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.
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” (https://chestercathedral.com/event/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.
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?
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.