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Holy Ground: Cathedrals in the twenty-first century by Stephen Platten, editor

16 February 2018

Andrew Nunn considers a topical discussion of what such places do

THE Church Times reported last August on some published statistics that suggested that the number of visitors to churches and cathedrals in England had fallen — but just a bit. Cathedrals remain high on the agenda of many visitors from home and overseas, and are high on the agenda of the Church at the present time.

Cathedrals have always been fascinating places. Trollope’s Barchester novels opened up the intrigue in the cathedral close to public imagination, and Catherine Fox’s recently concluded Lindchester trilogy has brought that interest into the modern age with challenging contemporary plot lines.

The book Holy Ground is also part of a trilogy. Bishop Stephen Platten, formerly Dean of Norwich, the editor of these essays on the life of cathedrals in the 21st century, also edited Flagships of the Spirit and Dreaming Spires. All three volumes have looked at different aspects of the life of cathedrals.

This one draws together contributions from Deans Peter Atkinson, Nicholas Henshall, and David Hoyle, Canon Christopher Irvine, Richard Shephard, Professor Simon Oliver, and the architect Jane Kennedy, with a foreword by Frank Field, at the time when the Church of England has published a draft report from the Working Group on Cathedrals. Both in many ways touch on the same subjects. Holy Ground begins by asking what the point of cathedrals is, and then goes into various aspects of the life of these much loved institutions as places of prayer, of excellence, and of music and worship, as well as centres of art, history, and heritage.

There is a fascinating, though detailed, chapter from Jennie Page on the workings of cathedrals’ fabric advisory committees and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, the bodies that advise on the care and development of these wonderful buildings. There are excellent chapters on growth and prophecy.

The problem with all books and reports on cathedrals is that what we are dealing with is a series of 42 (if you don’t count Westminster Abbey) similar but very different institutions. As Platten comments in his opening essay, “Cathedrals . . . are shaped essentially by their setting and by place.”

Barchester and Lindchester are quite different, and not just because of the separation of time. Southwark Cathedral, for example, is in a situation and setting that come with a huge number of opportunities and challenges that simply do not face Bradford or Carlisle. Leicester is very different from Wells; and St Paul’s is nothing like Norwich. Yet we are all cathedrals trying to do whatever it is that cathedrals are meant to be doing in a Church that is rapidly changing, and with a House of Bishops many of whom have no experience of cathedrals and seemingly little understanding of what we are about, and with part of the Church suspicious or jealous of the “success” of cathedrals and their independence.

If, however, we are to have an informed and calm conversation about the future shape of the governance of these ancient and modern places and better financial controls than have recently applied in some — but by no means all — cathedrals, then books like this can only help to inform the Church about what a rich part of national and church heritage cathedrals represent.

But these are not just heritage gems to be preserved. The whole point of the book and the report is that cathedrals are alive, growing, and witnessing, bucking the trend seen in much of the rest of the Church: missional, exciting, and vital. That is why tourists and pilgrims will continue to enter the doors, to look at what is contained within the walls, but also to fall down and worship.


The Very Revd Andrew Nunn is the Dean of Southwark.


Holy Ground: Cathedrals in the twenty-first century
Stephen Platten, editor
Sacristy Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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