SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:
On a windy Saturday in September a (not so quiet) revolution took place at the west end of our Cathedral. We had tried to warn as many people as possible though due to COVID we couldn’t expect crowds. Despite that over 60 people gathered, we kept a register just to be sure. They came in batches of 8 (apparently the ‘rule of six’ didn’t apply, though we only found that out the day before.) Of course, there was a one-way system, disinfectant ‘gloop’ in bucket loads, visors and distance keeping. Then as the half-hour ominously chimed in the Cathedral tower, with a sound of metal locks turning and hinges creaking the great West Doors opened. A weird masked welcome party appeared to an equally strange looking first batch of specimens.
However, what I found most unnerving, almost surreal, was that line of masked faces – people I thought I knew but could I be sure? Folk were almost recognisable but sometimes one felt obliged to approach them with a natural hesitancy and even when recognition was assured you had to look for the smile in the eyes. If filmed it could have been a mock newsreel in a science fiction movie, but it really was St Nicholas Street, September 2020.
Even with the only partially visible faces it was a delight to see the reaction of people as they entered the Cathedral building site:
‘What have you done to our Cathedral?’ (note from me: The same person wrote to me later to offer a donation and to say by the end of his visit he began to see the beauty and elegance emerging.)
‘It looks so big, so vast and the colonnades just rise out of the floor!’
‘I like the new lighting, so bright’ (note from me: there isn’t any new lighting installed as yet!!!)
‘It’s so exciting, its opening it all up and it is vibrant, beautiful’
‘I hope you can fit all those stones back in somewhere, there are so many and they are so big!’ (note from me: we can and we will, but you will not see them all)
It proved to be an exhilarating, if tiring day for us and hopefully the ‘visitors’. One of them explained to me that it took a huge amount of effort to get there and she returned home ‘too tired to boil a kettle’ but she continued, ‘I was so energised by what I saw, and who I met. Thank you to you and the team!’
Then I realised what I have been missing these last few weeks, what had caused the mojo to fly away, in one of those ‘light bulb’ moments, what our Cathedral was missing – in short YOU!
I know we often trip out that old cliché, ‘The church is the people not the building.’ of course, it’s true – though perhaps more of a truism! What Saturday taught me (and with some power) was that it is people – you, me, and others – that give a heart to the place. It is the generations of people who have passed through, lingered for a while, shared their deepest moments and desires, their celebrations and commiserations, or lit a candle, sang a hymn, quietly prayed, these are the things that make these wonderful ancient stones deeply beautiful, alive, real and authentic sacred space and common ground… it is the people who make this the beating heart of the city.
The present refurbishment of the nave is the single largest refurbishment in the Cathedral since 1777 – that was the date of the completion of the great refurbishment that began in 1773. It was an attempt to create a so called ‘Protestant Cathedral’ for the city. As well as cleaning the old stones it mainly involved clearing out and rearranging many of the sepulchral slabs. Many of the ledger stones were sadly sold off (you could probably find a lot of them under the floor of the shops in Mosely Street). Most were lifted and re-positioned, so the one thing we are sure off is while there might be plenty of bones underneath the nave floor they don’t relate to the names on the ledger stones now placed over them.
As part of our original planning we hoped to have an archaeological dig with a chance to look under the floor in a bit more detail. Durham University has a specialist bio-archaeology department who were keen to come and do some research. If all went to plan they would, from a tiny DNA sample, have been able to tell us so much about the daily lives of some of the earliest inhabitants of the town. Sadly, but no doubt rightly we weren’t allowed to go ahead because when a person is buried in consecrated ground the Church believes that everything should be done to try not to disturb the bodies – we say, ‘Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory’ and we mean it! So, instead in our refurbishment plan we aimed to clean, restore and display some of the ledger stones but not disturb any human remains. Following much research by our archaeologist and some keen volunteers we want to use some of the ancient floor plans to put some of them back as near to their original placing as possible. But we have adapted out plans to not to disturb any of the human remains buried deeper in the floor. On the whole we have been successful. In the churchyard we have come across some skeletons which have been carefully recovered. Last week, in the Cathedral itself, just near where the eagle lectern stood the contractors found an old bricked grave and just near they saw the corner of a lead coffin. Under the watchful eye of the archaeologist these were carefully photographed and recovered. What is clear though is that week by week we have been standing on the tombs of many hundreds of our forebears. Of course, we have known that all along and the 150 ledger stones we have left give testimony to at least some of them. Once we re-open you will not only be able to see a selection of these stones restored and placed as near to their original position as possible but you will also be introduced to some of the people whose graves they once marked and some of their contemporaries.
A simple audio programme as well as a touch screen will allow the visitor to ‘meet’ some of the folk who have made our Cathedral what it is and our city too.
However most important for me is that we will add to this Welcomers – real local people who will make sure every visitor doesn’t just meet just stones and ancient bones real warm blooded, breathing people who are passionate about this place, its history and its future as a sacred space. These stones live, their beauty only sparkles when they are full of people. Without them – you and us and others, lots of others – they may as well be piles of rubble.
In an article for the Anglican Theological Review Gary Hall the former Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington posed the question ‘What are Cathedral’s for?’. He begins and ends his article with a reference to a short story by Raymond Carver called ‘Cathedral’ (1983). In it the main character tries to describe to a blind man a Cathedral. Words are not enough,
“They’re really big,” I said. “They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God.”
So, joining hands they draw a Cathedral together – buttresses, tower, cross shaped roof and all the rest. At the end of his article Hall concludes:
Near the end of Carver’s story, as they have finished drawing the cathedral together, the blind man says to the narrator, “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?” When the narrator finally pauses to consider what they have achieved, all he can say is, “It’s really something.” Putting some people in there and imagining a cathedral is really something. It’s what God is up to. It is what cathedrals are for.”
I agree, I agree, I agree.