Page 8, 25th July 2008

25th July 2008
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Page 8, 25th July 2008 — Our Mother Church comes with a price tag

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Locations: Canterbury


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Our Mother Church comes with a price tag

Mark Langham recalls his struggle to preserve the integrity of Westminster Cathedral during his seven years as Administrator It is intriguing that television news reports about the Catholic Church, favourable or otherwise, invariably conclude in front of Westminster Cathedral. What this indicates, of course, is the status of the Cathedral as a symbol of Catholicism in our society; the icon, the visual image, of the

Catholic Church in England and Wales.

This was. in fact, the original purpose of Westminster Cathedral, and Cardinal Vaughan's desire for a visible and confident Catholic presence at the heart of our major city and our nation is still valid and important. But in many other respects the role and function of Westminster Cathedral (among cathedrals in particular) has developed, and one of the most fascinating duties of any administrator in recent years is to ask: What precisely is that role in our own era? It can be acknowledged that our great cathedrals, by and large, are the fruit of medieval piety, and so the use we put them to in the modern age will reflect our own vision of the Church's role in contemporary society. After seven years as Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, following another six years in other roles at the cathedral, I am grateful for an opportunity to reflect upon some recent challenges that, in my opinion, faced this great institution during that time.

Most pressing for me has been the challenge to the cathedral's own view of itself, and our difficulties in asserting its traditional priorities. Philip Larkin in his poem "Church Going" wondered who would be the last person to enter a church as a believer. While that sombre question is still far from pertinent at Westminster, increasingly those who come to the cathedral are ignorant of its true function. Well-disposed they may he, appreciative indeed, but lacking any comprehension of the basic story that animates its soul. They can (correctly) recognise the Cathedral as a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, as a unique Italo-Byzantine intrusion into the cultural heritage of our capital; they will refer to it as the home of the cardinal, or appreciate it as a vast and useful space for major services and concerts; yet such comments show a lack of real understanding of what the Cathedral does and is.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has bemoaned "lost icons", and this cultural and religious desolation is the new landscape in which the Cathedral stands. For me the Cathedral, more than bricks and mosaic, is defined by the way it sustains and promotes the Gospel; it is itself sacramental in the way that it brings about what it proclaims — the sacramental life of the Church. For increasing numbers of visitors, however, that religious subtlety is hard to grasp.

Kind people comment appreciatively upon the Cathedral's beauty, its music, its grandeur: rarely do they understand what is going on. that perhaps the most important thing about the building is not its marble but its confessional queue, not its majestic scale but the life of prayer it sustains. This brings pressure, sometimes subtle. sometimes overt, to operate the Cathedral as a cultural, rather than a spiritual, entity. During my years as administrator I faced the dangerous temptation to play down the core significance of the Cathedral in order to increase its appeal. A growing flood of requests crossed my desk for memorial services to "celebrate the life" of a loved one rather than pray for his or her soul. Letters to me have commended exhibitions, secular concerts, dramas, community events; after all, as one correspondent sought to convince me, all art is in some way is "divine". The nadir was, undoubtedly, a request from a well-known department store to use a confessional for a cosmetics advertisements.

For sure. such correspondence reflects a wider cultural dislocation that confronts the whole Catholic Church but, being the symbol of the Church in our society, in some ways I have felt that the battle for the soul of the Church was particularly acutely fought out (and will continue to be) at Westminster.

Of course, there is a positive aspect to this, and such challenges are often just what we need. if a visitor knows nothing of Catholic or even basic Christian belief, then the Cathedral must serve as a textbook, and more; it must preach the Gospel. Westminster Cathedral has the important potential of evangelising; whether groups of students visiting us in between a mosque and a synagogue as part of their Religious Studies, guests at a wedding or funeral who haven't stepped inside a church for years, or passers-by who have noticed the door open and wondered what this building is. As we can no longer take it for granted that people understand what they are looking at, so we cannot anticipate that their response to familiar imagery will be the same as ours. The Cathedral is a shop front for the Catholic Church, but a shop front that must invite, inform, involve, convince. Anglican cathe

drals have done important work here, and I have learned from their insights that the doorway of a Cathedral is a threshold in more ways than one. We surely have a great deal more work to do exploring the evangelising potential of our cathedrals, the ways that we can turn tourists into pilgrims. We must share insight and experience with other cathedrals in this country, both Catholic and Anglican, and abroad to make them truly "flagships of the spirit", so that visitors experience them not as museums but as part of their own journey of faith.

Perhaps we even need to look to those other cathedrals of popular culture, albeit with wary eyes shopping and entertainment centres. Directly across Victoria Street from Westminster Cathedral has arisen a vast glittering temple to the gods of commerce; "Cardinal Place" is daily thronged with people. We have to be at least as convincing, and that means, where appropriate, learning basic lessons in marketing who we are. Beyond formal evangelising, there is room for creativity and care in the way we present the Cathedral, the welcome and experience that is afforded the tourist and the visitor — that includes not just signs and explanations; but toilets and cafeterias. It is not easy in a listed building with no spare room (the word "toilets" will be engraved upon the gravestone of any administrator)! However, there are basic amenities which any modem visitor expects to find, and some key ways of presenting our message and guiding people through the space, all of which say a great deal about how we see those who come across our threshold. It is within this context that we recently decided to enlarge the Cathe dral entrance to provide access for all; the first sign of what we are must be the way that we welcome everybody — irrespective of mobility or stamina through the front door.

It is not only tourists who command attention. A cathedral chaplain soon begins to recognise familiar faces in the congregation: regular worshippers who, whether living geographically near the Cathedral or faithfully attending weekly or daily Mass, form Westminster Cathedral's own parish. The many special events and great ceremonies hosted at the Cathedral are imposed upon a matrix of regular parish life, which means that there is always a danger of the Great crowding out the Small, the Extraordinary the Ordinary. This dilemma reflects the complex relationship between the different roles of the Cathedral, overlapping spheres of activity. sometimes complementing but occasionally contradicting each other. Amid such multi-faceted complexity, we have sought especially to discover and build up the Cathedral parish, for our parishioners need and deserve pastoral and sacramental care. Westminster Cathedral is a parish — perhaps not as others are — but part of our claim to be a Mother Church is that we build up and sustain those who look to us.

The financial difficulties of the Cathedral, frequently discussed in these very pages, may be well known in a general sense, but I do not believe that their practical consequences are at all understood. My first financial challenge was to communicate the message that there actually is a problem, and to overcome the assumption that we should merely seek to balance our books. While that was an important target to achieve, to remain content with paying our way is, in my view, shortsighted and dangerous. Westminster Cathedral needs a substantial endowment that will safeguard the structure and culture of the Cathedral. As I write this article. scaffolding is being erected throughout the nave to address important structural issues, and in a building of this age and complexity it is inevitable that such crises will occur, often with minimal notice. That is an obvious financial concern: another equally pressing but less tangible concern must be the preservation of the religious and cultural life of the Cathedral and in particular its music. Few people appreciate how expensive it is to celebrate liturgy in the way we do, but our glorious musical tradition comes at a hefty price — roughly £1,000 each time the choir sings (which is, of course, every day). The diocese has given us full and generous support, but it may be that in future different priorities, or financial crises, arise, which will make our music particularly vulnerable. Accordingly, the cathedral's cultural life needs the security of a sensible endowment — and I would call a sensible endowment £40 million (the current appeal is for £4 million).

Increasingly, the administrator's role has been taken over by financial concerns and the wearying task of paying for the Cathedral. It has often been said — and rightly — that Westminster Cathedral will never charge entry fees; nevertheless I have some sympathy for those Anglican cathedrals which have taken this path which, to my mind, demonstrates not a lack of conviction about the spiritual role of cathedrals, but rather the agonies of finding adequate funding. Were our own building 1,000, instead of 100, years old, might we too be forced to think the unthinkable? I find it interesting that many of the Catholic churches and cathe,irals of Europe charge entry fees; this we mostly accept as the price to be paid for safeguarding artistic treasures. But few people feel the same sense of urgency towards Westminster Cathedral, and the expectation is that its availability carries no price tag. Is it too much to ask that the Church

throughout England and Wales acknowledge the national role that Westminster Cathedral plays, and contribute to its upkeep? For much of the time, it feels as though we are running the Mother Church of this country on little more than a parish income.

One field in which we could certainly spend money unceasingly is that of mosaics. Throughout the history of Westminster Cathedral there have been periods when interest in the decoration has either waxed or waned, depending upon taste, priorities or fmancial constraints. Personally. I have taken a great interest in mosaics. feeing that the execution of them, as well as the finished product, offers considerable potential for evangelising and raising the profile of the Cathedral. But here it is not so much raising money which is a problem (in fact, most money for mosaics is bequeathed specifically for that purpose). A more difficult issue is what the new mosaics should look like, and here the Administrator has a great and onerous task: he must be the custodian of the artistic heritage of Westminster Cathedral. It would be relatively easy to fill the vaults and chapels of the Cathedral with unremarkable, traditionally devotional imagery; familiar 19th century scenes or pastiche icons suggest themselves to many. However, the results can be disappointing ( I would cite, with respect, St Louis Cathedral in America); as with its music, the Church must do better. The Mother Church should be creative, inspiring, a patron of the very best art. That means that we must challenge artists — and be challenged by them, even from unexpected quarters. When David Hockney was commissioned (amid much spluttering and doomsaying) to design opera sets for staid Glyndebourne , he produced work that won general and astonished acclaim. I feel that the cathedral has to take risks here — as the Church has frequently done with its artistic commissions if we are to fill our Cathedral with art that will be applauded for centuries to come, that challenges and inspires future generations, and that is worthy of its setting.

I have offered these random and partial thoughts on topics that have particularly demanded my attention, mainly as a selfish catharsis — a personal summing-up of seven extraordinary years — rather than a programme for the future. The new Administrator will rightly have his own concerns and priorities, and in Canon Christopher Tuckwell the Cathedral will benefit from the wise and imaginative guidance it deserves. But drawing up these reflections, I have been reminded that Westminster Cathedral is greater than any one administrator. However great or small our personal contribution, this Cathedral will continue to be a much-loved and exemplary house of God, and a witness to the diversity, strength, beauty and holiness of the Catholic faith in our land.

Mgr Langham now works for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

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