Stephen Taylor: Look to Benedict for inspiration

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TODAY is the day history remembers St Benedict Biscop; Sunderland’s Patron Saint, as it was on this day 12th January in 690 that he died.

 He was a remarkable man, well educated, an entrepreneurial internationalist with a passion for learning.

 By the time he started to have St Peter’s Wearmoth built, he already had a passion for fine buildings inspired by Roman architecture, so when he was given the land by King Egfrid he wasn’t simply going to conform to the local building conventions.

 It is likely that most of the buildings on Wearside in the 7th century were made of wood or even straw, and the expertise for building with stone was in Europe.

 So it was to France that Biscop looked to bring in first stonemasons and then glaziers to make the coloured glass windows.

 Alongside the growing library of books, the reputation of the monastery as a seat of learning was being established.

 Within a generation, Wearmouth Jarrow was one of the foremost centres of learning in the whole of Europe.

 Not only having one of Europe’s greatest libraries, but having such a school of learning that enabled Bede to become one of the most able and influential scholars in history.

 The scriptorium also facilitated the writing of books of which Bede was a notable author, and among other writings was the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving copy of the complete Bible.

 Wearside became the place to be, not just to visit as many did, but to have an opportunity to be a part a phenomenal centre of creative learning within some iconic buildings was a huge privilege.

 Here the beautiful singing of services was developed which became the norm in churches for centuries.

 Here new types of fonts were created for ease of copying and reading. Here enquiring minds were sought to explore, explain and discover things yet hidden like the linkages between the moon and the sea and the first tide tables were established.

 Biscop with his international reputation visited Rome five times in his life, and along the way made many mutually beneficial friendships and ensured that the best of all that he saw benefited Wearside and Jarrow in the years ahead.

 Beautiful works of art adorned the walls first of Wearside, then of Jarrow, as these could not be bought in England the finest that Europe had found a show case here.

 Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Biscop was his faith. A faith inspired by scripture and an experience of God. He was resolved to interpret the Christian faith in ways that transformed people’s lives for the better.

 It was an age where science and faith and art were all seen as expressions of our human potential under God. There was no artificial division of learning where for example religion and science were polarised.

 All learning flourished and enriched individuals and the wider community and in turn human knowledge itself expanded.

 Many, including Bede were graduates of this remarkable enterprise, but forever we will be grateful to Biscop whose vision, passion and resolve established Wearmouth and Jarrow at the epicentre of the northern hemisphere of learning.

 As we seek to look forward to once again establish Sunderland’s links with learning at the centre of its renaissance, we need look no further than our own Benedict Biscop for our inspiration.