SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
The Dean’s Rededication Sermon
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, gave this sermon at our Service of Thanksgiving & Rededication on Sunday 25 July.
There is a short story written in 1983 by the American novelist Raymond Carver called ‘Cathedral’. In it, the main character tries to describe to a blind man a cathedral. Words don’t prove good enough.
“They’re really big,” he explains. “Massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, and lots of polished wood. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God.”
“Draw it,” the blind man asked, “draw it on my hands.”
So, with his finger, he draws a cathedral on the palm of the blind man’s hands–
The blind man then says to the narrator, “I think I can see it now but there is something missing.”
The now-vintage Carver story is often used to illustrate the importance and potential of touch in communication in training therapists, but for us, it has a different message. I have been wondering much over the last two years about cathedrals and especially our Cathedral.
What is a cathedral without worship and prayer? What is a Cathedral without a resounding organ and a choir singing? How can you be a Cathedral when the floor is dug up and the place a building site? What is a Cathedral with closed doors?
Carver’s story struck right to the heart of the matter. For me, the notion of Cathedral only makes sense when understood in their context and setting. I rather cheekily said as much when I applied for the position of Dean – do you remember, Bishop, how my personal statement began?
“I have never ever wanted, or felt the call, to become a Dean – but I would relish the possibility of becoming Dean of Newcastle.”
Of course, cathedrals, each in their own way, are magnificent edifices and as you can see, Newcastle is no exception. Our project has been predicated on conserving and preserving all that is beautiful right under our noses. True, Newcastle Cathedral has no cloister or medieval foundation; it is not set in pristine lawns nor does it have its ancient Dean’s Close on hand; it’s hard to notice its commanding position upon a hill overlooking the busy river; it has no saint’s relics or treasures to call people to heritage; and, forgive me, but Durham’s magnificence sometimes casts its shadow even this far.
But it has endured at the very heart of this great town and city. It has watched over its development, its rises and its falls and for over six centuries its landmark tower has guided, welcomed and chimed the hours, days, the celebrations and commiserations of everyday life in the great North East. It is this enduring presence that has made it a sacred, a holy place for the people it serves.
Holy places, or thin places do not begin with the building of great edifices but with events and human experience; encounters with the living graceful God. The writer of Genesis reminds us as much when he records the famous story of the fugitive Jacob sleeping and dreaming. His vision of the ladder of angels coming between heaven and earth was such an awesome experience of the presence of heaven on earth that despite his predicament it gave him courage to continue.
For many in the past and please God for many to come, this has become a sacred spot. I remember a vivid encounter with a young man here who I came across, sat in tears, in the Nave. “My dad committed suicide last week,” he told me. “This was his special place. He could only find peace here and I wanted to come and see if I too could find a bit of that peace.” Thousands of such encounters over, generations of people have been absorbed into the very stones. You see, magnificent craftsmanship just embellishes, adorns, this legacy of holiness. But we must never forget it is these experiences that create its sacredness.
That neatly leads me to what I think is an even deeper wisdom of the blind man in Carver’s story. Remember, he was perplexed when we left him; remember what he said: “There is something missing, he declares”. True. there is something vital still missing with the hand drawing. Then he has a moment of inspiration:
“Put some people in there now,” he shouts. “What’s a cathedral without people?” When the narrator finally pauses to consider what they have achieved, all he can say is, “Now that’s really something.”
It is when the blind man instructs the narrator to ‘put people into the cathedral’ that the penny drops, the light switches on. Cathedrals come alive when you (and even I), when people enter. Only then do their stones sparkle and their rafters sing praise. Only then do they buzz and hum with sounds of life and only then can their walls absorb and echo our smiles and our tears, our anxieties, our gains and our losses, our past and our present, our hopes and dreams. ‘Putting some people in there’ and then imagining a cathedral is really something. People are what God is up to. People are what cathedrals are for. Peter knew this when he wrote those inspiring words in his letter –
“Come and be built as living stones into a spiritual temple.’
This is why we have longed for today; this is what our fantastic masons and craftsmen, designers and consultants, our incredible staff team led by Lindy and Kate and my talented clergy colleagues have longed to do. To tell the story, sing praises and above all open wide the great doors to invite people in and become themselves a part of our story.
Today we are both grateful, proud hosts and at the same time guests, for in what we offer and what we receive, we participate in the radical hospitality of God himself. A holy place hosts a holy people. Today this place affirms itself as a true shrine – if by ‘shrine’ you take the true meaning of the word – a container, a chest, for precious things – memories, encounters, people of every shape and size, the good bad, happy and sad touching the holy and being themselves touched by divine presence.
In these stones
Prayers whisper and
Choirs sing and
In these stones
Shelter is in shadows and
stories get retold
Laughter resounds and
In these stones
The past is etched and
The present rings
The future dances and
THIS IS SACRED SPACECOMMON GROUND
* The phrase ‘horizons sing’ is taken from a poem written for the Welsh Millennium Centre by Welsh National Poet, Gwyneth Jones.
The full service is available to watch back via our YouTube channel.
Newcastle Cathedral’s Common Ground in Sacred Space project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is due for completion in summer 2021 – with a public reopening date in mid-August 2021.