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

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Cathedrals, Sacred Space and the Theatre of the Soul: an address to the Cathedral Precentors

In this anniversary year, your conference is paying homage to Shakespeare. How could it not? The last play I went to see was The Winter's Tale. It's one of his last dramas and it’s far from easy to classify, as if in his maturity Shakespeare is reaching beyond the straightforward categories of comedy, tragedy, history and so on. It starts out as a classical tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his old friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. Shakespeare vividly depicts a man eaten up by obsessional jealousy, his mental disintegration bringing about the collapse of a family's whole world with the deaths of his wife and his young son.

But then comedy seems to break in on the hopelessness. The famous stage direction “exit, pursued by a bear” seems to introduce a note of parody, hinting that nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and lots of flirtatious dancing, and all is set for a happy ending with paradise restored and broken relationships mended. But Shakespeare gets there by using a device that has puzzled critics because it seems as if it resorts to trickery. At the climax of the play Paulina brings the statue of lost Hermione back to life. It's a tease, for we don't know whether she was ever really dead or had simply been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. Anyway, in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the drama achieves its resolution.

Does the play itself 'lose its mind', so to speak, does the text forget itself as it disperses the high art of tragedy into what at times feels close to farce? Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don't take any of this too seriously: it's just illusion, a ceremony to mark the passage of the seasons? Perhaps it's a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into an apparently careless comedy complete with songs, ballet and pick-pocketing slapstick and a miracle (if that's what it is) to end with and give us the closure we want, the happy ending? Or is Shakespeare, far from being careless, showing his mastery of dramatic form by merging the two genres in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?

As a theologian and one-time liturgist, I am fascinated by the resonances in The Winter's Tale of both the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ, and its ritual “showing forth” in the eucharist.  It's not that any particular figure is an image of Jesus (unless it is Paulina whose action in the drama is to bring about both judgment and redemption). It is the drama itself that feels irresistibly Christological, taking us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. So like the liturgy, the play becomes “play” in the sense of a game that imagines us to be living in the redeemed state we call the kingdom of God. The great transformation scene leads us out of winter into spring and summer, bringing colour into the sombre monochromes with which it began. This is one way in which the movement of “enchantment” from tragedy to comedy is not just credible but ultimately necessary.
There’s a particularly telling line when Paulina says near the end: “it is required you do awake your faith”. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you can smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, or else find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we seem to be summoned into an act of faith that draws us into the life of things, into God. Either parody or gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the silliness of self-important human lives and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but eternal. Shakespeare is always big enough for there to be endless possibilities in the way we respond. And by keeping us guessing, he always has the last laugh.


In 1968, Peter Brook, the great Shakespeare director, wrote a little book that has become a classic for all who love theatre, The Empty Space. It’s a book every liturgist should read often, alongside that other slim but equally treasured volume, Aidan Kavanagh’s Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style published in 1982. Brook taught us to think about what takes place on a stage when something real is happening, as “holy theatre”. (He also coined the phrases deadly theatre, rough theatre and immediate theatre, all bursting with liturgical insight. I don’t know if Kavanagh knew the book but he writes as if he did.)

It’s “holy theatre”, indeed “the idea of the holy” that I intend to focus on today. I want to draw on my experience in the four cathedrals where I have served most of my public ministry. And I want to speak about the “holy” in a bigger sense than simply the liturgy, what that holy theatre is itself “about”, the theatre of human life as it is lived before God in the face of his fierce and wonderful love for the world.

My phrase “the theatre of the soul” is a conscious nod in the direction of two other books I’ve valued. They are by the psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall, Theatres of the Body and Theatres of the Mind. The first is about how the body acts out the scripts of our lives, especially those stories that are hurtful and destructive to us. The second focuses on illusion and truth as our stories get told and explored in the psychoanalytic process. It was a moment of insight for me when, thanks to the literature my psychotherapist wife was putting in front of me, I learned that the analytic space is often referred to by practitioners as “holy” or “sacred”. These connections say to me that like patriotism, liturgy is not enough. Sacred space is indeed very much to do with the holy theatre of the liturgy that is performed in it, and for which it exists at all.

But if we see the liturgy merely as an end in itself, rather than as a vehicle for transformation both collectively and personally, if we don’t recognise that the whole point of theatre is to challenge us, judge us, console us, mend our broken lives, help us to glimpse new possibilities, strengthen us to go on living, give us back our hope, we haven’t grasped its essential theological, pastoral and spiritual meaning. The theatre, the cathedral, the church, whatever is our ritual arena, they define the spaces in which human dramas get acted out and life is changed. Shakespeare understood it in ways that always surprise, amaze and delight us.

You need to know where I am coming from. Of my forty years of ordained life, nearly thirty have been in full-time ministry in three cathedrals, and in six of the other ten I was an honorary vicar choral of a fourth and as well as singing services, sang for a year in the back row of its choir when there was a lay clerk vacancy. That was Salisbury in the 1970s and early 80s. After an incumbency in Northumberland, I became Canon Precentor at Coventry, then Provost of Sheffield, then Dean of Durham from where I retired last year after nearly 13 years. You’ll understand that as a newly retired priest, I’ve been trying in the past year to gather the fragments, make sense of what my part in the public ministry of the church has been about, maybe – if I’m lucky – uncover meanings that I have not seen for what they are amid the demands of ordained life.

Now that my wife and I worship at the parish church across the road in our village, we are rediscovering what sacred space and liturgy mean on a more intimate level. After so long in cathedrals, attending a Georgian village church (Victorianised) for the Sunday eucharist and daily morning prayer concentrates the mind as to what really matters: God, humanity, community, relationships, mercy, grace, the kingdom of God. Every sacred space, even undistinguished ones like our parish church, represents and catalyses that divine-human encounter. My Christian experience started out in a Georgian church where I was a chorister. It looks like it may end in one too when singing days are done. It’s a very different kind of theatre from those I ministered in during my working life. But whatever the style, we know, as Aidan Kavanagh says, that a church is there for us to transact the business of God. It should be a tough, bracing space (very much a Peter Brook insight, that). It is not meant to imitate the soft, reassuring comforts of our drawing room. Cue memories of long DAC debates about over-carpeted churches. I wonder if the Chancellor of Coventry Diocese had read his book when he ruled against padded chairs in the church at Long Itchington?


So what have I learned about sacred space in the cathedrals I’ve known best?

It’s obvious to you as liturgists, though not always to your colleagues, that the “sacred” is the defining category when it comes to what a cathedral or church is for. Not all cathedrals are shrines to saints, but in a looser sense, sacred spaces are always “shrines” that draw seekers after truth into the world of the holy. What we mean by this theologically is not that therefore the space outside the shrine is somehow unholy, not quite belonging to God in the same way. On the contrary: all things, all people, all spaces belong to him and what we call the “profane” is simply that which is pro-fanum, lying beyond the sacred space but still in symbolic view of it and indeed defined by it. In medieval cities like Salisbury and Durham, the cathedral was historically the very reason their cities came into being. The monks of Durham likened their city to Jerusalem, a holy community defined, we could say sacralised by, the great temple from which it derived its meaning. So sacred geography is simply a way of focusing a universal awareness of divine presence. You only have to explore Wiltshire, as we did this summer, to see how so much of that county is a ritual landscape, a sacred geography whose focal points are its stone circles like Stonehenge and Avebury, its ceremonial burial places and, most important, the liturgical pathways that connected them. Having lived among that landscape, I recognised it again when we made the journey to Compostela and began to understand how geography has been assigned ritual and spiritual meanings by the chain of sacred spaces and the Camino between them.

I spoke about meanings in the plural. We could easily think that the “sacred” carries a single, unambiguous meaning. If you read books like Edmund Duby’s La Symbolique Romane on Romanesque symbolism, or Emile Mâle’s The Gothic Image, you might think that medieval cathedral expressed a single “idea” or vision of the sacred. Of course, that is true in terms of the central tenets of the creed. A cathedral is a public space whose liturgy and spirituality evokes a vision of the transcendent breaking into ordinary time. In the “winter’s tale” that described the lives of the vast majority of medieval people, the cathedral was where life took on a new and glorious aspect, where redemptive dramas were acted out and transformation scenes embodied, where tragedy and comedy mingled and illuminated each other in the light of Christian faith. Vaults and arcades, ceremonial doorways, colour, light, incense, chanting, processional journeys from one space to another across ritual thresholds – all these contributed to a powerful sense of the numinous, precisely what Rudolph Otto called in his great book whose title I’ve already borrowed, The Idea of the Holy. And in Christian sacred space, that idea focuses on the God who comes among us as the Incarnate Lord, who is crucified and raised from death.

But within that medieval “idea” lay quite distinct notions of what sacred space actually represented. In the Romanesque era, it was a fortified, defended space that reflected the precariousness of life by holding fragile human beings safe from the assaults of demonic powers. You see this most clearly at eleventh and twelfth century Durham, perched on its acropolis next to William the Conqueror’s castle, appearing for all the world to be one great defensive structure to keep the enemy at bay (in this case, not only demons, but those wayward Northumbrian Saxons as well. I often used to say to visitors that Durham was as much a statement of brutal Norman military might as it was a temple to the Almighty. Despite its celebrated beauty, Durham speaks volumes about political hegemony and the uses and abuses of power. Sacred space has its shadow side and we must tell the truth about that too.

In the high middle ages, however, the mighty solidity of Romanesque gave way to the airy soaring of the gothic vision. Thirteenth century Salisbury was one of its earliest expressions in England, its pure Early English creating a light-filled interior in which you could imagine that you had been transported into a vision of the new heaven and the new earth – that, at least, was the Abbé Suger’s intention in creating the first true gothic church in Europe, the Abbey of St Denis near Paris. A casket of light is a very different understanding of the sacred from an impregnable fortress. And you can see, in cathedrals like Winchester, Norwich, Ely, Gloucester and Durham how the building reflects a developing history of how the sacred is understood in new ways as the architecture moves from Romanesque to Gothic, from being, if you like, earth-bound and protected in a solid, rocklike way towards reaching up to touch heaven itself.

I’ve wondered, as I’ve presided at the eucharist in medieval cathedrals, whether the architecture, Romanesque or Gothic, makes a different to the ways we perform liturgically in these different kinds of space, and even affects the way we construe the sacrament itself. It’s a question of emphasis, not of essence. When Gothic was new to Christian architecture, did its vast open spaces and sense of exposure feel different to an assembly of worshippers from the enclosed, protected feel of Romanesque? Did it call for a different kind of theatre, maybe a new take on Christian faith and experience?

I began to ponder this when I went to Coventry as Precentor. As I first experienced it, the Cathedral felt utterly different in every conceivable way from Salisbury or from the more developed gothic of the big medieval town church of Alnwick where I had been incumbent. The architectural forms of the 1950s and 60s, Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry of Christ in Glory, the John Hutton west screen, a great wall of glass opening on to the ruins of the bombed out medieval church of St Michael, the liturgical spaces in the round in the Chapels of Unity and of Christ the Servant… how did you begin to create a liturgical performance worthy of that building? (This very question is posed explicitly by Peter Brook in a fascinating section about Coventry in The Empty Space.) As always, the building wins in the end as we all know: you have to start with the grain of the building and let it suggest the kind of ceremony it needs.

To help us do this, I invited some members of the Department of Theatre Studies at Warwick University to help us understand both the sacred space itself and the dynamics of architecture, audience and performer that was taking place within it. They were mostly not habitual church attenders but they knew about theatre, and were intrigued that we had approached them with our rather unusual request. They attended services and offered some sessions with our liturgical ministers. The principal outcomes were these. First, there is no substitute for paying a lot of attention to performance skills, whatever the environment we are working in. They thought there was work to do on our posture, our way of moving around the space, and our relationship with the words we spoke (a particular challenge, that, in a cathedral that had more difficult acoustics than any other I’ve worked in). They tried to instil in us the importance of embodiment, inhabiting a role and living and breathing it stage. It was not enough to utter words by themselves. They must be “made flesh” through our bodies in a profoundly incarnational way. They thought we had a lot of work to do, and so we did.

But the more surprising insight was to do with the nature of the space itself. They looked carefully at the cathedral from a performance point of view. They took in the great gaunt slab of the high altar below the tapestry, and the John Piper vestments created for the building that are more elaborately decorated behind than in front. And they said to us: you may think of your church as the first of the modern cathedrals because the finish makes it look that way. But we are saying to you that it is entirely medieval in orientation and attitude. The west-east axis culminating in an elevated high altar below the image of Christ in Glory – it is unambiguous that this is the last of the old cathedrals not the first of the new. So you should learn from the ceremonies of the middle ages and, while you will want to reinterpret them for the twentieth century, don’t dismiss the way they had evolved over many centuries in just such grand spaces as this.

What’s more (and here was the coup de grâce), the altar and the vestments tell us plainly that you would be better to have the three sacred ministers facing east at the sacrament rather than west. For then you would all be being true to the grain of the cathedral, the strong orientation of building and people towards the face of Christ on the tapestry. Moreover, as performers you would find that the your eastward-facing posture and the vestments, by concealing so much of you, would act as a kind of theatrical mask that frees you up to inhabit the rite in ways you are finding more difficult when you stand behind a grand granite counter and face the people. (I thought of that unexpected advice apropos of the recent injunctions in the Roman Catholic Church about ad orientem mass celebrations. Once again, it all comes down to sacred space and how we construe it.)

Well, we didn’t go back to the eastward position because it would have been unthinkable in those post Liturgical Movement days. But then I went to Sheffield where there were several immovable eastward-facing altars  though the high altar itself had been moved away from the east wall. I found a new kind of freedom, particularly (but not only) in Prayer Book celebrations, in facing east, something that continued in Durham where, at high altar celebrations, there is no choice about it. I don’t think there can be a doctrine about this either way (so to speak), and I have hardly ever found lay people to be as exercised about it as clergy; but I do believe that the characteristics of the building as a whole, the way that community has chosen to inhabit its sacred space, the theological and spiritual messages we want the liturgy to convey must all play a part in informing any church’s liturgical style.  


I spoke earlier about clergy being “guardians” of sacred space. I like the analogy and have always believed that guardianship is a very key task for cathedral clergy in particular. This is about much more than the liturgy. And the secularising tendencies of our age both inside and outside the church have greatly increased the pressures on the very idea of “sacred space”, let alone what it means to guard it against violation or abuse. Let me give a few examples from my experience.

Sheffield Cathedral has been praised for some decades for its ministry among homeless and vulnerable people. Liturgically, its worship was never given to that kind of racy pursuit of “relevance” that some seem to think is called for in the heart of a great city. But because the focus of our daily outreach in those days was the Cathedral hall, it was literally the case that the poor were always with us. As soon as the doors were opened for weekday matins at 0730, some homeless people would come straight in, sometimes with their dogs, find a bench, stretch out on it and go to sleep for the day. The early eucharist of the day was often enriched by the smells of a full English breakfast being prepared for our guests in the hall. The social context of need and deprivation in which we celebrated the liturgy could not have been clearer. No-one questioned that the nave was a perfectly proper place for homeless people to sit or lie. There were rules about smoking, alcohol and drugs which were strictly but good-humouredly enforced. The sanctuaries and altars were always regarded as “separate” (the root meaning in Hebrew of qadosh, “holy”, i.e. set apart).

But here’s what I learned about sacred space at Sheffield. It was clear to me that the public space of the nave was heavily contested. The poor reckoned they had as valid a claim on it as “their” place as anyone else. Rather wonderfully, the Cathedral community accepted this graciously; the few who were uncomfortable about it tended to gravitate to the highlands of west Sheffield and their big suburban churches. We all know from our experience of church life that sacred space, because it is usually public in character, is always heavily contested. People’s good sense of “belonging” in it, “inhabiting” it, “possessing” it can become adversarial. And when disputes about what is and isn’t “right” in the space are freighted with theological meanings, as they often are, it can become toxic. But in Sheffield, the homeless who sometimes thought they had “rights” in the nave were also its most passionate defenders. They would police it themselves. If somebody was drunk or abusive, they would show them to the door, sometimes a trifle roughly. At night, if anyone was tempted to break in or cause damage to the building, there was a loyal tribe of Cathedral irregulars who would see them off – vandalism rates in that Cathedral were remarkably low, given its setting. I’m saying that the “sacred” draws people of all sorts and conditions into the guardianship role that we might have thought belonged only to the authorised officers of the cathedral.

It seems to me that Cathedral chapters don’t give enough thought to their role as guardians of sacred space. As we know, the space itself communicates a message about its own purpose and meaning. That too is part of the “grain” of a cathedral, in this case a theological, spiritual and ethical grain. So here is where chapters, advised I suggest by precentors, should be crystal clear about the aims and values their cathedrals stand for, and make sure that their policies and liturgical plans reflect them unambiguously.

For example. In Coventry, we began the annual service during November for the commemoration of the victims of road accidents. When I wrote that first liturgy, I little thought it would be taken up nationally. We called that first service We are all Victims. It did not carry any subtext that was hostile to the automobile – least of all in Coventry with its long motor manufacturing industry. But all good things carry risk. It was a profoundly moving service at which the liturgy did what it was meant to: care for broken human beings, honour painful memories, try to bring healing and even hope.

Later, Coventry celebrated the centenary of the first motor car. This was to be a celebration of all things internally combustible. I was instructed by the Provost that there was to be a Coventry-manufactured car driven up the centre aisle and parked at the chancel step for the duration of the service. Then it was to be solemnly blessed, and driven out again. As a man under obedience, I duly complied, despite the very complex operational issues involved (how do you get a car into the nave of Coventry Cathedral where there is no great west door?). But to me, the memories of hundreds of people bereaved by road accidents sitting in that same nave at the annual service a few months before sat uneasily alongside this celebration. Somehow, the sacredness of the human stories told then seemed subverted by what we were doing. It’s an example not of what is right or wrong, good or bad; rather, the way in which sacred space, which is a world of symbols and images, magnifies the significance of every object that is brought into it, for good or ill. When I went into Ripon Cathedral a few years ago and saw a large field-gun, a 25-pounder I think, installed in the crossing as part of their Remembrance Sunday observance, I felt the same disquiet. But then I remembered how in Sheffield Cathedral, the screen surrounding the military chapel of St George and defining its space, was made of actual swords and bayonets from the Great War. Awkward.

Durham Cathedral, because it is loved by people across the world, is the most heavily contested space I have worked in. It is one of those universal masterpieces that really does belong to everyone. There, what I’ve called guardianship of the sacred space occupied a good deal of our time. When I went there, I found that the Chapter had engaged in long, careful debates about how to exercise this role, though they might not perhaps have thought of it in this way. But three policies in particular clearly enunciated a theological view about the church. First, because sacred space is God’s space, and God’s hospitality is unconditional, there were no admission charges for visitors. Second, photography was not allowed in the church because of the intrusive effect, especially of flash, on the spiritual environment in which people should be helped to be quiet, reflect, pray. And third, there was no eating or drinking other than at the eucharist, even in the nave or transepts (when we were planning my installation the Chapter Clerk made this very clear to me – I recall he seemed puzzled that I was even asking the question).

I need to be careful here. I am not saying that one set of policies can apply everywhere. Each cathedral has to do its thinking for itself. Sacredness belongs to place and will be differently understood and handled from one cathedral to another. I am only telling you about Durham. I wondered where Durham’s understanding of its guardianship role came from. It had of course been a monastic cathedral in the middle ages when the Rule of St Benedict had governed its entire life. I think that for the Chapter, the question “how do our decisions reflect that Benedictine inheritance” has always been present, usually implicitly as a kind of corporate memory, but also explicitly at times. For example, the Rule states unambiguously that nothing must ever be done in the oratory that might prevent a brother or sister from going there to say their prayers. The church, that is to say, is set apart for sacred liturgical and spiritual functions. You go to the refectory to eat, to the cloister to study or work, to the dormitory to rest. You go into the church to pray.

Now, that doctrine has never been applied uncritically in any cathedral since the middle ages and possibly not even then. In the nineteenth century at Durham, if you wanted to visit the Cathedral you knocked at the barred and bolted north door. If you were lucky, a verger would open up and charge you sixpence to look around. Admission charges are not new. But they do raise questions about the contract that is set up between visitors, worshippers and pilgrims on the one hand, and the space on the other. When you pay, you have different expectations of the place and its resources and facilities, possibly even of God too. It’s a tricky marriage of idealism and pragmatism that charging cathedrals have to manage if they take their sacred space seriously and guard it from the corrosive effects of monetisation. The same is true of the other dilemmas I mentioned.

Here’s another example. Not long ago the Cathedral was approached about holding a fashion show in the nave. It would bring lots of people into the church who had never been inside before. There would be a facility fee, a splash of good publicity, media headlines, and opportunities for us to promote our “product” (or “visitor offer” as they put it). So it would be mission. Why did we say no? Not because we were averse to the fee – the bottom line concentrates minds like nothing else can. Nor was it because we did not host a vast variety of non-liturgical events in the nave – concerts, exhibitions, lectures, drama, all the things cathedrals do. The reason was twofold. One was that we were not persuaded that this focus on wealth, celebrity and body image sat easily alongside the Cathedral’s purpose statement and values. The other was that we drew a distinction between being a venue and offering hospitality. It seemed to us that church can merely be a rather grand and beautiful venue to be hired out for others to take possession of. It would be a dereliction of guardianship. The Cathedral’s own involvement in and ownership of what went on within its walls was very much to do with the “sacred” and the trust placed in a faith community to look after it. If we had believed that a fashion show could be a kind of fresh expression that would “promote our product” (the gospel), then we would have shared the responsibility for it. Because whether we like it or not, a cathedral is perceived to carry responsibility for all that takes place within it. I found that out in a rather sharp way when we allowed an episode of the TV series Inspector George Gently to be filmed in the cathedral. Here, Durham was acting itself, not pretending to be somewhere else as it had done in Elizabeth or Harry Potter. But shots were fired in the nave and the good inspector was badly injured. There were predictable letters of outrage, though interestingly none from North East England, only from other parts of the country. Maybe north-easterners were proud to see their cathedral on television, but I could understand why others felt discomfort at this apparent, even if entirely fictional, violation of the sacred space.

But my most enduring insight into the ownership of Durham's sacred space came just after I arrived there. A retired bishop who worshipped with us took me on one side and told me about the Durham Miners' Gala which would soon be taking place in the city. As part of it. there is a huge service in the Cathedral with processions of miners' banners and colliery bands. It brings people together from across the North East: every pit village seems to be represented in an act of worship that is at once a powerful memory of Durham's great mining traditions, poignant because of the demise of that once proud industry, sad because of the memory of those killed and injured in mining disasters, and a celebration of the lives and aspirations of working people of the region. I did not know this at the time because I had not yet attended the event. But the bishop said to me: "Michael, the Miners will soon be crowding into this great space. They will claim it as their own. You will never understand Durham Cathedral until you have witnessed it and seen for yourself how deeply attached the people of this region are to their cathedral." He was right.


So let me end by suggesting how we should relate to sacred space in our cathedrals today. Here are four principles that could help us be good guardians of our spaces and manage the problematic boundaries between sacred and profane in today’s highly complex environment.

First, we must love our sacred spaces. It’s self-evident that we who work and worship in cathedrals love them, but for some parish clergy, the church fabric, which contains our sacred spaces, is seen as a burden, not a privilege. What’s more, after a lifetime of involvement with the sacred which is what ordained ministry amounts to, I’ve seen how careless familiarity with holy things can set in and compromise the reverence that is due to them. If we are caring for numinous spaces, presiding over numinous ceremonies and handling numinous objects, we need to be careful. Scholars of ritual remind us that the holy is not to be trifled with. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” says Hebrews about not being on our guard when we encounter the sacred. I’ve found that the habitus of reverence speaks volumes to people for whom the idea of the sacred is strange, even alien. To place love at the heart of our ministry in sacred spaces, especially in the liturgy, is to invest them with the central virtue of Christian character. It’s also to deliver us professional religious types from the affliction Ritual Notes is a symptom of, what Sydney Evans, when he was Dean of Salisbury called memorably, “sanctuary-mindedness, narcissism and lace”. 

Secondly, we need to base our attitude to sacred space on a rigorous biblical and catholic theology. We can bring to our handling of the sacred over scrupulous attitudes that don’t bear close examination theologically. Lurking not far beneath the surface can be all kinds of assumptions about ritual holiness, the issues Mary Douglas the anthropologist and Old Testament writer describes in her book Purity and Danger. It’s not that policies about sacred space and rubrics governing ceremonial correctness are necessarily “primitive” or arcane, for as she points out, it’s an ingrained habit of all societies to regulate and control behaviours at symbolic places and rituals. Remembrance Day ceremonies show us how the sacred can foster attitudes of high anxiety precisely because we invest so heavily in the memories they hold. I am simply saying that as a matter of good theology, we need to know what we are doing and why when we guard our sacred spaces, beginning with the psalmist’s affirmation that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”. Psalm 24 is particularly important to liturgists because as a ritual of entry into the holy sanctuary, its theme is precisely how we should understand the sacred in the setting of a creation that God has already owned, hallowed and blessed.

Thirdly, we need to remember that the “sacred” does not simply belong to places, ceremonies and objects but to people and communities whose memories they hold, whose stories they tell, and who, because of their encounter with God, invest spiritual significance in them. So how we develop the building and make changes to the liturgy is always a matter of sensitivity because of their sacredness to a community. So we always need to recognise the image of God in all who cross our thresholds, and regard all of them as guests, pilgrims and worshippers rather than (God forbid) mere sightseers and tourists. If sacred space is essentially humane hospitable and generous, then access and welcome, interpretation and development become pastoral and spiritual tasks. Sacred space is for God’s people to use and find joy in. The space and its liturgy should both care for us. It’s our privilege as guardians to enable them to do that.

Finally, sacredness of space and place can only flourish in so far as they reflect our own integrity as guardians. That is to say, “this sanctuary of my soul” as the famous anthem text calls it, is as crucial as the sanctuary of the space itself. Sacred space has pastoral and ethical aspects as well as liturgical and ceremonial. I am speaking both collectively and individually. The “soul” of a cathedral chapter and community is as significant here as that of the individual. The decisions cathedrals need to make, so often driven by financial stringencies, the call to monetise everything, and the pressures of a public with their own ideas about what should happen in cathedrals, call, I think, for real “purity of heart”.

How do we undertake this in practice? It begins with the aims and values of the cathedral itself – not cathedrals generically but of our particular place: what we believe we are for, and what values we have agreed to work to. Aims and values need of course to be well calibrated by good theology and good ecclesiology, but if we have done our theological work well (and it takes a great deal of Chapter, staff and community time), our official statements will inform policy decisions about sacred space in an intelligent way.  This is what integrity means in practice, I think. And it helps us to act not out of reckless opportunism, nor out of worries about money and resources, nor out of the lazy conservatism that does not want to wrestle with issues but simply says “this is how we do things here”. Here is the secret of this “purity of heart”. It guards our integrity, ensures good process for decision-making, and above all protects us against gaining the whole world but losing our collective soul.

Cathedrals are among the most visible guardians of “soul” in our secularising western society today. Yet that same society seems ever more hungry for what cathedrals can bring to them by way of being spaces whose sacredness challenges our easy materialist assumptions, offers new opportunities for re-connecting with our humanity, invites us into the vision of God. This is why sacred space is the greatest resource for mission that we have, and why our investment in it will always be supremely worthwhile. For as the Bard is always showing us in his inimitably inventive way, the theatre of the soul is about nothing less than the re-enchantment of all life, the transfiguration of our bleak and hopeless winter’s tale by the happiness and hope of God’s glorious summer.

The Precentors’ Conference September 2016, Southwark Cathedral

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