Two Fine Books About Durham Cathedral

Bill Bryson said that Durham Cathedral had his vote for “Best cathedral on Planet Earth”. Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “grand, venerable, and sweet, all at once”. It is the most beloved building in the UK and not just among the faithful. A UN World Heritage Site, it is visited by over 500,000 people from more than 50 countries annually. One of those people some years ago was me, on a glorious Sunday when I was living up the road in Newcastle. I have felt deeply attached to Durham Cathedral ever since.

Two recent books are a valuable aid to appreciating what Durham Cathedral has to offer. I am giving them some promotion here because I have personal connections to both of them that make them special to me and because as small press books they could easily attract little notice, which would be a shame.

The first is by my friend the Reverend Professor Chris Cook. He is a remarkably learned man, having been trained as a psychiatrist and an addiction specialist as well being an Anglican Priest and theological scholar. Finding God in a Holy Place is his most personal and accessible book. You can think of it as a tour guidebook with two destinations in mind. As the title indicates, God is the first desired destination. Rev. Cook reflects in an engaging way on the paradox of Christians feeling they need to “Find God”, even though the religion teaches that God is everywhere. As he points out, believing in an omnipresent God intellectually does not necessarily map onto emotional experience, in which “The darkness may not be dark to God, but it can still seem very dark to us”.

The book’s second destination is Durham Cathedral itself. He adroitly links the book’s two destinations by vividly describing various places in the cathedral (e.g., the nave, feretory, Chapel of Nine Altars) and then describing what they may suggest for prayer, using many personal examples. I like that Chris isn’t dewy-eyed as the book moves along: He dwells for example on the experience of “praying on the margins”, as did the women pilgrims who had the uniquely painful experience of traveling across the world to see Durham Cathedral and then being denied entrance to Cuthbert’s tomb because of the sexism of the era. More generally, faith isn’t made out as easy or simple in these pages; there is allowance for doubt, confusion and stumbling in the dark in the quest for God.

Of course, the cathedral can also be appreciated for its historical significance and architectural splendor. These features are on display in the handsome coffee table book “Light of the North” by John Field, with photography by Malcolm Crowthers. This book gives a detailed and lively account of the evolution of the Cathedral over the centuries. It was produced a few years ago with the support of some of us in the Friends of Durham Cathedral, and would make a great holiday gift for anyone wanting to learn more about the cathedral and appreciate its dazzling beauty and fascinating history.

You can purchase Chris Cook’s book here and John Field’s here.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Two Fine Books About Durham Cathedral”

  1. For those who don´t know it, the most extraordinary feature of Durham cathedral is the Romanesque pillars. These are carved in the bold geometric patterns of the Vikings, who had ruled much of Northern England for long periods before the arrival of their Norman cousins. I´ll use my blogger privileges to post a nice photo.

    Credit some guy on Flickr.

  2. It is, indeed, a wonderful place. Lincoln, York and Durham are accessible from the same rail line, and it’s a worthwhile trip.

  3. While my vote would be for Lincoln, York or Hereford as works of art, I’d have to rank Durham first because it is where the Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert came to rest.

    But what I found most moving in Durham was the neglected grave of John Bacchus Dykes. His singable, stirring hymns in no small part brought me to love the Anglican Church. From St. Oswald’s at the foot of the tor, Dykes launched the essential music of Anglicanism against the resolute opposition of the low church cathedral.

    His tune, Melita, for ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save'(‘the Navy Hymn’) will always evoke the time of John Kennedy’s funeral when it was played and sung repeatedly.

    I find Dykes’ hymns more wonderous and wonderful and their contribution to spiritual life greater than the glories of this great cathedral.

    Thank you for blurbing what look like two worthwhile books.

  4. One of my favorites, although it could use some more Green Men. Another treat is “Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral”:

    Plus, if Durham University isn’t in session, you can stay in the student housing and just amble over to the Cathedral in the morning in the mist. Magical. It’s a World Heritage site, too.

  5. FYI, Durham Cathedral is the diocesan cathedral of the Bishopric of Durham. The Bishop of Durham was also the Earl of the County Palatine of Durham. Durham had “palatine” powers through most of English history. To quote Wikipedia:

    Counties palatine were established in the 11th century to defend the northern (Scottish) and western (Welsh) frontiers of the kingdom of England. In order to allow them to do so in the best way they could, their counts were granted palatine (“from the palace”, i.e. royal) powers within their territories, making these territories nearly sovereign jurisdictions with their own administrations and courts, largely independent of the king, though they owed allegiance to him.

    It used to be said that there were two monarchs in England; the King and the Bishop of Durham.
    This lasted up until 1853.

Comments are closed.