I have just buried my mother-in-law (don’t be alarmed – she was dead and I had permission). She was, before present circumstances intervened, a woman of strong character who would never use three or four words when a couple of thousand would easily do. Some might suggest that we had that in common but I couldn’t possibly comment, at least not briefly. As a diligent daughter-in-law and sitting duck I had heard her tell the stories of her life many times and in considerable detail and so was well equipped, I thought, to take her funeral. Actually, it was one of the most difficult funerals I have ever written. I knew too much. Far too much. Condensing all her long stories of people and episodes from a bygone era into a ten minute eulogy was never going to do her justice. I did my best but it was still the sort of funeral that cried out for ice-cream at half time.
I betray my age when I confess to recalling 1970’s television and, in particular, the nostalgia-fest called “This Is Your Life.” In this masterpiece of broadcasting genius a celebrity would exhibit elaborate surprise when lured to a studio on some pretence, only to discover that the important events and people in their lives were about to be laid bare before the viewing public. Actually it was respectful and kind – mainly elderly teachers and relatives chuckling heartily over schoolboy pranks and old friends and relatives being reunited. At the end of the programme the subject was always presented by the host with a huge red book, like a lectern bible and the proclamation rang out, “Beelzebub Hottubb (or whatever their name was) – This Is Your Life!” As most of the subjects were very much alive I assume that they graciously accepted their ‘life’ story and quietly went away to work on the sequel.
All of which makes me wonder about the squishing of life into a short narrative. Can justice ever be done? In a sense this is what history does. Our days, minutes and hours are condensed into a series of edited highlights. If you are lucky, people pick the bits that show you off to your best advantage. If you are unlucky, your enemies get to do it!
Telling the story of my mother-in-law’s life is complicated enough. Telling the story of a 900 year old building is another thing altogether. In the hands of a skilled cathedral guide it can be done brilliantly but in less skilled hands (like mine) you can attain a whole new level of oversimplification thus:
The first monks were holy and industrious and prayed all the time until they were murderously dishevelled by the Vikings who were Very Bad Indeed. Hereward the Wake was obviously not as bad as the Vikings, being a local boy, but was still not exactly an asset and then the clever Normans came along. Despite some funny tendencies we rather like them and their super round arches. The middle ages were embarrassingly corrupt, what with the theft of Oswald’s arm and the fleecing of the poor and all, but somehow Henry VIII did not render the monastery rubble but made it a cathedral instead, thus earning serious brownie points with cathedral historians. That said, he was a terrible bounder to Katherine of Aragon, of whom we are all very fond, and therefore we have mixed feelings about him. He upset her family, who were good mates with the Pope, and thus caused a rift with Rome which led to all kinds of dreadfulness, filled the cathedral with pomegranates and ultimately ended up inventing the Church of England. Hip hip hoorah! Mary Queen of Scots was buried and then unburied here, for which we may never quite forgive whoever was responsible and then that dreadful Oliver Cromwell and his hooligans trashed the place and dismantled anything they didn’t like, which was nearly everything. The Victorians also changed the building beyond recognition but with greater aesthetic panache and even found a way to heat it tolerably and rebuild the collapsing tower… I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
All my nonsense apart, a short serious summary of the history of Peterborough Cathedral is a valid and interesting way to tell its life story. But it isn’t the whole point, and as with my mother-in-law’s eulogy presents the danger of selling the cathedral short. Over the last 900 years this building has welcomed multitudes of monks, priests and bishops, merchants, pilgrims, townsfolk, cutpurses, noblemen and paupers. Each with their own stories, prayers and travails. Their lives have woven among its triumphs and disasters. Today as we continue to improve our financial situation we might reflect upon other hard times; on plagues and famines and wars; on management and mismanagement; on pride and fall and rising again. History rocks! Ours is an infinitely complex and fascinating story.
But all of it sits within a bigger narrative – a nutshell narrative that works. There is one powerful constant through every age that holds the cathedral in grace and sets it apart from other old buildings. In this narrative forget the Vikings and Saxons, Normans and Tudors and the rest of them. Just set your eyes on Jesus Christ, for not a day has gone by in 1300 years when prayers have not been said in his name many times a day. The nutshell narrative of this place is simply one of continuous worship, prayer and service to the One whose love for you and I is the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow and whose life, death and resurrection still bring good news to this city. That is the real history and the present and the future of our cathedral church. The rest is detail.