Oxford Cathedral

Some of our congregation act as volunteers at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, while, like some members of the Ministry team, I act as a Day Chaplain once or twice a month. I was there last Monday. This is part of the cathedral’s ministry of welcome to tourists and visitors of which there are a great many, partly as a by-product of the lure of Harry Potter which brings them into Christ Church to see the Great Hall which doubles as the Hogwarts dining hall. The volunteers act as guides and welcomers while the Day Chaplain is there to say two minutes of prayers every hour on the hour from 10.00 am to 4 pm, and to talk to visitors if they want to be talked to.

Christ Church is unique as a Cathedral in that it is also the college chapel for Christ Church. Beginning as the church of the monastery of St Frideswide in early medieval times, it is also, as cathedrals go, rather small, particularly as 15m of the nave were demolished in the 1520s to make space for the grand quadrangle created by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as part of his new Cardinal College. After his fall from power, in 1530, Henry VIII refounded the college as the King’s College and then in 1546 established the former monastic church as the cathedral of the new diocese of Oxford as well as the chapel of his college, now refounded again by him as Christ Church.

All of us, volunteers and Day Chaplains, have different experiences of Christ Church Cathedral. I went there first as a pageboy at a wedding at the age of five. From seven to 11 years of age, I went with my school very morning to morning prayers in the Latin Chapel (in the north-east corner of the cathedral) and in the very bleak mid-winter of 1962/3 the first archaeological excavation I worked on (as a schoolboy) was of that same Latin Chapel. More recently I have gone there principally for the annual licensing service for Licensed Lay Ministers.

Now, as a Day Chaplain, I spend the whole day in the Cathedral with the chance of absorbing its architecture, art and atmosphere and see more and more what a beautiful and spiritual place it is. Every time I see something new, as for example the pink Victorian loo which Edward Burne-Jones sneaked into the death-scene of St Frideswide in the east window of the Latin Chapel which had totally passed me by on all the occasions I sat in the chapel as a small boy at school prayers.

Through all the time I have known it, Christ Church Cathedral has remained in many ways the same but it also changes to reflect the changing needs of the Church and its people. Just at the moment the nave is full of scaffolding for necessary high level works to the lighting so the Cathedral looks different again.

Apart from being the mother-church of the diocese, it also has a flourishing congregation of its own and a continuing centuries-old tradition of choral music. Now I am seeing it in yet another light as a place welcoming visitors of all faiths and none. There are guided parties who rush through because they have to be somewhere else. There are other groups (last Monday it was many groups of French teenagers – very well behaved) who spend more time and are carefully guided round it. Then there are people who have just come in after seeing the Great Hall and remembering Harry Potter. There are those who come to pray, those who want to spend much time looking at the architecture, those seeking a particular grave or monument, those following up Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, and even those who have just wandered in.

I get asked questions from time to time – last Monday it was a father and his teenage son, from Phoenix Arizona, who wanted to know why the heads of the figures on the sides of the tomb of Lady Elisabeth Montacute have been knocked off – the result of over-zealous 16th or 17th century reformers who must have thought that they were saints and objected to graven images. But the thing I notice most is how respectful almost all visitors are to the atmosphere and spirituality of the Cathedral. Almost all stop moving and talking during the hourly prayers. This shows how buildings can have a sense of the sacred and an atmosphere of holiness which influences and calms almost all people who enter. The Cathedral is a place of awe and holiness as well as a great piece of architecture and this is felt by all of us who go there, even when it is very familiar to us.