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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Cathedrals in the 21st Century: learning from past and present

Introduction: the summer of Lindisfarne

Let’s begin with a recent part of Durham’s history. A hundred thousand people streamed through the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition and the Cathedral during the three months of the Gospels’ residency. They could have gone to the British Library to see the Gospels free.  So why did they pay to see them here?  For some it was an emotional connection with what many call an ‘iconic’ book for North East England. Yet this exhibition, including a magnificent array of manuscripts and artefacts, fourteen of them from our own Cathedral collections, was based on a serious intellectual premise. This was that to ‘read’ the Gospel Book in the medieval context it once belonged in makes all the difference. That context is partly about a physical place - Durham, but not only. It’s principally a theological and spiritual idea, its connection to the relics of St Cuthbert. As we know from the history of Cuthbert’s wandering community, the saint’s relics and his book travelled together. So the proper setting within which to understand the book must always be Cuthbert’s ‘place’. To Cuthbert’s community it would have been unthinkable to separate the saint from the book written in his honour. 

For the Cathedral, this posed important challenges about meanings and significance. What relevance does an early 8th century manuscript, for all its exquisite beauty, have for people of the 21st century?  It did not seem enough simply to interpret the book within a particular phase of cultural or artistic history. It was more a matter of celebrating the undiminished ‘power of this masterpiece to draw beholders back into its past, linking them to the vital traditions of spirituality, scholarship and craftsmanship that produced it’.[1] An exhibition that displayed an extraordinary collection of medieval manuscripts and artefacts cried out for some response to the question, what was this all for? And what might it all be for now?  Where is the gospel in the Gospels?

These questions are linked directly to others. Who is the man Cuthbert for us today and why should he still matter? Why should the Cathedral’s ‘brand’ continue to be the shrine of a Saxon saint if it is not just sacred nostalgia? And all this is merely a part of a larger question about the significance of the Cathedral itself and how it speaks into the present day to an admiring but sometimes baffled audience? In my book Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England which was published to mark the Gospels’ residency, I called Durham Cathedral the ‘mystic heart’ of North East England[2]: because of Cuthbert, all roads in the region lead here. This explains why the Cathedral is symbolic of the North East, linked as it is to the way in which the wanderings of Cuthbert’s community helped to define the ‘idea’ of the north of England.  But it requires a degree of spiritual and historical intelligence, not to say imagination, to speak about this complex past in a way that makes connections for people today.

Cathedrals are among the most visited buildings in the world. Durham, in particular, has in recent years scored exceptionally highly in its reported capacity to enchant and delight. In 2011, it was voted Britain’s favourite building, not for the first time, in a Guardian poll. This year it came top of TripAdvisor’s list of UK landmark attractions on the basis of visitor reviews on their website. What do these clues to its popularity tell us not only about Durham Cathedral but also about cathedrals generally, and what a mostly non-religious public find themselves responding to? And what should the guardians of cathedrals do to exploit all this interest and help make them living entities, and not simply magnificent piles of stone?

Six Expressions of Durham Cathedral: learning from the past

Let’s stay in Durham for a little longer. As in so much else, if we are asking questions about the future of cathedrals, we need to understand their past. Every cathedral is unique, but each one can also be a case-study from which we can generalise. So what does Durham’s past suggest about its future?

We need to recognise that there is not one historical ‘Durham Cathedral’ but many. We can divide them into three main eras: Saxon, Benedictine and Modern.  Within these, we can I think identify three distinct expressions that belong to the Saxon era, and two that belong to the Modern. That makes six which we can list as follows.

ERA 1: SAXON                    1st expression: the Cathedral on Lindisfarne (635-875)

                                              2nd expression: the Migrating Cathedral (875-995)

                                              3rd expression: the Cathedral at Durham (995-1083)

ERA 2: BENEDICTINE      4th expression: the Monastic Cathedral (1083-1540)

ERA 3: MODERN                5th expression: the Reformation Cathedral (1540-1649)

                                              6th expression: the Restoration Cathedral (1660-present)

Like geological eras or French republics, this schema risks oversimplifying history, but I think there is something to commend it because of the distinctiveness of the Cathedral’s life during each period. What I want to demonstrate is the versatility of the Cathedral in adapting itself to different contexts and re-inventing itself according to the needs of the day. This ability to change while remaining true to its essential character seems to me to offer clues about the development of the Cathedral in the present and future.

First (Saxon) Expression. The foundation that bequeathed to it its Saxon saints and the Lindisfarne Gospels is the ur-Durham, the Cathedral’s first embodiment. This oldest ‘layer’ of the Cathedral’s existence that has Cuthbert’s community, his Haliwerfolk, arrived on the peninsula, is intensely Cuthbert-focused. It is this era that connects the Cathedral back through the wanderings of his community to Lindisfarne and the foundation of the first convent there by St Aidan in 635. Crockford’s Clerical Directory is right to head its list of Durham bishops with Aidan, Finan, Colman, Tuda, Eata and Cuthbert, for Durham has always seen itself as simply the last and permanent expression of a church, bishop and cathedral that began on Lindisfarne. The fact that Holy Island is now in a different diocese does not alter the fact that Durham Cathedral, and by extension its diocese) is not simply the lineal descendant of that ancient community but, in a theological and spiritual sense, the same community. What this means for the identity of Durham Cathedral is of profound significance.

Second (Saxon) Expression. As we know, the Lindisfarne community left the island with its saints’ relics and its Gospel Book, it was said because of Viking raids, though the reasons may be more complex than that. The places where the community stayed were either the sites of existing churches or places where new churches were built, often dedicated to St Mary and St Cuthbert. And where Cuthbert’s rested with its bishop and community, there, for now, was the cathedral. From Norham to Chester-le-Street, this was the theological identity of that wandering community. So Durham’s second incarnation was that of a mobile cathedral, a Saxon ‘fresh expression’: where the bishop went, the cathedral went too.[3] This is a powerful idea especially in an age that mistrusts permanence. Like the people of Israel, the settled community never forgot its semi-nomadic origins, and indeed was commanded to embed that memory into its creedal story. So it is with Durham. We must always remember that we were once a cathedral on the move.

Third (Saxon) Expression. The Lindisfarne community’s arrival at Durham did not, in one sense, change anything. It installed itself on this peninsula, just one more site in a long chain of places across the north. The earliest churches the Saxons built here were not in principle different from those they had built anywhere else: like them they were dedicated to St Mary and St Cuthbert. Yet the conviction was dawning that Durham was not just one more stopping place. It was more like Chester-le-Street than Norham, a site where the community could plausibly expect to stay, for (as later medieval writers told the story), here was where their saint wished to be. The seeds of permanence were already being planted on this rocky peninsula.

This First Saxon Era can seem beguiling for its simplicity, its devotion, its closeness to the created world and its evangelistic energy, all symbolised by saints like Aidan and Cuthbert. It is tempting, especially for romantically-inclined people seduced by the current love-affair with ‘Celtic Christianity’, to regard it as defining for all time and to want to call the church back to a quasi-apostolic age. And of course going back to our origins, ad fontes, is always an important starting-point in the quest for meaning. However, it is not clear that post-Conquest generations spoke of Durham in that way. The following two eras show how very different the Cathedral came to be in the centuries that followed its arrival at Durham.

The Second Era, equivalent to the Fourth (Benedictine) Expression of the Cathedral, is the easiest to define. It coincides with the Benedictine centuries, from 1083 when, as all over England in the generation after the Norman Conquest, French bishops displaced Saxon communities and installed the more disciplined monastic orders that had been founded across Europe in the early middle ages. As far as cathedrals were concerned, this overwhelmingly meant the Benedictine order. In Durham, Benedictine brothers were brought from the re-founded monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow where Bede had been a monk.

The Norman Benedictines’ appropriation of Cuthbert is an important example of the reinvention of Durham. At the same time as constructing a building next to a castle that would symbolise the Normans’ coersive power over the Saxons, they also adopted and invigorated the cult of a Saxon saint - Cuthbert. This was an astute move in the febrile post-Conquest world. It placed him in a setting that was entirely different from his Saxon origins, with its sophisticated power-world of Palatine earls and Cathedral priors.[4] It aligned him at once with the new, and to the Saxons deeply unwelcome, Norman hegemony. So 1083 was a true watershed, nothing less than Durham’s Norman Conquest. It led to a complete re-engineering of monastic life on the peninsula as thorough as the 16th century Reformation would prove to be displacing one community in favour of another whose values were distinctively at odds with those it supplanted. Its tangible result was the present Romanesque Cathedral and its monastic buildings. Cuthbert’s shrine was now at the heart of the heavily fortified peninsula complex of castle and Cathedral. The Cathedral priory with its advanced organisation, its wealth and its trading relationships across the north[5] was as far removed from the isolation of the Inner Farne and the simplicity of Holy Island as it was possible to be.

But we must also see how the Normans brought about a new spiritual vision and energy in Durham. The new Romanesque cathedral was of course the visible symbol of this, especially if we read it as a building whose architectural masses, spaces, rhythms and proportions represent in stone of the values of the Benedictine Rule. The ideal of stability, being firmly rooted in one place, is strongly expressed in a building that stands securely on its bedrock surrounded by an ever-flowing river. Among the insights of the Benedictine rule is the ordering and shaping of human communities and individuals so that they come to reflect the well-ordered state the gospel calls the kingdom of God. The rediscovery of the rule as a source of inspiration and wisdom for lay people in ordinary life is a welcome development in recent years. So it is not surprising that the Benedictine influence remains strong in a place whose very buildings, the monastic dormitory, refectory, kitchen, treasury, Prior’s lodging and chapter house organised around the cloister survive as an intact visible memory of the monastic era.

Indeed, part of the ‘universal value’ of the Durham World Heritage Site which the Cathedral and University share is that all its ‘heritage’ structures continue to be populated, working buildings. In the case of the Cathedral and its conventual spaces, they function in the same, or similar, ways as were envisaged when they were constructed in monastic times. This human ‘texture’ is one of the most valuable tangible assets of Durham where more of its monastic past survives intact in both its buildings and its library and treasures than anywhere else in England.

The Fifth (Modern) Expression launched the Third and final Era, for the Reformation of the 16th century introduced, dramatically, yet another layer to the Cathedral’s complex identity. As in 1083 when the Benedictines displaced the Saxon community, they in turn were to find themselves suppressed by the dissolution of the Cathedral Priory in 1539.[6] This was another great watershed in the Cathedral’s history, and as we all know, the Reformation left a permanent visible mark in the church with the stripping of its altars and the removal of almost all the marks of medieval religion. As a foundation, the Cathedral was secularised, given new statutes (hence a ‘New Foundation’) and became a cathedral of the reformed Church of England. It remained the seat (or cathedra) of the bishops of Durham, but in a way different from the middle ages where spiritual and temporal power belonged within a single jurisdiction (though vestiges of ‘prince-bishop’ temporal power survived as far as the early 19th century). The well-documented conflicts between the (sometimes violently extreme) protestantism that wreaked such havoc on the building’s fabric in the century after the Reformation, and those like John Cosin who as a canon was inclined to what were perceived as ‘catholicising’ tendencies reveal a cathedral in search of its own identity. This conflict over the soul of the church was of course enacted in every part of England, although in Durham’s case this did not involve the significant loss of the built heritage that was among the costs of reform in other places.

However, the interior of the Cathedral as we see it today is largely the legacy not of the Fifth but the Sixth (Modern) and Final Expression which dates from the 17th century. The Civil War precipitated yet another crisis in cathedrals which were suppressed for the duration of the Commonwealth. So there is a gap in the timeline of more than a decade: there was no such entity as Durham Cathedral under the Commonwealth. All its worship, all its common life, all governance were suppressed. The building stood as an empty shell, and we should not call it ‘Durham Cathedral’ except as a way of identifying the structure. The Scottish prisoners, stabled here in the winter of 1650-51 and left to fend for themselves in terrible conditions of cold, hunger and disease speaks volumes about Cromwell’s contempt for cathedrals. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came the task of reconstruction. It was daunting to contemplate refurbishing the entire Cathedral, but luckily for Durham, a man who was equal to the task was appointed Bishop of Durham, John Cosin. 

In this, it is a quintessentially Anglican cathedral that despite subsequent alterations still retains in its layout and furnishings the ethos that Bishop Cosin conceived for the worship, spirituality and theology of the Church of England. His refurbishment of the Cathedral, as of other churches in his diocese, imagined The Book of Common Prayer expressed in sacred space. His gothic-revival (survival?) screens and stalls echo the Neville Screen as if to state pointedly that his cathedral stood firmly within the Benedictine tradition in the same way as the 1662 Prayer Book drew on the medieval offices in creating forms of prayer appropriate for a secular (i.e. non-monastic) era. Insofar as the identity of the Cathedral is largely a consequence of how it is ‘inhabited’ spiritually and liturgically, Cosin’s legacy remains influential in the present day. Whether the language of services is traditional or contemporary, the liturgical style is still as Cosin would have wanted it: beautiful, dignified ceremonial fit for a noble space, yet understated, restrained, comprehensible and, in the spirit of the renaissance, humane.

Six expressions of ‘cathedral’ in three distinct eras: Durham has been extraordinarily versatile in adapting to change and sometimes leading it. What is true here is true in every other cathedral in England. The ‘identity’ of a cathedral, and its understanding of its vocation, is so much shaped by its distinctive ‘story’.  But there are also many themes in common.  So we need to broaden the discussion to ask more generically what a cathedral is called to be and do in the 21st century when we know that we are set in a world where the pace of change is increasing with every year that passes.

Cathedrals and Spiritual Capital: learning from the present

The ‘secularisation’ of this Cathedral and the other cathedral priories means merely that at the dissolution it ceased to function as the church of a monastic community living under vows.  They had to learn a new identity as ‘secular’ cathedrals, reinvent themselves as institutions with a monastic past and an entirely different present. But secularisation is also a metaphor of how the Cathedral tries to respond to the challenges of modernity. By this I mean that cathedrals have had to re-think their role as signs of faith in a modernising post-enlightenment world where Christianity is no longer a presumption shared by all. In such a diverse world of many meanings, where visitors are sometimes surprised, even irritated, that services are still held in cathedrals and are preventing them from walking round, the task of interpreting sacred space become ever more demanding.

A truly ‘secular’ cathedral is not afraid of the challenges of modernity.  On the contrary, it wants to make the most of the increasing opportunities it is given to reach out to its localities and regions which, whatever their perception of organised religion nevertheless look to cathedrals as symbols of inspiration and hope. That Britain’s best-loved building should  be a sacred space that continues to be a prominent sign of ‘public faith’ perhaps tells us something important about the public’s wish to continue to be engaged with religion, even at a distance and in what we might call a ‘liminal’ way.[7]

An important study of cathedrals published last year has helped clarify why they seem so successful in bucking the national trend when it comes to public interest in religion. Produced jointly by two research organisations, the Grubb Institute and Theos, it is called Spiritual Capital: the Present and Future of English Cathedrals. The report is based on evidence gathered across England, including questionnaires asking members of the public about their attitudes to cathedrals whether as visitor attractions, heritage sites, pilgrim destinations or places of worship. These were completed by 1700 people. In addition, six cathedrals were chosen as case-studies: Canterbury, Lichfield, Leicester, Manchester, Wells and Durham; nearly 2000 people were surveyed about their relationship to their particular cathedral, and over 250 of them were interviewed at depth. Many of these were civic leaders and others involved in different sectors in the locality; only some would describe themselves as practising Christians or indeed observant members of any other faith. The focus was on the life of each cathedral, and its relations with its city, diocese, county and region.

The statistics make interesting reading. Over one quarter of adults have visited a cathedral in the past year. This makes them serious players in the tourism stakes. Two thirds of the national sample saw cathedrals as both places of interest and of heritage, and in the local survey a remarkable 95% felt that their cathedral was ‘a space where people can get in touch with the spiritual and the sacred’; an equally remarkable 88% saw it as ‘a place of sanctuary, irrespective of what you believe’. Half the national survey believed that cathedrals welcome those of all faiths or none. All this says that the widespread perception is of cathedrals as sacred places which offer an experience of God even to those who do not believe, and that they reach out to the public in an inclusive way. Cathedral music as well as architecture featured strongly in this.

When it comes to their significance in the wider community, three quarters of the local sample believed that their cathedral was relevant to daily life. The same high proportion of the national sample thought that cathedrals contributed to the community and even more spoke positively about their importance to their cities. Locally, 87% thought that their cathedral was a symbol of local identity; 83% that it belonged to the whole community, not just the Church of England; 93% that it was a venue for important public occasions in the life of the city or county.

The report draws three important conclusions to which I attach three words: evangelism, engagement and embodiment.

First, it identifies that cathedrals have a particular capacity to connect spiritually with those who are on or beyond the Christian periphery. We can call this the imperative for evangelism. Of the 11 million or more people who visit cathedrals, the majority are not observant Christians yet tell us that they have an instinct for the spiritual, and experience cathedrals as places where they touch it. These are the many whom Grace Davie, a sociologist of religion, famously describes as those who practice ‘believing not belonging’, where we should speak of emergent faith rather than fully articulated belief. This calls for a more sophisticated understanding of how cathedrals interact with visitors than we may realise. It begins with welcome and hospitality, Benedictine values with which we are familiar here in Durham. Then comes explanation: helping guests learn what a cathedral is, what any sacred space is. And finally the all-important task of interpretation, drawing visitors into recognising its meaning and significance, the Christian faith a cathedral bears witness to. How this is done well has to be worked out in each cathedral in each generation.  What we cannot do is dodge the clear mandate to give an answer for the hope that is within us.

Secondly, the report suggests that cathedrals have an important role in providing what is called ‘bridging social capital’, ‘establishing and fostering the relationships between different groups within a community’. This is bound up with the idea of a cathedral symbolically carrying a community’s sense of common history and identity: here in Durham, we inhabit a city and a region that is defined by the saints and the places associated with them. This makes a cathedral a symbolic container for the meanings and aspirations members of a locality project on to it. We can call this the mandate for social engagement. No cathedral will want to disown this important role. But here again, the religious character of a cathedral makes it more than a rather grand civic space where public ceremonies can be enacted. Because it is ‘sacred’ space, it is charged with the meaning of God, and inevitably puts back to the community the implicit question, where do you sense that God is in the life of this region, county or city, in both its public institutions and its local communities? This opening up of a conversation about God is what we mean by ‘public faith’: not simply conversing about faith with individual people, but doing so on the bigger platform in the public square. In this way cathedrals have great potential to contribute to a thriving civil society. 

Thirdly, cathedrals are recognised for the way in which they not only convey the history and heritage of the Christian presence within the region but also incarnate and articulate local and regional identity. This emerged very strongly in all the national and local samples, not only among people sympathetic to faith, but also those most hostile to it. It is perhaps more difficult to describe this role than the first two, yet I believe we who inhabit cathedrals understand it when we see it.  I mean the capacity to live symbolically at the heart of a community, to bless and consecrate all that we see to be of God in it, and to critique those aspects that we believe to fall short of what makes for the healthy, flourishing society that God wants for our life together. This is the function of embodiment. It is what makes a cathedral distinctive within its geography, enables it to speak with the local accent, stand in solidarity with a community in both celebration and lament.

As an example of these three functions of a cathedral at work, let me take a familiar example. The Durham Miners’ service is held on the day of the ‘Big Meeting’ or Gala in Durham City each July. Probably no-one who has not attended this service fully understands what the Cathedral means to the communities and people of County Durham. Once upon a time, no Labour politician could expect a future without being seen at this vast public demonstration of solidarity among those living and working on the Durham Coalfield. In the days when coal was king, the Gala Service was an occasion of pride in the achievements of working people and of confidence in their future. It was also an occasion to memorialise the human cost of mining when banners of collieries that had experienced pit disasters were processed into the Cathedral wreathed in black crepe.

With the pits gone, what still brings huge numbers of people from mining communities into the city of Durham each year, proudly processing their banners behind their colliery bands? It is tempting to say that it is nostalgia for a lost part of Durham’s industrial heritage. Perhaps it is for some. However, the event is much more than this. It is an act of corporate remembering wedded to the celebration of how an industry once touched the life of every community and individual in the county, bound them together with a sense of common purpose and gave them identity. ‘It’s all about pride in our heritage’ says George Robson who organises the Gala each year.[8] The Cathedral with its memorial to men killed in county’s mines, and with its colliery banner permanently hanging in the south transept, seems to be regarded as the emblem that gathers up scores of local stories and by giving them meaning within a larger context, validates and honours them. The service is an example of how Durham Cathedral reflects and responds to the particularities of life in North East England.

Mapping our three priority tasks on to this event, I think we can say straight away that the Cathedral is seen as a place of embodiment where the working communities of the North East feel not only welcomed but understood. In an important way, the Cathedral is not simply being hospitable to thousands of incomers, but is acting out a vital understanding that people have on this day, that they are not in fact incomers: the Cathedral is their natural home. Equally, we can see how, by bringing together many different communities under one sacred canopy, it provides a way towards real engagement where each one sees itself as part of a bigger whole, and not just a communal whole but an ecclesial one: for this hour, they are not simply working people but worshippers, a congregation before God. And this, finally, gives the opportunity to help bring faith to a clearer articulation through a ceremony that provides a language in which to speak about God in words most of those present would not easily be able to express for themselves. So the task of the preacher is to interpret to the gathering where he or she perceives God to be present in what is happening, and because Christian proclamation is always pointing to the kingdom of God, it is genuinely an act of evangelism, telling the good news, which preaching must always be. 

There is a final point I need to mention. It is to do with the definition of ‘cathedral’ which means ‘the seat (or see) of the bishop’. Where does the idea of the bishop’s church (and by extension that of the diocese) fit into what we have said so far?

The Spiritual Capital report has a chapter on this topic. It is tempting to see this as rather different from the issues raised in the rest of the report, though my reading of it is that the diocesan role of cathedrals is simply a special case of the three we have already explored. That is to say, as the bishop’s seat, it is a centre of mission (part of its legal definition in the Cathedrals Measure), and the mission of the Cathedral ought to be aligned to, indeed be an expression of, the mission of the diocese. So as a focus for the proclamation of the gospel, the evangelistic task of the cathedral belongs to the bishop’s calling as chief missioner: the cathedral is his symbolic platform from which he teaches the faith. The same is true of his engagement with the wider community of the diocese, for here too the cathedral provides a place in which he is given visibility as the chief pastor of the diocese, who by his presence gathers up the diverse and disparate church communities of the diocese into a single whole. The bishop always inhabits the same symbol-system as the cathedral: as we saw with Cuthbert, where the bishop goes, the cathedral goes and vice-versa. But his presence in the cathedral gives special force to his ministry as a ‘focus of unity’, and this represents the third aspect of embodiment that we looked at earlier.

Cathedrals are often said to be among the church’s success stories of the present day. As I have said, their worshipping communities largely buck the national (indeed, western European) trend in the decline in religious observance. I put this down to a chemistry particular to cathedrals and greater churches: beautiful liturgy and music in a noble architectural setting, faith intelligently presented through thoughtful preaching, a form of community life that has space for many different ways of belonging and participating. You could say that cathedrals do organised religion very well, and not only in a traditional way. They are places of experiment and discovery, ‘laboratories of the spirit’. Meanwhile, visitor numbers, especially where there is no admission charge, are on the increase. There seems no limit to the numbers of men, women and children who want to volunteer in them or participate in arts, cultural and educational events in these wonderful spaces. How to respond well to this huge public interest in cathedrals, and enlarge the ‘public benefit’ they bring is a major priority.

I have tried to show how ‘Durham Cathedral’ is an idea that has taken different forms in the eras of its history: Saxon, Benedictine and Modern.  I have talked about the way cathedrals hold the identity of local communities, but we have seen from their complex histories that the ‘identity’ of cathedrals themselves is a more elusive idea than we might have thought. They have so many layers, so many gifts to offer, and so many demands on them. In the today’s world, a Cathedral is often a battle-ground for competing claims as to its purpose. It can be regarded, especially by those not sensitised to its religious purpose, principally as ‘heritage’ or as a venue for culture and the arts. This in turn raises sharp issues about the kinds of expectation people bring to a cathedral and the transactions appropriate to it. Does an entrance fee pull the visitor into experiencing a Cathedral as a heritage site or museum rather than as a place of spirituality and pilgrimage? At Durham, the Chapter suspects that this is the case, which is why it has consistently resisted charging for entry. But this ‘public benefit’ comes at an enormous cost, while staff still need to be paid and buildings maintained. When major events take place in and around the Cathedral, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition and ‘Lumière’, both hugely successful, how far should the daily Benedictine rhythms of prayer, study and work ‘bend’ to accommodate an influx of thousands of people in the space of a few weeks or days? Questions such as these have led the Chapter to devise a purpose statement for the Cathedral that tries to recognise its many roles but captures the central priorities that belong to it as a sacred space.

Asking these difficult questions may help us to look with self-awareness and self-criticism at what our cathedrals can be as both institutions and communities. In an important essay, a previous Dean of Salisbury reflects on the importance of a cathedral’s daimon or ‘spirit of the place’ being ‘tuned…to the purposes of love and holiness’.[9] ‘I want to suggest’, he concludes, that it is possible that from such a platform the Christian Gospel can challenge and address the demonic aspects of the systems of our society in the name of God.’ The aspiration written into the stones and saints of a Cathedral, its lived experience of liturgy, its cherished memories and traditions, need constantly to be applied to the judgment and renewal of its own life if its ‘soul’ is to be a vital, living reality. As a privileged place with a rich history, generous resources and large reservoirs of good will both within its own community and across the region, our cathedral should not have too easy a conscience in an age uncertain about religion and suspicious of triumphalism. Durham’s history and heritage can teach it to be both humble and humane in the spirit of its founding saints and those who followed them. And because it all comes down to being faithful disciples of Christ called to live together in community, to worship God and to bear witness to the promise of a kingdom yet to come, what is true for Durham is true for every cathedral in the land.

[1] Gameson, Richard, From Holy Island to Durham: the Contexts and Meanings of the Lindisfarne Gospels, London 2013, 142.
[2] Sadgrove, Michael, Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of the North East, London 2013, 61ff.
[3] Bonner, G., Rollason, D. and Stancliffe, C., eds., St Cuthbert, his cult and his community to A.D. 1200, Woodbridge 1989.
[4] Rollason, D., Harvey, M. and Prestwich, M., eds., Anglo-Norman Durham 1093-1193, Woodbridge 1994; Aird, William M., St Cuthbert and the Normans: the Church at Durham, 1071-1153, Woodbridge 1998
[5] Threlfall-Holmes, Miranda, Monks and Markets: Durham Cathedral Priory 1460-1520, Oxford 2005
[6] Moorhouse, Geoffrey, The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery, London 2008.
[7] Lewis, Christopher, ‘Glory and Pride: the Church and its Cathedrals’ in Platten, S. and Lewis, C., eds., Dreaming Spires? Cathedrals in a New Age, London 2006, 60.
[8] Crookston, Peter, The Pitmen’s Requiem, Newcastle upon Tyne 2010, 65ff.
[9] Dickinson, Hugh, ‘Cathedrals and Christian Imagination’ in MacKenzie, Iain M., ed., Cathedrals Now: their Use and Place in Society, Norwich 1996, 61.

Durham, 23 October 2013
A lecture given to the Friends of Durham Cathedral

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Back to Booths!

When you are embarking on an ambitious building project, it consumes a great deal of your time and energies, as we know well here at the Cathedral. Nehemiah, governor of Judah, has set himself the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, ruinous since the Babylonian invasions over a century before. A man of energetic character who brooks no opposition, he achieves this task despite the Machiavellian tactics of his opponents. They allege that this huge act of reconstruction is to cover up a conspiracy to rebel against the Persian empire.  Why build walls unless your intention is to declare independence?

If this were all there was to the story, it would hardly be worth telling. But the next part of the book shows that a deeper purpose lies behind it.  When the wall is finished, and families have settled into their homes, a great assembly is convened. The people tell Ezra the priest to bring out the book of the law and read from it. For a whole morning he reads aloud at a ceremony marked by both tears of joy and shouts of thankfulness: sorrow for the years they have been alienated from this torah, God’s instruction for sound and healthy living; thankfulness to have their covenant with God given back to them. And they see how the renewal of buildings, temples, walls, houses is a symbol of something deeper: the renewal of their vocation and resolve to live purposefully in obedience to God’s rule.

Nehemiah sees that the ancient book requires them to do something specific to mark their obedience. It’s the autumn, the season of harvest. Nehemiah realises that according to the law, a long-neglected festival needs to be reinstated.  So he instructs everyone to go out into the fields, gather branches of whatever trees they can find, and construct leafy booths in the open air: on their housetops or in streets and courts and public squares, even in the temple precincts. Then they are to go and live in them for a week. All this the people do. The text goes out of its way to say that they did it gladly: ‘there was very great rejoicing’.

Here’s an odd thing: to celebrate the end of a building project not by occupying the newly created buildings but by deliberately quitting them to live outside. Clearly, the people understood what this meant because the text doesn’t explain why it was important, only that it was part of being thankful. We have to look back into the torah, the books of the law, to understand the significance of the festival of Booths, If there are gaps in the law-codes, we shall need to use our imaginations a little. Here is how I read it.

First, the feast was as an act of celebration. How better to mark the ingathering of the harvest than going out to live in the very fields where you have sweated and toiled all summer to garner the fruits of the earth? It is God’s harvest, but it is also the work of human hands. There is something endearing about this command to go out and be at home in the open air. It is our natural environment, a memory of how once upon a time a man and a woman lived without fear or shame in a garden where the Lord God walked and enjoyed the company of his human friends. What we love about Cuthbert and Francis is that they were so much at home in the natural world.

By contrast, we see around us ever more evidence of how alienated we have become from good earth, so estranged from it that we can contemplate the planet burning because of our contempt for the environment. Tabernacles reminds us how our own health and the earth’s renewal depend on our learning to reconnect with the natural order, learn to treat all things living with courtesy, ‘discover our place in God’s creation’ as the Cathedral’s purpose statement puts it. It looks forward to the day when nature and humanity are reconciled and, in Isaiah’s vision, the wolf dwells with the lamb, the child plays over the hole of the asp, and nothing hurts or destroys in all God’s holy mountain, for the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Second, this exercise in al fresco living was meant to teach the Jews something important about dependence. It’s precisely at the time solid structures are completed that Nehemiah says: don’t depend on these beautiful stones and beautiful buildings. Depend only on God. Let your faith in him be re-energised by having to live for a while without the securities you are getting used to again. For this was precisely how your ancestors lived in days of old: ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ says one of Israel’s oldest creeds: nomads and fugitives in the barren wilderness for all those years they trekked, often despondently, towards the land of promise.

Yet despite their obduracy and lack of hope, God did not forget the Hebrews but prepared a table in the wilderness for them, as Ezra puts it in his magnificent covenant-making speech in the next chapter. Tabernacles was a way of going back to that story, rekindling the memory of far-off days when the Hebrews had no houses, no temple, no abiding city. ‘You shall dwell in booths seven days, so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them up out of the land of Egypt.’ It reminded them how life’s changes and chances threw them on the mercy of the covenant. It told them not to vest ultimate security in anything they could see or touch. It threw them on the mercy and goodness of God. We no doubt expect to learn this lesson in other ways. But learn it we must, if faith means anything.

There is a third theme running through this celebration. How often does the torah instil the habit of being generous and compassionate towards the wanderer and stranger, the outcaste, the disadvantaged, the poor. The more prosperous and successful you become, the easier it is not simply to forget those who need your help, but actively to choose not to remember them. The feast of Booths is a kind of enforced homelessness, having to live in temporary accommodation, discover what it is like to live in the cold and the wet and the dark. When people with a social conscience decide to live for a week on unemployment benefit, perhaps sleeping rough in parks or doorways, it’s easy to disparage this as the token gesture of the comfortably off: acting a part rather than truly taking part.

But this is what Tabernacles calls the people to do. I imagine that it is physically and emotionally
costly to live in a booth for a week. I have never done it. I like to think the Jews of Nehemiah’s day discovered as we can that by taking up roles and acting out rituals, their meanings become more real, are understood in new ways. That leads to the transformation of attitudes and perspectives, in this case a deeper sympathy with and compassion for those for whom living in streets and squares and the open country is not a matter of joy and will not come to an end next week.

The renewal of a people’s mind and heart is what Nehemiah wanted to achieve. He knew that building the walls was the easy part. Much harder to rebuild a community on the values of justice, loving-kindness and truth. This great communal celebration of an ancient festival was only the beginning. But it sowed the seeds of the future when, under pressure and at times of terrible persecution, Judaism covenant would remain steadfast to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had called them into this privileged life and promised that in their seed all the peoples of the world would bless themselves. In Jesus, Christians believe that promise to be coming true. This is why we pray as he taught us, ‘thy kingdom come’, and look with eager longing for the day of God when the rich promises foreshadowed in one of the old pilgrim feasts become nothing less than a new heaven and new earth.

Durham Cathedral, 20 October 2013 (Nehemiah 8. 9-end)

Monday, 14 October 2013

A Church Anniversary

Jeremiah was living through the last days of the kingdom of Judah.  The Babylonians were at the gate; but the people of Jerusalem could not believe that God would abandon them.  Had not God pledged to David and Solomon that God would always defend Zion, would always be present in his holy temple, would always hear the prayer of his people?  And then along comes Jeremiah and says: ‘do not trust in these deceptive words: “this is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”’.  The temple cannot save you, he says.  Its sacrifices and ceremonies and rituals, what are they worth if you oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow, if you shed innocent blood, if you go after idols?  But amend your ways and act justly with one another: then I will dwell with you in this place. And only then.  It’s a stark oracle: this church may be 125 years old, our Cathedral may be a thousand, but they will not save us from ourselves.  We cherish our church buildings but we need to ponder Jesus’ reply when the disciples drew his attention to the temple: ‘Look, Lord, what wonderful stones, and wonderful buildings’.  And Jesus says that the days are coming when not one stone will be left standing on top of another.  Even the best of what human hands can build will not last for ever; and if we build while harbouring pride and injustice in our hearts, they will be our judgment all the sooner.

The New Testament reading is tough too in how it demands of us that we let go the pride and injustice Jeremiah speaks of. Zacchaeus, the little man we used to sing about at Sunday school, wants to see Jesus as he passes by. His strategy of both gaining height but also hiding away in the copious branches of a sycamore tree only partly succeeds. There is no escape from the man who sees into every human heart. Back home they go, ignoring the grumbling of the self-righteous crowd that thinks Jesus should know better than to accept the hospitality of a sinner. And then occurs one of those marvellous transformations in human life that Luke is so good at noticing and recounting. Zacchaeus resolves, without any prompting from the Lord, to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay four times over anyone he has defrauded as a tax collector. Here is a rich young man who, unlike the other in the gospel, is not held back by his great wealth. And there is rejoicing among the angels of God over this sinner who repents. ‘Today salvation has come to this house; for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’  I said it was a tough reading.  So it is, because the price of this repentance is a complete turning round of a man’s life. Metanoia never costs less than everything.

How do we reflect on this great church building and the life of this parish in the light of these sobering thoughts? Perhaps they concentrate the mind on what is truly of God.  ‘You are God’s temple, and God’s spirit dwells in you’ says Paul in the text that the Bishop of Newcastle preached from at the dedication service here on 17 October 1888.  He said that reverence we pay a house of God is not for anything in the building, its dramatic architecture, its stained glass, its mosaics, however beautiful these all are; nor for the beauty of the ceremonial this church was built for. It is all for the sake of the beauty of God the Indweller, so that the eye travels from the house to its owner. You could say that a church built in the arts and crafts tradition would always speak of a God whose artistry and craftsmanship are what we see all round us in the fabric of the world. But like Jeremiah, the bishop issued a warning.  He said that if Christ welcomes those who come to this temple with integrity, beware those who come carelessly or in profanity of spirit. The house of prayer belongs together with truth and justice, never to be put asunder.

Today we tell the story of a church that has stood here for 125 years, its campanile a sign for miles around of the spiritual and human values of Christian faith.  In that time there will have been many events to celebrate, and perhaps a few to lament: the story of any human institution is always a mixture of light and shadow and it is important that we tell the truth about it. But in the next century, we shall all face challenges and threats our forebears could not have dreamed of in that radiantly confident when Queen Victoria had just celebrated her golden jubilee and it seemed that the sun would never set on the empire. Now, church attendances are in steady decline in most areas, and we know that this diocese is not immune from the eroding effects of secularisation.  With slender resources in both people and money, it matters all the more that we harness them all the more carefully.  This calls for what spiritual guides call discernment.  How do we keep the message of your campanile fresh and vivid in a society that finds itself distanced from religion? An anniversary should mean taking the time to reflect, think, ponder and pray in the light of the question that haunts us in that psalm of exile: how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  Our land is increasingly strange to the church, and the church a stranger to it.   How then do we sing this song with confidence and hope?  How do we live as a church in the generous, life-changing way of Zacchaeus, little in stature but who walked tall in the company of Jesus Christ?

No-one pretends that the tasks of mission are easy in our era.  They never were, though we tend to look back nostalgically to the days when St George’s was built when organised religion was powerful, respected and rich. But we should remind ourselves of the world this church found itself in within a generation of its beginning.  Next year, we shall remember how Europe was suddenly engulfed in a war no-one predicted.  Many young men from this parish and this city had their future taken away from them.  In the aftermath of war came the great depression, huge unemployment here on Tyneside, and then war once again.  The cost to families and communities was beyond imagining.  This church ministered faithfully and well during those decades; it will have called for great vision, courage and skill on the part of both clergy and laity.

What about now?  It’s hard to imagine that life is getting easier for most people especially the disadvantaged, the elderly and the chronically sick. Economically, the lights are only fitfully going on again across Europe; the effects of our collective mismanagement of money, our greed like the temple-goers of Jeremiah’s day, like tax collecting Zacchaeus always to acquire at someone else’s expense will continue will be felt across the North East.  If this is true, it calls for the same degree of vision, courage and skill on the part of people of faith.  We wouldn’t be human if we did not at times feel our spirits sinking, wondering if decline can ever be turned round, and ask, with Paul, ‘who is sufficient for these things?’ Well, his answer is not to lose heart; to go on trusting God to do much through the little that we bring.  ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels’ he says ‘so that it may be known that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us’ he says.  Who can say what story will be told 125 years from now as our descendants here at St George’s gather to celebrate a quarter of a millennium?  In our time, what matters is to be faithful in looking for the kingdom of God, and giving an answer for the hope that is within us. We shall have fought the fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.  We shall have done what we can to be obedient disciples of Jesus. All God needs to know is that we are willing and ready and glad to follow.

St George’s Jesmond 125th anniversary service, 13 October 2013
Jeremiah 7.1-11; Luke 19.1-10

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Bach's 'St Matthew Passion': four short talks

Four addresses given in the course of a 'come and sing' workshop on Bach's St Matthew Passion. 

The St Matthew Passion is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Not just ‘religious’ music, whatever we mean by that, but music. It’s one of those works that are universal in their value and their appeal. It seems to speak to people of all faiths and no faith with a depth and directness that only a few works of art ever achieve. Bach’s family used to call it die Grosse Passion, the ‘great’ passion. No-one will argue with that.

I’ve loved the Bach Passions since I was a teenager. I came to faith singing Bach’s St John Passion so I suppose I can say that were it not for Bach I wouldn’t be here now doing what I do in Durham. Soon afterwards, I discovered the St Matthew. And these two works awakened an interest that I have had ever since in both the music of Bach and in the passion narratives of the New Testament. So I want in these short talks to try to open up these musical and spiritual worlds as we enjoy working on the St Matthew today.
Why did Bach write his Passions?  Nowadays, we always hear them as stand-alone ‘concert’ performances. But they were of course written as liturgical music which formed a central part of the Good Friday church service at Leipzig where Bach was cantor. The reading or chanting of the passion accounts in the four gospels had been at the heart of the Good Friday service for many centuries.  In the 18th century Lutheran Church, this liturgy was celebrated in the afternoon as a long vesper service. It began with a hymn, followed by a prayer and then the first part of the passion. The sermon followed, and we should imagine it lasting for up to an hour. The second part of the passion was then sung, with a motet, more prayers and a final hymn to end with. In Leipzig, the service alternated year by year between the two town churches of St Thomas and St Nicholas. 

Bach did not invent this musical form. Other German composers wrote passions which like Bach’s included the reciting of the gospel text or a paraphrase, arias, choruses and chorales. But no-one ever composed passion music with as sure a touch as Bach. He both understood with profound theological and spiritual insight what the gospel story was all about, and also how best to weave it seamlessly into the church’s liturgy.
In both the St John and St Matthew, the concept is the same. Bach firmly believed that the music should honour the words of the biblical text rather than make do with paraphrase. This is sung by the evangelist as tenor recitative. Soloists take the parts of the protagonists – Christus, Peter, Judas, the Chief Priest, Pontius Pilate and so on, with the choir or choirs performing the crowd scenes. But because the reading of the story took place within a public liturgical service, it was important to pause the action frequently to give the congregation plenty of opportunity to reflect on the narrative ass it unfurled and also to offer its own response. So the arias, sometimes supported by the choir, provide spaces for meditation, while the chorales were familiar Lutheran passion hymns in some of which the people would be able to join in singing.

The St John Passion was first performed in 1724 at St Nicholas, and the following year in a revised version at St Thomas. In 1726, a passion by a Hamburg composer Friedrich Bruhns was sung at St Nicholas. Bach composed the St Matthew for the 1727 performance at St Thomas’s. He was 42 by then, and still had over two decades of composition ahead of him. But the care he took over the final manuscript of his 1736 revision, written in two different colours and two distinct scripts, tells us that he knew he had written a work of defining significance, at least for him.

So what makes it the great work we now recognise it to be?

It’s many things. At the most obvious level, Bach is a musician of the first order whose technical mastery of shape and form is wedded to a profound humanity, an inner ear for what has beauty and a mind to give it utterance. Then Bach is a master of biblical interpretation, a supreme commentator on scripture alongside the classics of written commentary. As the cantatas show, he knows and handles the text with the utmost care and reverence: I’ll try to show later on how he does this in the St Matthew. Another is what I would call his ability to read the heart, uncover character, motive and attitude in a story so that it is brought to life as a human drama.  Bach knows the comedy and tragedy of life. Unlike Handel, he never wrote operas; if he had, they would certainly have been wonderful, for in a way, the sacred drama of the Passion is almost operatic in its effect. And because of that, we who listen begin to feel that our own humanity is understood in this music too, the beauty we aspire to in our best moments, the disintegration we experience in our worst. This is what gives this work what I have called its universality.
We owe the rediscovery of the St Matthew to Mendelssohn who revived and performed it in 1829. This to my mind is the really great achievement that we should thank him for – giving Bach back to the world. I don’t think we are ever the same when we hear the Passions well performed, nor are we the same when we perform it ourselves. We should be touched and moved, and maybe glimpse possibilities we had never thought about as I believe I was for a moment on that far-off day 50 years ago.

To understand the St Matthew Passion we need to know it as Bach knew it, get under the skin of this powerful biblical text. We’ve asked what a ‘passion’ was in Bach’s 18th century Lutheran worship. We now need to ask what a ‘passion’ is in the New Testament. When Matthew wrote his story of the suffering and death of Jesus, what was his intention?

The obvious way of reading any of the four gospels is to see them as ‘lives’ of Jesus that inevitably conclude with accounts of his death. But this is the wrong way round, and it’s obvious for two reasons. The first is that the length of the passion narratives is out of all proportion to the rest of the text. In St John, for instance, the events of the last week of Jesus’ life occupy the last 10 chapters out of a total of 21 – nearly half. In Matthew it is 8 out of 28, still a very significant amount. Clearly, what took place in that week was given huge emphasis; so much so that the passion narratives are the culmination of everything that has gone before. Indeed, we could say that a ‘gospel’ consists of a passion narrative with an extended introduction. So if we read the gospels ‘backwards’, starting with the passion, we begin to see how the crucifixion was the lens through which the writers saw the entire life of Jesus. He was, as we say on Good Friday, born to die this death.
But this leads to the second reason why the passion narrative is not simply an ending. For in the gospels, it isn’t an ending at all. They conclude not with the cross but with the resurrection. In St Mark, the meeting of the disciples with the risen Lord is promised as a future event; but Matthew, Luke and John all record the Easter recognition scene as the culmination of the story. For all four gospels, the resurrection is the transforming event of human history, not an end but a new beginning, a new world. This was the starting point of all four gospels. The only reason for telling the story of Jesus at all was that the crucified Son of Man had risen from the dead. And this explains why the cross is dwelt on in such loving detail, because it was a (literally) crucial part of the story of redemption. Theologically, we should speak not of two separate events, Jesus’s death and resurrection, but of a single one, cross-and-resurrection together, through which, the gospel writers claim, the salvation of the world is won.

Originally, the liturgy of Easter did not separate these ‘moments’ of redemption. It was one story that was celebrated, death and resurrection as one redemptive event. However, early in the Christian era the liturgy began to extend back across an entire week with each day given to marking the events of that day as the gospels record them: Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the last supper and betrayal on Maundy Thursday, the passion and crucifixion on Good Friday, the burial on Holy Saturday. By the time of Bach, Good Friday had taken on the character of a day dedicated to the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ suffering and death; hence the central part the passion story on its own played in the liturgy of the day. 
We can see how, separated from the resurrection account that follows it, St Matthew’s passion takes on a decidedly dark aspect. I want to look later on at how the story depicts Jesus himself, but we should notice how he enters and leaves the passion. It begins on a note of foreboding as Jesus says to his disciples: ‘you know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified’. And the words with which he dies fill out that ominous prediction. There is darkness over the whole land, says Matthew. After three hours he calls out to God from the cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ and, says Matthew, dies with a cry on his lips. It is hard not to feel it as a cry of despair. Bach’s agonised music seems to read it that way.

If you read St Mark’s passion account, you will find that he tells the story in much the same way. In particular, he records the same bleak word from the cross. The consensus of biblical scholars is that Mark’s story came first, and that Matthew had it to hand when he wrote his own gospel. Matthew edited Mark, omitting some details and adding others (for instance, the earthquake and the bodies of the saints rising out of the earth is pure Matthew, an episode that gives Bach scope for some dramatic word-painting that I dare say he enjoyed).
But it is substantially the same message, written with the same purpose in mind. What is that?

It is to elicit the reader’s response. Matthew and Mark do not simply tell a story for the sake of the story. They tell it as a proclamation of the Christian message so that we who read may gain insight and understanding. For this is not just anyone’s death. It is the death of the one who has come into the world for our redemption. This is why telling it at such length, and meditating on it in a way that takes time and effort is fundamental to our recognition of who Jesus was and is for us. It explains why Bach thought that three hours of musical contemplation on Good Friday was not too much to give to a task that in reality belongs to a lifetime. 


So far I have taken the perspective of the listener (or perhaps I should say the worshipper): how does our understanding of the Passion help us to respond to this majestic music? I’d like in this talk to reflect on performance: how do we sing the St Matthew Passion? I’m conscious that singing is not the only performing art involved: the instrumentalists are as vital as the singers and in no sense reduced to the role of merely ‘accompanying’. But since today is billed as a ‘come and sing’, you will forgive me for focusing on the part the chorus plays in the music.
Both Bach’s passions approach their texts with a view to creating out of them a sacred drama. In the St John, the hectic pace of the narrative sweeps all before it, and a major role for the chorus is to portray an angry and hostile crowd intent on being rid of Jesus. This aspect is certainly present in the St Matthew too: ‘he is worthy of death’, ‘now tell us who smote thee?’, ‘let him be crucified’. But these numbers are fewer than in St John, and apart from two, they are terser and less elaborate. Bach takes this to an extreme in the episode where Pilate asks the crowd which of the two men, Jesus or Barabbas, they want him to release. Their response is a single eight-part shriek on a diminished seventh chord: ‘Barabbas!’ Just half a bar of music, yet how superlatively effective as a dramatic device, for any development would have lost the demonic decisiveness with which the crowd, by casting its vote, condemns Jesus to death.

Playing this hostile part in the drama is not, however, the most important function of the chorus in St Matthew. What the choir is principally there to do is more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy: to observe the action and to offer commentary and interpretation from the edges of the drama. In the St Matthew, they often do this through an overheard conversation with one another: the ‘daughters of Zion’ and the community of believers or those who aspire to faith. In this, the chorus ‘bears witness’ not only to events as they unfold, but their meaning. Sometimes this is in the form of affirmation, sometimes in questions. In this, they are the mouthpiece of the largely silent congregation. This audience that is listening to the Passion understands that the story is ultimately for us and about us, and from time to time is given permission to offer its own response through the congregational chorales it is invited to sing.
It helps to understand the structure of the work and how the chorus fits into it. The St Matthew has 15 main scenes according to the scheme by which Bach’s librettist Picander arranged the material. In part one we have Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, his betrayal by Judas, the last supper, Gethsemane, Jesus’ prayer for deliverance and finally his arrest. In part two, he is interrogated by the high priest, Peter denies him, Judas’ remorse in the temple, Jesus before Pilate, his scourging, Simon of Cyrene carrying his cross, the crucifixion itself, the descent from the cross and lastly his burial. At the end of each of these, Picander inserted a poetic meditation which pauses the action and allows for reflection. These are the points at which the arias are inserted, usually preceded by a recitative-type arioso. In some of them the chorus is in dialogue with the soloist. ‘I would beside my Lord be watching’ sings the tenor while the second choir responds ‘and so our sin will fall asleep’; or the alto, imagining herself at Golgotha, ‘Come, see the Saviour’s outstretched hands’ while the chorus asks ‘come where?’. In these ways we the audience grasp how the Passion is not being sung to us, still less at us. It is being sung with us as conversation partners.

There are four particularly important choruses that stand like cornerstones at the beginning and end of each part. These frame the entire story. The first, ‘Come ye daughters, share my mourning’ sets the scene by inviting the audience to imagine themselves taking part in a worldwide funeral march to Golgotha. But already there is a key conversation taking place between the doleful E minor lament of the eight-part chorus, and the hope-filled G major hymn sung by the ripieno choir whose words ‘O Lamb of God most holy, have mercy on us’ that point not simply to an event but its profound meaning for the human race. The second cornerstone, positioned at the dramatic point where Matthew says that ‘all the disciples forsook him and fled’, is an extended setting of the chorale ‘O man, thy grievous sin bemoan’. This was transferred to the St Matthew from St John and eloquently captures the brokenness of humanity in turning away from Jesus as the source of light and life.
The third cornerstone opens part 2 of the work. Here the ‘daughter of Zion’ who personifies the people of God is asking desolately and insistently where her Saviour has gone, while the chorus sympathises with her. There is no da capo in this piece as in many of the arias, no going back to the beginning again: the question mark with which it ends is all important, symbolised by ending not in the tonic home key of B minor but the dominant F sharp major. And finally, of course, the concluding double chorus ‘In tears of grief’, a lullaby in which the Christ, and the passion, are gently laid to rest (the theme also of the choral recitative that precede it). This chorus is both theologically and psychologically essential. It is not that there is resolution in the story yet (that must wait for Easter Day), but it is important that the narrative can end on a properly cathartic note, having cleansed both listener and performer, enabling us all to leave the story without experiencing a wrenching dislocation as we return to ordinary time.

I think that when we remember the St Matthew Passion and ask ourselves why we love it so much, it’s for these ethereally beautiful reflective moments where arias and choruses somehow enable the music to glow from within. Like the halo of strings that surrounds the words of Jesus in the Passion, they too illuminate the story with meanings that turn out to be about the transfiguration of life. That is the all-important contribution the chorus makes in this most exquisite of sacred works. There could not be a more privileged role to have.


In the last of these talks, I want to focus on how Jesus is portrayed in the St Matthew Passion.
I am going to start not at the beginning but at the end, or almost. It may be foolish to ask you this question, but I am going to anyway. What are the two greatest bars of music ever written? I reply, the brief chorus you will find on page 173 of the Novello score, embedded in movement no. 73. This is the earthquake scene I referred to earlier. ‘Now when the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, saw the earth quake and those things that were done, they feared greatly saying, truly this was the Son of God’.

As you can see, here is where Bach breaks the rule he has set himself throughout the narrative parts of the Passion. We would expect a single tenor or bass voice to sing the part of the centurion, or perhaps a semi-chorus representing the other bystanders. But Bach assigns it to the whole chorus, choirs one and two and treats it as if the chorus were in its ‘reflective’ mode. The rise and fall of the beautiful melodic line, the richness of the choral and orchestral textures, the Lento mark all tell us that Bach sees this as a transformative moment in the work, a kind of apotheosis. It’s as if the Passion simply stops and stands still at this point, so that the wonderment of recognition can sink in. A sensitive conductor knows not to hurry back to the recitative and break the spell too soon.
Here Bach the theologian, the biblical interpreter, informs Bach the musician. For St Matthew, the centurion, a non-Jewish Roman soldier, is not simply speaking for himself when he utters these words. They are articulated on behalf of the whole world that has followed the events of the passion story to their end. At one level, it is a baffling tragedy of a good man on whom cruelty is inflicted and evil done although he has done nothing to deserve it. But the eye of faith sees deeper into the mystery. It perceives that in the demeanour of Jesus, even in the awful godforsakenness of the cross, some other story is being acted out. For the evangelist, it is the story of a redemption that embraces all of humanity. So the centurion gives voice on behalf of us all when he recognises who it is who has suffered and died in this way. The lonely sufferer had thought he had been abandoned. The centurion recognises that even in the darkness, the light of God’s Son is not extinguished for ever.

These two bars are surrounded by the same halo I spoke about in the last talk. One of the characteristics of the St Matthew Passion compared with the more spare St John is how Bach adorns the harpsichord and cello continuo accompaniment every time Jesus speaks with an ethereal halo of strings. This serves to underline whose voice it is we are listening to, not simply the words of a man but the divine utterances of the Son of Man. So Bach creates a highly dramatic effect on reaching the last words of Jesus from the cross: ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  Here alone in the entire work, the string halo we have come to expect every time Jesus speaks is suddenly stripped away, as if to leave him naked in his godforsakenness. Bach commentators often say that this reduces him to being 'just' a man like any other crucified man, like the two thieves on either side of him.
However, I doubt if this obvious reading is what Matthew intends and Bach was too good a theologian not to realise this. The issue is the paradox that Jesus as God’s Son no longer experiencing himself in that way, as if God could both be God and yet know what it is to be not-God at the same time, suffering as God himself and yet being abandoned by him.  I think we should construe Bach’s musical language as meaning not that Jesus’s divinity was stripped from him in his death but that his experience of God’s presence was taken from him in the terrible ordeal he underwent. This is where the centurion’s utterance is all the more powerful. It’s as if the halo that was absent in the word from the cross has slipped across the boundary of death and is now present once more as the chorus recognises who this divine man was all along.
I have emphasised the way Jesus is portrayed at the end of the Passion as the divine man whom God abandoned because it is fundamental to the rest of it. I’ve already spoken about the opening words in which Jesus foretells what is to happen to him. The cross’s inevitability has already become a theme earlier in the gospel. It is relentlessly underlined by foreshadowings throughout the passion narrative. Here are some early instances. The anointing by the woman at Bethany is meant, says Jesus, to prepare his body for burial. Next, Judas obtains money from the chief priests and begins to ‘look for an opportunity to betray him’. At the last supper, he says that ‘the Son of Man goes as it is written of him’ and declares that the poured-out wine his blood ‘poured out for many’. On the Mount of Olives, he quotes the prophecy about God striking the shepherd and the sheep being scattered. In Gethsemane he prays that the cup of suffering may pass from him. We are all familiar with these, but we need to notice their cumulative effect. Early in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man must suffer’. The Greek word for ‘must’ captures this unavoidable vocation to suffer, the sense of destiny that pervades the story. The king must die.

So the St Matthew Passion is a sombre work. Perhaps it’s right to speak of it as a tragedy, not because of any tragic flaw in Jesus but because of the tragedy of the human condition that brings his crucifixion about. The Passion confronts us with the image of suffering in a way that is profoundly challenging. It should disturb us, and it does. But it is not desperate and not bleak. It is not simply Bach’s Christian vision that shines through the warmth and humaneness of the music; it is St Matthew’s as well. His, and Bach’s, invitation to us who sing or listen is quite simply to begin to see things as the centurion did: to look into the face of a death and recognise there the seeds of light and life.