GROWING up, my big sister had a small brass door-knocker which inspired envy in me. It was a little cross-legged devil, defying you to enter her teenage lair. One day, as head chorister on an RSCM cathedral course, I was leading a procession singing Psalm 150 at the end of evensong. And I saw him again, grinning down at me from atop a pillar: her door-knocker was the Lincoln Imp.
Every cathedral seems to have cheeky interlopers — on their corbels, on their misericords, or lurking in the corner of their stained-glass windows. The secular also sneaks into cathedrals through the likes of Ely’s labyrinth, Norwich’s green men, and Rochester’s zodiac. Are the craftsmen having a laugh, or is it something more theologically significant?
This exuberant inclusion of everything, coded into the very stonework and decoration of our churches and cathedrals, serves as a visible witness of our salvation. Because God made the world, and Christ redeemed it, there can be no secularity. Claiming the Unknown God at the Areopagus, the rebranding of Eostre, and the conversion of the goddess Brigid to a saint — all of these exemplify the Christian tradition of baptising the secular to claim it for God.
Essentially, this is mission, and the cathedrals have been quietly getting on with it for years. The breadth and inclusion expressed in their fabric is replicated in their daily life, and they seem to be able to pull off an incredibly rich and varied range of activities.
Much has been written about the complexity of mission in a highly secularised society, and what it is about cathedrals that seems to be hitting the spot. Is it that they are “liminal spaces” between the sacred and the secular? Places of “adjacency” where a visitor might hear a spiritual whisper and be drawn closer to faith? Or is it just the shop and the tearoom?
UNDOUBTEDLY, a cathedral is an alluring shop window for the delights that the Anglican tradition has to offer. But the perception of cathedrals as national buildings that belong to everyone may also be lowering the psychological barrier for people to cross the threshold.
Whatever it is about these magnets for mission, they appear to be transmitting something on some kind of spiritual frequency. It may seem intermittent and faint, but t is something that people seem instinctively to know that they need to hear. It is as though we have been wandering around trying to get a signal on our spiritual phones, to find that, suddenly, in a cathedral, we have all five bars. So maybe Liverpool Cathedral’s red Gilbert Scott phone-box really is a hotline to God.
Recently, I was reminded of this rare reach when I delivered Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day, which airs at 5.43 a.m. each morning. My theme was cathedrals, and I had rather assumed that everyone would be asleep at that hour. But I had emails, texts, letters, and cards, from Elgin to Exeter, from Europe to the Eastern Seaboard, all from people who were quick to tell me that “Of course I’m not Christian, but. . .” They all wanted to tell me about their great love for our cathedrals, and how they had been reminded of this by listening to my meditations about them. I experienced it as an amazing global group hug for England’s cathedrals.
WHAT is the collective noun for cathedral deans? A forest of them? Next week, Manchester will be teeming with deans. Why are all these Very Reverends forming a glade in the city of the bees? Together with their cathedral colleagues, they are taking over three of the city’s largest hotels, for the first ever National Cathedrals Conference. It’s a stellar line-up. Just the first day boasts the likes of Loretta Minghella, Will Hutton, Sandy Nairne, Timothy Radcliffe, and Stuart Burns; and each day is packed with sessions on everything from governance, safeguarding, hospitality, and music to justice, interpretation, public square, and project management.
It is a very purposeful occasion which involves voices from within the cathedral community, and many from outside, to challenge existing thinking and develop ways to preserve, strengthen, and develop them. We owe it both to ourselves and to the nation to vouchsafe their sustainability and good governance for the future.
In a world where the good news of the gospel is needed more than ever, we must pounce on anything that seems to be getting through. The cathedrals remind us that the secular cannot resist the sacred, and our challenge is to learn from them how this might be amplified elsewhere.
Dr Eve Poole is the Third Church Estates Commissioner.
The National Cathedrals Conference takes place in Manchester from Monday to Thursday of next week.