SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
It’s only words
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:
I’ve heard people say – even to my face – that I could talk for England. OK stop right there. I didn’t say you have to agree! But, as I always say in response, why use ten measly words when a hundred would do just as well. I have always relished those northern (are they Geordie?) sayings which describe well my language abilities: ‘He was vaccinated with a gramophone needle’ or in my case perhaps more descriptive, ‘He opens his mouth to change his shoes.’
Well, given my well documented trait, you would have thought that I would have relished my recent task to work with our interpretation team to try and pin down how, when we open the refurbished Cathedral, we will introduce the Cathedral to its visitors. What will we put on those interpretation boards? It may sound an easy task but once you stop to think it becomes more and more complicated. The sensible marketing folk keep challenging us to name the ‘audiences’ we want to speak to, and though I want to rebel, they are right. Are we aiming at families or heritage buffs, local or international visitors, or are we just trying to engage passing trade?… I could go on (and on), but this time I won’t ‘cos I think you can get the picture. The commissioned writers keep asking, ‘So what are the key messages you want to give and what kind of ‘tone’ or ‘voice’ would work best?’ They continue, ‘There’s a very limited word count available, you are going to have to help us choose the best stories or facts.’ Questions, questions, questions but what are the answers? I have realised that we have two very distinct and debilitating problems. Firstly, the Cathedral is so rich a ‘container’ of fascinating local history we are overwhelmed with the things we want to tell. Our volunteers and indeed all who have found a home here have many stories to tell – too many, to be honest. Well I suppose to be exact too many to put on interpretation panels around the Cathedral and too many for any audience to absorb in a single visit. Secondly, we all have our favourite stories, artefacts and spaces in the Cathedral and everyone has creative views of how the stories could be told or the spaces interpreted. Even more I have realised that my colleagues’ creative spirits ensure they are a very fertile ground for new ideas and always ready to make them available. In short, our problem is that we have too many trees to see the wood or should that be the other way around.
So, when the consultants and the author contacted us to ask for some further help to clarify the messages I drew the short straw – fancy giving such a job to the ‘gobby one’ or perhaps nearer the truth, fancy letting the ‘mouthy one’ step forward!! Their request seemed simple enough. There will be 20 panels each with maximum of 150 words on each, so sketch a schema for the overall plan, and could you give us three bullet points for each panel. Easy ‘peasy’ – not! Prior to this, a whole host of us had gathered relevant material, primary and secondary sources included, short (and in my case longer) texts for the writers to work from to produce the finished project, but I fear they got bogged down with all the detail.
Now let’s be clear about some things. When we referred to constraints in number of words etc we really meant it. I hope there will be a new guide book when we open, I also know that there will be i-pads, touch screens and the like, full of information for people to dig deeper into the stories that grab them. We also want to have a good number of ‘Welcomers’ available each day and their training will include quite a bit of learning about heritage, artefacts and the like. We believe that at the heart of the Newcastle Cathedral experience there will be face to face contact with a local person who has a passion for the Cathedral. But the 20 panels carrying in total just a few thousand words will need to give people a framework for their visit, just enough information to grab their attention, amuse them and make sure they remember the distinctiveness of our great church. We want to entertain them, amaze them too, arouse their curiosity but not let them go away without knowing that this is a place where people have encountered God, where people have prayed and worshipped, for generations.
So, I set about my task and – you guessed it – soon became quickly bogged down in detail. However, I think I can easily outline the key messages:
- This wonderful place welcomes you.
- This proud church has for generations been at the heart of this great town and city and has its place in the civic, business and everyday life of its townsfolk – it still is.
- This Cathedral has always been a place of worship, prayer and discipleship in the name of Christ – its doors are open for all, in joy and sorrow, with curiosity and searching, for commemorating and celebrating.
- This holy place preserves countless stories – in glass, stone, artefacts, memory – of the people who have made and continue to make Newcastle – we want to celebrate them and you.
However, turning those key messages into simple communicative panels to read as you make a visit proves more difficult than might be expected. The 20 or so panels will present a tapestry of fact and story about people, things and context. They do not have to read in any order and they must, above all, not distract from what is to be seen and experienced, rather the opposite. Their purpose is to draw the visitor in, tease them and encourage them to want to know more. At best they will offer good conversation starters and enough bits of information to help the story be discovered. They need to be interesting to a wide audience of visitors, tourists, families and pilgrims alike and yet say enough but not too much.
How would you approach it, I wonder? What would you tell a visitor if you had to take them round the Cathedral? What would help you make it interesting? And what would interest you as well as them? Do you have your favourite spots? What are your favourite nuggets of wisdom to impart?
I have realised just how complex helping others read a building like ours is but then communication per se is never a simple task. It involves many factors, not least the communicator and those with whom one is communicating. But it is more than a two-way process. We bring a lot of baggage to every encounter and so often we resort to our cultural idioms and assumptions. Quite easily we slip in to our own jargon, never mind dialect. Just as we so easily listen with our pre-conditioned ears and minds. I am reminded of the child who thought God was called Harold because we prayed, ‘Our Father, Harold be thy name?’ Now who was to blame for the mistake – the child for trying to make sense of what he heard, to place it within his already learnt conceptual framework. Or is the fault with those who prayed using such complicated ideas or words (what does ‘hallowed’ mean to a seven-year-old)? Or should we turn our attention to Jesus himself and his Aramaic language and first century religious context? Does it matter? I suppose it does matter if the child goes on thinking God is called ‘Harold’ even though it’s not such a bad name (honest Dad!). But more important than apportioning blame is the finding of creative ways to engage with that child (and any other for that matter) as they struggle to make sense (in words) of God.
I am reminded also that communication is more than words. The, what might be called, implicit message we offer will be even more crucial than written interpretation panels. Will we be able to turn those words of welcome we often mention into an actual welcome – something warm, generous and above all tangible? Will the casual visitor catch our passion and excitement, our love for the Cathedral and see that love in the way we treat each other? Will they find a prayerful people here so that the ‘ethos’ of the place speaks powerfully of the God of love? Now you can see that if I thought helping to write some panels was difficult then that pales into insignificance against the tall order of us together living out the message we so want to proclaim.
But, sisters and brothers, this is the calling to which we, as the people of today’s Cathedral, are called and it is a calling that we must encourage each other to fulfil. In our refurbished building and with all the resources that we will have received we will be better equipped than ever for the task. But none of this will be worth a penny if we fail together to actually become the message we want to bear. In the Epistle to the Romans St Paul poses the question, ‘What then are we to say?’ He goes on to challenge us, ‘How are they to hear without someone to proclaim Christ?’ and then to encourage us, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News.’ So, whether like me you can make your jaw go ten to the dozen or you are the more cautious silent type, no matter. My prayer is that you (and I) will make sure the Cathedral is full of beautiful – and well used – feet!
(and for the record that was 1647 words)