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Ships of Heaven: The private life of Britain’s cathedrals, by Christopher Somerville

10 May 2019

Voices from cathedral life are heard here, says David Wilbourne

IN THIS book, Christopher Somerville paints word pictures of exquisite quality, catching 21 cathedrals’ oddities and peculiarities and sheer glory.

Along the way, this ecclesiastical Robert MacFarlane encounters a mason who gives Archbishop Stephen Langton the look of a Brian Clough; an “unctuous, oleaginous and saponaceous” bishop of Oxford, preaching at the completion of Chichester’s spire; a sexy Queen of Sheba who sashays in a clinging purple dress; Orkney’s cathedral, with the span between pillars used to dry drenched sails; a curly-horned bonnacon who has “a nasty habit of spraying scalding excrement over three acres”; and a Lord of Hosts in York’s Great East Window — the medieval glazier scratched “top senter” on the Almighty’s forehead, lest there be any doubt.

Somerville delights in York Minster, which gives a “waggle of the archiepiscopal willy in the direction of Canterbury”. Canterbury, though, benefits from a 56-seater Necessarium, particularly useful whenever its Archbishop’s pronouncements turn the congregation’s stomachs.

He catches the authentic voice of masons, guides, vergers, glaziers, all too aware of their cathedral’s idiosyncrasies. “During long services, elderly men such as myself can find the sight and sound of that constant trickling water quite difficult,” a lay chaplain complains about Salisbury’s font of ever-flowing softly trickling water. “I wouldn’t give you much for a medieval mason’s lungs!” one mason observes, prone to silicosis himself.

Somerville’s clergy tend to be preachy and over-think things, with one glorious exception in Wyn Evans, former Dean and Bishop of St Davids. His heart’s desire was to turn visitors to pilgrims, his cathedral keeping up the standard even on a wet Tuesday afternoon in November. “St David, you wouldn’t want to cross him, extremely austere, fiercely vegetarian, fiercely ascetic, not a comfortable or kindly man, very much not in favour of women.” As Dean, he had the alleged bones of St David carbon-dated; they proved to be 13th-century, some, ironically, female.

Cathedrals are “bigger, taller, heavier, larger, but wobble, bend and break, in constant flux”. “We’re here now and this is our might and right,” Norman cathedrals shout, glorifying both conquerors and God. But Liverpool Cathedral’s Great George tolls on the anniversary of Hillsborough, challenging The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power.

Surprised by multi-coloured light in Coventry’s shadows, Somerville gnomically concludes: “One can only understand life when you come through the gathering dark to Christ at the end, and can turn and look back on it.”

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.

Ships of Heaven: The private life of Britain’s cathedrals
Christopher Somerville
Doubleday £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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