cathedrals cathedral installation

Net Zero.. racial justice.. mental health.. What exactly are cathedrals for?

Cathedrals can light the way to Net Zero, says the Rt Rev’d Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich and the Church of England’s lead Bishop for Environmental Affairs. And he set out his vision to achieve this by 2030, with solar panels on Grade I listed buildings, double-glazing on the stained glass, and air source heat pumps winding their pipes around ancient tombs and monuments. “You have a crucial part to play in caring for the web of creation and seeking justice for the world’s economically poorest people already adversely impacted by climate change,” he said.

Cathedrals can point the way to racial justice, says the Very Rev’d Rogers Govender, Dean of Manchester and Chair of the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns. And he set out his vision for radical inclusion and the eradication of all social injustices; for the cleansing of colonial artifacts and the purging of structural whiteness and feelings of superiority: “I have a vision for the Church of England and its cathedrals: to see our leadership and communal life to be so reflective and diverse that it inspires the nation to greater things for God,” he said.

Cathedrals can guide the way to good mental health and well-being, says the Very Rev’d Jo Kelly-Moore, Dean of St Albans. And she set out her vision to steer people through uncertainty and challenge, and how to handle the pressures of life. “The impact of that on mental wellbeing is real. It is vital what we take our part in building communities of care, of listening and of acceptance in which we are all on the lookout for each other’s wellbeing, in which people feel able to tell someone when they are struggling and where there is great support like that offered by ‘It’s OK to Say’,” she said.

And you’ll find many other particular missions in many other cathedrals: if it isn’t agitating for a cultural battle, it is bathing people in warm buttermilk and wrapping them in cotton wool, just as Jesus would want.

Did somebody mention Jesus?

O, yeah, him. He very much approves of photovoltaic panels, fugitive spaces and turquoise-lit steeples, but why are cathedrals more concerned with targets for reducing carbon, boosting black faces and decreasing stress than they are with making disciples? Why the focus on contentious matters of politics, policies of social divisiveness and therapies of spiritual psychology, rather than on Christ and him crucified?

What, actually, are cathedrals for?

Marcus Walker tweet cathedrals

And just as night follows day, this reasoned missional concern is met with hyperbolic outrage and disbelief: “So, just ignore racial injustice and keep going like it doesn’t exist? That is NOT the Gospel. Not at all!”

And you would find the same knee-jerk ripostes to reasonable questions about the focus on Net Zero or mental wellbeing: “So, just ignore global warming and let everyone drown or cook to death. That is NOT the Gospel. Not at all!”

“So, just ignore anxiety and depression global and let everyone slit their wrists or hang themselves. That is NOT the Gospel. Not at all!”

The gospel is multi-layered and variously apprehended, of course: on the one hand it is concerned with preaching about sin, praying for repentance and rejoicing in salvation; and on the other, it is about feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and healing the sick. The social flows from the soteriological.

And caring for the environment, treating people with equal dignity, and nurturing inner peace are all intrinsic to the gospel. But you never hear of cathedrals setting targets for the salvation of souls, do you? ‘Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved‘ (Acts 2:47).

As the Rev’d Marcus Walker observes, cathedrals tend to do very well, compared to many parish churches, when it comes to attendance. There are various reasons advanced for this, not least of which is people’s desire for anonymity: one may sit and kneel and pray and worship and feed on Christ by faith without being harangued by the churchwarden about the depleted flower fund or roped into serving coffee because Mabel is self-isolating.

And cathedrals are simply awesome (quite literally [except for Guildford]), and a reminder, if not a foretaste, of the greatness of God and the sublime holiness and magnificence of the kingdom of heaven. You walk into a cathedral, and the feeling is numinous and mystical: there is an impulse to bow, if not kneel; an ineffable sense of union with the transcendent.

Who, honestly, wants to visit a cathedral to be met with solar panels, or bludgeoned with sermons about the need for more black faces, or seduced by a me-centred gospel where personal therapy supplants the seeking of God?

We all want to feel loved and understood. We all need a sense of significance and meaningfulness. We all want to gain self-esteem, to be able to assert our opinions and defend actions. We all like to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the senses and delight in the mind. We all yearn for adventure, for excitement, for action and passion. But as enticing as all this is, it isn’t quite the same as seeking God.

Cathedrals are the mother church of a diocese, infused with prayer and praise, beating to the heart of the Eucharist, and lighting the path to salvation. We don’t want them filled with alluring idols or entertaining pastimes; and we don’t them diverted with secular agendas or social rewards. We want them to focus on transcendence; to remind us of the supernatural powers and hallowed saints who inspire and lead us closer to God.

We want them to talk about Jesus, and refresh our souls with his faith and works. We want them to be concerned with the truth of revelation, the renewal of salvation, and the beauty of God’s commands.

We want them not only to lead us in prayer and worship, but nurture us to walk more faithfully in the way of the cross; to bring God into our lives; to consecrate our hearts to His service.

Preach Net Zero if you wish; or bash the Bible for more black faces; or install tranquil lights for better mental health. But don’t then be surprised if those who have filled the pews for decades, delighting in belief, ceremony, polyphony and a timeless sense of divine order, begin to tire of the God of social wokeness, and turn away to seek Him elsewhere.