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  1. Diary
20 March 2024

The cathedrals courting controversy

Also this week: the meaning of Easter, exploring forgiveness, and doing battle with moss.

By Stephen Cherry

The festival of Easter ends the season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday. My ministerial duties then involved “ashing” people on their foreheads. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I gravely told each one. Salutary stuff. Easter, on the other hand, is all about resurrection, which proclaims that you are more than dust! The reality that we are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe and are vulnerable to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology teaches us important life lessons. But the resurrection says that when the lessons are learned and the last breath breathed, there is more. We are dust and ashes, but more than dust and ashes.

A Turing test

Every now and again I persuade a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, regardless of any religious affiliation, to take to the pulpit in chapel and address the question Pontius Pilate put to Jesus: “What is truth?” These talks are always fascinating and thought-provoking. A recent one looked to music for a truth beyond words. It made me wonder whether openness to truth and openness to the transcendent are connected.

Cathedrals are bouncing back from Covid rather better than parish churches, but they also seem to be attracting more controversy, whether to do with events – the row over a silent disco at Canterbury – or with proposals to install works of art: a statue of Jane Austen at Winchester. It is the price of significance, perhaps. At King’s, where I am dean, we have recently had two installations that were controversial: an Antony Gormley sculpture, and 438 solar panels on the roof of the chapel. In place, the panels are nothing like the eyesore that some had feared. And the Gormley is weathering into the landscape. Its title conveys a powerful message: True, for Alan Turing.

Petal-to-Stem learning

Cambridge colleges are not specialised academic communities but places where a wide range of subjects are taught and researched. The Stem subjects are in the ascendant today, but it’s part of the genius of a college to ensure these vigorous plants are intermingled with more delicate flowers: the study of literature, languages, music, theology even. A college should be a rich ecosystem, resembling an abundant summer meadow, or a chaotic but abundant rainforest. Neither an ivory tower of irrelevance nor a hothouse for Stem.

Our mossy future

A homeowner for the first time, I find myself caring for a lawn. As winter ends, I hire a scarifier to grub out the moss and aerate the turf. This wet winter has been great for moss, and it turns out that scarifying is hard work. As I labour on, my mind turns to global warming and the physics of hygroscopy. The warmer it becomes, the wetter it will be. The future looks to be very damp. Scarify or not, moss is going to do well.

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Forgive me for asking

I first started thinking about forgiveness in 1987. What got me going was the way in which Christianity connects divine forgiveness and human forgiveness. My second book on the subject comes out at Easter, and it turns on two questions: “Is anything unforgivable?” and “Has Christianity got forgiveness right?” Spoiler alert: the answer to one is “yes” and the other is “no”.

Mixed blessings

It’s always been my experience of interfaith encounters that in the course of them I feel drawn to some aspect of another faith, and that I return to Christianity with insight into riches in it I had hitherto missed. So I am looking forward to King’s hosting an open Iftar, with the Ramadan Tent Project. The tables will be put to one side and 300 people of all faiths and none, sitting crossed legged on the floor, will share an open-hearted fellowship and inclusive spirituality. A vision of heaven.

By contrast, after almost half a year of horror in Gaza, and two years on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world seems an even more precarious place. A vision of hell. With so much needless death and suffering occurring every day, it can feel wrong to look for blessings. However, the enrichment brought to our college community by the Ukrainian women who now work among us, whether as academics or support staff, is real. Of course, in an ideal world they would never have had to leave their homes, but I am delighted that they are with us. Such is the way of blessings, perhaps; never simple.

The Reverend Dr Stephen Cherry’s book “Unforgivable? Exploring the Limits of Forgiveness” is published on 28 March (Bloomsbury). He will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 April: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

[See also: The perils of artists’ posthumous fame]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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