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Conference considers cathedrals’ place in ‘bouncy and accessible’ C of E

21 September 2018


A video message from Archbishop Welby is broadcast to delegates at the National Cathedrals Conference, on Monday

A video message from Archbishop Welby is broadcast to delegates at the National Cathedrals Conference, on Monday

“CATHEDRALS are fun,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a video broadcast at the National Cathedrals Conference in Manchester this week. “If you can’t have fun in a cathedral, do you really know what fun is? There’s just so many things you can do in a cathedral.”

The conference — subtitled “Sacred Space: Common Ground” (Comment, 14 September) — was attended by about 500 delegates, among them cathedral staff, clergy, lay leaders, volunteers, theologians, and members of religious communities.

Conference sessions took place in the cathedral, St Ann’s and St Mary’s, Manchester, several hotels, and even an art gallery. There were representatives from all English cathedrals, and some from as far away as Australia and South Africa.

The the event retained a distinctively Mancunian flavour, however: there were tours of Manchester that explained its significance as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and delegates ate local delicacies, including Lancashire cheese and Manchester tart.

Speakers included the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu; Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP and Mayor of the Sheffield City Region; and Will Hutton, the economist and newspaper columnist, who both spoke about the national political situation.

Mr Jarvis said that politicians had a “responsibility to support initiatives that bring people together. . . Cathedrals have got an important role to play. People who serve in Cathedrals do an incredibly important job . . . [through] foodbanks, advice, spiritual support.”

In his address, Dr Sentamu recalled being approached after preaching in a cathedral by a man who had entered the building “looking for a sign”, and was moved by the sermon. Cathedrals could demonstrate the power of the gospel, Dr Sentamu said. “The power of God came on this guy in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time.”

He also challenged delegates to remember what it is that they had to offer to their cities and towns. “In the cathedral, with the business and everything going on, I hope it is possible to have an offering. You are there to wash the feet of those who come, to offer them the bread of heaven.”

Fr Michael Lapsley SSM, the Anglican priest who lost his hands and the vision in one eye to a letter bomb, during the struggle against apartheid, spoke on peacemaking and reconciliation. He challenged delegates to consider how inclusive they were.

“Cathedrals speak to our search for the transcendent in an incarnational way,” he said. “Do working people, unemployed people, homeless people, refugees feel the cathedral is a home for them? . . . When a stranger comes into a cathedral, it is often because they just want to be listened to. It’s the vocation of cathedrals to be radically inclusive, to become safe and sacred places.”

Fr Lapsley spoke of the Manchester Arena bombing: “There’s an opportunity now for cathedrals to become places of redemptive and transformational healing. When the bombing happened here in Manchester, this cathedral became a place where people could come and cry and hug each other, and experience human solidarity. What would it look like for all our cathedrals to be places where all can come and express their brokenness and share their pain?”

The Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham University, Canon Simon Oliver, offered an “Ecclesiology of Cathedrals”, or, as he put it, an attempt to answer the question “Why on earth [do] we have cathedrals?”

His answer was to see cathedrals as the “fount of mission. . . The principal place of gathering for the diocese, and the principal place of sending.” He also spoke about the cathedral as a place of civic unity. Drawing on the Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes, Canon Oliver argued that the cathedral was a via media: a middle path between heaven and earth, human and divine, the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man.

Nick Spencer, senior fellow at the think tank Theos, said that cathedrals should be places where the Christian message was proclaimed into the public realm. Quoting Archbishop William Temple and speaking about the state of the world in the 21st century, he said: “We shall not try to make sense of everything: we shall openly proclaim that things as they are have no sense in them at all.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, told the conference: “There are thousands and thousands of people who want to come quietly, who even want to come secretly, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that in the modern-day bouncy and accessible Church of England. So, cathedrals have a special vocation and opportunity to be somewhere that you can slip into unseen and slip out of unseen.”

The conference came at a challenging time. Despite encouraging signs of growth in attendance, there have been financial crises at some cathedrals, and the report of the Cathedrals Working Group to reform governance has been a matter of lively debate (News, 19 January).

Both issues raised their head periodically at the conference, but the spirit among delegates was bullish — even when faced with a lone protester outside who had come to oppose “secular events” in cathedrals.

The Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Dame Fiona Reynolds, who chairs the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, addressed the financial question.

“Although we all work together to avoid the line that ‘Cathedrals are under threat’ . . . there is still a crisis,” she said. “There’s a constant, rolling, and growing need for money in cathedrals. . . We have a huge problem that each sticking plaster of money is helpful but doesn’t deal with the underlying issue. . . Current funding arrangements are, frankly, not secure enough.”

But she also spoke of the range of innovative schemes that cathedrals were involved in. “Let’s be thankful and joyful that we have the privilege of doing our best in such an inspiring cause,” she said.

With technical sessions and workshops, a gala dinner, and a civic reception, the conference had a packed agenda — matching what some delegates described as a frantic attempt to “keep the roof on” while offering worship and reaching out to their communities.

Addressing this, the Dominican Fr Timothy Radcliffe offered an answer: “The leisure of the Kingdom”. He said: “The greatest dignity we have as human beings is to rest with God. . . In our busy-ness and frenetic activity, we have to show how important we are; we’re busy all the time. . . What we’re engaged in is worship of the Lord, who summons us to rest with him and be at peace with him.”

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