Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Piazza - or Forecourt?

The space in front of the Cathedral was opened up in 1975, following the demolition of the buildings that used to run across the frontage along Victoria Street. Further hindering access was a roadway which ran directly across the front door (as seen on the left). Originally, the Cathedral could be seen only close up, and from a sharp angle. Now for the first time it was possible to see the Cathedral from afar, and the new area was christened 'The Piazza'. The fanciful and the romantic (among whom I numbered myself) entertained visions of Italian style piazzas, fountains and coffee shops, violin music and colourful processions.

In truth, the space created is a difficult area to categorize; spatial compromises with the premises either side mean it is an awkward shape, and the fashion of the times decreed modern grey granite office blocks (shown in the photo below) having no architectural or visual connexion with the Cathedral. Lacking atmosphere, it has been deserted by day, and at night a haunt of drunks and drug users - so much so that I heard Cardinal Hume refer to the Piazza as 'a great improvement, but also a great weight upon our shoulders.'

For over five years, working together with local residents, I have been trying to get Westminster City Council to redevelop the space and make it more attractive for the right sort of users. My first thought had been to make it a place of vibrant activity, filled with entertainments and coffee shops. Indeed, the architect used by the City Council suggested a redevelopment that would emphasize the Piazza as a civic space in which such activity could be encouraged. To that end, we encouraged the use of the Piazza for events such as the parish summer fair (as seen below).

However, over the last month news has broken of the radical redevelopment of the entire Victoria area by Land Securities, with an enormous projected increase in local population, new shopping areas, and a suggestion that Victoria Street will rival Oxford Street (the busiest shopping street in the country). Faced with such an overwhelming and intense development, I feel that the Piazza must become a threshold, and a sanctuary, protecting the sacred atmosphere of the Cathedral and the residential areas alongside it.

A meeting with Sir Roy Strong (a well known cultural historian, and a neighbour) and Colin Amery (British head of the World Monuments Fund, and a parishioner) helped focus my views. They explained that the space in front of the Cathedral is not a Piazza - it is far too small - but a forecourt. Our Piazza already exists across the road, in the cafeterias and restuarants of newly built Cardinal Place (left). Our 'forecourt' is much more like the area in front of a mosque, anticipating the sacred space within, and providing a boundary and threshold or, if you like, a buffer to the outside world. You can see the idea in thhe photo below, showing the forecourt to the Sultan Suleyman Mosue in Instanbul.

At a meeting with the ecclesiastical architect Richard Griffiths, the suggestion was made of a boundary, or some way of marking entry to the forecourt (without, of course, hindering access). This would accord with another of my concerns, that externally the Cathedral is not obviously a Christian building (from across the road, an unknowing passer-by might not realise it is a church, and increasing numbers of visitors believe its exotic architecture denotes a Mosque!). Proclaiming the identity of the forecourt with a cross, or even Stations of the Cross, would give it a character, and proclaim its identity. Many regular visitors will remember the Millennium Cross that stood in front of the Cathedral in the year 2000 (in the photo above left), and which gave a strong character and focus to the space. Further, the use of materials in repaving or other landscaping might reflect the materials used in the Cathedral, and visually link the space to the building.

At a long meeting last evening, the residents and I put this vision to the City Council officers, who were receptive. Many further meetings have to be held, but it is hoped that a draft proposal mught be prepared for consultation by the end of the year. It is a step forward - but don't hold your breath! So, as Cardinal Hume hinted, the 'Piazza' (forecourt?) remains both a blessing and a problem to the Cathedral.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The Artery of the Cathedral

Several times every day, the chaplains walk down this corridor (called imaginatively 'the Long Corridor') connecting the Clergy House to the Cathedral. There is some indication that it was originally intended as part of a cloister, for the monks whom Cardinal Vaughan intended to staff the Cathedral. However, it is a fine and elegant space, and an artery to the whole complex - to the left lies the Archbishop's House, and to the right the Cathedral Choir School. In fact, it is rarely as empty as you see it above; schoolboys are to be found practising musical instruments early in the morning (you can just make out the music stands to the right), while during the day pupils spill out to use the Clergy House library, on the opposite side of the corridor, as a classroom. In the evening, the choristers line up here before processing into the Cathedral. On the right you will also see the cupboards where the Cathedral Chaplains keep their albs, cassocks and cottas.

I like the idea that the different elements of the complex mix like this, rather than stay confined behind their respective doors. It certainly brings us down to earth - you can never be too detached from reality when a classload of schoolchildren crosses your path and interrupts your reveries!

You can just make out on the left wall the fine set of Stations of the Cross by Roy de Maistre (1894 - 1968) which runs the length of the corridor.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Rings for the Tabernacle

Over the last few months, and quite independently, I have received two enquiries (one from a recent widower, and another from a son whose mother has lately died), asking if it is true that the veil inside the tabernacle of the Cathedral is supported on wedding rings. It is indeed true, and the two rings have arrived, to be added to the 'curtain track' inside the tabernacle.

This is a beautiful and moving gesture, and one deeply indicative of the devotion in which the Blessed Sacrament is held. Behind the bricks and fabric of the Cathedral are countless acts of deep faith such as this, and I shall be delighted, and proud, to make these new additions to our most holy sanctuary.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Homelessness Sunday

Any visitor to London, and indeed to Westminster Cathedral, will not fail to be aware of the problem of homelessness. Particularly around Victoria, with its Railway and Coach stations, the problem has been acute for many years. The Piazza in front of the Cathedral, and the streets around, often play host to those who are on the fringes of society: I went out yesterday afternoon to see who was around, and found a group in the street just by the Cathedral. On the left of the picture, a group of six young men were already bedding in.

In years gone by, the issue was difficult enough, but usually revolved around drink. London will always attract those from other parts of the country who are seeking a better life, or who have to leave their former lives - but arriving without money or accommodation, they slip all too easily into a life of drink and drug dependency. Young adults are particularly at risk here.

The situation worsened considerably when eight new countries joined the European Union in 2004, with the right to travel within the EU to work (but not to receive benefits). For the last few years, 2,000 people per week have been arriving at Victoria Coach Station, near the Cathedral - many of them making their way to the Cathedral environs to seek help. That help is provided by The Passage, the charity founded over 25 years ago by Cardinal Hume, and run by the Daughters of Charity, to serve the homeless and marginalised in our area.

From small beginnings, the Passage is now one of the best known and largest Centres in London, aiming to provide resources which encourage, inspire and challenge homeless people to transform their lives. Its services include primary care (daily food), hostel accommodation, street work at night contacting rough sleepers and bringing them indoors, and helath, employment and training services.

On this Homelessness Sunday, it is important to remember that each person who comes to the Passage has a name, a history, an identity and often a lost profession. Homelessness strips people of all of this and leaves them rootless, anonymous and more alone than many of us can ever imagine. Marginalisation sets in and itself becomes a terrible identity that causes further rejection by society.

The Passage, situated in the Vincentian Convent in Carlisle Place next to the Cathedral (left) does not itself try to become a home for people but it does provide support for each person to engage in a process which can rebuild their lives and their homes. The services it offers encourage and challenge homeless people with complex needs to look after their health, to engage in training and employment, to seek options for accommodation and above all to recover their sense of self worth. The Passage's residential projects provide stepping stones away from homelessness.

Today, the redoubtable Director of the Passage, Sr Ellen Flynn (left) will speak at Masses in the Cathedral, and we will hold a financial appeal towards helping with its £3.5 million annual running costs. It is a chance for us at Westminster Cathedral to renew our commitment to those who are homeless and vulnerable. I am pround that our parish supports The Passage in many ways, and includes everyone in its worship, so that we can be, at least in some ways, a home for these most vulnerable people.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

Our Lady on a Saturday

We keep the Saturday Memorial of Our Lady at the Cathedral (other Feasts permitting), and the Solemn 10.30am Mass is always celebrated in her honour. A glimpse of her chapel in the Cathedral reflects the same devotion.

Friday, 26 January 2007

A New Day Dawns

After the bleak snowy sky, a few hours of bright, cold sunshine helped us to see ordinary things in a new light ...

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Snow in London

It snowed on Tuesday night in London, and we awoke yesterday to a thin covering - a rare enough occurance these days that had me and the Organ Scholar diving for our cameras after Lauds, and forgoing breakfast to snap the scene.

Simon, far more intrepid than I, raced up the campanile and headed for the roof for some evocative shots of the Cathedral domes.

Above, the pitched rooves of the sacristry (left) and south transept. For my own efforts, I made for the Clergy House terrace, which affords a good view of the Cathedral apse (below).

Alas, the snow quickly melted with daylight, although the Choir School boys made the most of it!
None of this is a patch upon the last time snow fell heavily in London, which was a few months after I first arrived here, in January 1991. At that time, all London was blanketed, and its usual rumbles were reduced to a blissful silence. I snapped this picture of the Piazza then.

Winters nowadays certainly seem milder, with frost (let alone snow) rarely seen in the centre of London; yet another small piece of evidence in the case for the existence of global warming.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Vespers at St Paul's Cathedral

Yesterday evening, the Clergy and Choir of Westminster Cathedral celebrated Solemn Vespers at St Paul's Cathedral to mark Christian Unity week.

I managed to grab a few shots before Solemn Vespers (to mark Chrisitan Unity Week) began. St Paul's is looking lovely, after a £4 million makeover, even if I still find the austerity of the only major baroque Cathedral in Britain somewhat dispiriting. However, the celebration of Solemn Vespers electrifies the building; many people (including Clergy of St Paul's) have said to me that Vespers works far better at St Paul's than Evensong does at Westminster, from a spatial and emotive point of view.

Simon Lloyd, our splendid Organ Scholar, took these pictures of me, as celebrant, incensing the altar of St Paul's Cathedral. I like especially the carving of cherubs by Grindling Gibbons, on the extreme right. The beautiful baldacchino, modelled on that of St Peter's in Rome, is only 50 years old. At the first celebration of Vespers in Christian Unity Week in 1993, I was also celebrant, at which time I was informed that I was only the fourth person in history to incense the altar of St Paul's Cathedral! It is most certainly a magnificent building, a testimony to Sr Christopher Wren's genius and his obsession with perfect mathematical relationships. It is good, however, to recall that the exterior dimensions of St Paul's dome would fit inside the interior of St Peter's, without touching it!

The choir was superb, and following the chanting of the psalms, and the falsibordone of the Canticle, their choice of motet (Gabrieli's Jubilate Deo) was a perfect choice, making excellent use of the magnificent acoustic. A solid and powerful Magnificat, set in the fourth mode by Palestrina, prepared the way.

The sermon was preached by Fr Christopher Tuckwell, sub-Administrator of the Cathedral. His words were realistic on our present situation, but full of hope for the future. He also recorded tactfully and movingly that he had been ordained an Anglican priest in this very Cathedral; and gave thanks for his Anglican heritage, as he did for his ordination six years ago into the Catholic priesthood.

A wonderful and memorable event - but I wonder if we haven't lost a little of that spark that guided and challenged us when we first began this exchange. We have grown used to this event, so much so that it is marked in our diaries well in advance. All the more then, we must never cease to hear those words of Our Lord (where he prays that we may all be one) and heed the imperative to work for unity.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Our Prayers for Christian Unity

The Clergy and Choir of St Paul's Cathedral joined us last Friday to celebrate Evensong at Westminster Cathedral, the first of our annual exchanges to mark the week of prayer for Christian unity. Thanks to Fr Tim and our Valladolid student Anthony for the photographs.

The exchange is now firmly established in our calendars - our own Clergy and Choir will celebrate Solemn Vespers at St Paul's later today. From the first years, when we marked the event with reserved and polite nervousness, to today when our firm and familiar friendship is evident, this event has perhaps mirrored something of our own attitudes to Christian unity. At first small steps seemed momentous, like walking on the moon. Our welcome in those days was tinged with panic; what if they did this? How would that be perceived? We had a strong consciousness of breaking new ground, of taking risks. Now, with an ease of relationship, perhaps also something of the urgency of unity has gone; we have slipped into a comfortable pattern of liturgical exchange. It is enough that we have this annual event to show our commitment to unity.

In truth, Christian unity seems a more abstract and impossible goal now than in the past. Recent events, particularly, within the Anglican Communion have rendered the vision of a united Christian Church almost inconceivable.

I was struck, however, this year by the uncompromising tone of the some of the gospel passages we have used at Mass this week: "A kingdom divided against itself must surely fall"; "Father, may they all be one as You and I are one." That these words come from the mouth of Our Lord is reason alone for us to continue to strive for unity. Our annual exchange may be an undemanding and unthreatening way of expressing our commitment, but it does express that commitment. It is a beginning, an openness.

The annual exchange between St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral reminds me that it is good and important simply to pray together. For all the talk, theological discussions and declarations, to stand alongside Christians of other traditions and pray with them is a powerful and essential act. Prayer, among other things, shows us the world as it is before God, and so our joint prayer this week reveals both the distance travelled and the distance yet to travel. It also admonishes us that our modern world will not pay heed to a Church divided; disunity scandalises the pagan as much as the believer. When Christ's Church can speak with one voice, then it will most persuasively proclaim his Gospel.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Gilding the Rood

I raced back to my office for my camera yesterday morning, as I glimpsed the sunlight on the Great Rood. It was a beautiful day - the best of winter: crisp and clear, and the spirits of the large congregation were high.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

The Warmth of Cardinal Cormac

An interesting story in the Sunday Times, this morning, about Don McCullin, the famous photojournalist, who has been invited to photograph ten spiritual leaders for a forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Each was invited to chose a setting that represented their own tradition, and a source of their spiritual life.

Apparently McCullin, who is no stranger to the harshness of war and to scenes of deplorable inhumanity, found this new assignment to be one of his most difficult. He found all ten leaders 'unforgiving.' 'These people are giving guidance to others', he said, 'yet I never felt I could ask them any questions.'

Of all his subjects, only Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor (photographed in St Patrick's Chapel of Westminster Cathedral) 'showed any humour or tried to chat.' Having met a few of McCullins subjects, I find it more likely that they were overawed by the veteran photographer's status, rather than deliberately cold. It is good, however, that Cardinal Cormac, as usual, exuded warmth at his meeting - something for which he is greatly loved.

The exhibition, Faith and Church: Portraits by Don McCullin, will be shown in Room 40 of the National Portrait Gallery from 3 February until May.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School

This promotional video for Westminster Cathedral choir was made last year. There was a originally a proposal to offer it to a TV company as the first of a series of 'fly-on-the-wall' documentaries, but the School Governors felt that this was not an appropriate project to pursue.
The Cathedral Choir School was founded in 1904, along the lines of Anglican Cathedral establishments. Boys come to board at the school from the age of 7, and sing in the choir from age 8. There is no doubt that the standard of music required of them means that the choristers have to be resident at the Cathedral. Their dedication and expertise are an extraordinary example to the rest of the community.

The video offers a fascinating glimpse into this unique Catholic institution - one of the glories of Westminster Cathedral.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

A Burst of Sunshine

The Cathedral is evocative in the gloom, but it takes a burst of sunshine, as this afternoon, to draw out its full beauty. This photograph, taken in the north transept, shows clearly the line between the finished marble decoration, and the bare brick awaiting its mosaics. The green marble (verde antico) comes from the same quarries that supplies marble for Haghia Sophia and Ravenna. The double 'red stripe' decoration is a copy of that in the great church in Istanbul. Visible on the pier, to the right of the picture, is the bronze of St Theresa by Giacomo Manzu' - a rare departure from our mosaic scheme, but a masterwork by this artist who was the favourite of Pope John XXIII. This is the only work by Manzu' outside Italy.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Still Standing

Following the terrible gales that swept the country yesterday, I was relieved to see the Campanile still in place as I passed in the evening. The winds were the strongest we have experienced for many years, the pavements were strewn with broken branches, and transport was significantly disrupted - many staff found it difficult to get into work today.

The Campanile is (of course) in little danger, being so well built by our Victorian forebears. Less fortunate was the Clergy House terrace, where the winds took their toll:

Thursday, 18 January 2007

A Tranquil Corner

A quiet moment in the Clergy House Common Room as Fr Tim Dean chats to Edward Henley - former Intern and now seminary student.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Clergy House Library

A part of the Cathedral rarely seen by visitors (as access for the public is difficult) the library occupies a crossroads - being the one place where the elements of Cathedral, Archbishop's House and Choir School physically impinge upon eachother. The library belongs to Clergy House, but is situated in Archbishop's House (the glassed area on high is the Archbishop's meeting room) and is used mainly as a classroom by the Choir School.
Recently refurbished at the Choir School's expense, the shelves were for many years full of school textbooks, but havenow been filled with exquisite books from the sacristy, and several bequests (including those of the diplomat Sir Paul Wright, and the eccentric convert clergyman Brian Brindley).

Old pictures show that the Clergy House library was once used as a working library, and that it was rather over-cluttered.

These days, this fine room space is also used for scripture study groups, practice space for visiting choirs, and weekend catechetical meetings.