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That Bloody Virus!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…

This latest post has been a long time in gestation – too long to proffer any viable excuse for its delay. I would have tried to cite writer’s ‘bloc’ but that would be more than brazen cheek on my behalf, and most of you already know that cheek is not in my character!! But then a lot has happened… and not happened so to speak. In the end I decided that it would be remiss if my attempt at a diary of this Cathedral year doesn’t mark the significant intrusion of Covid19, even if under my breath I want to say, ‘that bloody virus’! More honestly, I realise that an unexpected intrusion like this can (maybe ‘should’ and ‘will’) become a major contribution to our journey of transformation, whether we like it or not: What’s that saying – ‘never waste a crisis’?

With the Prime Minister’s announcement on the evening of the 23 March life for all of us changed. No doubt along with 20 July, 31 Aug, 11 Sept, 22 Nov, this date will be etched in memories. (To save you googling that is: Landing on the moon, twin tower destruction, assassination of John F Kennedy, oh! and I slipped in 31 Aug which is my wedding anniversary just to prove a point Elaine!) The life-style change imposed is obvious but true and as I write we are no clearer as to when things will return to ‘normal’, whatever ‘normal’ was or is, or is to come. Like many of you I am sure, I am hoping that it will definitely be a new normal, but that’s up to us. Back to the Cathedral – well virtually at least!

Quite quickly, slightly ahead of the government advice we decided to close the Cathedral to the public. The debate is still raging about whether churches across the country should be closing their doors at such a troubling time. I get that, but understand too why we should set an example (and after all our talk about incarnational living) and I am cautioned that this decision could cost lives. However, to be honest the situation at Newcastle Cathedral was different. As we took on board (rather hesitantly, even slowly) the seriousness of the situation the workers were moving in to start the removal of asbestos in the hall basement. This meant closing the main entrance and corridor to the Hall from the courtyard, causing quite a bit of further constraint. Then the removal and cleaning of equipment in the basement boiler room meant that the heating and electricity had to be turned off. We tried to source some alternative electricity but, in the end, we decided the safest and most expedient option was to close the building to the public, for now. A few days later Boris announced the serious lockdown and the Archbishops’ instructed churches to close. Newcastle ahead of the game yet again – well it was worth trying to put some gloss on a dire situation!

What struck me so forcibly was not only huge sadness in that our determination to keep the building open throughout the works had been thwarted, painful as it was, but rather the commitment and dedication of our staff team who were more than devastated. Some of us are believers but others wouldn’t put themselves into that category. Yet everyone is dedicated to our simple vision (Radical Welcome, Inspiring Worship and Empowering Worth) and our mission to the city and Diocese. The next few days were to prove that over and over again.

So, with the building closed to the public we had to set about re-organising ourselves. Kate called a staff meeting and we dished out jobs and off we went our separate ways. We have met since but on Zoom only. More importantly everybody has been busy – really busy. Canon Clare wonderfully began to set up a very different (and quite fresh) worship programme which continues apace. Interestingly now instead of four or five of us saying Morning Prayer together over 30 join each day on the live stream from one of our houses. Daily reflections and special services for special days have been so well received. Canon Peter has been there throughout and he has especially tried to see what, if anything we could do for the homeless folk who often come to our doors. No easy task but Changing Lives assure us that no-one at the moment is having to sleep rough in Newcastle: Thank God. Canon Jean organised a regular phone round of folk and shared in the worship streaming, as did Mark the Archdeacon, Rob the new Canon and Katherine and Helen our Readers.

Ellie, bless her has kept the office open and has been busy getting mailings out – and people have been so grateful to receive them. Neringa is still paying our bills… and the salaries and hoping for more donations. Lucy has been keeping in touch with our wonderful volunteers and even having a Zoom Coffee Morning with them. Rachael prepares for maternity leave by commissioning some new resources for schools. The Music team, led by Ian, are feeling somewhat bereft of their organs and singing, as are we of hearing them, but they are, as ever, in good heart.

The Project Team are still full steam ahead with design and contractor meetings happening all the time: Alice getting back into her stride, and Lindy keeping all that can be kept on track well and truly in place, in truly Lindy style. Catherine has raised our communications profile with mail-shots, Mailchimps, Facebook posts and a new YouTube channel. Some reaching as many as 1,000 people at a time.

The Cathedral has most definitely not gone into lockdown!

There is another set of folk who have been more than brilliant: Our Vergers Department – all now on furlough, save for James – have been looking after the building. Opening and closing each day for the construction workers, checking security and even lighting a candle to signify our prayerful presence (or absence as the case may be).

Behind all this is Kate, our Director of Operations, who has kept so much going – even Chapter, Fabric Advisory and Finance Committees (and writing the Minutes her favourite task of all time), another star is born and we are indebted to her. See this is the wonderful team that we are blessed with…and not forgetting there is you of course! Boo, bloody Hoo to that bloody virus: that’s what I say!!!

So, for a time the construction work continued. It got on well without interruptions but lack of supplies and revised Government health advice eventually got in the way. The conservators could no longer travel and the, all important, face masks were rightly redirected to the NHS. The physical worked paused save for the asbestos removal from the basement which for now can still continue and does. Behind the scenes we continue to think, design, plan and prepare but for now things in the Cathedral remain eerily silent or so I am told! Sisters and Brothers, we are still being transformed, often in unexpected ways. This poem by John O’Donahue (read recently by Fergal Keane on the Today programme) speaks to me… and maybe you:

“This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.”

― John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings