There has been much debate recently about the use of cathedrals at a time when we in the Diocese of Shrewsbury are embarking on the renewal and restoration of the interior of one of England’s smallest cathedrals. We see this as an opportunity not only to reflect on the recovery of the historic character and beauty of this Pugin church, but also to renew the central mission of a sacred building. According to the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, such a building and its requisites for divine worship should be “truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities”.
The canonisation of John Henry Newman will undoubtedly revive interest in his most celebrated sermon, “The Second Spring”, where he speaks of the central place of cathedrals in the rebuilding of Catholic England. “A second temple rises on the ruins of old,” he wrote. “Canterbury has gone its way, and York is gone, and Durham is gone and Winchester is gone …” Newman then evoked the Catholic future in words that would leave many of his hearers in tears: “Westminster and Nottingham, Beverley and Hexham, Northampton and Shrewsbury, if the world lasts, shall be names as musical to the ear, as stirring to the heart, as the glories we have lost …”
Why did England’s next saint see such a formative and evangelising role for the new cathedrals of this second springtime? What is certain is that none of them was built merely as an assembly space. From the vast plans for Westminster and Liverpool, to the smaller scale work of Augustus and Edward Pugin, the new cathedrals were surely intended to lead successive generations to the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist with wonder and living faith.
Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that the oldest term used to describe a Christian church is porta coeli – the gate of heaven – and so it is for our generation. In this regard, I am often struck by how the visitors to Shrewsbury are drawn to its cathedral by something more than curiosity. They are able to catch sight of a vision of faith expressed in its art and architecture.
Pope Francis speaks of our churches as spaces not of utility, but places open for an encounter. In repeating the words of his predecessor, the Holy Father describes this encounter as the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Evangelii Gaudium).
Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, had already elucidated this thought in an essay on church architecture. He recalled that a Catholic church is built not only for the gathering of people, but for recollection focused upon the Lord present in the Eucharist. Our churches have never been merely meeting halls or assembly rooms. Rather, they exist to give visible witness to supernatural faith and love, and thereby to invite all humanity to know and encounter Christ Himself. Recent emphasis on churches as buildings which merely facilitate events and gatherings can lose sight of this vital need for recollection in God’s presence.
Cardinal Ratzinger observed that what is new about such Christian spaces is that they remain churches all day long, “in which the Church is always alive, because praying people encounter there the mystery of the Lord, his death and resurrection … [A] church building must also be a space that invites Christians, beyond the communal worship of God, to stay awhile to pray, to be silent before the Lord whose Eucharistic presence remains …”.
In my own childhood and upbringing, Christian art and architecture served this noble purpose of helping to bring me to my knees in recognition and adoration of Christ truly present in the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the Sacrament of the Altar. The same architecture helped me realise this was always in communion with the Church, always together with the Communion of Saints. Irrespective of its historic style, genuine Christian architecture must seek to do the same by – we might say – being itself a visible act of witness and worship.
All of this explains why one of the first things I wanted to do as Bishop of Shrewsbury was to bring the Tabernacle back to the centre of the cathedral. The Historic Churches Committee has happily granted us permission to remove the wooden platforming which created an extended sanctuary in the mid-1980s; this will allow us to seek to recover something of the beauty of this cathedral of the second springtime. I see this renewal of altar and sanctuary as part of the new evangelisation in which sacred buildings have the same vital role that Newman envisaged.
In The Spirit of the Liturgy Cardinal Ratzinger expressed this mission beautifully when he wrote: “The church never becomes a lifeless space but is always filled with the presence of the Lord, which comes out of the celebration, leads us into it … A church without the Eucharistic presence is somehow dead, even when it invites people to pray. But a church within which the eternal light is burning before the tabernacle is always alive, is always more than a building made of stones.”
The new cathedrals of England were built to create sacred space for the people of our land. In Shrewsbury, we are seeking to renew this mission so that our cathedral may continue to present the vision of the Catholic faith to new generations who might know little of its beauty. This mission is ultimately to lead us to recognise Jesus Christ truly present in the mystery and reality of the Eucharist.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury