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Hear the pennies fall

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

‘Dropping, dropping, dropping, hear the pennies fall. Everyone for Jesus he can have them all’

A Sunday School chorus we sang when I was a child, to accompany the weekly collection. I remember that I carefully placed the sweaty penny, the one that I had been grasping throughout the seemingly long, long service, onto the wooden plate that passed before me, mysteriously never to be seen again.

The lyrics were written by Mrs Fidelia Dewitt (what a delightful name) and published in the very year St Nicholas was made a Cathedral, 1882. I wonder if it was being sung when that Victorian penny was dropped, the one found by Tony the stonemason – though on reflection I doubt it, cathedrals are accustomed to a more upmarket musical tradition. It is, however, a memorable ditty; well it must be as even I can remember it after all these years. On reflection I’m not too sure how helpful it was in teaching good Christian giving and stewardship. For too many people the pennies still drop, regardless of over 125yrs of inflation. Apparently 1d in 1882 would equate to 28p today, though let’s be honest, that figure doesn’t easily lend itself to a lyric in a jingly chorus. Ironically the average visitor gift per head in the Cathedral is just 32p.

Cathedral finances are, for me, probably the least attractive part of a Dean’s responsibility but they are undeniably one of the most crucial. This is especially so when facing a major restoration project like ours, and looking to build a sustainable future. It will take more than Mrs Dewitt’s ditty to make sure we can pay our bills, I can tell you. Fortunately, the Cathedral is blessed with good friends, not least our own Finance Committee members and the wonderful Cathedral Trust.

On this very day (12 Feb) two hundred and thirty-seven years ago, following a parish meeting, a committee was appointed to help the churchwardens plan and implement a complete refurbishment of the building. Finance was, as you would expect, high on the agenda. They made a list of those who subscribed. It makes for fascinating reading. The single largest donor was the Corporation of Newcastle, three other donors were local banks (the Newcastle, Tyne and Exchange) but the rest were generous individuals. The total raised and spent (including paying for the new seating) was a staggering £1906.16s.2d which on my reckoner would equate to £306,866.00. (I’m not that clever at figures, honest. There is a little reckoner on a web site that calculates it all for you!) It was an expensive project but nowhere near as costly as our Common Ground in Sacred Space. The construction part of our project, excluding furniture, improved lighting, is £3.7M and with furniture and interpretation the cost rises to £4.2M. With the new lighting and trimmings, it goes higher and higher. This gives me some hope and you may rightly wonder why. Simply because reading between the lines the eighteenth-century refit had some shortcomings. Perhaps the biggest was the selling off of some beautiful medieval carvings and leger stones. I’m not sure that it was money that was the problem or incompetence, who knows? Neither am I suggesting that money isn’t an issue for us – we still have a long way to go to pay for all we need to do and to put the Cathedral finances onto an even footing. Indeed, the next stage of our public appeal begins in earnest soon and we have a ten-year business plan that we are sticking to like superglue. However, so far, God has been good and people have been generous. For us, of course the single largest donor has been the National Heritage Lottery Fund. Then most of our other funders have been generous Family, Charitable and Business Trusts. All of this has been facilitated by the Cathedral Trust under the Chair of John Squires and David Bilton and the hard work and leadership of John Sadler.

Looking through the history books St Nicholas’ finances have always been a roller coaster ride: poverty to riches and back again and who knows where next? In 1197 the church was in serious debt to the king – sixty shillings to be exact. (Sorry, my ready reckoner won’t go that far back in its calculations.) The great fire seemed to sort that out and the church was given to the poor See of Carlisle. In 1359 an indulgence of forty days was granted by twelve foreign bishops and confirmed by Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham and from this moment on the fortunes of the church, (well in monetary terms), improved. The development of 10 chantries seemed to do the trick of making St Nicholas one of the wealthiest churches in the region. Chantries were chapels paid for by the rich and pious. At each Chapel the families paid for a priest to say prayers each day and often they were also burying places for their families. St Nicholas surpassed all other churches in the north for the number and richness of the chantries. Wealthy families also became great benefactors of the church: Nicholas Coke, Roger Thornton, Richard de Embleton, Alan de Durham, William and Isabell Johnson, Richard Mitford, John Shapecape, Stephen and Mary Whitgray… the list goes on. Some of the income was from tenements in The Side, Sandhill and Sandgate. (Interestingly King Henry’s commissioners found some of the money of one chantry to be embezzled by one Richard Wallas, the Chaplain.)

Then there were the gifts from others, the generous Rhode family, the Maddisons and the Halls, the Blackett’s and the Ridley’s, of Blagdon too. There were gifts for altars and organ, art works such as the magnificent Tintorreto painting of Christ washing the Apostle’s feet. (This painting now hangs in the Shipley Art Gallery and the money raised from the sale is still the only real financial reserve in the Cathedral coffers). There was other money that came the church’s way: Tithes from corn and lands, church tax and the support of the generous and wealthy Corporation, and from various Companies, notably the Cooper’s Company who devoted their fines to ‘Sancte Nicholas’ Kyrke warke’. It’s also worth mentioning the little exactions such as the ceding of the Parish of St Nicholas, Cramlington for a cheese and a couple of capons to be ‘tendered on the 9th May, St Nicholas day, in every year, in the porch of St Nicholas’ – if you are reading Cramlington I’m looking forward to some back payments! Among all this St Nicholas’ became a wealthy church, though the years have taken their toll. Times change, the family jewels get sold, philanthropy changes, the benefactors become fewer and the pennies become fewer too. Though, believe me, ‘copper’ is still always welcome. Neringa, our brilliant Finance Manager, was recently introduced to a Christian couple who have set up a little business offering to buy foreign coins left in donation chests in churches. Fortunately, she has kept the Euro’s, Cents, Dollars, Kroner et al we have received and duly handed them over. We received a cheque for £360.03 in return. Thanks be to God for generosity upon generosity.

For me this has become the most wonderful part of the Common Ground in Sacred Space project: Goodwill is unearthed and revived and generosity flows so freely. We still have a long journey ahead of us, a difficult task and tough targets to achieve. But we have each other and what a team we are, we know which direction we are travelling, we have friends and supporters a plenty, shared dreams and hopes to inspire, the sound of laughter, delight and much dedication, and we see a stunning refurbished Cathedral – a people and a building – emerging through the dust. Most of all as we go forward together, and to quote a different ‘Moody and Sankey’ chorus,

‘We are trusting thee Lord Jesus, trusting only thee!’

And, of course, when all is said and done, where else could we put our trust?