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Christmas festivities under construction

21 December 2012

Pamela Greener gives a personal account of what it is like trying to keep a cathedral going when you have got the builders in

Work in progress: Wakefield Cathedral has become a building site

Work in progress: Wakefield Cathedral has become a building site

CHRISTMAS at Wakefield Cathedral in 2012 will be like no other in my lifetime. The nave is closed because we are two-thirds of the way through a 12-month makeover.

This is the first time since the 1870s that we have had a chance to renew our infrastructure (flooring, heating, lighting, wall-cleaning, etc.) and to replace our uncomfortable pews with practical and movable chairs.

Our cathedral was built as a medieval parish church, where the nave was used by the whole community, and the current work will create a large, flexible space that can recapture something of that welcoming and open spirit. The work will be finished in time for Easter 2013, to help celebrate the 125th anniversary of diocese, cathedral, and city.

A closed nave means that, for Christmas 2012, we will all squeeze into the quire and east end. The one thing we can guarantee is that the place will be packed out. We will huddle together in the most un- Anglican fashion, dreaming not of a white Christmas, but of a new heating system.

Those who visit Wakefield Cathedral just once a year for midnight mass, or one of our other Christmas services, will be in for a shock. The first surprise will be that all the usual entrances are closed, and the meagre car park has been cordoned off to provide Bob the Builder with somewhere to store his tools.

So there will be no slipping in at the back during the first carol. Like the rest of us, our annual visitors will follow signs, and eventually they will find what they are look- ing for. I wonder whether, for Christmas, we should replace the usual entrance signs with a guiding star.

A NAVE under reconstruction is quite a sight to behold, as viewers of my performance of the "VAT Ditty" on YouTube earlier this year will testify (News, 18 May). It brings home the awesome construction of the building. Even with all our modern tools and methods, it has still been a huge project to renovate the nave - we cannot begin to imagine the scale of difficulty experienced by the original 15th-century craftsmen.


In Advent, we wait, and long, not only for the coming of the Lord Jesus, but also for the opening of the renewed nave. The work we are able to see through our viewing windows has done a great deal to whet our appetite for what's in store. Already, the previously grimy walls are golden and shining in the meagre December sunshine.

One of the interesting by- products of the project has been the creation of a website, www.366days.org.uk, for which all sorts of people - young and old, professional and amateur - have signed up to be the photographer of the day, to take today's photograph of cathedral life.

Some of these pictures capture the magnificence of the building, and some record the quirky people and activities that make up Wakefield Cathedral. And many of them provide a lasting archive of the transformation that is taking place. Our 2013 calendar is made up of these photos, and we are planning a substantial exhibition in the nave when it reopens next year. It is interesting for us regulars at the cathedral to see what a visitor picks out as significant.

A cathedral in a state of undress is a memory that will last a lifetime. Schools continue to flock to see the work at first hand, as do adult groups - all marvelling at the size of the space, and the painstaking renovation.

OUR new heritage officer has joined a blossoming education team, providing imaginative programmes where young people learn about a living cathedral, and all that it contains. The "Christmas Journey" is a chance for schools to meet the baby Jesus through music, drama, and stained glass. The hope is that they will be captivated by, and treasure, the cathedral as they grow up. We are always delighted when one of our young visitors comes back the next weekend, to show his or her family what a special place this is.

A closed nave calls for a great deal of improvisation. The choir has had to be on its best behaviour all year long, with the congregation up close and personal. The overflow congregation has had to sit in the south-quire aisle, with limited vision of sanctuary and choir. As a result, we have started to film the services and project them on TV screens.

This, in turn, has allowed a weekly upload to YouTube, and a chance to watch and listen again to the Sunday preacher. We have also developed the idea of "Mobile Cathedral". Clergy and choir, together with some of the congregation, have been taking choral evensong out into the deaneries of the diocese this year. All the churches have been invited to come, and receive a wooden cross made out of the former cathedral pews, as a lasting memento of the project. We hope that they, in turn, will come back next year to worship with us in the renewed nave.


Christmas will stretch our imagination further. We are lucky that we are located right in the heart of the city centre; so the Christmas Eve Christingle service will, this year, be held outside, on the steps that extend the full length of the cathedral, in full view of all the shoppers milling about in the pedestrian precinct.

It will be a great opportunity for everyone to join in, and there will be warm punch at the end of the service to prevent hypothermia. We hope that people will come inside afterwards to see the changes taking place.

THE cathedral is the largest public space in the Wakefield area. And, all year round, people love to sneak in to marvel at this peaceful, sacred space, to say a quiet prayer, and light a candle. But, normally, the run-up to Christmas at the cathedral is such that, if we are not careful, we risk skipping Advent almost entirely.

The Christmas trees and crib tend to move in at the end of November, and our only concession to Advent is to light the Advent wreath, and turn off the Christmas-tree lights on a Sunday. The reason for these premature Christmas celebrations is that, in a normal Wakefield Advent, cathedral life is one of wall-to-wall carol services and concerts. A thousand people visit each day to sing and listen to carols.

Pupils, teachers, and parents gather from countless schools, because we are the only space in the area large enough to welcome them all. Similarly, we usually have three services for the local hospice, at which people remember their loved ones by sponsoring a light on the giant Christmas tree.

The Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir tends to sell all its tickets before the posters even go on display. The Civic Carol Service, attended by the Mayor and councillors, is one of several occasions each December when our worship is supported by one of Yorkshire's many brass bands, which raise the roof and cause our ears to ring.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Huddersfield Town Football Club has an annual carol service here, and the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire's Christmas concert could fill the nave twice over.

A normal Advent, then, is a great opportunity for people from all over the diocese and region to experience the cathedral and its excellent choir. There is always a sense of a musical and liturgical marathon, which culminates in the last lap on Christmas Day.

I have to admit to a certain relief for us at home, when we finally settle down for our Christmas dinner at about 6 p.m., knowing that we have done our best - not just for all our visitors, but also for the newborn Babe. I suspect that it will be a bit different this year, with a more measured run-in through Advent, and a gentler final sprint.

Pamela Greener is director of tax at Pace plc, chairs the Friends of Wakefield Cathedral, and is married to the Dean of Wakefield, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener.

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