March – and it all started so well

If only we’d known what was around the corner!

As we entered the season of Lent, Southwark Cathedral unveiled its much anticipated annual Lent art installation which brought us in touch with the medieval practice Measuring to the Saint – if you needed spiritual or physical help or healing, your body was measured from head to toe with a length of string or thread, this was then sent to the nearest Cathedral or Abbey, where the monks would make a candle from it, light it, and pray for your eternal soul.

If only we’d known what was around the corner!

Artwork by local schoolchildren that told the stories of some of the people named in Newcastle Cathedral’s 17th and 18th century ledger stones was unveiled on the builder’s hoardings around the cathedral as work got underway on its National Heritage Lottery funded renewal project Common Ground in Sacred Space.

Tickets went on sale at Peterborough Cathedral for T Rex: The Killer Questions – the touring exhibition from the Natural History Museum, London due there this summer – and there was a call out for volunteers needed to help at Norwich Cathedral when Dippy the Diplodocus arrives in July.

Blackburn Cathedral launched its own coffee blend and announced it was working on a new tea to add to the Cathedra brand following the success of the first ever cathedral branded gin, Cathedra Gin which saw its first two batches sell-out in less than a week, made its entrance onto supermarket shelves last year, and started turning a profit for the cathedral’s mission and ministry after just six months.

Rochester Cathedral announced it had welcomed a record breaking 120,000 visitors to Luke Jerram’s touring artwork Museum of the Moon in its nave for three weeks during February.

Space, the immersive sound and light art installation by the artistic collaboration, Luxmuralis had thrilled audiences in Exeter and secured Picture of the Day in The Daily Telegraph, and had seen blast-off in Sheffield Cathedral as its first night as the The Observatory to coincide with British Science Week and was about to take thousands of visitors on a journey to the moon and back.

And then we closed.

We all heard the strong calls from the Prime Minister and Public Health advisors not to leave home unless it was essential and to distance ourselves physically from one another, to save lives, prevent the spread of infection, and to help the NHS, as Covid-19 began to take hold in this country.

From March 15, all public worship was suspended. The cathedral spire of Rochester was immediately lit up in blue as a clear message that prayers were being offered for those anxious, suffering and bereaved, and for all those working in the National Health Service.

St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, York Minster and Newcastle immediately closed their buildings – concerned they could not guarantee visitors the social distancing advised. Events in all our cathedrals through to May were immediately cancelled – and a watching brief put on events scheduled for later in the summer and autumn.

Meanwhile we began to explore new and imaginative ways of reaching out to our congregations and visitors – streaming and recording, online prayer requests, cafes closed their doors and instead offered click and collect services, online heritage tours were planned, Facebook support groups were set up – and within three days cathedrals were seeing growing virtual congregations.

The Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett, undertook a social distanced pilgrimage to launch Year of Pilgrimage in County Durham as the original exciting plans to launch these six new northern saints trails with an exciting Cathedral At Night event had to be postponed to keep everyone safe.

But as it became clear that people were not heeding the social distancing or stay at home message, there was more advice from the Government – and from Monday 23 March, all our cathedrals closed their buildings with this message:

It is with a heavy heart that we close our Cathedrals during this crisis as a necessary contribution to keeping all of us healthy and safe.

This move goes against our established pattern of being open and available for everyone. It is this openness and accessibility that demonstrates the openness and generosity of God’s welcome and love for all people.

Yet, when human touch and closeness have become risky, and even toxic, it doesn’t mean that God is far away, but that the Church has to find new, creative, and imaginative ways of being available, enabling prayer and worship, and listening carefully to everyone’s needs and questions.
Cathedrals will be keeping their daily patterns of prayer going.

They will be at the heart of local initiatives to serve and meet need.

We’ll end this update with a prayer.

The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked. (John 20.19)

Ever present God,
be with us in our isolation,
be close to us in our distancing,
be healing in our sickness,
be joy in our sadness,
be light in our darkness,
be wisdom in our confusion,
be all that is familiar when all is unfamiliar,
that when the doors reopen
we may with the zeal of Pentecost
inhabit our communities
and speak of your goodness
to an emerging world.
For Jesus’ sake.
Amen

To find out how churches and cathedrals are reaching out in this strange times click here.