The alluring attraction of Cathedrals

Canon Andy Bryant, from Norwich Cathedral, where the installation of a helter-skelter hit the headlines in the summer, considers the magnetic pull of English Cathedrals. Last year they attracted 10 million people, with more than half a million attending services in the Christmas season. The interest is not just the architecture. … 

 

Do you think anyone noticed that there was a helter-skelter in Norwich Cathedral?

Now it is all packed away and the Cathedral decked out for Christmas, what should we remember of that extraordinary summer?

I could write of the numbers that visited the cathedral, the amount of media coverage or the quantities of Christian literature given away. But this was never about driving up visitor numbers or getting lots of publicity.

Instead, the ‘Seeing It Differently’ project was always about the encounters and conversations that would take place. The main focus was not the helter-skelter, nor the other installations, but on the 14 trained volunteers in the cathedral each day, engaging with our visitors and the connections that were made. And throughout those 11 days those encounters kept happening and they are the true legacy of this memorable event.

As one self-confessed lapsed Christian put it: “For the first time in years I started to feel a connection with the Church again.” For many this was their first time in the cathedral and, having been drawn in by the helter-skelter, they went on to enjoy exploring the rest of the building: “I never thought you would get me in a cathedral, but I am definitely coming back.”

A man walking the trust trail took off his blindfold and spoke of how the experience had made him reconsider his understanding of trust and he would need to go away and think further about this.

A woman leaving the Bible Box, a box you could walk inside and see the entire text of the Bible on internal walls and the ceiling, spoke of feeling hugged by the word of God.

An atheist reading stories on the theme of ‘Seeing It Differently’, where nine individuals wrote down statements about their faith which were displayed on story boards throughout the cathedral, spoke of being moved after reading the accounts of why they believe.

An older woman finished reading the stories and said: “This is wonderful – it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Walking the labyrinth, a grandmother finally found the strength to talk to her grandchild about the death of her husband, their grandfather. Lying down and looking up at the Nativity roof bosses, a man spoke of finding a connection with God.

Around the helter-skelter the most repeated word was “joy”. Those who climbed to the top of the helter-skelter spoke of the impression made by the great west window seen close up, the beauty of the surroundings and the chance to see the cathedral from a different perspective. And many older people spoke of reliving their childhood on the slide back down. A child left the message: “Today my Grandpa was young again.” A woman told staff in the shop: “I saw the laughter and the smiles, and I knew God was in this place.”

Cathedrals are places that seek to acknowledge the whole of life and are large enough to contain a range of activity and emotion at the same time; the buzz around the helter-skelter and the stillness of those lying down and looking up; conversations about the stories side by side with the lighting of candles and the writing of prayers; and visitors mid-exploration caught up in the daily pattern of worship that went on in its unbroken rhythm.

Sometimes these can collide in unexpected ways. A woman began her day going to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital to receive radiotherapy only to be told she was too ill to receive treatment. Her friend suggested a visit to Norwich Cathedral. Perhaps they both came expecting peace and quiet but instead they discovered ‘Seeing It Differently’. She told us: “Thank you for today at the cathedral, for all the fun and smiles. It provided a much-needed distraction on what has otherwise been a difficult day.”

Many spoke of the warmth of the welcome and how the cathedral felt accessible and inclusive, but one visitor made us all see things differently: “Being autistic I see differently but I struggle to see the same. A series like this allows people like me who see differently to be included among those who normally only want us to try to see their same way.”

For a small minority, and mainly people who did not come to the cathedral, the presence of the helter-skelter seemed irreverent, but one six-year-old offered her own insight in response.

She told the volunteer how much she loved the colour in the west window seen from the top of the helter-skelter. Then she pronounced: “I think God likes colour. I think he’d like all the colours in my rainbows.” (She had rainbows on her dress.) The volunteer took the cue and told an ark Bible story at the end of which the little girl turned with a big grin and said: “God made colour for us. He wants us to be happy.”

Seeing It Differently created many memories and offered a unique experience. The stories keep coming in. Last Sunday, away from the cathedral, someone new came to a Norfolk church. When greeted at the door she said that halfway down the helter-skelter she felt God say to her that she should go back to church – so there she was.

Seeing It Differently was always intended as mission. It may not be how everyone sees mission, but it was mission. It was the cathedral doing what cathedrals have always done: retelling the story, engaging in conversations about faith and inviting people to see things differently.

Canon Andy Bryant is canon for mission and pastoral care at Norwich Cathedral