Shrewsbury ... shall be a name 'as stirring to the heart as the glories we have lost'

Blessed John Henry Newman, 1852

Letters and Homilies

Blessing of the New Cathedral Entrance, 19th May 2017

 

Our town and county are blessed with many churches ancient and new, so that whenever we look to the horizon we can recall those words of the Book of Revelation: “Now God’s home is with men! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them …” (Rev. 21:3). It is to the presence of God that every church visibly testifies: God who makes his home with us. A recent architectural study of this Cathedral and many hundreds of other churches expressed this truth with its striking title: “A Glimpse of Heaven.”  Yes, our churches seek in some way to reflect that vision of Saint John who declared: “I saw the Holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God …” (Rev. 21:2).

It is a glimpse of heaven which may at times elude us. A recent visitor to Shrewsbury who sought directions to the Cathedral was told: “I never knew there was a cathedral!” – a confusion with which I myself can sympathise. In my first days as bishop, a visitor at Shrewsbury Station asked me for directions here. I knew the Cathedral was left and uphill, but for the life of me I could not explain how to find the right turn. I didn’t dare admit to my questioner that I was the bishop who didn’t know where to find the Cathedral! And yet, the Earl of Shrewsbury and his celebrated architect, Augustus Pugin purposefully placed the Cathedral here, on this narrow strip of land above the medieval town walls. Many other sites may have been more practical; still this was never considered a temporary provision. The Earl wrote with a clear time-line in view: “I hope this Cathedral Church will stand firm to the last day.”

More than once, the growing Diocese of Shrewsbury considered leaving this site in order to establish a new and larger cathedral in a more accessible place. I am thankful that we chose to remain where history placed us, for this smallest of cathedrals was consciously put here on the town walls to evoke our shared Christian past, the Christian foundations of England. It is significant that the architect, Pugin, placed his first sketch of Shrewsbury Cathedral beside his new designs for the Houses of Parliament. The Cathedral’s exterior was to be as solid and austere as the town walls themselves; its beauty, however, was to be found within, where no expense was to be spared on everything associated with Divine worship. Decades later, a young schoolmaster at Shrewsbury School, Ronald Knox who would become one of the great literary figures of the 20th Century, gazed across the valley at this church, set so precariously on the town walls; and wondered whether it was a will-o’the-wisp or had been set on these walls as a beacon. We hope the latter has proved true, and that the new entrance and developments will serve to make this sacred building more accessible to everyone and allow this Cathedral Church to continue to be a beacon in this new century.

However, in this Evening Prayer we remind ourselves that what ultimately matters is neither Pugin’s gothic vision of the continuity of Christian England; nor Ronald Knox’s musings on what this building might prove to be; nor even our own vision of a more open Cathedral for this 21st Century. No, what matters is whether the community and the very stones assembled here will serve Christ’s plan and purpose. And we pray that this much-loved building will announce to generations still to come that vision of the new and everlasting Jerusalem where the true temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and Jesus the Lamb of God at its centre. Among the new signage directing people to the entrance or the visitors centre and café, I asked that the most important sign and direction be written on the new doors of the Cathedral: ‘Deo Omnis Gloria’ – All glory to God. May this be so in time and for all eternity! Amen.

 

 

(Photos by Simon Caldwell)