Changed but not stopped

I spent the last week unable to access Chester Cathedral.  We took the decision to close the doors last Monday and there has been a moratorium on the use of all Church of England buildings since then.

Three weeks of change

The reasons for closing the doors and exercising a discipline of restraint on ourselves were clear.  We needed to take responsibility for the number of times we were in proximity with other people whilst there was such risk of spreading a dangerous virus.  The Prime Minister reinforced this speaking later in the day that we closed confirming this was the right thing to do.

What a change these last few weeks have brought about:

  • At first we thought that washing our hands every time we went out or handled a foreign object was sufficient.  Skin was going dry, moisturizer and hand sanitizer were in short supply.
  • On the Wednesday Liverpool FC played what was to be their last match to date.
  • On Friday we hosted a Graduation for the University of Chester with over a thousand people carefully seated in the Cathedral without hustle or bustle and with many litres of alcogel.
  • On the following Sunday we removed three quarters of the seats from the nave and arranged them in small family groups of two, three or five, with ample space between the groups.
  • Early in the next week we sent vulnerable members of staff and volunteers home telling them to take care of themselves.
  • Later in the same week we closed the office to everybody except one who was to collect the post and sent all volunteers home bar a few hardy under 70 year old chaplains and ministers.
  • The second Sunday of the COVID-19 period resulted in only two ministers and three musicians well-spaced out leading a live-streamed service on YouTube with 1.5k views over the course of the day.
  • The week that followed led to a steep learning curve:  Meetings and Daily prayer over the internet on Zoom, recordings on YouTube, using Teams to keep the office going, large staff meetings using video conferencing every morning…..
  • And this Sunday I presided at a Eucharist alone in my living room, the Cathedral in the window behind me, colleagues joining in over Zoom.

Where will we be by next Sunday?

I am left pondering what this is doing to me. I notice my dependence on other people so much more, valuing the presence of the fragment of family that currently resides in our house and missing so many others: family, friends, colleagues.  Our meetings over the internet have become much more functional than normal (I just about remember normal now):

  • Have you got all the food you need?
  • I think this needs to go on the agenda.
  • Turn your microphone back on!
  • You’re breaking up.

Still, the human spirit is rebelling and subverting platforms designed for business and enterprise.  People are praying and worshipping together using MS Office tools, caring for each other on Skype for Business, singing on Teams. I notice that the things of God are bubbling up in unexpected places.  And there are unexpected places to be found even whilst confined to the house.  These places are often in cyberspace, but they are inhabited by real people.

I have also been impressed about the way my Cathedral Community has organized itself to care for its members.  It did not take the clergy to do this.  People have organised their telephoning lists and are looking after each other, especially those who will need help and support over these difficult weeks.

And we have become much more aware of our human frailty and mortality.  The myth that human beings are masters of everything is blown as we are threatened by something as microscopic as SARS‑CoV‑2.

I wonder how much of this will stick.  I hope that we quickly regain our confidence in human contact and enjoy the presence of one another. I hope too that the humanizing of enterprise, the care and compassion and the humility of our human race continue to remain strong too.

Blessings to you all in these anxious and difficult days.  

Helter Skelters, Crazy Golf and LEGO®

The summer holiday weeks present visitor attractions with many more people. Cathedrals are among those places that need to respond to this – which is very demanding.  One approach is to develop installations and exhibitions that people want to see or experience. Not everybody agrees that these things have a place in church.

LEGO® Mako Shark at Chester Cathedral

Libby Purves writes in today’s edition of The Times, “Are there plans for the Basilica di San Marco in Venice to bolt its horses on to a carousel? How far have the Notre Dame restoration team got with the dodgem track and waterslide, and will the pilgrim journey on the Camino de Santiago now include a Crayzee Cakewalk Hall of Mirrors in the cathedral … Are the great mosques, temples and synagogues of the world in talks with Disney?”  These are testing questions – provocative and eye-catching!  

Many of our Cathedrals sit in busy commercial and shopping centres and must speak the language of the High Street if they are to say anything.  Libby Purves’s questions are as much a challenge to the culture of our British high streets as they are to the Cathedrals situated in them.

A question that exercises our minds in Chester Cathedral is “how can we capture the imagination of our visitors to think more deeply about the wonderful world we are given to live in and the God who presents us with the gift of life itself?” Commissioning artists to help with this in provocative and eye-catching ways is one of our answers to this question.

At Chester Cathedral we want to be accessible and fun, real and deep, challenging and reasonable, dealing with the stuff of life. Our LEGO® exhibition, “The Deep”, has raised a few eyebrows. It sits alongside an exhibition made by local North Wales artist Jacha Potgieter called “Saving the Deep” ( His work is made from plastic waste collected on just three visits to Criccieth beach. He has provided fifteen stunning installations depicting sea creatures made from the very pollution that is killing the living animals.

Jacha’s Blue-Fin Tuna made out of waste plastic washed up on the beach

The LEGO® exhibition builds on this, demonstrating the beauty of the undersea world in a way that enthrals children (and adult fans of those familiar colourful building bricks). In order to publicise this my Cathedral colleagues thought it would be a great idea to send me into a tank of sharks. This was not in my job description. The kind people at the Blue Planet Aquarium assisted and I had my encounter with Wilma the Sand Shark (all fifteen feet of her) and her family. It was truly transformative to be amongst these magnificent creatures. Is it naïve to hope that others can be nudged into deeper insight and wonder of creation and provoked to act differently?

Face to Face with Wilma at the Blue Planet Aquarium

One unexpected effect of this LEGO® exhibition has been to highlight the widespread use of plastic. All our models are of course made from the familiar coloured blocks . We are well on the way in our Cathedral enterprises to dispense with single use plastic. The Deep has opened our eyes to the reliance we have on plastic in almost everything – clothing, furniture, buildings, technology, everyday basics, toys and tools. Many of Jacha’s installations are made from parts of these objects collected on the sea-shore (though no LEGO® bricks). Responsible living needs more care and attention than just avoiding carrier bags in the supermarket.

If you come to our exhibitions you will not be able to avoid thinking this through.  Cathedrals stand in the centre of most of our cities.  They are places that intrigue and people of all ages visit them.  They are places of discovery, encounter and faith. And what we do should not be seen simply as mere gimmick but invitation to go deeper.

Churches – what are they for?

I must have spent too much time this summer in churches and it has left me wondering what they’re for. I know what I think they are for but it is perfectly apparent that different people have different ideas.

Bordeaux Cathedral
Bordeaux Cathedral

I caught an image of votive candles in Bordeaux Cathedral whilst tourists walked by.  Some had come to light a candle and say a prayer, others to look at medieval architecture; some to consider history and others to look at the art; some to find shade from the heat of the sun and others to take photos; and for some, all of the above.  The picture sums it up.

Sword sharpening scars
Pillars at Dunton Bassett

Back in Leicester, over a relaxed August, the DAC had a day out to visit some churches it has an interest in.  The scars on the pillars at Dunton Bassett church tell us that this was once a good place for sword sharpening!

These things just serve to provide a glimpse of the competing expectations those who are responsible for church buildings are confronted with.  The fundamental mission of the church, which is the people of God, is to draw the whole of creation into the love and worship of God. Among the many ways that our buildings can serve this are the magnificence of architecture pointing to the heavens, imagery and artwork telling the stories of salvation and the symbols of prayer, word and sacrament.

Bitteswell Extension
Bitteswell Church – new extension

But this can become a millstone too.  When the church community that is responsible for an historic church can no longer adapt it to the needs of their neighbours, the vitality of the building is neutralised. And if a church community is not able to use the building they have inherited to serve their mission, they should perhaps chose to direct their money and energies somewhere else.

Church as art gallery
Amsterdam: an art gallery in a church presenting visitors with spiritual meaning in a contemporary register.

The history of our many ancient listed church buildings is one of constant change and adaption to the needs of society.  What we see carved in the stones is the constantly changing means the Christian community has used to present faith to its neighbours with authenticity and relevance. But today it seems different. Local churches do not have a free hand in what they do. The other interests in play often have more concern for conserving or preserving what has pervaded in the past than serving a living faith in the present.  So we often encounter contention about such matters as:

  • The introduction of a kitchen and toilet – twenty-first century hospitality basics, although they were luxuries in the early twentieth century.
  • Replacement of pews with flexible seating – the structure of Victorian society neatly set out in rows no longer pervades.  People relate differently today. A colleague recently quipped, “Christians are not like carrots – they don’t grow in rows – Christians grow in circles.”
  • Improved heating and lighting – contemporary people are not familiar with wearing coats indoors, yet at the same time are more conscious of the financial and environmental cost of energy than their predecessors.  Heating hundreds of gallons of water to keep a church warm and burning incandescent light bulbs is no longer acceptable.
  • Use of high value metals such as lead and copper for roofs. Stainless steel and plastic membranes have many advantages although they are not traditional materials.
  • Installation of audio visual facilities.
  • Updating decor and softening the floor and furnishings.

Victorian church preparing for growth
St John the Baptist, Clarendon Park

I wonder what sometimes is being conserved.  When we preserve the stones of a building we can do so at the expense of the purpose for which they were hewn.  These were often radical and extravagant public buildings that innovated and challenged the mores of their day. Bodies that today oppose their ongoing development should ask themselves whether this is in the spirit of that which inspired them.

Of course church communities themselves can also misunderstand the nature of the building for which they are responsible.  I once visited a church where a curtain had been strung across the arch between the nave and the chancel.  The Victorian Choir and Sanctuary served as a storage space for a lawn mower and step ladders.  The congregation met in the nave.  This seemed to me to represent too many violences to the building to even count.  How would any visitor read what is important here?

In a little book from 1979 (1), Harold Turner discerns two fundamental patterns for sacred buildings:

Domus Dei – House of God, and
Domus Ecclesiae – Meeting house.

Newly built church interior.
St Andrew’s Tower Hill

Many of our churches with Victorian interiors, whether they are medieval or nineteenth century buildings, are conformed entirely to the former pattern.  The raised chancel and sanctuary with an altar at the east end serves to locate the presence of God in the place where Communion is celebrated. But the contemporary church is growing most noticeably where people meet in good relation with each other and experience the presence of God in their daily lives. Perhaps church buildings need only be a meeting house to serve this growth.  Turner sees the most developed forms of sacred space as both (Domus Dei et Ecclesiae).  The story is not one of compromise but of building on what others have done with respect.  Maybe this is the spirit today’s church and conservation lobbies need to recapture.

(1) Turner, Harold, From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979).

A question of identity?

Victorian Black Vestments

I need to get up early in the morning for Radio Leicester. It is because General Synod have approved new legislation that means clergy need not always wear robes when leading worship in church.  This comes in that same month that the Queen opened parliament without wearing a crown and the Speaker of the House of Commons has relaxed rules on members wearing ties.  I am not sure these things are directly connected but they do seem to capture something of the spirit of the times.

So I have had to do some thinking – and I have found a picture I took a few years back to go with the thoughts.

I have clocked that the clothes we wear say something about us. If you wear a blue top and shorts in Leicester you are going to be identified with the Foxes (a football team if you don’t live in these parts). When the Queen dressed down to open parliament she conveyed a message that this was not such a great threshold of national life as new parliaments sometimes are; “Business as usual!” And I guess that MPs who choose not to wear ties will be dissociating themselves from the managerial classes. They may identify more closely with the majority of people as a result – unless the majority of us want to see politicians cast in such a mould.

So what of us clergy? Well there are times when people want us to be clearly cast in the role of the religious minister. But always? The argument to relax the rules on clergy dress have been strongest in some of our fastest growing churches. It may be that people are more likely to listen to church leaders who identify most with them. There are special times demanding special clothes, but most times are ordinary times.

The way Jesus identified with people gives me pause for thought. He was never associated with religious leaders.  Some people called him Son of God but he always talked about himself as the Son of Man.

Getting up in the morning has never been so complicated. I feel an identity crisis coming on. I am comforted by thinking it will be just as bad for MPs deciding whether to wear a tie or not and the Queen working out what hat to wear.