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The BBC sitcom “All Gas and Gaiters” portrayed the Established Church as benign but bumbling. It gently sent up the Church of England and the Cathedral system. A century and more before that , Anthony Trollope had done much the same thing with his Barsetshire Chronicles, giving a sharp but humorous picture of life in the Cathedral Close, where Mrs Proudie, wife of the Bishop, was impatient for things to change. Many people’s picture of Cathedral life is based on Trollope, although much has changed since Trollope’s day.
In the past Cathedrals were isolated institutions, semi-monastic in outlook, almost entirely male-dominated, and believing that they existed solely for themselves: they didn’t need outsiders. By the early years of the 20th century cathedral deans were waking up to the significant mission opportunities which existed. Although people did, and still do, criticize cathedrals for not behaving like glorified parish churches, in fact they can appeal to people in a very different but still valid way.
Instead of focusing on intimacy and community cathedrals can speak in other ways which are very important in our 21st century society. The building itself, with its often awe-inspiring architecture and design, can speak very powerfully to people’s religious sensibilities. It can also act as a focal point for the Diocese, the region and the nation, and allow the Christian perspective to be seen and heard well beyond the local level.
Since the Second World War Cathedrals have become one of the real success stories of the Church with many people accessing their services especially at the major festivals. The reasons for this are complex, but there are three things in particular that stand out:-
In the Gospel reading today (John 12: 20-26) some Greeks come to the disciples asking “Sirs, we wish to see Jesus.” They are outsiders, but they want to know more, in an open and non-judgemental setting. Cathedrals are places at that meeting-point of seeking and finding where, through music, architecture, silence, artistic endeavour and pastoral sensitivity, people can be enabled to catch something of faith and encouraged to make their own response. “Sirs, we wish to see Jesus” should be at the forefront of all they do and aspire to be in the 21st Century.