Dear Deans – a Scottish Response

Within the last week, a rather provocative blog post emerged about the experience of going to cathedrals. It was particularly focussed, I think on the experience of going to a cathedral in England. (You can find it here: Dear Deans – by A Reasonable Enthusiast).

Richard Moy, its author writes rather articulately about going to many cathedrals and finding people there whom he perceives the cathedrals to be letting down by not engaging them with the gospel during their visit. “Could there not be a homily?”, he wonders and indeed, offers to send someone along to preach one if there’s no-one locally available.

I find myself both agreeing with Richard and disagreeing with him at the same time.

I think that here in Glasgow, at least at St Mary’s, we are in quite a different situation to the situation of the cathedrals in England, particularly with regards to funding. However once you hang the word cathedral outside a building it somehow takes on a whole bunch of expectations that arise from that world. We live with those expecations and also live in a situation where we’ve got to work really hard to gather together people who enjoy this kind of encounter with God so much that they will help to support it financially and with their time and talents. There’s a rather direct relationship between the congregation’s cash and the cathedral’s cash that does focus the mind and does make things different to places where the Church Commissioners hand out lots of dosh.

Where I agree with Richard is that I think that it is true that there are a lot of big churches which don’t engage people particularly well with the purpose that the building was built for. I weary, for example, of guided tours that are about a building’s history that don’t weave faith stories into the tour. Here at St Mary’s, if I was showing any group around the building, I’ve a repertoire of three guided tours. The one I probably do most often takes in 7 places in the cathedral where I can talk about the seven sacraments and how this is a place where events of huge spiritual significance take place for individuals. Another wander around the building might involve me talking about the murals that we’ve got which brilliantly place gospel events in our locality. The annunciation is happening in a tenement flat just down the road. Of course it is.

My third guided tour would be to look behind the scenes and take in a sacristy safari and a look into places that the general public don’t normally get to see.

I simply can’t imagine doing a tour or teaching anyone else to do a tour that focused on the architectural aspects of the building or who gave which window in which year. The building has a purpose and when we’ve got visitors in, I do want to bring it to life.

I am conscious though of some churches which have been re-ordered so badly to include drumkits and projection screens that all one can think about in them is to wonder who sanctioned such ugliness. If cathedrals maintain people who care about beauty then so be it. The beauty of holiness is a concept found, you know, in the actual bible.

When it comes to services here, my presumption every week and at every service is that there are people who are there forĀ  the first time and who don’t understand what is going on. We work incredibly hard at helping them to feel comfortable enough to participate and catch some of the wonder that has been woven into the fabric of the building for all the years that it has been built. I give some notices every week and we’ve learned as a congregation not to get bored with them but to rejoice in the fact that we are a place that seekers come to every week.

So, I agree with some of the things Richard Moy is saying. Lots of churches could engage people better.

However, I find myself disagreeing with Richard Moy too, particularly in his presumption that the only way in which the gospel can be conveyed is through a homily. The experience that I think most people who work in cathedrals would want to share with Richard is that this just ain’t so.

Boredom is one of the devil’s chief tools in church. And the truth is, I’ve found myself experiencing boredom in all kinds of churches. Cathedrals certainly don’t have the monopoly on this. Ranting sermons. Repetitive sermons. Sermons which seem to be concerned only with one view of the atonement. We’ve all heard them. Preaching itself is not the answer.

God meets people in silence. God meets people in music. God meets people lurking behind pillars wondering who they are and where they fit into the grand scheme of things.

And God meets people where people come together in friendship. We don’t talk about that often enough in church either. One of the things that happens in larger churches is that there’s a greater chance of meeting people who might become friends. (This applies in larger evangelical churches just as much as cathedrals). As I’ve said before, friendship is the great sacrament the church should have named instead of calling marriage a sacrament.

People don’t all go to the big evangelical tabernacles because of the sermons that are preached in them.

The truth is, people meet God in complex ways in church. Very many people encounter God in the worship rather than the preaching. That holds true regardless of whether one is an evangelical or whether one is whirling a thurible and scattering rose-petals in front of Jesus in the blessed sacrament of the altar. Trust me. I’ve met God in both places myself.

It is my view that preaching is rather important to those who come to St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow. I hope that people will often hear things that surprise them, move them and make them think. However, it isn’t the whole package and doesn’t pretend to represent it.

I preach to beguile not to convert and that may be part of the essence of what is going on in cathedrals. They represent zones of possibility, places where sinners, saints, pilgrims, visitors, tour parties, seekers, history freaks, amateur liturgists, art nuts, faithful God botherers, faithful atheists and all who pass by have a license to wonder.

Let us never remove that license by preaching at them only our presumptions about what they need to hear.