By Norman St John-Stevas
I THOUGHT that I had lost my capacity for sur prise, but I discovered otherwise last week when I attended the concert given in Westminster Cathedral to raise funds for its preservation.
The concert was divided into two parts, ancient and
modern (or as I would prefer to put it sacred and profane), and owing to an engagement to address a group of Jewish students I missed the sacred and got there only in time for the profane.
I entered the Cathedral by way of the sacristy, passing
under the splendid bust of the Cathedral's founder, Cardinal Vaughan, of noble profile and
disapproving mien. As I turned the corner into the nave an extraordinary sight met my eyes. Facing the Sanctuary, on a suitably throne-like chair, sat
Prince Philip flanked by a horseshoe of bishops with all their glad-rags on. They were gazing with hypnotised fascination (as well they might) at the Sanctuary which had some strange occupants.
A white-clad pop grow
emitting ear-splitting soundsp was ranged in front of the
High Altar, while round the Sanctuary which has witnessed so many great scenes, the enthronement of bishops and cardinals, their moments of triumph and their last farewells, gyrated the black leather-clad figure of Mr Alvin Stardust, flashing his rings in the spotlights.
I too could hardly believe my eyes at so bizarre a sight,
and I must confess that I felt
literally shocked. What on earth would Cardinal Vaughan have made of it, I wondered, or for that matter his brother Bernard?
Like our late sovereign Queen Victoria, they would, I opine, have quite definitely not been amused.
The justification of such goings-on is the desperate need of the Cathedral for funds if it is to carry on its work. An earlier appeal failed to hit its target, but this one seems well set, thanks to the meticulous preparation and planning of the Duke of Norfolk.
He has succeeded in getting the support of two other dukes (and royal ones at that) — the Duke of Edinburgh, who came to the concert and charmed everyone at the reception afterwards, and the Duke of Gloucester, who is patron of the architectural committee and an architect in his own right.
The Duke of Gloucester has specialised knowledge of the architecture of Victorian England so that his choice as patron is particularly felicitous, The Duke of Norfolk has timed the appeal well, at the very moment when it is possible for the first time to see Bentley's masterpiece without craning one's neck until one gets a crick in it.
The open piazza enables one to appreciate the full ma jesty of the design, and its ex
otic quality evokes a response among people who have
grown tired of endless concrete boxes, such as those which litter Victoria Street in particular with hideous profusion.
Cardinal Vaughan gave Bentley a free hand, taking only two major decisions at Bentleys request — one in favour of saucer domes in stead of a vaulted roof, and the other coming down in favour of one campanile rather than two. On aesthetic grounds both decisions were undoubtedly right, and the Cathedral Administrator, Mgr Bartlett, in particular must he relieved that he only has to keep one of the species upright instead of two!
The beauty of the exterior of the Cathedral can now be
seen by all, and I recommend a walk right around it to appreciate fully its magnificent proportions. But the interior is equally imposing. The contrast between the slough brick arches and the finished marble chapels is striking, and the mosaic over the Sanctuary has charm if not genius.
The least said about the rest of the mosaics the better: that in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel I find redolent of a Vatican picture postcard, but fortunately inflation and lack of funds make it likely that no more of this tawdry work will be executed.
Just as important as the architecture is the purpose of the Cathedral. Here again Cardinal Vaughan left his stamp upon the Church. As his biographer writes: "He thought of a Cathedral primarily, perhaps, as a house of prayer, but also in a very real sense as a living organism from which should radiate all sorts of spiritual influence.
"To use a phrase which was often on his lips during the last years of his life, he wanted 'a live cathedral'. He wanted a cathedral which should be the head and heart of the life of the Church in England and the vivifying centre of its spirit and worship."
You cannot have great services without music and you cannot have music without a choir. I am delighted to see that a sizeable proportion of the appeal funds are to go to the Choir School which has maintained such impeccable standards over the years.
I trust, too, that the singing of the Office throughout the day, to which Cardinal Vaughan attached so much importance, will continue. With the arrival of Abbot Hume:-at Westminster it is interesting to reflect that Cardinal Vaughan had wanted the English Benedictines to take on the task of singing the Hours, When this came to nothing the Cardinal approached the Abbot of Solesmes who agreed in principle provided he could borrow some monks to help from Downside: but Downside didn't care for the idea, so the Cardinal entrusted the task to the canons, increased to 18 for the purpose by special permission from Rome.
A Choir School was founded and on Ascension Eve, 1902, the Divine Office was sung for the first time in the Cathedral Hall. The tradition has been maintained ever since.
The Duke of Norfolk, who seems likely to be as great a Catholic leader as his predecessor, the fifteenth Duke, who was the unchallenged leader of the Catholic laity from 1868 until his death in 1917, has surely been right to stress the ecumenical nature of his appeal.
One of the greatest gatherings I have witnessed in the Cathedral was the Service of Intercession for Peace in Ireland, when the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster joined in a common act of witness and worship,
I trust that this great and beautiful Cathedral will go from strength to strength and ! that a brave new era is now opening before it.