What is a Cathedral?

There is an old fable that recounts a traveller coming upon three men labouring on a building site. As he walked from one to the next he asked each man what he was doing.‘I am laying bricks’ said the first. ‘I am making a wall’ said the second, but the third stood proudly and replied, ‘I am building a cathedral.’ This story has been used to illustrate the importance of vision in personal motivation for many years.

In fact, Christchurch has a plethora of cathedrals; it has a former cathedral, a pro-cathedral, a transitional cathedral, and it has the idea of a cathedral being prayerfully imagined by Bishop Paul Martin.

So, with everyone in the room having an interest in one or more cathedrals, I want to reflect for a minute on “What is a cathedral?”. Technically, it is where the seat or throne of the Bishop of the Diocese is located. There is a bond that links the office of the Bishop with the cathedral building and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese. It is not just another building.

Non-episcopal churches might have grand buildings, but they never seem to become the place of popular affection and seen as vital to their cities in the way cathedrals are. For some protestant churches, where church polity has done away with episcopal authority, they have nevertheless kept their cathedral and continued to call them cathedrals – I am thinking of the Church of Scotland’s St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, but there are many more.

The use of cathedrals for ceremonies of immense significance is telling. Amiens Cathedral in northern France was host to the ceremony to mark 100years since the end of WWI is but one of thousands of instances.

A cathedral can be a great meeting place for a community, and they are a fountain of spirituality and of the performing and visual arts.

Cathedrals create heroes of ordinary folk. One of my favourites involves a diver in a diving bell – remember, with my name, I was always called Diver Dan as a child – but I came to appreciate this in a cathedral. The Cathedral at Winchester, England has a small Norman section that is almost 1000 years old. Today, the cathedral is an enormous building built on a raft of oak logs. In the early 20th century, the foundations were waterlogged at the corner of the south and east walls, and a diver named William Walker packed the foundations with more than 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks. He worked six hours a day – you might say, “only 6 hours a day? That sounds like a good job!” but, for six hours a day from 1906 to 1912 in the mud, wearing a diving bell with air pumped to him through a tube, in total darkness going as far as six metres below ground, he worked to save the cathedral from collapse.

You, our guests at this dinner, are also cathedral heroes. Fortunately, you don’t have to go into the mud. You have many roles, in church administration, governance of cathedral projects, property management and construction, benefactors to one or more cathedrals, and the AskRIGHT team, of course, in raising funds for the cathedral and other projects.

This is a transcript of the speech by Dr Daniel McDiarmid (Director, AskRIGHT) at the Cathedrals Conference Dinner for the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand in October 2019.