This morning a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the City of Wakefield took place, commencing with a parade through the City to the Cathedral, at which a civic service was held. The Cathedral was delighted to welcome not only the Mayor of Wakefield and distinguished guests; but also young performers from the Cathedral Academy and from Wakefield College, who entertained the congregation with dance and singing before and after this special service.
Please find below the text of the sermon by the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, Dean of Wakefield Cathedral, in which he shares some personal reflections with us, as well as placing into context the enduring links between our City and its Cathedral:
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts give glory to the living God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen again if you will to those opening words:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
Picture if you will the author: St John, old and crinkled, sitting on the isle of Patmos, imprisoned by the emperor and the sea, and setting before us his glorious vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A vision of God’s glorious kingdom... a vision those of us who live here in Yorkshire encounter each and every day.
It’s not our job to gloat, or to parade our riches in front of others, not even those poor souls who live the other side of the Pennines, but it is our job to recognise how fortunate we are, and to give praise to God.
St John describes also his vision of a new Jerusalem, probably inspired by his recent experience of the destruction of the great Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. But while his hope is for the construction of a heavenly city, a spiritual city, we in Wakefield have of course been blessed with the gradual but persistent re-building of our earthly city.
Those of us who have lived here for some time have watched with joy the transformation of this place. I’ve been here something over 9 years: important years for me in a number of ways. In that time I’ve met and married my wife. Married here, in fact, by our Bishop, before I became Dean. She was late one evening for a meeting with the bishop, which won’t surprise any who know her. The only empty seat in the room was next to me, the new boy in the diocese and the rest, as they say, is history.
So 9 years of major change in my personal life, but also here in the place I live and work. What with the Hepworth and Trinity Walk and the new Pinderfields and Sun Lane Leisure; and Wakefield One and the Art House and Merchantgate and, and, and ... all sorts of examples of reconstruction, and regeneration.
As a City and District we are deeply indebted to our Council for the climate of renewal they have cultivated. But it’s been absolutely vital for us of course. For as you know better than I, in recent decades, the demise of mining and collapse of the woollen industry have severely shaken people’s confidence in this part of the county as well as battering our economic climate. All heightened and accentuated by the recession.
Poverty in the pocket has been and is very real for people: but just as insidious have been the poverty of opportunity, and the poverty of aspiration.
I grew up in the south, believing all things are possible and that’s just not been the mindset of young people here. It’s been very easy recently to watch southern success and northern neglect become more pronounced and many people in this city and district have had neither the opportunity nor the confidence to shape their futures.
And yet somehow, in the past couple of years, all that has started to change. Our tendency has to been to look backwards wistfully to those heady days when Wakefield was the Capital of the West Riding; but now, people are starting to believe we have a great future. Yes, even our most cynical citizens have started to say positive things about Wakefield; maybe even amongst the people of Yorkshire, we in Wakefield are most blessed! That’s now being recognised by people from all over this great county.
And the latest participant in this programme of renewal is the space in which we gather this morning: Wakefield Cathedral, which became the Cathedral in 1888, you’ll remember. The Industrial Revolution had led to rapid expansion of the population in this part of the world; the poor Bishop of Ripon needed help to cope with the burgeoning number of churches and the Diocese of Wakefield was created. There was public debate as to whether Halifax or Wakefield should provide the see for the new Bishop, but thanks to the efforts of our MP, Thomas Kemp Sanderson and due in part to the railway and the fact that this building had been remodelled in the 1870s, Wakefield won the day. The parish church became the Cathedral on 17 May 1888 and as a consequence of having a cathedral, Wakefield became a city by Letters Patent dated 11 July 1888.
It’s not so very different from the story of Eve being created out of Adam’s rib. The origins of Cathedral and City are intimately and indissolubly bound up with each other. This year therefore marks our shared 125th birthday, which we gather to celebrate this morning.
The East End of the Cathedral beyond the High Altar was added in 1905, in memory of our first Bishop William Walsham How, and to celebrate our becoming a Cathedral. These gold rood figures showing Jesus and Mary and John were added to our screen in 1950. But apart from those works, nothing major has happened to the Cathedral since the 1870 makeover; so our infrastructure was hitting the buffers, and the building was becoming increasingly unsuitable for the needs of the church and the wider community. That’s what prompted our recent work. Now, you’ll see, we’ve cleaned the walls, removed the pews, levelled the floor and we’ve installed new lighting, heating, electrics, sound, alarms, technology and so on.
I am delighted with the finished result, which is more beautiful and useful than I dared to hope. And for me, these gleaming Gothic arches, the happy, glowing chandeliers, the marvellous new labyrinth, do much more than provide a space for us and the whole of Wakefield to be proud of: they provide a fitting gateway to the Kingdom of Heaven. That is true for the regular cathedral congregations, but equally for anyone who comes through our doors.
What’s wonderful about cathedrals is they are public spaces that point people to God: In Wakefield, it’s not just our 247’ spire, the tallest in Yorkshire, 20’ taller than the great Minster in York, pointing like a beautiful finger to God. 1,000 people each week light a candle, because we’re here and open and we don’t pester them. And those who come to admire the building often find the experience goes deeper than the purely artistic.
The job of the Church is to lead people to the foothills, from where they can push back the gates of heaven and glimpse the Kingdom that is to come. And this amazing renewal of our nave will enable this lovely old church to do that afresh for people of this generation and for many years to come.
The work was possible thanks to the donations of many people, including Wakefield Council. We were particularly delighted to receive your contribution, partly because it was generous, but also because it is a sign of our continuing commitment to each other.
To mark our anniversary celebrations, Kate Taylor has written a history of the diocese of Wakefield, available in all good bookshops, including ours in the Treacy Hall! In this, she points up a number of significant links between city and diocese, city and cathedral. For instance, at the end of the war, we couldn’t ring the cathedral bells in celebration since the frames holding them were held to be dangerous. The Diocese of Wakefield had its own appeal already, so the Cathedral couldn’t turn to parish churches for their support. Instead, in 1946, an appeal was launched by the Mayor of Wakefield for £4,000. Kate writes of Councillor Effie Crow as a splendid woman, a description that applies to many of the Mayors of Wakefield with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Thanks to the success of the appeal, the tower was strengthened, a new clock provided and the bells were rededicated by Bishop McGowan on 18 October 1947. Interestingly he struck one of the bells ten times to celebrate ten centuries of Christian worship on this site.
Kate also tells of a close partnership between the church and the city following the 1902 Education Act. Wakefield Education Authority was formed, and the Education authorities smiled on church schools, putting Wakefield Clergy on the Education Committee. This was in stark contrast to the West Riding County Council, operating just outside the city, which was hostile to the church schools and docked the pay of the teachers to compensate for the time they spent delivering religious education.
On other occasions, when Mayors from across the diocese were invited to the Cathedral, they would be given also a reception at the Town Hall, as still today. And in 1910, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, came to Wakefield to launch an appeal for new churches, he stayed with our Bishop at Bishopgarth and was given a civic welcome at the Town Hall.
As we look to the future, I pray that this long-standing partnership will continue to flourish. For our place at the heart of the city is, we hope, not just physical, but spiritual and emotional.
We welcomed recently some Swedish visitors, one of whom asked me what the nave will be used for. And I told him that traditionally in these medieval churches, the quire, the chancel, the bit beyond the screen was for God, and the nave for the people. That might be a bit over-simplistic in terms of Church history, but that’s certainly been a driving force behind the project to renew the nave.
Here we seek to provide a place for shared joy or grief, for conversation, meeting and performance for the whole community. We’ve only been open two months, and in that time we’ve celebrated Easter, we’ve hosted a number of major funerals, as well as concerts and conferences and an open quiz with 25 tables and supper here in the nave. We’ve even had one of the office staff licensed to be our barmaid – thank you licensing committee. And of course we’ve recorded two episodes of Songs of Praise: the first on BBC1 at 4pm this Sunday. We’re learning to use this space afresh, but we want to learn alongside the people of Wakefield.
When we re-opened, the Wakefield Express had lots of good things to say about the cathedral, but the editorial by Mark Bradley really warmed my heart. It concluded: “When you walk in [to the new nave], it is easy to see where the money has gone. Let us hope that as a venue for prayer or otherwise, it will become well-used by the people whose money paid for it – all of us.”
A cathedral for all of us. In those few words, Mark summed up what it’s taken me nearly five years to say.
So there we are: A renewed cathedral in and for a renewed city. Of course we both still have a distance to go. But it’s not a bad way to celebrate our shared 125th birthday.
(Sermon copyright 2013 all rights reserved. Reproduced here by kind permission of the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, Dean of Wakefield Cathedral.)