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We need grace by the bucket-load!

2 January 2021

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

I blame the Bishop! Of course, Bishops, not unlike Deans in this respect, are always good for blaming. In this case, it was her Christmas sermon that did it. She indulged herself – her words not mine – by quoting the poem used by Edward VI in his broadcast on the outbreak of War in 1939: ‘And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year…’.

Please don’t tell anyone, especially not the Bishop or the Queen for that matter (I muse, as I stroke my fragile neck), but I can’t honestly say that I like the poem. It is without doubt of its time but, for me, verges on the schmaltzy. Apologies!! However, what I did get was how using it this new year summoned the seriousness of the situation we find ourselves in. Like the Bishop, I recognise that wartime Britain (and the world) undoubtedly faced a huge task that demanded not just resilience but also hopeful determination. We could hardly place ourselves in the same position, and she said as much. But where I agree (and agree 100%) is that without doubt, the use of that poem (thank you Bishop!) brought home to me the poignancy (and the challenge) of our COVID-19 situation. If 2020 confronted us not only with global devastating plague, attacks on democracy, truth and freedom as well as a (thankfully) ‘wakening’ consciousness on some of the darkest and dangerous scars in our common heritage and deepest community psyche, it also has given us stories of resilience, hope and random (but very welcome) compassion. We are not the first generation to face a need to defend and rebuild good community; not even WWII could claim that accolade, yet being recalled to the seriousness of the task before us is no bad thing. This is after all our time and our place and therefore like it or not, our responsibility. 

And where does a Cathedral’s like ours fit in? Is there a profound purpose to fulfil, or are we just a heritage visitor centre with ever diminishing prospects of any visitors? It’s a salutary point, and too much musing like this could lend itself to a morose start to a new year. However, it could nudge us into the opposite and re-energise us to roll up our sleeves. To claim to be at the heart of the city like we do somewhat assumes that St Nicholas is not a novice in crisis situations like our present one, even if today’s ‘custodians’ can’t make such claims. Plagues, wars, closures due to papal wrangling, fires… St Nick’s has seen it all. It has also been at the centre of celebrations and good times too. In living memory one of our Cathedral congregants remembers joining the girls from the Co-op in the throng on VE Day dancing in the Cathedral Square! No doubt too, the bells have rung out for coronations and special occasions, and the Lantern Tower has overseen New Year celebrations by the dozens.  

Photo by Alan Edington

For me, this is what ‘heritage’ is all about. It’s not simply a concern to preserve (or conserve) the past, whether that is in stones or memories. It’s not about opening our history to more and more people. It’s not even about encouraging participation in our common legacy. Real heritage is about our ‘corporate soul’ – for me, deep in the community genes that we inherit, own and pass on, is a deep understanding of who we are and what we can become. This is authentic ‘heritage’ and it lives in, and with us, and deserves savouring and celebrating.

The Cathedral stands firm and resilient at the very centre of the cityscape. It witnesses, absorbs, preserves, and configures the fears and horrors, the pain and the tears but also the dreams, hopes and aspirations of its place and it has done so for over 900 years. A symbolic place that calls us back to who we are and drives us to consider who we want to be but it also takes us out of our little selves to see beyond and to place our lives in the presence of something bigger.

It is for this understanding of heritage that we must try and use the refurbished Cathedral and the community that has found a home here to facilitate, to encourage, foster – whatever word suits you best as long as it is an active one. That is why as we have shared in the development of the interpretation of the refurbished Cathedral we have been guided by two principles: firstly, to concentrate on the stories of the people who have crossed the threshold or lived within its environs and secondly to give witness to the enduring quality that the building holds. To give people access to a treasure trove of heritage that might entertain, educate, amuse but also help energise and nourish the future. I like the idea that we will tell some stories of the not-so-good folk as well as the heroes. That there will be mysteries to solve and that even the unmarked or recognised will get a word in edgeways at least now and again.

As we light up the conserved ledger stones, we will be able to listen to legends about dog poo and eye balm, gunpowder blasts, strong and successful businesswomen and cheeky fighting apprentices. All in a town’s history. A mysterious, ethereal animation in the south aisle’s three arches will ‘flash’ the history of the town and river, of marauding invaders (usually Scottish), of fires and the bombs of war and with cranes and ships and smoke. And the Cathedral always right in the middle with a hint of light. With photos of Cathedral life today and pithy captions, the interpretation panels have tried to give hints of contemporary engagement and our people. We have tried to build in moments to pause, to look and reflect in awe and wonder but also with the poignancy puncturing our reality. Most of all, our ‘visitor experience’ builds on the possibility of meeting another, being welcomed by a local, and with it, the chance for at least a brief conversation.

Photo by Ron Smithard of detail of the Ascension window by Leonard Evetts

In spite of the hurdles of a challenging year, we have already come far. I wrote my first blog in this series one year ago today. The change has been immense, and one can hardly recognise the place. Well at first that is until you let the detail emerge: the elegant pillars and arches, stones and memorials and then they look back at you under the gaze of the windows. Yet we still have a long way to go. Still scheduled for an early summer completion, the building works are a little delayed but moving on. The new year’s task is, however, as much about us. We will need loads of recruits if we are to offer that warm welcome we have promised. We will need to fill the place with prayer if it is to maintain its authenticity. We will need to be able to practice a servant hospitality and put our faith into concrete action if we are to be of any use at all. In short, we are going to need people but also grace by the bucket-load.

The Bishop’s use of that poem certainly highlighted for me the importance of the task facing our communities as, together, we hope to escape this pandemic’s tight grip and pick up the pieces all around us. The Cathedral’s task ahead is a but a microcosm of all we face, but for some of it, is where we can at least play an active part. And in the poem, the advice is to ‘put your hand into the hand of God and go forward’. Schmaltzy or not it’s the only advice this Dean has to offer.