All are Called
It was great to be in Ely Cathedral on Sunday afternoon for David's deaconing. You don't need me to tell you what an astonishing place it is. Even if you are not a person of faith, the human achievement of the building is simply extraordinary.
As a boy my parish priest used to take me sometimes to Evensong at Lichfield Cathedral half an hour's drive away, where his sons were in the choir. I little imagined that I would be ordained there, and end up on the staff there, and, indeed, meet my future wife there! As an undergraduate I lived pretty much next door to Durham Cathedral, and worshipped there nearly every day. I was to spend seven years as a Residentiary Canon at Coventry, where Megan was ordained, and we were married. So you'll see how cathedrals are woven into the fabric of my soul - and while Great St Mary's is not a cathedral, there are shared experiences, issues, and practices at the University Church which have long been recognized as being akin to cathedral life.
Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, was almost the first person I ever sat next to at lunch in Trinity just after I arrived in Cambridge. In the presence of this legendary polymath I was terrified. In the presence of this star-struck cleric he was charming. He is not a Christian. But he has a really interesting take on religious belief, and is not the kind of scientist who rubbishes faith. Far from it - in 2011 he won the Templeton Prize, as (to quote the Templeton Foundation's criteria) someone who has made 'an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension'.
So it was not a total surprise to read his piece in The Times last Saturday. In a wide-ranging essay on our present predicaments (pandemics, population growth, and climate change, to name but three) he urges an end to short-term solutions that are wedded to the political cycle, and presses for long-term thinking that embraces new and future technologies, and are driven by hope; by horizons beyond our limited sight.
And the example he gives is the mediæval cathedral. He writes
For medieval Europeans, the history of the universe, from creation to apocalypse, spanned only a few thousand years. And Earth was mainly “terra incognita”’. But despite their limited horizons in space and time, they left an extraordinary legacy: masons added stones to glorious cathedrals that would take centuries to finish, and which still inspire us almost a millennium later.
Without a broader perspective, without realising that we’re all on this crowded world together, governments won’t prioritise projects that might seem long-term to them but account for a mere instant in the history of the planet . . . we need some “cathedral thinking” — global, rational and unashamedly long-term — empowered by 21st-century technology but guided by values that science alone can’t provide.
As I gazed up at the octagon in Ely on Sunday evening, Lord Rees' words came back to me. So I ask: what are you and I saying and doing to affirm life's spiritual dimension? And how can you and I, in the contexts of our own lives, be in the business of 'cathedral thinking'?