Arriving in Durham late one March afternoon, I realised that if I was quick I could just make Evensong at the cathedral. It was well worth the brisk dash along the river. Responses by Tallis, psalms by Barber and Pergolesi’s piercing Stabat Mater Dolorosa as the closing anthem, sung by a visiting choir from a Yorkshire girls’ school with such skill and passion as to make even an old pessimist like me think that the country might not be doomed after all.
The setting helped, of course. In my not very informed opinion, Durham is the finest cathedral in the country, though I will concede that it is run close by the Gothic and Norman masterpieces of the Fens – Lincoln, Ely and Peterborough – and I am highly susceptible to the charms of Westminster, with its striking brick exterior and those high mysterious domes still awaiting decoration after more than a century.
If I had only myself to please, I would spend a great deal of time poking around old churches, and cathedrals in particular. It was with some sadness, therefore, that I read the news that many of England’s cathedrals are facing financial troubles – with closures on the cards.
Some Christians will be untroubled by this news. What does it matter, they will say, if a single building closes? God, after all, “does not make his home in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24). Cathedrals, in this account, are relics of bygone eras where the Church had grown fat and complacent, intertwined with worldly power, or where the faith was little more than a veneer over bourgeois respectability. They are chilly and intimidating and cost a fortune to maintain. Had we not better spend that money on Bibles and food for the poor? If you cannot worship in a hired school hall on an out-of-tune piano, then it is not Jesus Christ you are worshipping.
There are serious points to engage with here – but also, I fancy, echoing down the centuries, the voice of the Puritan Roundhead, pointedly stabling his horses on the high altar and smashing the idolatrous stained glass. Underlying the argument, one can sometimes detect a sort of accusation: that we who value beauty in the Christian life are not so much Christians as aesthetes, even idolaters, rhapsodising about magnificent buildings and superb music rather than grace and the sacraments, our copies of TS Eliot and Pevsner more heavily thumbed than our missals. After all, atheists can enjoy Bach and an elegant Romanesque arch.
Is there a real danger here to be avoided? Undoubtedly. Speaking for myself, I know the lure of seeing high Christian culture merely as a facet of my idealised vision of a vanishing England. However, that is not the whole story. Cathedrals do matter for the sustenance and deepening of faith.
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