In The Minster (part III)

So what’s the point of cathedrals?

The more time I spend looking at Cathedrals, their communication and mission activity, the more I am convinced that they play the most significant part of our evangelism. It is interesting to me that these archaic, monuments to the past hold the potential key to our future.

I have worked closely with Durham Cathedral and now York Minster and have asked the question “How do we create in the heritage tourists a desire for faith tourism?” Millions of people visit our Cathedrals each year as historical monuments; they enter into a building used for worship, without us awkwardly befriending them and trying to time our invitation to come along. They come, almost, at their own volition and ask questions of the space, experience whatever is there. This is an enormous opportunity if only we could translate and interpret the space effectively.

As part of my placement in the Minster I have explored the ‘York Minster Revealed’ project being undertaken by Lottery Heritage Funding and the Dean and Chapter of the Minster. The idea is to invest millions of pounds into this heritage site to encourage more visitors to the Minster and, therefore, to the city itself. This may come across, to some, as selling out but I believe is a great mission opportunity and, I have to say, reading the Interpretation Plan, is clearly aimed at guiding people to experience the living, growing, life affirming faith and the God for whom the whole space is offered to in praise and worship each day.

Back in Durham, I am privileged to be a part of a team of ordinands who inhabit the Cathedral space there once a month. Our aim is to frame the space so that people can explore and encounter God there. We try and minimise the heritage signage, taking out donation boxes, stripping back to the walls and to the history of prayer soaked into the building. The atmosphere of the place is different for a number of reasons from the day time trade of tour buses and historical interest groups to the silent, meditative pilgrims encountering God in powerful ways in the evening. None of these reasons seem to sum up exactly what that difference is but the attitude in which people explore the space helps them to worship and pray for themselves.

Here in York, they have really simplified, as much as possible, and kept signage out of the space. Part of the Interpretation Plan is to use digital media such as Augmented Reality and QR Codes to inform people without layering it, physically, onto the building. This will help to keep the building as place of worship for the regular congregation. This will allow people to experience the space separated from the noise of the factual past and free them to experience the prayer and spiritual past and present.

In a conversation with the team who look after the heritage side of the Minster’s work it is clear that their aim is to use the building to tell the story not just of the past but the continuing life of the Minster as a community of worshippers.

I don’t care why they come but I do care that they leave knowing why they came.

An interesting idea which, I’m sure is shared by many missional leaders in parishes across the country. How do we use our heritage and history not to keep people thinking we’re past it but that we are present and we have an exciting future?

The undeniable truth is that Cathedrals get visitors! Parish churches struggle. Why? Well, Cathedrals dominate the skyline for one but they also have a clear story. I visit numerous heritage sites and love them. I judge them, not on their size but on the stories they tell. Warkworth Castle in Northumbria has no roof, very little walls and no guides but it tells a great story and has tried to tell it in interesting ways. Our parish Churches have stories or links to stories. We need to become more competent and confident to tell the story of the spaces we use for worship.

Take the parish church in Croxdale, County Durham. I did a placement there and visited the church of St Bartholomew’s. Still an active church but there’s an atmosphere about the place that is dark and cold. This has no relation to the community that worships there. The space is silenced by a whole number of things. During my time there I learnt that there was a community artist working in the hall next door. She rented that space from the church to use as a workshop and teaching space. I requested a meeting with her and suggested using the church as a gallery for local artists (who are currently struggling to find places to exhibit their work). This needs fleshing out but the potential to resurrect such a dark space into one of life and art and inspiration would lead, surely, to a reinvigorated life of faith.

Cathedrals don’t need to advertise more to get people into their worship buildings but they can work harder at translating the space from a heritage site to a place of encounter with the living God. The data informs us that people stay for services in York Minster and these events greatly change the whole experience of their visit. The realisation, surely, that this is not a static, dying building but one that grows and lives! Add into the visit Twitterfalls to help people communicate for the Cathedral unplanned, new, exciting discoveries as they happen to other visitors and suddenly the tourists become the guides and, who knows, the evangelists telling anyone connected to the Twitter conversation that they have encountered God in the Quire, Nave, Crypt, where-ever!

The thing I’ll take away from my time here in York is a sense of my passion and love of Cathedral mission. This is not an old building which needs to be sold but the greatest resource for communicating an historical faith alive and well in the heart of all our cities. Jonathan Draper and his team of ‘interpreters’ are passionate people naturally connected to millions of people each year all of whom are potential witnesses to the powerful love of God!

Let’s dig down deep and root ourselves in our past so that we see growth in the present and be a towering strength of hope in the future!