Flagships of the Spirit: Cathedrals in Society

Article excerpt

Flagships of the Spirit: Cathedrals in Society. Edited by Stephen Platten and Christopher Lewis. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1998. xvii + 190 pp. 9.95/$17.99 (paper).

"Every dean should have one" was the headline over the first review in England of this fine book concerning cathedral ministry, on the brink of the Millennium. It is a series of essays by theologians and cathedral clergy of the Church of England, which tackles themes ranging from the Bible's ambivalence regarding "buildings made with hands" (Acts 7:48) to the music tradition associated with our cathedrals, to the questions of community, liturgy, physical maintenance, the visual arts in church, tourists, "cathedrals and cosmic religion" and the future. The editors are Stephen Platten, Dean of Norwich and Christopher Lewis, Dean of St. Alban's.

The book is important because the question of the cathedral's mission, whether it be a downtown parish-church cathedral such as both Birminghams, or an ancient Elysian foundation such as Wells or Salisbury, presses on us. What enduring functions does a cathedral fulfill? Is it a community of worship, reflecting medieval monastic patterns? Is it a pumphouse for preaching and mission? Is it a diocesan or bishop's center? Is it a distribution point for social services and outreach? Is it a "sacred grove," signpost to the unseen for a culture hungry for the transcendent? Is a cathedral all of these? Some of these? One of these? This is the ground which Flagships of the Spirit charts.

The essays are all of high quality. They also bring out contrasting themes and some disagreement. The editors have put the piece by Christopher Rowland very near the beginning, which took courage. Rowland's contribution, entitled "Friends of Albion? The danger of cathedrals," shows that Scripture is from beginning to end uncomfortable with the notion of God's holding sacred or privileged space on earth.

In their structures, in their particular relationship with society at large, and in their seeming cultivation of privilege in worship and life, [cathedrals] seem to be opposed to the values of the lamb of God. To paraphrase a recent Church of England report: The criticism of worldly splendors, which lay at the heart of the Cistercian ideal, leaves one to ask whether the glory of the medieval cathedral is really the most authentic representation of the religion of Galilean fishermen or Francis of Assisi (p. …


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