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26 February 2016

William Whyte enjoys a guide to the ongoing story of our cathedrals


Gothic Revival in Norfolk: St John the Baptist’s (RC) Cathedral, Norwich (Giles Gilbert Scott). From the book reviewed

Gothic Revival in Norfolk: St John the Baptist’s (RC) Cathedral, Norwich (Giles Gilbert Scott). From the book reviewed

English Cathedrals
Andrew Sanders
Robert Hale £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


CATHEDRAL-visiting has been a popular pastime for centuries, and, during the past 200 years or so, thousands of guides have been published to help visitors: some of them scholarly, others more popular, and most of them trying to do much the same things. Almost all attempt to give their readers a sense of history and of theology; to show the ways in which these grand buildings express beliefs.

Professor Andrew Sanders’s slim but remarkably comprehensive little volume is a delightful contribution to this long-standing tradition. In just over 200 pages, he manages to cover every single Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedral in England. Sometimes, as with Leeds, Lancaster, Clifton, Middlesbrough, or Brentwood, this means skipping past them in a paragraph.

More often, we get a crisp reflection on the architectural, aesthetic, historical, and spiritual importance of a particular place. Although the book is not lavishly illustrated, there is a good — and remarkably up-to-date — selection of images, which range from 18th-century prints to a photograph of Richard III’s tomb at Leicester, unveiled only in March 2015.

As this suggests, not least of the achievements of the book is that the author is as happy describing 21st-century cathedral life as he is outlining the early years of older foundations such as Durham, Canterbury, and Winchester. It is an undeniably impressive achievement — though a necessary one; for the history of England’s cathedrals is long but still continually evolving. Indeed, in the past century, no fewer than ten Anglican and five Roman Catholic cathedrals have been created, while the 19th-century Church was even more prodigious in raising old churches to a new status, and — in places such as Truro — building new edifices to serve an old purpose.

Professor Sanders is not afraid to offer criticism as well as praise. He condemns many of the changes made in the wake of Vatican II, for instance. He firmly writes off the fittings in Guildford Cathedral: “The 17m curtain behind the high altar is of the blandest beige,” he concludes. “Its very neutrality somehow sums up the whole church building.”

Even the most famously attractive cathedrals do not escape gentle chiding: the authorities at Exeter, for example, are rebuked for installing “some truly horrid fibreglass sculptures” in the Chapter House.

In general, though, this is a positive, even a rather celebratory, gazetteer, arguing that these “cathedrals embody the very best features of Anglicanism: its order, its sense of tradition, and its (generally) exemplary balance of thanksgiving, prayer, and music”.

It is in that spirit that he concludes the whole book, by observing that, whatever the apparent differences between Anglo-Saxon Ely and modern Coventry, “Essentially . . . nothing has changed.” This is a book for anyone wanting an introduction to why that might be so.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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