SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Nip and tuck!
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
Let’s be honest, she deserves more than a pamper day or an odd facial, so would anyone who has endured so many long and tough years, battered by northern grit, the weather and the people. Now I’m not sure what your personal approach to cosmetic surgery is (or really what mine is for that matter). What are my (or your) ‘red lines’ on the matter or should they be called ‘crows-feet lines’ – perhaps better still, ‘laughter lines – and what would we be prepared to do to look our ‘best’. I’m not only talking about cosmetic stuff here – as if I dare with my experience in the matter. Is a bit of dental repair just ‘cosmetic’? Is teeth whitening going too far or should we stop with a bit of botox? Surely any of that stuff is quite minor when compared to facing the scalpel (literally ‘facing’ in some cases). Enlargements might be just too much (and in my experience they usually look like it – sorry Dolly!) but what about sorting out those varicose veins, bunions, hair transplants, hip replacements? Wouldn’t make-up give enough colour distraction and cover up or is a ‘nip and tuck’ less of a faff in the long-run? Where is present day fitness/food obsession on the spectrum of acceptable possibilities. And, of course, who do we take advice from (I suggest starting and ending by looking in an honest cringe providing mirror). Who do we get to do the job making sure we don’t end up with a trout-pout botch up? Too many questions, so I smile to myself, ‘at least while the muscles are relaxed enough to allow me to’.
But this old girl doesn’t get much choice, she is at everyone else’s mercy. Born in 1091 on command of Osmond, Bishop of Salisbury all she had was a rather vulnerable wooden framework, which was destroyed, perhaps inevitably by fire, so that not a single piece of obvious charred evidence is left. She needed more than a ‘nip and tuck’ after that, I can tell you. However, on the positive side, I intend to write to my good friend, Nick, the Dean of Salisbury, in the hope that he could be gently reprised of the ancient connection and maybe feel the need to offer something towards our present day works – shy bairns get nowt!
A stone church followed, or so it seems, though we have only faint glimpses of its existence: a stray pillar in the north arcade and a bit of wall incorporated into the present stone edifice. Spot it of you can! It seems that between 1115-1118 the generous Henry I gave this, now disappeared, church to the Prior and convent of Carlisle who then shared it with their Bishop. [I feel another letter forming in my head to the Dean and Bishop of Carlisle. – hopefully a lucrative theme is developing of past benefactors that are worth approaching for support today. I will let you know if (when!) you are implicated. We know where you live ……. probably.]
Then in 1216 there was another fire (perish the thought) and another almost complete destruction. This was, of course, long before the helpful arrival of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Society on the scene, who by the way have already given us a generous grant towards our project – no letter writing needed there! I imagine that the fire was traumatic not only for the Cathedral but for all her family and friends too, no wonder It took nigh on 150 years to complete the new model, but in 1350 the old girl was again in her customary beauty and stature even though at this point she was still missing her glorious steeple. [More of the steeple on another occasion but enough to say with the generosity of Robert Rhodes St Nicholas reached for the sky.] Of course, there were changes, decorative and substantive, still to follow though not many major works were undertaken (other than the steeple) until 1777 when the church was ‘repaired and thoroughly cleaned’. It would be remiss to forget in passing the removal of the ‘huge head with tongue lolling out near the base of the pillar on the north east pillar. ’This ludicrous specimen of monkish wit was cut off by order of Dr Ellison, when vicar.’ I wish I could have seen it. Then there was a gallery erected in 1620 and new pews in 1635. Enough changes to keep ‘annoyed of Monkchester’ busy I would think.
In 1783 a new scheme was put together for converting the church into a ‘kind of cathedral’. The west end was cleared – in ‘miserably bad taste’: A new organ loft and school gallery was inserted (though this was reversed again in 1798) Some more new pews and at some point, the Churchwardens (very powerful men, even then!) sold all the old tombstones. Many were large and curious and of blue marble. They were purchased by Mr Christopher Blackett, post master, who buried them in the foundation of the house he was building in Mosley Street. Other monuments suffered the same fate in a plan that Brand (a former vicar and historian) described as ‘destitute of taste or elegance…. barbarous and unjustifiable an outrage as ever disgraced any age or place.’ But most of all, shock horror, the said churchwarden’s book gives no account of the money received for the marble tombs. If I could only find their names I’m sure it would be worth writing a few more letters.
Save for some major works as a result of the Tower (I’m saving that for later as the Lantern Tower deserves at least a post of its own) it wasn’t until 1873 that the next makeover happened. At a cost of £21,400 the old girl underwent an ‘exhaustive renovation’, (more radical than colonic irrigation) which left us with a church not dissimilar to the one we know and love today. Save for the wonderful additions of choir stalls and reredos designed by the Cathedral architect Mr R J Johnson. The latter was all completed in 1887 and is also worthy of a post of its very own. Any works that followed were more cosmetic and not on any large scale. I think the grounds were renovated in the 1920s – with the help of Milburn House but here we are in 2020 facing what must be the largest restoration in generations. How exciting is that?
Now, not all the changes in the past were met with popular acclaim. Not all even met with the positive assessment of the experts. I can tell you that some of these past stories fill my every nightmare. A nightmare which dreads the assessment of the likes of John McQuillen in 1903, ‘The mother Church of Newcastle Town was shorn of its glory.’ But there is another side too. Already we have unearthed some magnificent leger stones that have been damaged by the good intentions of our predecessors. Of course, they never sought to break them up or sell them off, but in the hope of preserving them, they simply covered them in paper or cardboard, wood platforms or carpet. And ‘hey presto’ these very acts undertook the permanent marring of their beauty all on its own. We all see the poor state of the nave floor, the aged heating, the faltering wiring, the chipping of stones we treasure. While the truth is that cosmetic surgery has always been a tricky business do we really have a choice but to do something. The alternative is letting things decay, a kind of divine decadence and I, for one, will not let that happen on our watch.
So, bravely we do our bit, in our time, for our beloved old church. We do it with the best resources we can muster, the best help we can seek out but also with some hesitant courage and simmering joy. I have no doubt that we won’t get it all right, but at the end of the year she will be stunningly beautiful, we will have found and shared some more of her hidden glories, glories that have been hidden for too long. By the end much will have been discovered, preserved, conserved, restored or developed and of course displayed for new generations to treasure.
And amid all this I have come to understand one crucial truth about cherishing the Cathedral. It is a truth to which I will give my focus and energy and demand yours too. It is the secret to the riddle of the Cathedral’s preservation, nay her very beauty. You see the very best way to ensure the future of any old building is quite simply to make sure that it is owned, it is lived in, it is loved and used by people, by a community. But even more the Cathedral, I assure, you will be at her most gracious and beautiful only when she is fulfilling the very purpose for which she was built. Only then is she authentic, valued, happy in her own ‘skin’. Every stone has imbibed the prayers of generations and it is those prayers that make the Cathedral sacred. The very purpose and meaning of this edifice is to grace the town with a dignified, confident witness to the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus. In its hallowed walls people of every generation have brought their joys and their sorrows, have laid down their burdens and sought help in their greatest need. Here the bells have beckoned the faithful to prayer, here bread has been broken and wine poured in his remembrance. In truth this Cathedral is never more stunningly beautiful than when she brings praise to God. Without that she is really just a pile of old stones, interesting enough, but not worth even a pamper day never mind cosmetic surgery.
‘Beauty is skin deep’ they say so it is up to you and me to make sure that this treatment plan goes much deeper than the skin: A church and a people being transformed into a living temple built by God himself, not merely for his own glory but as a sacred space whose very stones declare his love.