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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

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