A Response to Richard Moy’s ‘Dear Deans’ challenge

Dear Richard

You invited me (or, quote, ‘one of my Very Reverend friends’) to tell you why you are wrong to say what you have recently said in your blogged letter to the Deans ( richardmoy.com/2015/06/03/dear-deans/ ).  I have no intention of telling you why you are wrong, but I am up for a conversation, and I can offer a bit of a case for the defence.

One or two preliminaries – as much for the sake of anyone else who reads this as for you: there’s certainly one reason, and maybe two, why you challenged me in particular to respond.  The first is that we know each other from the days when we were both serving in the Diocese of Lichfield.  I’m guessing I’m probably the Dean you know best.  For my part, the small amount of working together we have done has left me with a considerable affection and a hearty respect for both you and Nichola.  A second reason may be that you know that I really do share your interest in (no, longing for) the conversion of England.  It may be (I’m not 100% sure about this) that, among the Deans, I am the one whose understanding of mission is closest to your own. So among the Deans I might be just the right person to offer an initial reply – or I might be just the wrong person!  So I’m glad to see that three of my colleagues have already posted comments, and others may follow.  Their reflections will helpfully fill out what I have to say, since I have no mandate to speak on behalf of ‘the Deans’.  So you’ll understand that this is a purely personal response, and very much from the perspective of Liverpool Cathedral.  Every now and then, I will dare to generalise, where I’m pretty confident my colleagues would agree!

In short, I think you’re overestimating a) the evangelistic potential not of preaching itself (you know there’s no higher gift of grace in my book), but specifically of preaching to passers-through, within an act of choral worship; and b) underestimating the substantial and effective evangelistic work we are doing, and the ways in which we’re resourcing the evangelistic mission of the church beyond our own walls.  I’ll illustrate from my experience in Liverpool.

I wish you’d visit us here, and for a sustained period – not just by dropping in for an act of worship.  I wish you’d visit us on a Monday, when the students of St Mellitus North West are meeting in our Cathedral, training for ordination in a highly missionary mode.  I wish you’d stay into the evening for Sepas, our Farsi missional community of 60-80 new Iranian converts, who meet weekly for worship and teaching.  Would it surprise you to know that we’ve baptised (mostly by immersion) over 130 of them in the last two years, mostly converts from Islam and Zoroastrianism?  Or that ‘multiplying congregations’ is one of Chapter’s six stated priorities – a task we’re addressing in partnership with the Diocese, spear-headed by one of our residentiary canons, the Director of the Joshua Centre for Pioneer Ministry.  Actually, I think you know him too – he’s Richard White.

I wish you’d visit us on a Tuesday, and meet some of the volunteers in our Volition Programme – our partnership with Liverpool Job Centre Plus, which offers structured (but non-mandated) placements to people who have been unemployed longterm.  I wish you could hear their stories about what it means to them to be part of our community – and see the contribution they’re making, and the way they are diversifying our volunteer base.

I wish you’d visit us on a Wednesday, when there might be a school visit in.  Would it surprise you that we welcome over 11000 school children on such visits every year, and that our education team’s main aim is to help them make the connection between our building and Jesus?  Or that every July we host – and yes, get to preach to – 4000 year 6 pupils from across the Diocese, at our School Leavers’ services?.  Or you could stay to the evening and join our Faith Academy: you could opt for the School of Theology stream, or the Discipleship Explored stream, or the Alpha stream.  Would it surprise you to know that we’ve recently appointed a Canon for Discipleship?

I wish you’d visit us on a Thursday, and drop in on Hope+ — our food bank which is so much more, of course, than a food bank: our debt advice centre, our signposting service, our pastoral support and listening ear service – which has offered hospitality to over 15000 guests in two and a half years, and which we run in partnership with the Metropolitan (RC) Cathedral, the local parishes – and which even gets a donation of halal food, now and then, from the local mosque!

Or come on a Friday, as a tourist – one of around 400,000 who come each year from all around the world.  Meet our volunteers, and experience the warmth of their welcome.  Their aim is to welcome every visitor with the same warmth as ‘God in Christ has welcomed us’.  Would it surprise you to know that that our visitors have found this welcome so rich that reviewers now rank us number 1 among ‘things to do in Liverpool’ on Tripadvisor?  Yep, above Anfield, and above the various Beatles’ attractions.  You may or may not be surprised to know that Visit England had us on a shortlist of 5 for their ‘Major Visitor Attraction of the Year’ award last month.  (We didn’t win!)  These visitors might well meet, on the Cathedral floor, one of our ordained chaplains or lay pastoral workers, who loiter with intent.  Or they might pause and read the 6 interpretation panels in the Baptistry, which are designed precisely to help them trace the line back from an Anglican Cathedral to Jesus of Nazareth.

Or come on a Saturday.  If you timed it right, you might encounter ‘Processional Evensong’. This gets us closer, I suppose, to the heart of your grump.  Choral Evensong on a Saturday can be something of a wrestling match, I have to admit.  The mezzanine café, open to the Great Space, is still doing business at 3pm, when the service begins, as is the book and gift shop.  Visitors are teeming throughout the building.  If our choir is in quire, it can feel as if the two activities, tourism and worship, are competing.  So we have begun to experiment with a version of Evensong in which the choir leave their stalls.  They assemble under the Dulverton Bridge in the west, right opposite the café and shop, where visitor footfall is greatest.  We begin the service there, and the worship commands attention from all sides.  The clatter of crockery and cutlery ceases.  Even the taking of photographs seems to stop for the most part.  People stand still and listen.  And as the choir moves gradually eastwards in the next half hour, people move with us.  There’s no homily, I’m afraid, but a booklet offers people a good deal of help to understand how the service holds together, how they can best enter into it, and what they might like to do next if they are stirred by a sense of the presence of God.  Indeed, for Choral Evensong right through the week, the back cover of the service booklet invites those who attend to think more about the Christian faith and offers them some ‘next step’ options.  So I’m by no means embarrassed that the singing of a world-class choir remains the backbone of our worship, almost every day, through the year, at least in term-time.  And I don’t underestimate the extent to which it is used by the Holy Spirit to draw people into God’s presence.  And, yes, we do see our choristers (all 70 of them, drawn as they are from local schools, almost all within the state sector) as a mission field in themselves: we want them to know the Lord whose praises they sing, and we tell them so, and offer them nurture to help them along that road.

If you come on a Sunday, of course – well then there’s certainly a sermon, morning and evening, and I think you’d be happy with its vigour!  That would be the case whether you worshipped with us at the Choral Eucharist (where you might be surprised how ethnically diverse our congregation is) – or at Zone 2 (our Café Style all age worship which takes place simultaneously each week – which was established in 2010 and has grown rapidly).

Or you might come for Light Night, a one-evening city wide celebration of arts and music, which took place a couple of weeks ago.  I wonder if you’d have been surprised to find, at 9.45pm, around 2000 people, mostly young, lying on the floor of the Great Space, staring up at a kaleidoscope of projected images on the underside of the bell chamber, while our Cathedral Youth Choir sang haunting pieces from the choral repertoire, including Philip Stopford’s wonderful ‘Do not be afraid’ – the text pure Isaiah.

Now, Liverpool Cathedral is not perfect.  Your piece is a challenge to me.  What might we do better, where are we falling short and failing to make the most of the opportunities which the Lord is presenting to us?  But nor is Liverpool Cathedral unique!  Here’s the thing: in its inherited tradition, ours probably is the most Evangelical of all the Cathedrals in England.  I guess it is, anyway – though we now manage that in an intentionally non-partisan, non-tribal way, delighting in the contributions of the Anglo-Catholic and liberal bits of the CofE.  But given that Evangelical inheritance, maybe I’ve found a greater appetite for evangelism here than I might have found if I had been appointed Dean anywhere else.  But I can assure you that when I am talking to my fellow Deans about what’s going on here, I absolutely don’t encounter sniffy contempt.  Not one bit.  They rejoice with me, and sometimes I think they’re a bit wistful on account of the scope which both our architecture and our long tradition gives us.  Because, for all your frustration, the fact is that the Deans do understand and embrace the missionary challenge we face.  Of course, the mission is understood differently in different places – you’d expect that in the Church of England.  You’re surely not asking for every Cathedral to be an outpost of HTB.

Here, by the way, is an excerpt from the report which Vivienne Faull, the Dean of York, has just given (as its Chair) at the annual meeting of the Association of English Cathedrals.  (I don’t have her permission to quote from it, but I think she’d be delighted if it reaches a wider audience!)  She cites some recent research to be published imminently by Grace Davey which ‘will show how cathedrals are an important means by which the passive majority becomes acquainted with the forms of religion performed by the active minority… The location of cathedrals on the border between the religious and the secular enhances this capacity.  She goes on, ‘many English Anglican cathedrals are working with this liminality with creativity and effectiveness.  And towards the end she notes, ‘Many of those who now affiliate to cathedrals have relatively little knowledge of Christian faith, or of the Church of England.  Most cathedrals are now offering routes by which newcomers to faith may discover more.  Intentional discipleship in cathedrals marks a significant shift away from the assumption that those who worship with us seek anonymity’.

This, I think, is the particular ministry of Cathedrals, and I’m confident all my colleagues know it, value it and want to make the most of it.  How we are doing so will differ according to several variables: theological standpoint is only one; architecture and location are significant too.  But take heart: there is much effective evangelism taking place.  Maybe we could all be making more of precisely the interface you cite, when Choral Evensong meets Tourism Central; but don’t assume that’s the whole deal.  And also, give us a break: the Church of England is on a journey, and Cathedrals are on board.  You can be sure that the language of mission is more and more mainstream even in Cathedrals and that when the Deans meet to talk, we even talk, at least some of the time, about making Jesus known.  We remember that that is what we were ordained to do, I promise.

Oh, and while I haven’t checked your figure, if the Church Commissioners are giving Cathedrals £9m a year, I’d say that’s good value.  It comes to about £200,000 per Cathedral on average.  As it happens, we get less than that here – in fact, we get precious little from the central church beyond my stipend and that of our two residentiary canons.  I doubt the CofE gets more evangelistic bang for its bucks anywhere.

Who knows Richard – perhaps the Lord is calling you into Cathedral ministry?  That would make me smile!  Meanwhile, every blessing, your brother in Christ, Pete


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