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Cathedral minutiae

22 November 2013

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IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times. Wakefield, the first subject of BBC4's three-part series Cathedrals (Tuesday of last week), was just reaching the climax of a huge renovation and reordering process, but simultaneously facing the prospect of losing its identity as the mother church of its own diocese, looking to a future where it would be one of three cathedrals in a new super-diocese.

We have seen other fly-on-the-wall TV portraits of our great churches in recent years, but this one paid closer attention to the issue that really affects us: pastoral reorganisation, and it was willing to spend time exploring the situation and the emotions it raises. The director seemed personally engaged, speaking more from the inside than from the outside looking in - interested, fascinated even, but essentially uninvolved.

The programme started with poetry, Auden quoted over Wakefield in the snow. But this was no glossy chocolate-box fantasy of Ye Olde Englande, the C of E essentially a branch of cosy heritage. We were left in no doubt that West Yorkshire is in economic trouble, and that lunches for the homeless, and singing groups for Alzheimer's sufferers are as central to the ministry of this cathedral as choral evensong.

The frisson for readers of this paper is that we knew that the decision about diocesan merging would go the way the Dean, Chapter, and Synod desperately hoped it would not; that their plans for an independent future would be trumped by others. We sat in on the kind of facilitated consultation meeting where the well-meaning process masks the inevitable decision that is already brewing elsewhere. We got to know the clergy, staff, and volunteers, and by the end. felt personally engaged, hoping that the new future will offer stability and context for the place still to feel that it is the cathedral for all Wakefieldians, whether they go to church or not.

In Strange Days: Cold War Britain (Tuesday, BBC2), Dominic Sandbrook was a splendid guide to that far-off country, Britain in the '40s and '50s. Russia moved from being our gallant allies who had trounced Hitler to a totalitarian monster willing to stop at nothing to subvert our freedom. The then Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, was the most fervent among the left-leaning intellectuals eager to support Stalin, receiving his Lenin Peace Prize with pride, and not sending it back after the brutal invasion of Hungary.

We saw, blooming among the post-war bomb-sites and deprivation, a country of deference, decorum, and conformism, gradually become more and more insecure, the humiliation of Suez proving that our imperial role was well and truly over. This was a fascinating and brilliantly presented piece.

The bright uplands achieved over the past 60-plus years are presented in Fresh Meat (Channel 4, Mondays), the foul-mouthed comedy about a provincial student house-share. Sex, drugs, and alcohol are the baseline on which everything else is constructed, hard studying having no place except for losers. The only slight redemptive feature is that, ultimately, genuine mutual support and compassion trump the hysterical self-gratification.

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