SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
For the many not the few!
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
Now the works have really begun – and I mean really begun. I know that while we have been anticipating so much, quietly in the background our construction company have been doing much more than seeking permissions and writing protocols, they have been sourcing toilets and portable offices, they have been quarry visiting (in Northumbria, I think) to put down an order on the very best local stone that they can find for our floor. Behind the scenes it has been very busy and now at long last the work is bursting out into the open.
There had been signs that things were starting to happen throughout the week: Fencing was placed around the former car park (enough, I’m sure, to frustrate our trespassing parkers), next barriers appeared just near the old Queen on the square, she didn’t look too pleased but then she never does. On Sunday – yes Sunday of all days – the big guns moved in and ‘behind the scenes’ finally burst into the open, well onto the square to be exact.
Turning up Mosley Street to come to church I bemoaned how annoying it is when lorries park on the inside lane near the Cathedral causing a log jam at the lights. As we got nearer I gulped, it was activity on Cathedral Square that was causing the problem. Huge trucks with lifting gear and large white portacabins were being carefully placed in a newly formed compound. The Cathedral doors were now hidden behind the portacabins and Harris fencing, the paths were blocked, pedestrians were being redirected. A hive of confusing activity, busy busy! Exhilarated, but slightly panicking I parked the car and walked to the fencing. Just as I was to cross the threshold into the compound a polite but firm voice explained to me that only authorised personnel were allowed beyond this point. ‘But I am the dddddean….’ I stuttered – vainly realising that it was too late, we had already handed over the keys to the builders. I had no trump card to play, well not one of any value!
Marking out territory is, I reflect, a very animal instinct. I am reminded that most of the beautiful bird song that accompanies and enchants my dog walk is actually wild squawks of, ‘Get off my patch or else!’ and the dog has his own distinct and undelightful way of squirting the bounds. We all recognise the adage ‘Fences make good neighbours’ and I guess that there is a truth in there somewhere. But like me you may also bemoan a world which uses fences, barriers and walls to divide peoples and lives. Nations placing their hope in miles of concrete walls to keep others out, countries with border controls forcing people to remain within, gated communities for this sector or another group. You may want to cry out that its time to to ‘build bridges not walls.’ Somewhere between the fences and the bridges must lie good and healthy community living. But the truth is living together is no easy task.
The first time I really engaged with the phrase ‘For the many not the few’ had absolutely nothing to do with the Labour Party and its election campaigns. As Diocesan Urban Officer, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet by urban geographers Ash Amin, Doreen Massey and Nigel Thrift, ‘Cities for the many not the few’, published in 2000 by the Policy Press. (Indeed, I confess to paraphrasing the title for the Diocesan Urban Strategy published the following year.) The writers conclude:
‘We have stressed the rights of being, becoming and interconnecting in the city; rights which do not flow alone from the ways in which physical space is organised, but also from the developmental and expressive opportunities given to people. But, as such, our interest has been less in the search for a common good or consensus – an impossible challenge in the heterogeneous city – than in ways in which living together in cities is an enriching and creative experience.’
Their study raised questions about how we deal with proximity; how, given our differences, do we share space and create place, make good community? The Cathedral sits pretty at the heart of old Newcastle but its very context is a laboratory of what I call ‘contested space’. Every night thousands descend to its environs: theatre-goers, avid cinema patrons, drinkers young and old, revellers, party goers and fine diners. Over the last few months, as our refurbishment project has been forming, I have referred to this idea ‘contested space’ not only between our neighbours – the nightclubs, the lap-dancing halls, the eating houses, the offices and shops – but in our church.
We confidently declare that this Cathedral does not belong to any particular group. We have put radical hospitality as a key plank of the future that we are learning to co-create. All good (and easy) so far. However, it’s when you add people – me and you, yes even us – that it starts to get hard. Not simply because people are difficult, though I for one am willingly to hold my hand up to not being perfect. More usually it is because we care about things, we have distinctive passions, pet concerns, big dreams, quirky idiosyncrasies and sometimes (well, quite often to be honest) we struggle with the unknown and that which is out of our control or comfort zone.
Over the last few months as well as our usual day by day activities the Cathedral has hosted over 120 special events or exhibitions. The Christmas period was especially intense with well attended Carol services, concerts and exhibitions each day. This was ‘contested space’ in real time and on our patch – not outside in the Bigg Market or down the Quayside but within our hallowed walls. Faithfully, and quietly in the background, Vergers and staff worked tirelessly to make things happen and managed to even maintain space for quiet and prayer. Afterwards, in that time of ‘soufflé’ that often follows the frenzy, we reflected that in the refurbished Cathedral this busyness, this madness, this demanding schedule, will hopefully become the norm not the unusual now and again time. Are we ready for this? How will we make it work? Without doubt we have much to learn and much to prepare but, ever positive we know that the future is all for the taking.
‘Contested space’ was ever more evident as we worked together to consolidate our offer to the public and life together in the move out of the nave and into the eastern end of the Cathedral. Would there be a children’s area and if so where? Where would all the moveable nave furniture be put without impossible cluttering? What about the little book stall, the prayer areas, the candle stands, the tea point????? Who could use this area or that and what for and who decides? It was no easy task I can tell you and feelings ran high. I wondered if we would need ACAS or a UN peace delegation at some points but in spite of the wobbles …… grace gently abounded among us. We have not got it right yet, not everyone has their hearts desire (perhaps not anyone!), but we are accepting that it is a work in progress.
And I realised that, perhaps more powerfully than ever, that ‘contested space’ is not limited to the physical – neither are the barriers and fences. Marking out our territory, guarding our patch, protecting our vulnerabilities and ourselves has as many virtual, social, and mental construction sites as the physical ones we have been working with. And much of this site work isn’t outside of us but deep within us. We are as often as conflicted as our context. Of course, it is imperative that we ‘cut each other some slack’ but, by golly, sometimes we need also to be gentle on ourselves too. As Gerard Manly Hopkins once put it, we need to
‘leave comfort root room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what;
whose smile’s not wrung, see you, unforeseen
times rather – as skies betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely smile.’
We all need our fences, and the yearning and the skill and energy to build bridges. What is true too is that our diversity and its friction is also a creative force as we learn to make and take hold of previously unthought of possibilities. ‘Contested space’ can give way to ‘negotiated space’ and with it often comes a hard earned, but delightful, synergy.
The ancient (large and heavy) Cathedral keys are for now confined to the vestry safe but they are a welcome reminder that though we will continue to need safety barriers we also need to look for as many ways through, as many openings as possible. And, of course, usually we are the keyholders.