The atmosphere of many grand or old buildings can be cold and austere, but Wakefield Cathedral, which is both old and grand, embraces the visitor as soon as they step through the door. A labyrinth set into the recently re-laid stone floor is an invitation to enter a different frame of mind: the act of slowly walking around this smoothly curving path has an almost immediately calming effect and as one emerges into the central comma of the puzzle, the world outside is set on ‘pause’. This sense of entering a liminal space makes it even more appropriate that Wakefield is the home-base of Jane Bower, who is leading the communications campaign for the Association for English Cathedrals‘ ‘2020 Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage’.
The feeling of security and ease within the cathedral is due in part to the rich tones of the stone and wood of the building’s fabric, and not least the well-informed and highly personable volunteers like Julia, who make it easy to ask questions about the history of the place. But in part Wakefield’s warmth reflects the fact that this place of Christian worship has been thoughtfully repositioned as a sanctuary for the whole community. As in many other cathedrals and churches up and down the land, charming but rigid pews have been exchanged for flexible seating which allows the space to be configured for a range of events, including music recitals and community meetings as well as church services.
Very modern, one might think, but these monumental places of worship, despite being largely built thanks to funding from local landowners and wealthy merchants, were always public spaces. Unlike the stately homes of Europe or the 19th Century ‘cottages’ of Newport, Rhode Island, or London’s opulent private members’ clubs, our cathedrals and fine churches were never exclusive places reserved only for wealthy elites. Rather, every man and woman was welcomed into interiors created by the finest craftsmen of the age, to enjoy music performed by highly trained choristers in settings with great acoustics and to hear directly from highly educated preachers on the teachings of Christianity. And most cathedrals still serve the community in this way, remaining free to enter, at least for those coming to pray.
The grand pillars which march down the aisle at Wakefield are designed to impress, and they do, but it is the little details which can be found throughout the interior that indicate that this church has always belonged to the governed as much as to the governors. The folding misericords (which allowed choristers to perch while still appearing to stand) each carry a hidden symbol carved in oak. The imagery here has nothing to do with the iconography of organised religion and many of these tiny works of art refrain the timeless bond between humanity and nature: a green-man spouting leaves from his mouth, a bare-bottomed figure grinning out between his knees, a swan tending a clutch of tiny cygnets. We cannot know whether this depicts the male or female swan as both share the parenting of their young.
There is an ancient belief that swans sing their finest lament at the very end of life, giving rise to the phrase ‘swan-song’ to mean a final act or word. A dear friend of our son has died today aged only 39, leaving behind a young wife and baby son. Until the very last he was talking of his plans for a long-distance bike ride; this swan-song a testament to the enduring vitality of his spirit. At such times of great sadness, when we crave a space for private reflection, yet cleave to the comfort of belonging to a greater humanity, our cathedrals, which combine epic scale with intimate imagery, serve as perfect sanctuaries in the heart of our cities, and are open to all.