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Temple, tower, sign, clinic . . .

25 April 2014

John D. Davies reads about Cape Town's Anglican cathedral and its witness

From "colonial church" to "people's cathedral": St George's Cathedral, Cape Town (thehigh altar), in an illustration from the new book

From "colonial church" to "people's cathedral": St George's Cathedral, Cape Town (thehigh altar), in an illustration from the new book

St George's Cathedral: Heritage and witness
Mary Bock and Judith Gordon, editors
PreText Publishing £19.99*
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT366 )

THIS is a collection of essays and reflections, from about 16 authors, concerning every aspect of the Anglican cathedral in Cape Town.

It is magnificently produced and sumptuously illustrated. Here are full details of the physical historyof the cathedral, its design, and its development. It is a splendid guidebook to a fine building. But it is very much more. More than half of the book is about the people and the city that the cathedral has been serving.

A cathedral in a big South African city plays a very different part in its life from its English counterparts. It is the public presence of a minority denomination, with no official status in the nation. It may have an appearance of grandeur and social importance, but, especially during the apartheid years, it has stood as a massive contradiction, at the heart of the city, against the dominant culture that has ruled every aspect of every citizen's life. It has been the only large building in the city which has been open and accessible and available to people of every race and category.

Anglicanism has had a particular advantage in this setting. Underthe apartheid regime, its parish churches may have been unofficially segregated, if only because of the segregation of populations by law. But these parishes all come under the authority of the one diocesan bishop and one diocesan synod; and at their heart is one diocesan cathedral.

This has been the privilege and burden of St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, and the core of this book is a testimony to its fulfilment of this demanding vocation, under the leadership of holy and courageous deans. It has been a refuge for displaced persons, a venue for confrontations with the police,and a gathering-place for dedi-cated worship and witness, recognised across the world as "Tutu's church".

The cathedral's witness continues in the new order in South Africa. The writers acknowledge that there is much still to do. A recent contributor notes that St George's is the Mother Church for the whole South African Church, but still "feels quite Eurocentric" - or, as I used to feel it to be, more English than African - in spite of being in a city where English is only the third most commonly spoken language. But now its worship is offered in at least three languages. Its history continues, in its pilgrimage from "colonial church" to "people's cathedral".

In the past 30 years, Deans of St George's have taken to heart the valuable list of "roles for a cathedral" offered by Albert van den Heuwel from the World Council of Churches (who was an inspiring visitor to our student community fifty years ago). Anyone who has responsibility for a great church building would do well to reflect on this list. The "roles for a cathedral", as quoted in the essay by Dean Colin James, are: a temple of dialogue; a theatre for basic drama; a symbol of diversity in unity; a broadcasting station for the voiceof the poor; a tower of reconciliation; a clinic for the public exorcism of pessimism; a sign of pro-existence; a hut of the shepherd; an international exchange; a motel for pilgrims; and a house of vicarious feasts.

The book as a whole offers a standard by which any book abouta great church should be judged.

The Rt Revd John Dudley Davies is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of St Asaph, and a former Bishop of Shrewsbury. He was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa, 1956-70.

*This title can be obtained in the UK from the Church Times Bookshop: phone 0845 0176965.

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