Earlier in my ministry I had a dog called ‘Bess’. She was a small black labrador bitch who used to sit quietly on a chair in my study listening to all that transpired there. I always thought that if Bess published her memoirs, a few people would have very red faces.
Unfortunately blushes were saved when Bess died and took her secrets to a doggy grave. However, she has recently been replaced by a ‘champagne’ (that’s a posh title for a very pale yellow) labrador called Bella who has moved seamlessly into the same role. There is however one significant differences between the dogs. Bess grew up in a church on a housing estate in Ipswich, whereas Bella has only known life in a Cathedral close.
Bella of course lives with us in the Chancery where previous Chancellors of Lincoln have lived, with their dogs, since 1341. She therefore thinks that all houses have 20 rooms, many of them big enough to house the average semi, and that most households show groups from historical societies around their living room and private chapel. She will therefore get a shock when we move on to the kind of accommodation that my true financial status demands, where, she would be particularly interested to know, swinging a cat will be challenging.
Cathedrals are of course first and foremost churches. It is true that the majority of them are rather large and impressive churches. Lincoln is arguably one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe and has dominated the skyline of Lincolnshire for nearly 900 years.
Built originally as a fortified Minster Church following the Norman conquest of 1066, it was substantially rebuilt by St Hugh in the late twelfth century following an earthquake. The mediaeval craftsmen in wood, stone and glass created a building designed to take the visitor on a journey from earth to heaven. And they did so with a earthy humour that is quite enchanting.
The fact is that English cathedrals have rarely been in better heart than they are at this time. Across the country congregations are growing and visitor numbers are increasing. This is partly due to the paradoxes that characterise cathedrals.
They are both holy places dedicated to the worship and prayer of Almighty God, and yet are open to a whole host of visitors and tourists who can enjoy them in a whole variety of different ways. They are essentially ecclesiastical places, being the seat of the Bishop and the Mother Church of the diocese, yet they are places where ecumenical and interfaith dialogue can flourish.
They are places owned and managed by the Cathedral Chapter yet a large number of individuals and groups find them open and accessible. Cathedrals are indeed places where those seeking for spiritual truth or those deeply troubled can pause and spend quiet time, light a candle and pray or reflect.
Cathedrals like Lincoln are shrines of spiritual presence and power and yet they are able to touch the lives of many diverse groups of people and individuals, whatever their ethnic origin, age, sex or religious persuasion. They can inspire a sense of awe and provide creative space for many individuals and groups of people who want to explore important personal, social, religious and political issues.
They do on a grander scale what many of our parish churches do day by day and week by week. But for me their real genius lies in providing that open and creative space on the edge of Christian belief that is important for our health as a society and nation.
Bella, that’s our ‘champagne’ labrador, has hinted that she might be interested in writing a blog about her experiences of life in a Cathedral close. I have told her that if she does, she might be inhabiting that space where swinging a cat might prove challenging, faster than she might think. She is reflecting on this at the moment while asleep on her bed.