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/
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.