Nearly two years ago, I was visiting a country parish in Kent for a Sunday morning. Over coffee after the service, a man approached me to tell me how he’d found his way to Christian faith – and it was a devastatingly simple story.
He’d gone with his young son on a school trip to Canterbury Cathedral – his first visit. When he entered the building, he felt immediately that his life would have to change. Suddenly the world looked different.
There was this great building, silently telling him that the world wasn’t quite what he’d thought it was and that a path of discovery lay ahead of him. That’s just one person’s testimony; but research published this autumn on the impact of cathedrals suggests that it isn’t by any means unique.
Cathedral congregations have increased dramatically in recent years. The impact of cathedrals on local communities is more and more clearly recognised by people inside and outside the Church. And even casual visitors want to find space for prayer and quiet.
This is not the familiar story of a Church that’s fading away. It should make us think twice before signing up to that particular cliché. And it is the story behind a documentary on Canterbury Cathedral this Christmas.
The film tries to show how a building like Canterbury carries in its fabric a set of questions about how we are to live – questions about the moments when loyal-ties to Church and to state or to society come into conflict, questions about how religions lose the plot, lose their vision or their integrity, questions about what difference it makes for people to give their whole lives to prayer.
Taking part in this film made me think hard about all this – and helped me to see how just letting the building “soak into” your mind and imagination keeps these challenges alive. Canterbury Cathedral is a huge, unmistakeable physical fact: it simply stands there, quietly letting us know how deeply these issues mattered to people who were not so unlike us.
It reminds us that there were some who thought them a matter of life and death – like Thomas Becket, who died as a result of protesting against the king’s absolute claims. Less dramatically, it reminds us of those generations of monks who fervently believed that the best thing they could do for the world was to hold it steadily in prayer, in a daily rhythm of simple living and concentrated quietness.
You can’t fail to recognise that at the very least it’s a great open space for us to come into and discover new things about our human life and possibilities. And Christmas itself is about the arrival of a person whose words and actions and sufferings make that sort of space for us all.
It isn’t about the arrival of a new philosophy – or even just a new religion. The compassion that is shown by Jesus is something that takes us as we are and gives us freedom to ask the hardest questions; freedom to grow up, confident that at every stage of our lives we are welcomed and understood and affirmed.
Freedom to face our shadows and betrayals as well, because we know that love can always make a fresh start with us. Like Canterbury Cathedral, the life of Jesus stands there, an unmistakeable physical fact in the world’s history, letting us know that God makes room for us to grow and flourish in his company.
When the world is full of cynicism and our institutions let us down, we need to rediscover the space, the fresh air, that this great fact opens to us. When the Church itself looks dysfunctional or muddled (yes, I have noticed), there are still things that don’t change.
A couple of days after the Church of England’s painful vote on women bishops, I was back in Canterbury, looking at the building and thinking, “Not even these past few days take away the open space, the possibilities.”
The Cathedral still stands; Jesus really was born into this world, a flesh-and-blood fact that never goes away. So have a joyful Christmas, in the knowledge there is room for you in a love that doesn’t let go.
The Archbishop delivers his New Year message at 12.15pm on BBC1 on New Year’s Day