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Shop Window, Flagship, Common Ground, by Judith A. Muskett

14 February 2020

Michael Tavinor looks at an analysis of cathedral metaphors

CATHEDRAL studies are a new branch of research, which seeks to apply rigorous academic criteria and serious use of statistics to explain and analyse the phenomenon of the success of English cathedrals and “greater churches” in the past 40 years or so.

Such studies tease out what ca­­thed­­rals are telling us about theo­logical developments today, and how they represent a new (and, it seems, growing) constituency of those who “believe but don’t be­­long”, to use the phrase of the great exponent of cathedral studies, Professor Grace Davie.

Judith Muskett’s book makes an important contribution to the dis­cussion, and takes as its starting-­point metaphors that have become useful pointers to what is going on in this sector.

Of course, cathedrals are no strangers to having metaphors ap­­plied to them — often rudely. In the past, they have been described as “great stone mountains”, “white elephants which feed on the souls of men”, “sleeping giants on the hill”, even “fat cats of the Church of England”, but today’s metaphors are more positive in leading us to the multi-layered function that cathed­rals surely have in today’s Church. As long ago as 1969, Dean Michael Stancliffe identified eight different definitions of how the modern ca­­thedral might be viewed.

Judith Muskett focuses on six metaphors: cathedrals are “shop windows, flagships, beacons, [and] mag­nets”, and they represent “sacred space and common ground”. Cer­tainly, her book is the first to take these metaphors and analyse their deeper meanings.

The first part of the book, with its theory of meta­phor, I found hard going, and not helped by an error on page 13 (Michael Sadgrove is indeed Dean Emeritus of Durham, but has never been Rector of Sunderland Minster, as asserted). Muskett’s summary of earlier work in this area, however, is invaluable, as is her delv­ing into fic­tion for descriptions of cathedrals.

The book comes alive when she gives practical examples of what these metaphors mean. Of particular interest are ways in which cathedrals and greater churches have reached out to new constituencies — her ex­­perience of St Wulfram’s, Grantham, with its six-day Christmas-tree festival is a well-worked example.

When the book was written last summer, of course, the Church was agog with two particular examples of these “metaphors in action” — the helter-skelter in the nave of Norwich Cathedral and the golf course in the nave of Rochester Cathedral.

Muskett uses such examples to pose key ques­tions — are such expressions stretching the concept of church to breaking-point (Roman Catholic cathedrals would never countenance such developments), or are they valuable models of outreach to those on the edge, and examples of what Professor Davie calls “vicarious religion”? I think the jury is out on these points.

If anything, I should have liked all this to lead to even deeper questions — to what extent is the “cathedral agenda” with its emphasis on “in­­clu­sion” and ‘”imaginative meta­phor” really being heard in the thinking of the Church of England today? If it isn’t, then this book will help that engagement, although at £65 a copy, for a fairly slim volume, I fear that copies won’t be flying off the shelves.

The Very Revd Michael Tavinor is the Dean of Hereford.


Shop Window, Flagship, Common Ground: Metaphor in cathedral and congregation studies
Judith A. Muskett
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop special price £52

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