God in the Now – A Summer of English Cathedrals

10th September 2019

Cathedrals have hit the headlines this summer: a Helter Skelter in Norwich, mini-golf at Rochester, a Lunar Landscape and light show at Lichfield.

Each of these cathedrals has seen a big increase in visitor numbers, overwhelming approval ratings from actual visitors, and, inevitably, criticism bordering on invective. Their accusations range from gimmickry, dumbing down, to violation of sacred space and tradition.

Initiatives that seize the popular imagination will always appear disruptive and provocative and, in the case of cathedrals, they can be construed as contrary to the fundamental purpose and role: oases of tranquillity, bastions of tradition, outposts of the sublime. Yet what can easily be forgotten is that these are centres of worship and mission. They represent a missionary faith that invites all into the friendship and freedom which God in Christ as called the whole world to enjoy.

To that end, Anglican Cathedrals have a serious obligation to address our culture and answer questions and needs. Religious affiliation and practice has declined dramatically in the past thirty years but there is an interesting ambiguity about that decline- interest in spirituality and spiritual practice has never been higher nor have cathedrals ever been more visited in their history. There is a hunger in the land for the transcendent. How are faith communities to respond? More specifically how can the Church of England, established not simply for the benefit of the true believers, but to serve and minister to the needs, hopes and questions of the nation, respond?

Cathedrals occupy an interesting borderland. For sure cathedrals’ prime and unchanging duty is to worship and praise God – every day as thoughtfully, beautifully and engagingly as we can. There’s always the obligation to provide space for peace, adoration and reflection. We have maintained our choral tradition and found ways of sharing our singing expertise with large numbers of primary schools. There is too the golden opportunity of inviting cathedral visitors to engage with our faith story but not simply on the terms we choose. Interestingly, two Anglican theologians who have both served as Canons Professor at Durham (thereby being well acquainted with the challenges and opportunities of cathedral life) have seen God’s purpose and providence and human experience and participation in it, with a truly majestic width, depth and generosity.

Dan Hardy was at pains to point out that God was not confined to human conceptions of the holy. God’s love was manifested in its extensity – the whole of reality, science, law, politics, economics, culture, human togetherness and endeavour. The point of the Church was to provide a place of intensity, a focal point for voicing creation’s praise and lament, a place of intimate communion with God, and those relations, personal and communal, that reveal and school us in true personhood, “sociality” as Dan called it, in order that the extensity of God’s love could be named and known. Dan’s successor, David Brown has written an amazingly fruitful body of work locating humanity’s search for the transcendent, not only in art and music, but place, architecture, sport, gardens.

“God has been addressing humanity at large throughout human history both in its experience of the natural world and in the various ways it has expanded upon that experience in its own creativity.” (David Brown: God and Enchantment of Place. OUP 2004 p410)

These are convincing theological warrants for taking risks, trying to allow a new public to cross our thresholds and engage with questions and activities that are deliberately left field, oblique and provocative. Anthropologists describe the human race as symbol-makers, and much of that is done through our imagination and our play. It is also wholly consistent with the playfulness of a Creator who goes outside what is God to enable a universe in all its complexity to emerge.
Cathedrals, trying to honour the faith they hold, are privileged to do what the Archbishop of Canterbury said when he was Dean of Liverpool – offer safe space to do risky things in Christ’s service. We are here to cast new light on old wisdom; to let everyone have access to the holy by providing some bridges, fresh views, and sheer wonderment, and to offer, sincerely, humbly, without dominating the conversation, the truth that sets us free.

Next year, 2020, we celebrate the Year of Cathedrals and Year of Pilgrimage.

It’s a year of significant anniversaries that tell our nation’s story; there’ll be new pilgrim routes opened, old ones revisited and imaginative, bold engagements such as Norwich Cathedral welcoming Dippy the Dinosaur, the Natural History Museum’s iconic Diplodocus cast on his UK tour. We’re determined to be as creative and hospitable as we can be. The evidence is that by entering, engaging and spending time in cathedrals, the search for the transcendent is being fostered and nurtured. We meet God in the most surprising encounters.

The Very Revd Adrian Dorber, Dean of Lichfield, Chair of the Association of English Cathedrals.