The Rev Canon Sarah Brown:
I have just buried my mother-in-law (don’t be alarmed - she was dead and I had permission.) She was a woman of strong character who would never use three or four words when a couple of thousand would do. Some might suggest that we had that in common but I couldn’t possibly comment.
As a diligent daughter-in-law I had heard her tell the stories of her life many times and in considerable detail and so was well equipped, I thought, to take her funeral. Actually, it was one of the most difficult funerals I have ever written. I knew too much. Condensing all those stories into a ten minute eulogy was never going to do her justice. I did my best but it was still the sort of funeral that cried out for ice cream at half time.
This makes me wonder about squishing a life into a short narrative. In a sense, this is what history does. Our ‘everydays’ are condensed into a series of edited highlights.
Telling the story of my mother-in-law’s life is complicated enough but try doing the same for a 900 year old building you attain a whole new level of oversimplification!
The early monks were holy and industrious until murderously dishevelled by the Vikings who were Very Bad Indeed. Hereward the Wake was not as bad as the Vikings, being a local boy, but was still not an asset and then the Normans came along. We like them and their lovely round arches!
The middle ages were corrupt and rather embarrassingly un-PC, but somehow Henry VIII didn’t dismantle the monastery but made it a cathedral, thus earning brownie points. However, he was horrible to Katherine of Aragon, of whom we are very fond and therefore we have mixed feelings about him. He upset her family, who were mates with the Pope and thus caused a rift with Rome which led ultimately to the invention of the Church of England. Hoorah! Mary Queen of Scots was buried and then unburied here, for which we may never truly forgive those responsible, and the roundheads trashed anything they didn’t like, which was nearly everything. The Victorians changed the building almost beyond recognition but with great panache; they even found a way to heat it tolerably and rebuilt the collapsing tower…. I could go on but those are the best bits.
A short summary of the history of Peterborough Cathedral is a valid way to tell its life story. But like my mother-in-law’s eulogy it misses the point. Over the last 900 years this building has welcomed a multitude: monks, priests, bishops, merchants, pilgrims, townsfolk, cutpurses, noblemen and paupers. Each with their own stories, prayers and travails. Their lives have woven in amongst its triumphs and disasters.
Today as we struggle financially we might reflect on other hard times; on plagues and famines and wars; on management and mismanagement, of pride and fall and rising again. It is an infinitely complex and fascinating story.
But amidst that complexity there is one nutshell narrative that works - a single powerful constant that holds the cathedral apart from other old buildings. Forget the Vikings, the Saxons, the Normans, the Tudors and the rest of them. Just remember Jesus Christ, for not a day will have passed here in 1300 years without prayers here in the morning and in the evening. The nutshell narrative of this place is simply one of continuous worship, prayer and service to the one whose love for you and me is the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow and whose life, death and resurrection still bring good news to this city.
That is the history that truly matters. That is the purpose of the cathedral. That is its present and its future. Whatever happens.