily expand at the meeting any points people may wish to raise. I shall look at episcopal ministry in general, at the ministry of the bishops of Durham, and at the focal points of my own episcopal ministry, and comment on the place of the castle, and of the paintings in relation to these.

1. The Ministry of a Bishop

The Ordinal highlights scripture, prayer, teaching, holiness, ordering the diocese, and caring for the poor as the key elements of episcopal ministry, invoking to this end the Holy Spirit in Cosin’s translation of Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’). Recent work on the nature of episcopal ministry has highlighted, among other things, the role of the bishop as a leader in mission and a focus of unity. There is a strong aspiration on the part of most of today’s bishops to return to these primary episcopal tasks and not to be swamped by administration. Most of today’s clergy and laity strongly support this. This forms the wider setting for what now follows.

2. The Ministry of the Bishops of Durham

The Diocese of Durham is keenly aware of, and enthusiastic about, the particular focus of its bishops and their work down the years. The most obvious aspects of this work are (a) theological and biblical scholarship, (b) leadership in local and national issues (especially on behalf of the weak and in support of social justice), and (c) the contemporary articulation of the faith.

a. There is a long line of episcopal scholarship from at least as early as de Bury in the C14, through Cosin in the C17, Butler in the C18, Van Mildert (founder of Durham University), Lightfoot and Westcott in the C19, to Moule, the Ramseys, John Habgood and David Jenkins in the C20. Other bishops, notably Barrington, founded schools. The bishop and the university remain closely linked at both formal and informal levels. This scholarship is reflected particularly in the Library at Auckland, which houses books going back to the sixteenth century.

b. Bishops of Durham have been in the forefront of speaking out and taking practical action on the issues of the day. Trevor (who bought the Zurbarán paintings) was a noted philanthropist and spoke out strongly for social tolerance in relation to the C18 Jewish question. Westcott, a lifelong Christian Socialist, intervened in the terrible miners’ strike of the 1890s; one of the great local memories of Auckland Castle is of Westcott doing shuttle diplomacy between the mine owners and the workers’ representatives in two of the upstairs rooms, retiring to the Chapel to pray while they discussed his proposals, and eventually persuading the owners to meet the workers’ urgent demands. Henson was tireless in addressing local, national and international issues during his two decades; Ian Ramsey was doing the same before his untimely death. David Jenkins followed Westcott’s footsteps in his interventions in the miners’ strike of the 1980s. Michael Turnbull in the 1990s was one of the leaders of the reforms of church structures and also of the plans for local government reorganisation in the north-east.

Most of the bishops already mentioned were energetic in articulating the faith afresh for their times, and in relation to their contemporary culture, through writing, speaking and action. One way of doing this (developed particularly by Lightfoot in the Chapel) was by re-invoking the memories of the ancient church of north-east England and by encouraging contemporary Christians to rekindle those ancient flames.

3. The Ministry of the Present Bishop

The question I have been asked demands that I speak of myself. I do so reluctantly, not least because I do not regard the argument about the castle and the paintings as hanging on the particular gifts and calling of a single bishop. Rather, I suspect that one of the reasons I was asked to come to Durham was because my background, training and previous work provided a close fit with some at least of the episcopal gifts for which the See has been known and valued. For this reason I cannot, if I am to answer the question, avoid talking about my own work.

Throughout my ministry I have done my best to focus my energies on prayer, scripture, the eucharist, biblical and theological scholarship. With Maggie’s constant help and encouragement, I have worked at engagement with, and mission to, the contemporary culture, and at pastoral ministry not least through hospitality. One major theme that has constantly emerged has been fresh engagement with the past in order to generate fresh engagement with the present. This engagement with the past has driven me to rethink the place within religion of scripture, church history, buildings, music, art and literature. My desire to reconnect past and present is reinforced by the holistic theology of mission (both ‘spiritual’ and ‘practical’) which I have been developing and articulating for the last fifteen years; in particular, through my work on resurrection. Resurrection means, among other things, the consequent recapturing of the sacramental dimensions of the created order of space, time and matter. If the church asks someone with this understanding of resurrection, and, more broadly, with this background and these interests and passions, to do a particular job, I presume it is because the church wants this kind of ministry and intends to support it.

Let me elaborate these different aspects.

a. prayer and sacraments. I have been shaped all my life by the habit of Bible reading and prayer, and since confirmation by the regular Eucharist. In my early ministry this was folded into the world of college chaplaincy; since 1993 it has been incorporated within the daily life first of Lichfield Cathedral and then of Westminster Abbey. I have become increasingly conscious of the sense of place as one significant element in prayer, as in Eliot’s phrase, ‘where prayer has been valid’ – not that prayer cannot be valid anywhere, but that a habit of prayer in a particular place can tap into existing memories of earlier local devotion and generate its own in turn (a point I expounded in my book The Way of the Lord). At Auckland I have settled into a pattern of private prayer in one corner of my own study; household prayer in the Oratory; and larger services, (not least licensings), in the great Chapel which was so central to the life and ministry of (to look no further) Cosin, Van Mildert, Lightfoot, Westcott and Moule. I regard this holding together through prayer of the life, work and history of the house as foundational for everything else.

b. scholarship and teaching. Having been called and equipped to follow a vocation of biblical and theological scholarship in the service of the church, I enquired carefully before accepting episcopal orders whether the church really wanted a bishop who would continue with such work. Having been assured that it did, I further enquired whether it would be possible to have two separate rooms, one for diocesan business and one for private study. Auckland has provided this splendidly, so that I have at least a chance of keeping on top of the competing piles of paper, with the great Library as my main diocesan working-room and the smaller study for my own research and writing. I am very conscious of the fact that J. B. Lightfoot, one of my lifelong heroes, completed his massive work on the Apostolic Fathers in the next room, now our private sitting room. (See Appendix 1.)

Since coming to Auckland I have written the popular-level Romans for Everyone (2 vols.) and the small book Scripture and the Authority of God; I delivered the Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge, which are now about to appear in print (Paul: Fresh Perspectives), as are two other books, a work of apologetics entitled Simply Christian and a devotional book, based on Holy Week talks in Durham Cathedral, entitled The Scriptures, the Cross, and the Power of God. I am working on several other projects large and small. All this is regularly translated into spoken teaching in the Diocese and beyond; last year I hosted a Study Day on Philippians here at the Castle, this year I am doing a series of lectures in each of the three Archdeaconries, and I not only preach but also lecture in various churches and other locations. I have attended some of the New Testament seminars at the University (where the relevant chair is named after J. B. Lightfoot) and given a paper there on one occasion.

In addition, I have responded to requests from the wider church, especially in my membership of the Lambeth Commission which produced the Windsor Report and in commenting on a draft of the ARCIC report on Mary. In all this work three things have been of great help to me: first, having the two separate rooms; second, having the splendid library which includes key texts from the Fathers and Reformers as well as several Jewish and Classical sources; third, my daily consciousness of the communion of saints who have laboured at similar work in this very house.

I have increasingly developed my work with schools and young people, and have found teachers eager to bring pupils to Auckland, where we hope to develop an educational programme geared to the teaching needs of different curricular stages. We are planning a major youth event in the Diocese for next July, for which I am Patron; some of the events may take place here, and plans are in hand to hold a similar event in the Park in 2007.

c. mission and engagement with the culture. I have wrestled historically over the last twenty years with questions to do with Jesus, Paul and early Christianity. As I have done so, I have become increasingly driven towards the holistic expression of the Christian faith in and for the postmodern world. My background on this includes, among many things, several events at Lichfield, including (at Maggie’s instigation and under her leadership) a week-long exhibition of prison work leading up to Prisoner Sunday; and a day conference on Jubilee 2000, with economists, bankers, politicians and African bishops. My various broadcasts in the 1990s were aimed in the same direction of reimagining the Christian message and so addressing urgent needs in the contemporary world.

This background has enabled me to develop the crucial theme, which came to full expression in our Diocesan Conference this last spring (entitled Imagine!), of re-imagining and re-expressing the Christian faith in today’s culture, and using all the treasures of art, music, literature and architecture to do so. The postmodern world is crying out both to reconnect with ancient wisdom after the flat denials of secular modernity, and to go forward with fresh creativity into the new millennium. To help our clergy and people answer this call, I have drawn on the work of people like Neil McGregor (one of our main speakers at the conference) – not just to enable us to articulate truth, vital though that is, nor simply to support projects of social justice, essential and exciting though they are, but to reconvert the imagination to appreciate and appropriate the sacramental dimension of the whole created order and the effect of the gospel of Jesus. This reconversion of the imagination is thus to undergird and energise theology and action alike. Not for nothing has Hopkins’ poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ (‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’) been a recurring theme throughout my ministry. In this context I devised, wrote and delivered four radio programmes entitled ‘Spring Journey’, using a wide variety of music to express the theme of hope and new life (not least social, cultural and political) which the programmes attempted to embody as well as to expound. I see my television work (for example, the programmes on Resurrection in 2004, the Problem of Evil in 2005, and the projected programme on Paul and Caesar in 2006) as attempting the same kind of multi-layered cultural engagement; so too (for instance) a projected poetry reading by Michel O’Siadhail later this year.

I have consistently approached the various buildings where I have worked (Worcester College Chapel; Lichfield Cathedral; Westminster Abbey) in this way, and have tried, through an understanding of their history, architecture, and interior design, to call people to worship, and equip them for mission, in fresh ways. Here again the theme of resurrection – as the reaffirmation of the goodness of God’s creation after the judgment which falls on all human idolatry – has been central. This understanding of resurrection points to the re-awakening of human creativity after the collapse of western aesthetics into brutalism on the one hand and kitsch on the other. It is in this setting that I have expounded a sacramental approach to space, time and matter, and have warmly welcomed the renewed emphasis of contemporary theologians on a theology of sacred space and how it can be used and cultivated. This is at the heart of the theological question that has to be asked of an ancient episcopal residence. Since it is a topic to which I had given considerable attention before I ever arrived at Auckland I am bound to take it seriously. As with all space, time and matter, the key question is whether these things have become idols, or whether they are vehicles for the sacramental grace of God. Puritanism ancient and modern assumes the former. I do not assume that the material world is an automatic vehicle of grace, but I constantly seek to make this a reality through prayer, eucharist, mission and pastoral work.

The same concern for the integration of those things held apart by secular modernity (and the theology which has connived at it) has been evident in my scholarly work on the kingdom of God within the proclamation of Jesus and on the interface between Paul’s gospel and the first-century Roman imperial ideology. These have led me directly into constant engagement with social, cultural and political issues. I have spoken and written on many current topics, especially global debt, and have been as firm in my support for the Prime Minister in this area as I was in my opposition to him over the war in Iraq. I have begun to get to grips with the work of the House of Lords and the many issues facing the north-east, not least the need for regeneration after disastrous industrial decline. I made my maiden speech on the theme of church-state collaboration on urgent social projects such as those in Bensham (Gateshead) and West Harton (South Shields). All this grows directly out of (a) my scholarly work on Christian origins and (b) my theological emphasis on resurrection and its effects in the regeneration of the community – the same themes which provide the roots of the reimagination described above.

Within this context, I have for many years taken every opportunity for dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews, and more recently (through the Archbishop’s seminar at Qatar in 2003) Muslims. I taught for a semester at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and have often led pilgrimages to the Holy Land. I have engaged with Jewish conversation partners at both a scholarly and a popular level, and am eager to find ways to continue this in the north-east, despite the difficulties connected with the ultra-orthodox stance of our main Jewish community (in Gateshead).

When I reflect on the themes which have thus occupied me for many years, I discover that they integrate in a remarkable way with life here at Auckland. This house is not only soaked with the prayer of centuries and replete with the history of biblical and theological scholarship; it is equipped with a spectacular sign of my predecessors’ concern for the relation between the Church and the Jewish people and (since that is what the Jews were in the C18) a concern for those on the margins of society. Everything I have worked at over the last thirty years – understanding Jesus and Paul in their first-century Jewish context and reapplying that for today, understanding God’s kingdom as compelling us to work on behalf of the poor and the marginalised, seeing resurrection as implying the reimagination, through the arts, of what the gospel means for the postmodern world and the sacramental approach to space, time and matter, and applying this to buildings and their contents as instruments of mission – all of this comes together here, not least in the Long Dining Room which, running east to west, forms an architectural sign of the cross with the main north-south line of the building, and which has for the last quarter of a millennium displayed to great advantage ‘Jacob and his Twelve Sons’ by Zurbarán. For someone with my background, training, special interests and particular shape of ministry, there is an almost uncanny fit.

I hope, pray and intend to exploit this rich resource to the full as I believe I have been able to do in my previous three positions. This is where the Zurbarán paintings, within the context of the Castle as a whole, are an ideal resource for all kinds of fresh initiatives which grow directly out of the theology and mission on which I have been engaged for many years. The whole process of reimagining is precisely about working with historic works of art in the place where they belong; just as Auckland Castle belongs in the old heart of the diocese, and the bishop belongs in Auckland Castle, and Cosin’s tomb in the chapel, so the Zurbarans belong in the Long Dining Room, where they have been for 249 out of their roughly 360 years of life. There, and only there, they make a series of powerful statements which can be explored and exploited in several ways – partly in relation to the Jewish people, partly in relation to the plight of the marginalised, and partly in connection with the nature of the Christian hope for the renewal of all things (this last theme was important in Bishop Trevor’s C18 context). The events we hope to host next year are simply a start at this kind of work. It is time not only to make the Castle and its treasures more available to a wider public but to use it, and them, within the work of the kingdom. This is exactly the kind of opportunity for which I have hoped and prayed.

d. pastoral hospitality. We have always practised a full round of hospitality, mostly with students in the 1970s and 1980s, and then with the wider community at Lichfield in the 1990s (where the Deanery played host each year to artists, musicians and sponsors of the Lichfield Festival and other similar events), and to a lesser extent (since I was mainly writing) at Westminster. Pastoral work flows into and out of shared meals, organised and semi-organised events, and hospitable engagement with the whole community.

Here at Auckland all this comes naturally. We have delighted in being able to entertain whole deaneries of clergy and spouses (usually bringing together two deaneries from very different parts of the diocese); in hosting special events for clergy spouses; in musical events (not least the regular concerts of Bishop Auckland Music Society which take place in the Throne Room); in events for Readers and lay people, including the annual awards for the Living Theology course and similar events; in a regular tea party for mayors and other civic leaders. In addition, there is a whole series of events organised by Wear Valley and other local bodies and which have taken place at the Castle: the Great North Walk (in aid of Traidcraft and similar charities) which ended up with several thousand people in the front garden relaxing with ice cream, hot dogs and a jazz band; the similar Run; the Wear Valley Food Festival; and the very popular Proms in the Park. All this is easy and obvious in this location, and can be catered for efficiently and economically, providing incidentally a good advertisement for Auckland Castle Enterprises. It is natural and appropriate to begin and/or end many such events with shared worship and prayer in the great Chapel; we held a Traidcraft service before the Great North Walk, and our normal habit is to end dinner parties with Compline, which has been greatly appreciated not least by those on or beyond the fringes of the church. In the same way, of course, one-on-one pastoral interviews lead naturally to shared prayer in the Oratory or the Chapel.

In addition, we have just enough spare rooms to be able to host various overnight meetings; not enough, alas, to accommodate all the ordination candidates for a retreat, though we are working on ways of hosting that kind of event (in the tradition of Lightfoot and Westcott, and after the example of other bishops like John Habgood). The idea of the bishop as host as well as pastor and teacher has been central to the life of Auckland for many centuries and I fully intend that it should remain so.

e. administration. Successive bishops have contributed to what is now a remarkably efficient setting for the routine (and often massive) administrative tasks. The secretaries’ office opens off the main entrance hall opposite the Library where I do my diocesan work. The Chaplain’s room is half way between the further door of the Library and the door into the Diocesan Offices. The Diocesan Office itself, including its splendid Archive, is ideally placed from my point of view, enabling all kinds of formal and informal meetings to take place at a moment’s notice. There are no doubt always things that could be improved, but at present the system is about as streamlined, in terms of facilitating my own work and ministry, as it could possibly be. Were there to be any question of relocating either the Bishop, his personal office, or the Diocesan Office, it would result in considerable extra work and nuisance getting to and fro (not to mention the thousand questions about finding new locations and the complex business of moving there). Indeed I cherish the hope that we might be able to extend the Diocesan Offices, perhaps with the addition of one of the other departments currently located in rented accommodation in Durham, in part of the old quadrangle to the west of the Scotland wing.

In particular, it is an excellent use of the building, and very effective in terms of my own time and work, that the Castle can host meetings not only of Bishop’s Staff and Area Deans but also of Bishop’s Council and some of our Boards and Councils (e.g. the Board for Ministry and Training, which I chair). Indeed, we have on occasion had one of these in one room while a Clergy Spouse gathering was taking place in another. I spend quite a bit of time getting about the Diocese (yesterday, for example, I was in Durham for two different events in the morning, at a school in Sunderland at lunchtime, back at Auckland for a meeting in the afternoon, and in Newton Aycliffe for a confirmation in the evening) and it is a great help to be on home territory for many of the routine meetings rather than having to make yet more journeys.


The location of Auckland Castle, at the confluence of the rivers Gaunless and Wear, is near the heart of ancient County Durham. Bishop Auckland features more prominently on seventeenth-century maps than almost all other towns between Tyne and Tees, and the Wear, flowing down from the Pennines past Stanhope (where Bishop Butler wrote his Analogy) and on past Auckland to Durham, then to Finchale (where Godric lived and prayed in the eleventh century), and thence to Sunderland, carries a good deal of the historic memory of spirituality and industry which have been characteristic of the whole region. Auckland Castle is easier to access than most parts of Durham City itself (certainly the main peninsula, whose traffic is a daily nightmare); except at the very busiest times, I can be in almost any corner of the diocese (and clergy and people can come here) within at most forty minutes or so. The private part of the house forms an excellent family home for a couple like us with four children, three of whom are married, and grandchildren starting to arrive – and one set of elderly parents who, though currently independent, may need more looking after in the not too distant future. Our private garden is fine for our needs; the larger public garden is an excellent facility for all kinds of events. The arrangements for staff, both those who live in the cottages and those who, like secretaries, come from further afield, work very well. There is a happy collaboration with Wear Valley District Council who, with the Commissioners, run the Park. We have greatly enjoyed settling in and getting to know people around us in the diocese, the local community, and the counties and boroughs into which the diocese is now divided. We very much hope that the question of the Castle and the paintings can now be put to rest so that we can expend our energies on developing our varied ministries, and develop and exploit to the full, for the next generation, the extraordinary physical, cultural and spiritual resources bequeathed by nine hundred years of history.

+Thomas Dunelm:

8 July 2005


Appendix: Westcott on Lightfoot

When Lightfoot was nearing his death in 1889, he worked hard to complete his massive five-volume work on the Apostolic Fathers. It fell to his close friend Westcott, his successor both in Cambridge and Durham, to see it through the press. In September 1890, not long after becoming Bishop, Westcott wrote the prefaratory note to the work and supplied a moving portrait of his old friend in his final years:

‘He . . . continued [his labours] with unflagging interest and zeal up to the time of his illness in the Autumn of 1888 and after his partial recovery. Even when he was suffering from the relapse in the following year which proved speedily fatal, he retained his passion for work and was busy with Clement till he fell into a half-unconscious state three days before his death . . .

So it is that from the historic house which he delighted to fill with the memorials of his predecessors, under the shadow of the Chapel, which he made a true symbol of our Church in its foundation and its catholicity, surrounded by personal relics which speak of common labours through twenty years, it is my duty to commend to the welcome of all serious students the last mature fruit of labours pursued with unwearied devotion at Cambridge, at St Paul’s, and at Durham, by one whose “sole desire” was, in his own words written a few months before his death, in “great things and in small, to be found a ‘fellow worker for the truth’”.’