I went to a talk last night by Christopher Lewis, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford about cathedrals. Christ Church is unique in being both a cathedral and a college chapel and the Dean has edited a book called "Flagships of the Spirit: Cathedrals in Society" and he was speaking about how cathedrals are viewed by people and what their role should be in society. He began by listing the negative views, which began early, for example, St. Bernard in the twelfth century who described them as "foolish extravagances". Nowadays many people view them with suspicion as they often seem self-justifying by virtue of their size and wealth and can be remote and frightening. From a theological viewpoint there seems little reason to have them as the New Testament refers to the destruction of the temple and has 96 references to the idea of the church ranging from a field to a vine and the bride of Christ. Cathedrals are symbols of power of a bygone age, a sentiment which would have been appreciated by the Saxons of Winchester who moved their minster outside the city walls when William the Conqueror started on the cathedral. He went on to cite the good points: their accessibility, their role in a diocese, the regularity of the services, the high quality of the music, the architecture and art whose beauty and space can convey a sense of the divine. He believes that there are 3 questions which a cathedral needs to be able to answer to see whether it is fulfilling its role in modern society: how easy is it for somebody in real distress to get help, how wide are its boundaries and how would it cope with a demonstration?
I smiled when I heard the last question, remembering a service I attended a few years ago in the cathedral in Washington DC. The congregation had been infiltrated with anti-Iraq war demonstrators who kept shouting out "Stop the war!" in the middle of the lessons and prayers, in spite of the clergy saying that the service was not an appropriate forum to demonstrate in and that the church's views could be read on its website. In the end, black policeman picked off the demonstrators one by one, handcuffed them and dragged them out during the sermon amidst cries of "I shall not be evicted from God's house during the homily!" It was the most dramatic service I have ever attended.