Wondering about Southwark in Bath

Southwark Cathedral

Allow me to begin by warning those of you who only like my humorous stories that you should cease reading now.

I tamed Wormwood today (see previous post). Managed the precarious drive from Epsom to Bath without too many dramas. Though I am concerned about the number of speeding tickets that await me upon returning the demonic vehicle. It’s not that I’m trying to speed, but like the United States, the English speed signs are small, and change frequently. It’s got nothing to do with me.
So a couple days back I visited Southwark Cathedral. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but all I can say is, wow. I wasn’t expecting it. Despite the joys of the internet, I hadn’t actually looked it up. It was just the sheer number of people who said I should visit that swayed me. Though the Dean was on sabbatical (which they always are) I got the run down from the very friendly and helpful staff and voulnteers.

For those who don’t know, Southwark is a jewel of a Cathedral just beside London Bridge. It’s not obvious because it is quite literally buried in a high density business area with an enormous market surrounding one side of the building. It’s almost claustrophic. However, once inside, its got this fabulous lightness to it. It’s a bit difficult to put a finger on it, or use words to describe it, but ‘happiness’ comes close. Truly, I’m not exagerating. It’s one of those few places I have visted that, when I left, I wanted to return to right then. I’m probably setting people up for disappointment. This was just my experience of it.

Initially I thought it must be the spirit of its Augustinian heritage when it was a monastery, but that was undone when I discovered that Queen Mary held a number of heresy trials condeming a few a clergy to eternity – after a messy death of course. So that piece of ecclesiastical drama canceled out the prayerful bit. Admittedly, that’s not unexpecteded.If your church has been round for a thousand years or so, there’s going to be some past misery. Wellington Cathedral of St Paul has a comparatively brief history, so there haven’t been any inquisitions – yet. 

In conversation with the locals, I mused about why it felt the way it did, after all such feeling fall into the realm of aesthetics. So we concluded that it was a number of things:

First, it’s not big. It would half the size of our Cathedral in Wellington, so it has an intimacy that’s unavoidable.

Second, the building is crammed full of history, so you stand in a kaleidoscope of human narratives, some of which remain a mystery; many with intrigue.

Third, it’s not always been a Catherdal, meaning the royal pageantry, pomp and power that mark other Cathedrals isn’t present. In that sense it’s had a long history of ordinary folk at worship, work, sufferng and love. I was surprised to find that it’s only been a Cathedral since 1905.

Fourth, is it’s proximity to ordinary life. step out the door and you are quite literally in a market. Turn right, and your confronted with a high density business district and cafes. It’s context is simply unavoidable, and likewise the church is unavoidable to the locals

Fifth, a huge amount of works was done to build a new education centre and conference rooms that are so popular it’s like a railway station during the day. The centre is for the community and the community use it. So too, the people gaining from it’s utility also find themselves drawn to the church for prayer, reflection, or to learn another awesome story from the past made alive in the present.

Finally, the Catherdal Chapter, ministry staff and congregation have been very intentional about making the building work for the ministry of the gospel itself. A place of welcome to all for sure, but a place of Christian faith and ministry at it’s core.

Borough Market beside the church

Over the last few days, I have be struck by the influence a community can have when they leverage the resources God has left them from previous generations. Southwark is both new and old. The new is obviously modern, yet it makes the ancient accessible and meaningful. But more than that, it connects old faith with new yearning.

A few months ago I became aware of the dangers of trying to make something old new. Jesus made the same point, new wine does not live happily in old wine skins. So my take away from Southwark is that we needed to let the ancient be ancient while surround it with the new. It reminded me that churches are only mausoleums if we simply exist to preserve what was. Rather, we are adding living history that is yet to be retold. It’s in this way that people of the present connect with a living God who speaks from the very cool life of the past.

The danger for New Zealand Cathedrals however, is that we tell a church history that is not entirely our own. We are good at the Anglo-European story (often revealed in our liturgical forms), but not the ‘warts and all’ intrigue that has been our ongoing bi/multi-cultural growing-up, and away, from our colonial roots. I suppose the simple questions are, who have we have become and why – good and bad? What do we face ahead? And, perhaps more importantly, who will we choose to become? It is no doubt a question all communities of faith must ask.

I suspect someone from Southwark will read this and query my sanity. Afterall, they face all the same hurdles we face: attracting a younger generation, attending to major financial issues, asking how discipleship is best achieved in a secular context, and dealing head on with all the controversial moral dilemmas facing churches around the western world. The list goes on. And it seems to me they are attempting to do so. However, from a purely personal point of view, Southwark left me encouraged, refreshed and spiritually awakened, which is not a bad outcome for a long serving, slightly cynical pastor/priest, who came all the way to the UK for just that experience.


4 thoughts on “Wondering about Southwark in Bath

  1. Warm memories of Southwark – once took our small children to the communion rail. The ministering bishop did a double take at their raised hands…and gave them the bread. It felt welcoming.

    Liked by 1 person

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