Arriving in Durham late one March afternoon, I realised that if I was quick I could just make Evensong at the cathedral. It was well worth the brisk dash along the river. Responses by Tallis, psalms by Barber and Pergolesi’s piercing Stabat Mater Dolorosa as the closing anthem, sung by a visiting choir from a Yorkshire girls’ school with such skill and passion as to make even an old pessimist like me think that the country might not be doomed after all.
The setting helped, of course. In my not very informed opinion, Durham is the finest cathedral in the country, though I will concede that it is run close by the Gothic and Norman masterpieces of the Fens – Lincoln, Ely and Peterborough – and I am highly susceptible to the charms of Westminster, with its striking brick exterior and those high mysterious domes still awaiting decoration after more than a century.
If I had only myself to please, I would spend a great deal of time poking around old churches, and cathedrals in particular. It was with some sadness, therefore, that I read the news that many of England’s cathedrals are facing financial troubles – with closures on the cards.
Some Christians will be untroubled by this news. What does it matter, they will say, if a single building closes? God, after all, “does not make his home in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24). Cathedrals, in this account, are relics of bygone eras where the Church had grown fat and complacent, intertwined with worldly power, or where the faith was little more than a veneer over bourgeois respectability. They are chilly and intimidating and cost a fortune to maintain. Had we not better spend that money on Bibles and food for the poor? If you cannot worship in a hired school hall on an out-of-tune piano, then it is not Jesus Christ you are worshipping.
There are serious points to engage with here – but also, I fancy, echoing down the centuries, the voice of the Puritan Roundhead, pointedly stabling his horses on the high altar and smashing the idolatrous stained glass. Underlying the argument, one can sometimes detect a sort of accusation: that we who value beauty in the Christian life are not so much Christians as aesthetes, even idolaters, rhapsodising about magnificent buildings and superb music rather than grace and the sacraments, our copies of TS Eliot and Pevsner more heavily thumbed than our missals. After all, atheists can enjoy Bach and an elegant Romanesque arch.
Is there a real danger here to be avoided? Undoubtedly. Speaking for myself, I know the lure of seeing high Christian culture merely as a facet of my idealised vision of a vanishing England. However, that is not the whole story. Cathedrals do matter for the sustenance and deepening of faith.
In their vastness and solidity, they act as a powerful reminder that Christianity is an ancient faith that draws on powerful springs – what CS Lewis allegorises in the Narnia books as the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time”.
The speed of modern communications, and particularly the rise of social media, has made all of us very vulnerable to becoming overly immersed in What’s Going On Right Now. Taking a step into the cool, quiet interior of a cathedral can help us overcome those unhealthy impulses (the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once said: “I’ve always thought the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder”). To occupy the same space in which people far distant from us in time and language and experience have heard the same prayers, the same chants, the same hymns, is a way of placing ourselves back into the great tradition.
Especially when God seems silent or life is hard, we need that reassurance that we are not alone, that this is a place where people have found peace and solace, where prayer has been valid.
There are also lessons for Christians in the rootedness of an ancient church building. We have grown used to hypermobility, to having a huge range of choices about where we live and work. This militates against the creation of settled Christian communities, of the kind which have been the norm for most Christians in most places throughout history, and which are clearly envisioned in the New Testament and by the Church Fathers.
The Rule of St Benedict, for instance, lays great stress on geographic stability; the idea of service to particular people in a particular place at a particular time runs like a golden thread through much Christian writing. One of the great Christian witnesses in years to come will be to live out continuity, tradition and silence in a relentlessly amorphous and distracted world – and maybe, just maybe, cathedrals can be both the physical and spiritual centres of that witness.
Niall Gooch tweets @niall_ gooch
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