Being new in a cathedral is odd. It seems almost anachronistic — because one of the most defining qualities of a Cathedral is its age and continuity. There is a feeling of stumbling awkwardly against tradition, an exhausting concentration on not standing in the wrong place, sitting in the wrong place, saying the right thing in the wrong place, saying the wrong thing in the right place. Of being almost an affront to the dignity of the place.
As I bang the misericord (seat where I sit for evensong) down heavily and accidentally at the beginning of a service, or struggle to find my microphone, or forget the Gospel acclamation (all of which happened last week) it is almost as if the building itself groans in despair at my ineptitude.
Phillip Larkin, never a poet particularly comfortable with modernity, wrote about (a part of) another Cathedral,
“Rigidly [it] persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came.
Washing at [its] identity.”
As one of those endless altered people, I can feel a need to tiptoe around the place, a desire not to disturb the quiet tranquility of thousands of years of history. There is beauty in sameness — the sameness of the rays of light that stream through the windows, the sameness of the silent simplicity of the saxon crypt, the sameness of the sounds of the birds in the graveyard. The noise of traffic, the mechanised drills of the stonemasons , the chatter of tourists seem to be almost an offence.
But perhaps Isaiah gets rather closer to the truth than Larkin does when he writes,
“Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters…
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert”.
There is an appeal to the past here — when he talks about “a way in the sea”, Isaiah refers to the history of his people when they escaped from slavery in Egypt. It is this history which teaches us about God, and his constancy, faithfulness and presence. Isaiah is remembering even as he writes “do not remember the former things”. But, Isaiah insists, God is “about to do a new thing”, we only have to be ready to perceive it.
And, even after only a fortnight, it is becoming clear to me that there are new things happening here. The Cathedral is grounded in a pattern of worship which has its routes in the monastic offices, which were prayed in the ancient abbey that lies under Ripon, and which span back into the very first centuries of the church. Last Sunday we welcomed another five choristers between the ages of seven and nine into full membership of the choir to participate in these services. And outside this regular pattern of prayer, the cathedral hosted 700 school children from across the diocese for their primary leavers’ service and the Distinctive service continued to explore the Lords’ Prayer with coffee, video and informal music.
And so in the glorious, beautiful continuity of this ancient building, the tourists, stonemasons, visitors, clergy and all who worship here can find a way to ask what new thing is God doing, and a means of perceiving the answer. Besides, the rudeness, humour and liveliness of the misericords, gargoyles and stonework hint that the Cathedral is rather less serious and unyielding than I first imagined. Perhaps it laughs rather than groans at my mistakes.