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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 May 2024

Visiting Newcastle Cathedral, Malcolm Guite discovers a truly Christlike welcome

I RECENTLY made my first visit to Newcastle Cathedral, a church dedicated in honour of St Nicholas, like my own parish church here in North Walsham. I was there to give a talk and to read poetry as part of Tim Boniface’s jazz suite The Eight Words (Arts, 31 March 2017); but, before our events started, I had a good chance to look around.

I have been fortunate to visit many fine churches. Although, unlike Philip Larkin in his poem “Church Going”, I did not “take off my cycle clips in awkward reverence”, I did make my reverence to the presence of Christ in his holy house, where I discerned it. I have been in many churches where one’s eye is led towards the presence in the sanctuary of a tabernacle or aumbry, sometimes gilded and ornate, with a light perpetually kindled, where the body of Christ may be discerned and revered in its particular mode as consecrated bread and wine. It is a helpful focus of devotion, a kind of lens, a training of the eye to discern the body not just in that eucharistic mode, but more widely.

There is a powerful passage preached by Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, to the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923, and subsequently, right into the 1970s, to be found pinned on many church noticeboards, which, indeed, my wife first saw, not far from this cathedral, pinned to a noticeboard in St Gabriel’s Heaton: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. . .

“It is folly, it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of Glory, when you are sweating him in the bodies and souls of his children. . . You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges . . . and look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good.”

As I looked around me in this cathedral, I found that they had done even better than that. Rather than go out to the highways, they had invited the homeless and hopeless into the cathedral itself and given them shelter.

Tragically, we have all grown used to seeing the bodies of the homeless huddled in doorways, shopfronts, and under any ledge that provides shelter, often enough near city-centre churches; but here they were in the great cathedral, their sleeping bags laid out along the aisles, alongside recumbent medieval knights and the marble effigies of 18th-century grandees. They were part of the place; they were welcome; they caused no difficulty or intrusion. On the contrary, seeing them there, in that sacred space, was a sacramental experience, and showed forth not only Christ’s teaching, but his very presence. So, I knew beyond doubt in this cathedral where and to whom I should make my reverence to the body of Christ.

Some of these folk joined the congregation for my talk. Afterwards, one of them shared with me a real appreciation of poetry, and we blessed one another. As is so often the case, I took far more away from that church visit than I ever brought there.

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