SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Just another day at the office?
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
It’s getting lighter in the mornings. Lent approaches fast! Without the Cathedral carpark getting the early morning Metro is becoming a habit, I am even starting to recognise the usual faces: the guy at the coffee stand plyng his steaming sweet trade, the queue at Greggs for Vegan Sausage rolls (and breakfast pasties, no doubt), the free Metro papers strewn across the benches and sadly the huddled figures of ‘streetfolk’ taking up their well- guarded patches in time for the rush hour footfall.
I like the waking city, its noise and briskness, the opening of doors and sound of delivery vans, soapy water and the sound of brushes scratching the pavement outside shops. Of course, there is a downside, especially when the air is cold, gasps and coughing and everyone looking like they have just lit a quick fag and now trying to hide the evidence, betrayed by the smoke bursting from their mouths and nostrils! I have seen a growing number of people asking for money, or emerging in empty shop doorways from sleeping bags, even setting up base-camps by the Monument. It is disturbing to say the least, just as is, the increasing number of empty shops and of ‘Closing Down’ signs in windows that signal hard times. But mostly I can find enough positive in the early mornings, they have their own song, ‘it’s a new day, things could be different soon …. perhaps ….. hopefully….. please! And even I could make a small difference, just a smile to bestow or a second coffee to give a way’. The walk doesn’t take long but it is busy, at least in my head and my heart.
These days, however, when I walk down Grey Street I also muse at what the day in the Cathedral will hold. I know though it will be surprise, it always is and I long since concluded that there isn’t really ever ‘just a day at the office’. For that, I am, mostly, thankful. This morning there is a small congregation at Morning Prayer – just three of us, including an SSM Deacon from Exeter in Newcastle for a works course. The builders have beat us to work (yes prayer is work, I promise) and they are already hard at it. A ‘cherry picker’ is in use, finishing the putting up of plastic screens, high into the ceiling, to save us from the dust. Or maybe to protect them from us. A small group of men are looking at how to remove some of the stone dais in the crossing and there is the sound of a cutting machine coming from somewhere deeper in the nave. I can’t quite see where, even though there is a small window cut into the partition. We mumble through the service, stopping rather casually, but happily, to reflect on today’s reading from Genesis: Deceitful Jacob schemes to make friends with his wronged brother Esau, then fights with the mysterious stranger at Peniel. The great patriarch seems to know just how to rub people up the wrong way and yet God uses him mightily – there’s hope for you then … and me! I pray that today isn’t a day for rubbing people up the wrong way.
Morale among the Cathedral Staff is high at present. The pressure of working to loads of deadlines is immense but people are excited to see things actually happening. We’ve managed to keep visitors coming through the doors and our volunteers are doing a sterling job in offering a very personal welcome. I am humbled by the comments in the Visitors Feedback: ‘beautiful’, ‘prayerful’, exciting’, ‘worth a visit’, ‘coming back to see the finished works’ – the last one from a Dutch couple. Our new website is now live, crisp and modern but also full of up to date information. You can feel the energy and the buzz in the Cathedral Office, it is palpable – I just hope folk don’t burn out running this marathon.
Leaving Morning Prayer, I was hoping for a hot cuppa in the vestry – Paul makes the best tea in the city. It is a perilous walk across the Quire floor, not because of the construction works but because it offers too many distractions for me. There is always something interesting to see and usually someone interesting to talk to; temptations I can’t easily resist. Today is a busy day.
A group of Architecture students are busy setting up equipment in the eastern chapels. They are learning how to measure and document a historical building. The lecturer brings a group every year and is an enthusiastic observer of the Cathedral. He wants to talk about the works as do the students. As we talk Rachael our Activities Co-ordinator passes by, she tells me that she is excited as she is expecting (imminently) the arrival of a new exhibitions display structure, I promise to call back and have a look. Just as I turn the corner at the north aisle I bump (well almost) into Tony – not the graffiti ‘artist’ but the stone mason. He is at one end of a large spiked pole and at the other is Louise, the conservator. Attached to the pole is a disintegrating military flag. Louise is painstakingly hoovering the flags and carefully boxing them to be put away until after the building work is completed. It is a slow job and can take up to two hours per flag. She’s not quite half way through. ‘Come and see’, she kindly invites, ‘I have a question for you.’
The noise of machinery in the Cathedral reaches a peak – in height and decibel. The final bits of the plastic/wood screen are finally going into place. I can just make out the cherry-picker and the lads going about their work but now the scene is plastic opaque. The Cathedral feels small on this side of the great divide, though it is not an effective noise barrier. The sound of machinery and voices beyond the pale is somehow reassuring, things are happening, even if now we only see dimly through a glass darkened. A sermon there I think! Later, later Geoff!
In the Refectory, carefully laid out, is the flag at present being cleaned and gently netted for conservation – well at least to help last for as long as is possible. On another table are a series of bits of cloth laid out in an impossible jigsaw. Louise tells me that she has found these ‘bits’, they have dropped on the ceiling of the north porch. They are so badly disintegrated that she doesn’t know what to do with them. Fortunately, I remember an email sent to me recently by a retired Major from the Northumbrian Fusiliers who has responsibility for Queen’s colours.
The Major thoughtfully attached to his note some recently published guidance, though sadly he could offer no useful advice in accessing any help with costs; we have to pick up the bill. Queen’s Colours remain always the property of the Crown and need to be treated with upmost respect. When laid up in a church or a chapel it is not for conservation – indeed they should not be conserved. Rather it is intended that they ‘remain where deposited in perpetuity’, a bit like a human interment they should be left to decompose as gracefully as possible. However, when a colour (standard or guidon) can no longer support its weight, the Chaplain is advised to gather the bits and store them. There are then two options for the final disposal: burning or burial. Naturally there are other parts to the disposal process – some bits with certain markings need to be returned if possible to the Battalion HQ, then permission has to be sought from the Authorities about the disposal, and a short interment/cremation service held. All too much to be decided now, so I tell Louise to box them up and we will look into the matter further next year. I leave Tony (who is loving being Louise’s’ assistant this week) just in time to see the new exhibition boards. My they are snazzy, with their own lighting too. We need something to put on them, but Rachael tells me that she has an exhibition of children’s drawing of the leger stones already at the printer. Apparently these quirky, bright and imaginative drawings will form the basis of the hoardings now being prepared to circle the Cathedral. They will look fantastic.
Which leads me to an encounter with Pat. Pat is our homegrown historian, like an excited dog with too many bones she digs into the history of everything she can find. She loves the Cathedral, it is her historical playground, a ‘discovery museum’ throwing up stories of people, many who have become like old ‘friends’. Once she starts she is soon on a roll and cannot stop. Her energy, knowledge and enthusiasm are breath-taking. Today she has been looking at a particular leger stone with a curious mark that she cannot identify.
She’s already beginning her search to get more facts: A Chi-Ro? A Trinitarian triangle with the bottom damaged by a fault line? The family had a connection to Spiritualism popular in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiastic member for a while). The practise was condemned by the mainline churches and I don’t think it offers any clues to the mark, but ….? Pat will continue to dig deeper but maybe you have some ideas. Another St Nicholas’ mystery … a bit like that cup of tea I was hoping for; anyway, Paul’s shift is all but over.
Just time to chat with two other groups of Cathedral friends: John (whom I knew as a country GP and Churchwarden) is here with colleagues from the Northumberland & Durham Family History Society, they are beginning to help us with some detailed recording of monuments in the Cathedral. It’s great to have them and their skill and enthusiasm on board. Then a brief encounter with the Whickham Photography group who are here to make a detailed record of all that is happening.
By now that cuppa is long overdue, and the ‘sarnie’ in my bait box calls. I just about make it to the office. Letters, emails, phone calls demand attention, as well as the demand for ‘stuff’ for the interpretation consultants. A phone call from the Verger’s interrupts as someone would like to speak to a priest. Huffing and puffing and feeling put out I return to the Cathedral. I should have learnt by now that whenever I answer a call like this with a degree of annoyance, assuring myself it is someone ‘just wanting money’ it usually isn’t. And guess what, it isn’t! I listen and the guy talks and talks. I nod and grunt and listen and his spirit lifts. We pray and he thanks me …. for what I muse? For being irritated by the call out, for listening, nodding and grunting, occasionally in the right places? I feel chided but at least encouraged that he leaves feeling better than when he arrived. God is gracious to him but also to me…. in abundance. These interruptions fill the day, perhaps they are exactly what the day is for!
Evensong over the Cathedral has gone silent. The construction workers have gone home and their machinery lies dormant behind the screen until the morrow. The visitors, the students, the snorers, even the huddled folk saying their prayers have all left. Just the faint sound of the Verger clearing up. I stop for a moment at the statue of Nicholas. With the sound of the beautiful Evensong Tallis choir chant still humming in my mind I ponder what old Nicholas would make of his Cathedral today. I think he would be pleased with its aliveness, its noise and its energy. I think he is still bowing his blessed head and raising his hand in episcopal blessing upon us, but perhaps also gently, and wisely, reminding me (and us) that God is ‘not in the whirlwind or in the fire but in the still small voice.’
Listen Geoff, stop and listen – you can hear the whisper, it echoes still around these hallowed walls.
Another day at the office!