Common Ground

If you happened to go to any of the forty-two cathedrals in England last week you might have found them rather short of staff, or seen retired clergy taking all of the services and you may have wondered what on earth was going on.  In fact, the very first National Cathedrals’ Conference was taking place in Manchester and each of us had been encouraged to take a good delegation to that gathering.  The organisers didn’t want just clergy, they wanted the breadth of life of the cathedrals to be represented.  So from Southwark Cathedral we took ten people, half were ordained, half were lay.


It was a bold thing to do, to bring together such a large group of people, for quite a long time, at no small cost, financial and otherwise, to listen and to talk.  We were hosted by Manchester Cathedral, set at the heart of the city alongside Harvey Nic’s and Selfridge’s but looking across the river at the post-industrial landscape that now exists in that city.

I was fascinated by all the bees that are around the place.  Whoever decided on the ‘Bee in the City’ initiative it certainly has taken off.  Everywhere there were bees, in street art, in the form of chocolate, badges, even on the new choir stalls in the Cathedral.  The bee represents the history of hard work in the city, people busy as bees, worker bees in this once productive powerhouse of the north.

The theme of the conference was ‘Sacred Space : Common Ground’ and, as you can imagine, a variety of speakers tried to tease out what this meant and for each of us whether we were musicians, or vergers, or administrators, or events organisers, or even clergy!

As ever though with things in the Church of England what is not said is often more important than what is.  Until the last morning there was an elephant in the room and a rather large and threatening elephant at that, a bull stung by a bee. We sat there thinking about so many aspects of life that we hold in common but we all knew that there was a huge task looming and that is the implementation of the Cathedrals Working Group report which came to the General Synod in July and is now back with the cathedrals and the lawyers.

To be perfectly honest I am a bit of a convert to the report.  I had been very cynical about the whole thing, but the debate in Synod and actually considering carefully how we could improve things, even in such a wonderful place as Southwark Cathedral (!), has made me realise that there is much that could be useful to us.  But the challenge is how do we make the recommendations in the report fit forty-two very different institutions and foundations.

The title of this conference ‘Common Ground’ could give you the impression that cathedrals are all pretty similar, that we stand on common ground.  Superficially of course that might seem true.  We all have a Dean, we all have Chapters, we all have Choral Evensong and an increasing number of us now have cats and, of course, we all have a Diocesan Bishop looking through the door they symbolically knocked on, wondering if they can come in! But there it ends.  You cannot compare Bradford and St Paul’s (except that David Ison has been dean of both).  You cannot compare Truro and York, Newcastle and Norwich. You cannot compare Southwark and Derby. But like Cinders ugly sisters we are being invited to force our feet into a pair of shoes that may ultimately pinch!

So the task that lies before us is to decide what actually is common ground and how we negotiate what isn’t common about the place we are and how we can nuance the recommendations of the report to enhance the ministry and mission that we offer.  To be fair, some of that started to come out in the final sessions of the conference and the Southwark delegation left Manchester fired up with ideas of how we can take things forward.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP was one of the reflectors on the conference and he brought his wisdom to bear at a number of points.  In the final plenary he said to us ‘Cathedrals should be the home of all the homes, in which all the communities come together.’ It was a powerful vision and a stimulus to some further work on the ecclesiology of cathedrals.  But his thoughts rose out of those words of Jesus from St John’s Gospel

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’ (John 14.2)

Cathedrals can be seen as those many dwelling-places, those many ‘mansions’ as some translations express it.  Together we create ‘Sacred Space : Common Ground’ but in forty-two quite different ways, in forty-two quite different places, for forty-two quite different sets of challenges.  The question we face is, will the desire of the centre for consistent practice, for commonality, squeeze out the possibility of creative and life-giving difference and distinctiveness in the local place?  We need to be busy bees in the weeks and months ahead.

Holy Trinity,
may we reflect your oneness
and celebrate your distinctiveness.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark