Cathedrals – why?

I was in Sweden a week or so ago and visited Uppsala cathedral. I tend to head for the nearest cathedral when I’m somewhere new. I’m not sure why.

On the one hand, the art and architecture tends to be something special, and there are many treats in the side chapels, like the reredos pictured here. There is majesty here, a sense of awe and wonder, and an abundance of history. On the other hand, they were built at tremendous cost when the people round about were probably struggling to survive – and are maintained at great cost too. They represent a reaching out to the divine and an attempt to glorify God but also there’s an element of building up brownie points for the hereafter, reducing time spent in Purgatory and the like.

For me, brought up in a Yorkshire Baptist tradition, with churches made as plain as possible to avoid idolatry, there’s a jarring of my sense of propriety. Exactly who, or what, is being worshipped here? But strangely, as I move further away from the certainties of nonconformism and closer to feeling comfortable with mystery, a cathedral strikes a chord. I feel it shouldn’t, but it does. I sit or stand, or wander around, and feel a sense of peace, of reassurance – much needed right now – and of permanence.

Uppsala Cathedral has its own special feeling, a different atmosphere. Lutheran, with amazing wall hangings and art, and a beautiful organ, it lacks the reminders of war which tug at the heart strings in many UK cathedrals, but there is plenty of history. Like many cathedrals it is also, in effect, an art gallery and a museum but one with soul. So, while it still feels like a guilty pleasure, I’ll go on spending time in cathedrals whenever I can.

Tony Earnshaw

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