SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Small but irritatingly beautiful
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
If you didn’t already know I’m an expert in ‘smallness’. Believe it or not I am the tallest in my family so with the exception of life at home I have had to learn all my life how to be small. You can find me sat cross legged at the front of every class photo – it almost happened at theological college but I got stroppy (can you believe that?) and I stood at the back… on a chair! My dad, a semi-professional boxer, taught me as a child that when you are small you have to be smart: ‘Go for the knee caps’ he would wisely advise. Life in the land of the Nephalim (see Numbers 13) demands cute strategies and I think I learnt enough of them, though sometimes the hard way. Also, I could run fast!
I sometimes describe St Nicholas as a ‘small cathedral’; well it feels it to me! Especially in the shadow of the magnificent Durham pile down the road. Our architect informs me, however, that I am misguided, and she has chided me thus more than once, I believe her. I suppose smallness depends on what measurements you use and with what you make your comparison. My suspect conclusion is probably a projection of the chip on my shoulder and my lack of knowledge of English cathedrals. And anyway, does size really matter? But friends beware, I have my Dad’s advice stored away for the right moment and, small or not some of us may be, but that doesn’t stop us being big inside – if in doubt try taking my Westie’s biscuit!
The work in the Cathedral has started to motor this week and amazingly the Cathedral is already looking bigger and bigger inside (or am I getting smaller with old age? – answer at your peril.). As the pews and their platform are dismantled vistas open before us and it is as if the Cathedral is stretching itself after lying around idle for too long. This resonates with the unsolicited responses of many surprised visitors who say that from the outside they never expected it to be so big inside. Hemmed in by elegant office blocks like Milburn House one can only really get a glimpse of its size from an aerial photograph – followed, naturally, by a good walk round.
Of course, any question of feeling small is silly when we turn our attention to the Lantern Tower. It stands proudly magnificent on the cityscape, the backdrop to the Newsreader each evening on ITV, and the first image I saw on the bedside curtain when I came around from the anaesthetic at the Freeman Hospital… It is itself a ‘Geordie’ icon, declaring the very heart of the sacred ‘toon’!
In 1350, when the post-fire reconstruction was completed St Nicholas’ had no steeple. It was most likely that Robert Rhodes, (a most generous benefactor to the churches of the town and whose heraldic crest always reminds me of a whippet and two stotties) who determined that the building should not be dwarfed. He probably paid for the addition of the
‘world famed steeple, which was an architectural triumph, a creation of artistic beauty, a veritable dream in stone, a work of singular grace and elegance and elegance, and an enduring monument to his name’
(See John MacQuillen in 1903). The steeple is 193 feet and six inches high – don’t forget the six small but significant inches. Many have lauded its beauty and down the age’s locals have been rightly proud of its magnificence. One ditty by the Newcastle poet Bobby Nunn says
Of a’ the churches in wor land,
Let them be e’er se braw
St Nicholas’ of Newcastle town
Yet fairly bangs them a’
Yet, amusingly it is on record that a royal mail coach driver, for a wager, threw a stone over the pinnacle and did it easily!
So much of the townscape has changed over the years but the Lantern Tower has persisted – even if sometimes only just. The tower was probably far too heavy for the edifice as a whole and probably is the cause of some of the movement inside the building’s arches and structure. Though in 1813 concerns were also raised about the digging of a drain to the west of the tower. Have you ever wondered why the Font cover doesn’t quite sit right over the Font!! Do not fear little ones Green and Dobson (architects) came to the rescue as did Sir Gilbert Scott in 1865 and even today we monitor carefully any movement. I can assure you that the writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1813 will be forever denied his superb but alarmist notion of a tremendous crash as it falls – at least I sincerely hope so. No friends, the Lantern Tower or the Cathedral’s Crown will grace our city for years to come.
Inside the Cathedral is also probably bigger than you may first think – the nave is some 542 square metres with a capacity for 850 seats. Not much different to the seating capacity recorded by MacKenzie in 1827. After the refurbishments we will be able to host a banquet for 450 – what a sight that will be. I guess the Vergers are already not relishing the 800 or so chairs which will regularly have to be put out and collected, but they are already getting into training – keep those muscles flexed Paul, we need them! Just this week final choices of stone for the floor were being made: The quarry we will use is just outside Darlington and though the exact names evade me we are looking at, I think, Castle Buff and Dunam Blue but don’t quote me on that. More importantly they (like the Dean?!) are very pleasing to the eye. Our new (huge) floor will look stunning (though I dread the first spill of red wine or tea and coffee). The newly laid floor and underfloor heating will be both warm and bring a new light into every corner to show off the (huge again!) size of our domain.
So, though thoroughly chided by the Architect for my small sightedness I still return to my smallness with relief but also to the Cathedral’s aggrandisement with humble joy. At least something is big in my life! In truth I’m still more at home with Zaccheus, the Mustard Seed and the Widow’s mite. I concede however size might matter if we can prove ourselves worthy of a bigger platform. If our magnitude will be more like Zac’s tree and help us see Jesus; If like the mustard bush that emerges from the seed we can become a worthy home and safe nesting spot for the precious life that would dwell within us; If we can deny the temptation to get ‘too big for our boots’ and think ourselves too important to acknowledge, and accept, the humble ‘mites’ that drop our way; If we can learn to flex our new-found meat and muscles to (sometimes even recklessly) stand up for justice and compassion. If we can have humongously (another made up word I fear!) wide doors and hearts to match our new stretched self; if we can rise to these challenges then I can live with being bigger. Even though, for me, it will still be in the small acts of goodness that we will turn our whispers into a mighty roar; In our courageous, risky and sometimes scandalous tiny acts of love that we will begin to complement the grandeur of our beacon tower; In our growing capacity to declare God’s love for his people, indeed his whole creation, that our floors will be marked with beauty – and feel the tread of the beautiful feet of those who bring good news.
I for one remain convinced of the wonder and undeniable effectiveness of ‘small’! And if you ever question it then I think you have never shared your bed with a mosquito!