Magazine article The Spectator

Close Encounters

Magazine article The Spectator

Close Encounters

Article excerpt

Kate Chisholm looks forward to The People's Passion on Radio 4 which explores the role of the cathedral in a modern secular world.

ARTS Close encountersRadio 4 which 'We began by wanting to do something about cathedrals and the life that goes on within them, ' recalls Christine Morgan, head of religion and ethics at BBC Radio. That was about 18 months ago, when not much attention was being paid to these great beacons of British history and belief. But by coincidence (or perhaps divine intervention) cathedral stories have been hitting the front pages in recent months after the tortuous attempts by St Paul's to extricate itself from Occupy London and its battle with money, capitalism and the workings of the City. New questions are being asked: not so much what do cathedrals do but why are they still here?

Do they still have a vital, living purpose in such a secular society?

'At first the idea was to create five new dramas for Radio 4 in Holy Week, ' says Morgan. The People's Passion would follow the events leading up to Easter through the life of a fictional cathedral, telling the story recorded in the Gospels but also revealing hidden aspects of these extraordinary communities, not of the world yet very much involved with it at its most real, most tangible, most elemental. We may think that cathedrals are cut off, secluded and rather precious but, says Morgan, 'they have to deal with everybody', not just the people who visit as tourists, spectators, believers, but also those who come to seek something they're not quite sure of.

Wherever you are in the UK you will not be far from a spire (or maybe three) on the horizon, a vaulted nave, the impressive physical presence of one of these ancient buildings, and of the daily life that goes on there, from Morning Prayer through the Hours to Compline. They draw you in, demanding attention, offering sanctuary, a chance to retreat for a few moments into a different atmosphere, space, setting. But they can also be intimidating, their difference creating the feeling that 'you have to know the password' before being allowed in.

In the dramas we meet Ellen, who works in the shop; she doesn't believe, has a troubled daughter, finds no comfort in the cathedral. Callum has joined the volunteer choir.

He's unemployed, a bit hopeless with a ghastly girlfriend. Will music be his salvation? Samir has arrived with candles, a bundle of cloth, a few grains of rice, wanting to remember his recently deceased father. He's not understood, not welcome.

Very few clerics make an appearance in the plays, which pay little attention to Church of England politics, clerical intrigues, Close life. 'They're not exactly Trollope, ' says the writer Nick Warburton, wryly. After visiting Chichester, Gloucester, Norwich and Ely, he became more interested in attempting 'to capture the sound of the cathedral at rest'. What can these stones tell us when everyone has gone and all that is left is the building? The stories that emerge might seem quite small, but in an unguarded moment you, too, might betray someone, have an experience beyond the norm, feel something new. 'They aren't small at all.' As the often cantankerous narrator (a brilliant David Bradley) mutters, this is 'the space between God and people. Between heaven and earth. A borderland . . . This is where I feel the breath of God.'

It's a theme that's picked up by the Archbishop of Canterbury as he talks to the philosopher John Gray in one of the 'Cathedral Conversations' that also form part of The People's Passion project. …

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