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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

'Dear Deans': a response from the north

A grenade has been lobbed into the playground of the Deans. Richard Moy of Christ Church W4 has written a blog entitled Dear Deans.* He has visited a handful of cathedrals for midweek services, a 'nearly deserted' Durham among them. And he is left with a question: Do we have any interest in the conversion of England – or even the survival of faith within the CofE?

His complaint comes down to this. In the CofE cathedrals he visited, there was no homily at any of the services, and no attempt to present the Christian faith or interpret the scriptures. He writes: St Paul’s had all the atmosphere of being a hen in a petting zoo as tourists at the north, south, west and east ends of the sanctuary surrounding the hapless worship pets (literally) like children on a field trip; and the lectionary readings at Durham/Canterbury were so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer / chance visitor/faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming).

He goes on: The Church of England should not indefinitely spend the millions it does each year (£9.1million in 2013 on stipends / staffing) propping up Cathedral ministry partly on the basis of it’s (sic) alleged attendance statistics if no serious attempt is made to communicate the Christian faith when people attend public worship. The apostle said ‘woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.’ Woe indeed. If the Deans really can’t find a preacher for a five minute gospel homily I’ll happily send one of our highly talented interns...

We deans mustn't get defensive. It's important to expose ourselves to criticism, look at what we do and how we do it, and learn from colleagues in Christian ministry. Here in Durham we often ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to help 700,000 visitors not only enjoy and be inspired by what they experience in this cathedral, but also to understand what it stands for. Believe me, we are well aware of the evangelistic privileges and challenges that we have here.

A couple of deans have offered measured comments on Richard's blogsite, and Pete Willcox the Dean of Liverpool has written an excellent, comprehensive response in a blog of his own.** In it, he invites Richard to experience for himself the extraordinary diversity of activity in that great cathedral including worship, prayer and pilgrimage, outreach, social care, the arts, Christian common life and a whole lot else.

I want to ask a few questions of my own. (And they are questions that I hope will help the conversation along.)

1. Is Richard's concept of how God speaks to human beings unduly selective and narrow? Doesn't God make himself known in an infinite variety of ways, not simply through the spoken word. Cathedrals are numinous sacred spaces that speak of the divine not only through their buildings but also in the life and activity of their communities: daily prayer and worship, music and the arts, a common life of love and service, all of which play a part in building up the people of God and communicating faith. I am not undervaluing the role of preaching - far from it. But the gospel is lived out and testified to in a thousand different ways in churches and cathedrals everywhere. Look in our visitors' books to see how people are given glimpses of God and hear the Living Word speaking to them in unexpected ways that we can't and mustn't control. An incarnate God has freedoms that always transcend the limits our fallen nature wants to put on him. He speaks in many ways.

2. Does Richard underestimate the key role liturgy plays in speaking of faith? Wesley called the eucharist 'a converting ordinance'. Paul says that the breaking of bread is to 'show forth the Lord's death until he comes' - show forth being a strong, outward-facing missionary word. The Apostle wants the church's worship to be so compelling that people venturing in from outside have no choice but to conclude that 'God is among you'. The huge investment of care that goes into cathedral worship is at the heart of our witness to the gospel. People have been converted through coming to midweek choral evensong. (You don't believe me?)

3. Would Richard address the same criticism about the spiritual disciplines of religious houses - monasteries and convents? Yet these powerhouses of prayer play a vital part in the spirituality and mission of the church. Cathedrals and religious communities believe with conviction that corporate daily prayer should be at the heart of what we do. How many local churches are still open day by day to welcome those who wish to join our communities for public prayer? Who can say what the benefits of this may be, not just for its participants but for the world, our society, the church and for people in pain and need all of whom we hold before God in public cathedral worship at least three times every day?

4. Does Richard need to think a little more deeply about the part heritage can play in evangelism? Here in Durham, we are clear that Christian heritage is not an end in itself. It is one of our greatest tools in presenting Christian faith as a lived and life-changing reality. We have invested over £10M into our 'Open Treasure' project which is designed to interpret the Cathedral's past through the marvellous artefacts and buildings that tell its story. But the key aims of the project are to open up the 'treasure' of the gospel, and the 'treasure' of the Christian community that has borne witness to it in past ages and continues to do so today. So 'Open Treasure' is about two central Christian values: mission, and hospitality. (By the way, these paid-for exhibitions will help us to continue to maintain free visitor admission to the Cathedral itself, something we believe itself speaks of God's own free hospitality and generous invitation to come to him as the gift of his grace.)

5. Does Richard need to revisit his understanding of scripture? It is true that the daily readings from the Bible often raise sharp questions. When 'difficult' passages come up in the evensong lectionary at Durham, readers usually introduce them with a sentence or two in order to help worshippers understand the context. Yes, interpretation is vital (and cathedrals take very seriously the need to interpret themselves and the faith they stand for to those who have little or no concept of Christian, or any other, faith). But does he really believe that Bible reading can be so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer/chance visitor/faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming)? Leaving aside the rhetorical way he puts it, I wonder if it betokens an over-anxiety, a lack of trust in the God who always responds to those who feel after him and find him.

6. Does Richard need to inform himself a bit better about the many ways in which cathedrals are engaging with the national church and specifically the Church Commissioners so as to be properly accountable for their mission, given the resources that are expended on cathedral ministry? He might be surprised - even pleased - to discover the extent and range of evangelism and outreach activity there is in the 42 cathedrals of England.

Some people - Richard may be one of them - may imagine that as an 18th observer put it, cathedrals are merely 'asylums for amiable gentlemen with indistinct convictions'. Or heritage theme parks. Or exhibition halls and concert venues. If you get to know us, you may want to think again. For the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, a cathedral is 'a creation imagined by the human spirit in order to affirm an inspiration and a faith'. Deans are spiritual leaders who are engaged in Christian mission every day of their lives. Cathedrals are not perfect when it comes to mission or anything else. We are painfully aware of so much unrealised potential. But they are also places of remarkable growth, lively faith, Christian flourishing and energetic outreach. And yes indeed, 'woe to us if we do not preach the gospel'. There isn't a dean in the land who doesn't aspire to inhabit that truth and pray for the gifts to live it.

Richard, you are a partner in that shared enterprise of proclamation and witness-bearing. Please don't knock us!

*Richard Moy's blog is at http://richardmoy.com/2015/06/03/dear-deans/
**The Dean of Liverpool's response is at https://deardeans.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/a-response-to-richard-moys-dear-deans-challenge/


  1. Thank you for a clear response to Richard's blog post. I don't have wide experience of Cathedrals, only the ones in the dioceses that I have worshiped in. Namely Canterbury and Rochester.

    Both places are radically different, but equally inspiring and Holy. 8 am BCP at Canterbury is without a homily, but three later Eucharists, including some in the Crypt Chapels, provide ample opportunity to listen to a homily or not, dependent upon the context of the actual service. Rochester is similar, just does things in a different order. If you visit Canterbury for instance, when the tourists are around, you will meet Clergy, volunteer Chaplains from the parish, who are there specifically to meet and to welcome to listen to pray or even to counsel visitors. I have myself experienced this ministry, and really appreciated it at the time. In my view, such opportunities are an integral part of a Cathedrals common life as are those wardens, vergers or guides who serve people in those places so well.

    People visit cathedrals for a whole host of reasons, the least of which might be for a conversion experience. So, when someone happens to experience God in unexpected ways, it might be more relevant than a sermon or homily which could go right over their heads, if they're unfamiliar with scripture or the context for it.

    Tiny cracks in the armour of secularism, tiny sparks lit in the hearts and minds of visitors are perhaps the best that can be hoped for - with the knowledge that days, weeks or even years later that visit, that meeting, that listening, that praying, might blossom suddenly into an individual coming to faith through a combination of events, of which that cathedral visit lit the fuse.

    The other thing not really dwelt upon by Richard is the huge richness and symbolism of cathedral music. Those who go regularly will experience being uplifted on a regular basis, and I know from speaking to visitors at Canterbury, that many go to Evensong, just for the musical experience. Particularly when the choirs are there in force and signing together.

    Visits to Cathedrals for worship are a rare treat, because my parish church is the place I prefer to be, sharing the common life of our community, and reserving Cathedral worship for special occasions or even as a treat. Perhaps others feel the same, I don't live close enough to Rochester to just drop in - but do go when I have time. And there is always something happening, busy, but not overwhelming.

  2. I fear that Richard Moy's myopic and all-too-fleeting contact with cathedral ministry was a case of setting himself up to be knocked down. Your response is a gracious but robust statement of how cathedrals do mission and articulate the Christian faith with intelligence, sensitivity and humanity - and in a way that does not ape the Evangelical default which relies too heavily on words. As far as preaching is concerned, if only Richard Moy had worshipped in Durham when the Dean was in the pulpit, he might have written a completely different blog!

  3. Great response!

    One wonders if Evangelical Moy would make ANYTHING of "the spiritual disciplines of religious houses - monasteries and convents"...

  4. I should agree with just about all that has been written here. Last year, as an old Chadsman, re-visiting Durham after many years, I was moved and greatly encouraged by almost everything I encountered in the Cathedral - Saturday Evensong, BCP Holy Communion and Choral Matins on Sunday morning (and a literally memorable sermon by the Dean relating to the Scottish referendum), and by some wonderful new works of art etc- and of course valued the opportunity to see again the burial place of S.Cuthbert and the developments in my old college, However, the LOUD, LOUD preludes (there were two)- with music inaccessible I think to many ordinary people, before Sunday Evensong, led to me walking out before Evensong began. Such preludes and postludes are all too common. One of our Australian poets, the Roman Catholic James McAuley, wrote "set pools of silence in this thirsty land". The leader-writer of the Church Times early in May wrote of the value of silence before a service - but if there is to be music, I suggest it should be music that helps people present to prepare for it.

  5. If you lob a grenade into a cathedral close you might reasonably expect a reaction, if only the attendance of the local fire brigade. Richard Moy (in his Dear Deans open blog of June 3) is known to me from my former time on General Synod. His ministry is infectious. We need more priests, male and female, who have his passion for the gospel and the re-evangelisation of England. I think he is starting a period of study leave (per his Facebook posts) so may have been feeling demob happy when he decided inter alia to trail round the country visiting cathedrals. By the same token I am a cathedral lover and know a number of deans, whose ministry I also hugely respect, St Albans, Ely, Salisbury and St Paul’s among them. However, not only did the fire brigade not turn up but only two deans put their heads above the perpendicular architecture and their chapter meetings to respond, namely Durham and Liverpool. Both have made convincing defences of their cathedral ministries. The rest are either not fazed by the upstart or, more likely, are not sufficiently social media savvy. Having re-read Richard’s blog the point he is making is that preaching has huge impact, even to visitors who may think they are only on a heritage trip. Are cathedral chapters really focused on preaching to visitors in their congregations, rather than to their faithful regular congregations? My own experience of visiting cathedrals (and let’s face it Durham must be most people’s favourite, quite apart from its World Heritage Site status, and the sheer size of Liverpool takes your breath away) is that they do awesome well. Who cannot be overwhelmed by the Lindisfarne Gospels or the odd edition of Magna Carta? And that’s without the worship. Who has not been transported to heaven and back by the choirs of a Christ Church or Winchester? But have our cathedrals, and indeed other beacon parish churches, really embraced intentional evangelism? Are they really taking full advantage of their privileged status? Have their tourism marketing consultants been instructed to ensure that a crucial part of the way they curate their cathedrals is to mount attractive displays explaining the Christian faith and the ways in which all can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? And of course, might a short homily be added to Evening Prayer (despite the BCP ending abruptly after the Collects) to leave visitors with a word, phrase or take-home message? Who knows what effect that could have on their lives? That is what I think Richard Moy was getting at. Anthony Archer