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Cathedrals must confront societal ills

13 May 2022

They have an important part to play in challenging multiple injustices in this country, argues Adrian Dorber


The lantern tower of Newcastle Cathedral overlooks the River Tyne in the city centre

The lantern tower of Newcastle Cathedral overlooks the River Tyne in the city centre

LIKE the rest of the Church, cathedrals are recovering and regrouping, as society emerges from the pandemic. We are also coming to terms with new legislation that aims to have us co-regulated by the Church Commissioners and the Charity Commission, and streamlines our operations and governance — necessary and good for maintaining public trust and accountability (News, 4 December 2020).

Yet institutional reform and tidiness is no substitute for the vision, hope, and imagination, the vocational focus and joy of what life in Christ calls us to be and become. Much of Jesus’s time with his followers was teaching them to see the world as the arena of God’s glory.

What lasting and righteous things can emerge from the rubble of the past two years? What has been exposed in the growing environmental crisis, in social inequality, and in racial injustice?

The second National Cathedrals Conference, which takes place in Newcastle Cathedral next week, seeks to address these questions, under the theme of “Different Country: Different Church”. More than 300 people — drawn from all the C of E cathedrals, ecumenical guests from English Roman Catholic cathedrals, representatives from Irish, Welsh, and Scottish cathedrals, together with staff from the National Church Institutions — are due to attend. It is hoped that the conference will help us listen carefully to what is going on around us, and to provide some of the knowledge and inspiration that can take us forward — but not push us simply into survival mode or neurotic activism.

DURING the pandemic, there has been a flurry of theological writing: one observer reckoned that there were 45 bound volumes of theology produced in one year as a response to the pandemic. Vision was stirred. Prophets spoke.

During the first UK lockdown, with its weekly applause for the NHS, there seemed to be a rediscovery of national mutuality, and a window of hope was opened. Sadly, it was shut, and then grew grubby, as successive stories broke of muddle, nepotism, and the uneven application of the law among some who had enacted it.

What was going on? What is to be learned? Discernment keeps us trying to find the good news hidden in the unpromising and sad news. What is the Spirit putting before us? What are we learning through the crises of war, pandemic, and multiple injustices?

A famous Jesuit, Pope Francis, has taught, very simply, that we can begin and know how to act if we discern what is and what is not of God, and, most particularly, when we sit down and listen to those on the margins, just as we find Jesus doing in the Gospels.

In his book Let Us Dream: The path to a better future (Simon & Schuster), co-written with a British journalist, Dr Austen Ivereigh (News, 27 November 2020), the Pope writes: “In our discernment we are to realise that God’s voice does not so much dominate as propose, the opposite voice is strident even monotonous, God corrects us but with gentleness and consolation, encouraging us and putting hope in front of us. The bad spirit offers dazzle and sensation but it exploits our fears and suspicions and wants us to put faith in wealth and prestige, ignore its voice and it tells us we are useless and contemptible.”

THE Newcastle Conference is not a deliberative assembly, but I hope that it will be a resource and refreshment. It begins with welcome and the story of how our host cathedral has repositioned itself as the heart of a busy and dynamic city. It has “learned to speak Geordie”. We will listen to a senior politician take a long penetrating look at church-state relations, and we will undertake an extended meditation on Jesus’s encounters with the excluded.

The next three days centre on the questions to the Church that arise when we do not listen to one another, and get trapped in our silos. It will consider what might happen when we extend our ministry specifically to those who hurt the most, and how cathedrals can use their influence as conveners and gatherers to empower and give a voice to support the neglected and unheard. Society is more unequal than at any time since the 1950s, and there is alarming structural poverty. What is a proper Christian response from our cathedrals?

The Church of England has made a positive commitment to becoming carbon- neutral by 2030 (News, 14 February 2020). The environmental crisis is the most significant existential threat to everyone born after 1960. How we take practical action, help to refine our ethics, and develop a lively theology and liturgy of thanks and penitence for our use and misuse of creation will have prime time at the conference. There are initiatives and partnerships emerging among the cathedrals: it is a prime opportunity to learn from one another and be briefed by expert engineering, environmental, and theological speakers.

THE third challenge that the conference addresses is racial injustice. Our Church has had to come to a chastening realisation of the bias and racism that has infected the body of Christ. The Church historian Adrian Hastings rather mildly commented in the 1980s that the Windrush generation “found the existing churches mostly staid, elderly and very little interested in them”. It was worse than that. In my part of the West Midlands, we have first-hand accounts of clergy suggesting that Black Caribbean people would be “more at home” in Pentecostal Churches. This was being said to life-long Anglicans.

The impact of Empire and colonialism, and the ignorance of African and Asian histories, has gravely affected not only society but the Church of England, too. We are in the middle of difficult re-evaluations of our history and heritage. Cathedrals have long been used as fanes for the memorialisation of the powerful. Our staff, choirs, volunteers, and congregations are not, in the main, representative of the ethnic and cultural mix of our communities. Our response to racism has so often been piecemeal and uncomprehending that people of colour have found an uneasy home in our Church.

The Church of England has called time on our failures; cathedrals can play an important actual and symbolic part in celebrating and honouring diversity, and being safe places for people of all cultures and races.

Besides these three big themes, there will be a set of resourcing workshops: everything from helping congregations to recover from trauma, to building a case for project support, from rediscovering the ministry of healing to learning from best practice in the tourism industry.

It will all be undergirded by the same rhythms of prayer and sacrament that are the mainstays of every cathedral’s day. I hope that we leave Newcastle stimulated, refreshed, and committed to some of the challenges that are so evidently before us, and that the tiredness and weariness of the past two years might be healed by listening out for what God proposes.

The Very Revd Adrian Dorber is the Dean of Lichfield and chairs the Association of English Cathedrals.

The 2022 National Cathedrals Conference takes place from 16-19 May in Newcastle Cathedral. For more information, including how to book tickets to attend in person or virtually, visit nationalcathedralsconference.org. The Church Times and its parent company, Hymns Ancient & Modern, are among the conference’s sponsors.

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2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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