Page 7, 1st July 1983

1st July 1983
Page 7
Page 7, 1st July 1983 — The first ten years of a modern cathedral

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Locations: Liverpool, Bristol


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The first ten years of a modern cathedral

THE CATHEDRAL of Sts Peter and Paul, in its attractive setting in the Clifton area of Bristol, and on the site of a fine neoclassical mansion which was badly damaged by wartime bombing, was consecrated on June 29, 1973.

The tenth anniversary of that great and auspicious Catholic occasion is now being celebrated; the events have included a visit by Cardinal Hume whose predecessor at Westminster, Cardinal Heenan, was at the opening Mass.

Clifton Cathedral is the successor to the "Pro" Cathedral of the Apostles, a building designed in 1834 as a splendid neo-classical church, but never finished according to its architect's plan, left uncompleted for some years, and then, in 1848, fitted out as place of worship whose admittedly makeshift character meant that it was never consecrated.

The present Cathedral, planned for permanency, is well known as one of England's, and Europe's most significant achievements of modern church architecture. The elongated hexagon plan of its main worshipping space meant that its sanctury, lit by a high-rising (and somewhat sound-trapping) lantern rising high above the main altar, lies not in the middle of the building but to one side of the hexagonal "nave".

The four blocks of chairs, easily movable when concerts require a focal point different from that of the principal Masses, are thus grouped fanwise in front of the High Altar. Only the bishop's throne, the seats for clergy, and the choir space are on the other side of it. The design, finalised about 1967 and easily granted planning permission so that work could start in 1970, is thus later, and in Vatican 11 terms a little more up to date, than that of the Catholic Cathedral at Liverpool.

Since 1973 Clifton Cathedral the ceremonial headquarters of a diocese which includes Avon, Somerset, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire, and the parish church of about 3,000 laity, has become well known and considerably admired, for its dignified liturgical life, for the goodness of its music, and as an excellent visually satisfying setting for many ecumenical events.

It is, for example, well known to the many Methodist ministers who come there to Mass during refresher courses at the Ammerdown Christian Centre near Radstock. A few modifications have recently been made to its furnishings, notably in the re-siting, at the other end of the Lady Chapel and to a site where it is properly visible, of the attractive bronze figure of Our Lady. Other decorations are still needed, notably a pair of worthy modern figures of the patron Apostles.

Since 1973 the Cathedral's resident priests have been cut from four to three, but the pastoral care of the worshippers has been maintained. The building still comes as a contrast to what traditionalists, whether Classical or Gothic in their tastes, expect of a cathedral. But most of its visitors, sightseers or worshippers, are impressed with its striking exterior and with the cool serenity of the varied, yet visually unified sections of an interior which can, at a pinch, seat some 1,200 people.

What I must here stress is the great importance of Clifton Cathedral as a piece of modern architecture in a city famous for ancient and historic buildings but by no means lacking in modern architecture, and conservation jobs, of real merit. As such it is bound to figure prominently, as being of both national and local importance, in the West of England's contribution to the RIBA's Festival of architecture to he held next year.

It has won awards both from the RIBA and the Concrete Society, the relevant plaques being displayed near the entrance to the parish hall (the Apostle Room) which has become a favoured rendezvous for Catholic, non-Catholic, and secular gatherings. Being close to the Bristol Zoo, the Georgian splendours of Clifton, and the spectacular Avon Gorge with Brunel's famous suspension bridge, it has easily become an automatic tourist attraction in a city whose touristic fame is being boosted and is increasing.

It features, usually with illustrations of its unusual fleche, of its interior, and of Henry Haig's striking windows, in all of the many guide-hooks and descriptive volumes on Bristol, and in the official literature on a city growing as a place to visit as well as a business and industrial town well known for tobacco, the production of British Aerospace and RollsRoyce, and for microchip technology.

It is gladly accepted as a venue for concerts and musical recitals, in which non-Catholics, who never entered the "Pro", predominate in the audiences.

Clifton Cathedral's Catholic value appears in many ways, but in no respect more than for the way in which it has done so much to put the Church "on the map", more than the ',Pro" could do, in a city and a region where Catholics though far from negligible, are proportionately much fewer than in the North or parts of the West Midlands. In areas like the south-western counties a prime task of the Church is still the assertion of its presence, particularly if this can be done in a fine modern building (Downside being another of a very different kind) where the present liturgy can he worthily rendered as an expression of an unaltered faith.

The Cathedral is well known, and is a part of their experience, to many Bristolians, nonCatholic as well as Catholic, and its fame is now such that it is specially visited by people from all over this country as well as from abroad. In the holiday months, and as a sidesman I can say this with authority, visitors often make up nearly half the congregation at the 11 a.m. Mass, said in Latin or English on alternate Sundays.

On such an anniversary, and with a record for which much credit goes to Mgr Hughes, the Cathedral's first Administrator and still living in retirement close at hand, one naturally utters the wish ad multos winos.

*Bryan Little, author of more than 30 hooks, including biographies of Gibbs and Wren, is writing a study of the Norman architectural achievement in this country.

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