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Opening times

  • Sunday
    Closed
  • Monday to Friday
    Closed
  • Saturdays and Bank Holidays
    Closed
  • FREE ENTRY

All the best laid plans!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:

We are having a planning day this month. I am dreading it! My apprehension is not because I don’t look forward to being with my colleagues. Neither is it because of social distancing and potential spikes in COVID-19. I’m quite confident that Kate will have made sure we have taken all the sensible precautions and I enjoy the creative company of our staff. I know too that we must plan for the future even though in ‘COVID world’ even the best laid plans will need to be flexible, adaptable and at the last minute could be frustratingly thwarted.

(With thanks to Audrey B)

No, the reason that I am an anxious Dean is due to other factors:

Even without the COVID constraints there is a complexity to a potential Cathedral plan that is mind-blowing – literally. There are competing demands and dreams that sometimes feel impossible to reconcile. How will our daily/weekly pattern of worship interact with the desire to welcome more and more visitors? How will our activity plans and exhibitions contend with the available space and use it to the full without destroying completely any atmosphere of prayer and contemplation? How will we encourage events big and small, conferences, concerts? Are there any activities or themes that we would consider beyond the pale and if so what are they? And who decides? What kind of catering can we provide? What hospitality will we offer for the more vulnerable? What will be our priorities and how will we make decisions? If we can imagine a diverse and creative programme how will we resource it and market it? How will we use our limited staff? Can we recruit enough volunteers? And how – please someone tell me – will we make all this a financially viable model for the future? You can see why I my heart is sinking at the thought of trying to do all this and to do it in a spirit of inclusivity and collaboration. The Cathedral team are a talented and creative bunch but sometimes that just widens the possibilities and adds to the complexity.

I wonder if our predecessors sweated so much over planning life in the Cathedral. Perhaps it is looking through nostalgic rose-coloured spectacles to think that it was, for previous generations, an uncomplicated regular rhythm that ordered the days months and years. I know that they probably didn’t have funding targets, KPIs or lengthy business plans. But my guess is that each generation had its own ‘lingo’, carefully devised processes of accountability and unique constraints and pressures. In truth when all is boiled down the latter were probably not that different to ours – increasing the footfall and filling the coffers!

While St Nicholas’ has always seen itself a major church – a cathedral even – and locally many regarded it as quite wealthy it has not always been so. By 1197 the first church, placed under the patronage of the prior and convent of Carlisle, was indebted by 60 Sixty Shillings to the King. Of course, that church was destroyed by fire in 1216. It is said to have been rebuilt in 1359 – well at least the building work finished then (note a century and half after the fire – I hope our building construction company don’t get any ideas from this time delay!!). During 1359, an indulgence or forty days was granted by twelve foreign bishops and confirmed by the Bishop of Durham. To claim the indulgence one had to attend worship at St Nicholas’ on a whole host of days throughout the year; circle the churchyard, praying all the while (is this the origin of, ‘Amen Corner’ I ask myself?); assist in repairing the church or gift it with ornaments, or leave it Gold or silver. And somehow the money and the people started rolling in. See if it wasn’t for the Reformation we might have developed quite a different fundraising and activity plan!

But that was only the start of creating that early wealth. Perhaps the best fundraiser combined with increasing footfall was the creation of the Chantries. It was the custom in those ancient days of the 12th and 13th Century for people of great wealth and piety to build (or at least pay for) small chapels or side aisles designed as burial places for their families. Often, they endowed these chapels with lands and the like which were used to generate income to pay for a chantry priest who would pray each day for the souls of their loved ones into posterity. St Nicholas’ surpassed all other churches in the number and the richness of its chantries – perhaps as many as ten with a value of £48, 4s.6d before their suppression by Henry VIII. They provided staff and regular activity for the church and an income to boot. The provision of Heavenly visa’s was lucrative business. I wonder how staff meetings were conducted to plan all that!

However, our enterprising ancestors had other ways at their disposal for filling pews and collection plates. Rich benefactors were always keen to be seen as generous to the town church. They liked to parade their wealth and mark their status and not only in a chantry or ledger stone on their death. Some liked to pay for towers or solver chalices, new buildings or furniture. Gifts then (as now) were gratefully received with or without an indulgence in return. In town life seasons and times were marked with great processions all focussed on the church. The Legal year and the beginning of the Assize Courts was a grand affair, as was the Corpus Christi festival which could get quite drunken and often riotous, with fights and rotten tomatoes hurled at the great and the good who ponced through the town to the church. Boy Bishop traditions always caused a stir with rebellious schoolboys upturning the usual pecking ordered and having fun at their elders’ expense. And it was at the door of the church, and sometimes directly to it, that many petty miscreants had to pay out their fines or do their public penance. Apprentices who had their hair cut in banned (Scottish) style were fined and the church received the money; Others were fined for strange and petty trespasses such as sneaking into Durham Cathedral dressed as a man in order to get close to Cuthbert’s shrine and again the church coffers benefitted. In 1312 we hear of one Nicholas Porter who found guilty of a breach of the rights of sanctuary, and was sentenced to stand at the west doors of St Nicholas, barefooted, bareheaded and clad only in a linen gown and declare his offence in the ‘vulgar tongue’ in the presence of all the people and receive a fustigation at the hands of the parish chaplain. Such punishments made for interesting (if you like that kind of thing) entertainment that would enthral the baying crowds – and show how the Church was a powerful agent of civic authority.

But as well as guarding the ‘spiritual interests’ of the people and the like the church also took seriously a role in providing amusement for townsfolk too. The Feast of Fools when mystery plays and miracle plays were performed; Gala days for the Guilds with raucous pageants; markets and the like were all focussed on the church. Even nearer to our present time people would gather and celebrate in the shadow of the tower for New Year or VE day or other celebrations (and commemorations). Even today the Bigg Market is the centre of night life and ‘party-city’ and the Cathedral plays host each week at its West Door to the police safe-haven, the St John Ambulance ‘booze bus’ and the Street Pastors all offering practical help and kindness to inebriated revellers.

So, the good fortune and prestigious place of our church was inextricably linked to the prosperity of the town, it was always at the very heart of the town in good ways and the not so good. I’ve been reading recently a lovely book by Alistair Moffat called To the Island of Tides. In it he makes a insightful point about church and secular life throughout history but most especially in those earliest days of St Nicholas history. “We have long looked at Church and State as linked but separate, but of course Cuthbert and the kings in their halls at Bebbanburh made no such distinction… all had to be united in pursuit of Northumbrian glory.”[1]

Soon we gather to begin our planning. It will not be a blank page or diary that we work from. We will honour and delight in our history, we have our wonderful traditions to guard cherish and share widely – not least our choral tradition, our fine campanologists, our thoughtful worship and liturgy. We have our responsibility to provide a prayerful, worshipping heart to our civic life, a place that stimulates, provokes and connects with everyday life. We must try to be a useful powerhouse for Diocesan parishes and their mission and a worthy base for the Bishop’s teaching ministry.

In all our planning we know our broad task is to animate the life of the Cathedral so that it reclaims its past as a hub for the life of the city and Diocese. Our refurbished flexible, warm building will stand us in good stead – and look very beautiful. Worship will continue to be the scaffold of our daily life. Radical Welcome will be cashed out in a programme of activities, tours, events, exhibitions and creative and compassionate care. In all we do we will seek to raise the esteem of all who enter, to not only treat them with respect but to work with them to see them respect themselves and recognise their own worth – for in it we see ours too.

We already had a busy activity plan ready to go but COVID has demanded that be changed. Now we need to re-think, re-plan – but that is true to for most organisations like ours as we (hopefully) face post-COVID world – and trust that the Lantern Tower Cathedral will find its role again in the new society that is slowly emerging. To do that we will need to muster all the resources we can, we will need every hand on deck and every activity covered with prayer. But what an opportunity we have to become a Cathedral fit and ready for the decades ahead. And of course, we only play a small part in the project that is the kingdom of God. So, I’m glad we sorted the Pizza order out, we will need sustenance for the task ahead. Mine’s the Hawaiian by the way.


[1] To the Island of Tides, Alistair Moffat, Canongate, 2019, p219