On a visit last month to a particular parish in our diocese, I mentioned a recent experience in a German cathedral which had made me think. It happened in Bonn during the summer, and while no one was looking I thought I would dare to ‘try out’ the bishop’s chair, known in Latin as the cathedra. What makes cathedrals distinctive of course is that, large or small, they contain the teaching chair of the bishop.
In this particular cathedral the Chair from afar looked elegant and beautiful. It was large and suitably prominent, and although the building was old the Chair itself was relatively new in design. It had I learned been made by a prominent artist from local timber … Its proportions were seemly and its colours rich. But when I drew near to sit on it, I had quite a different experience. There was absolutely no way in which its occupant could be comfortable. There was a quirky message contained in the design of this chair that could really only be appreciated by physically sitting in it. The actual seat of the cathedra on which the bishop was obliged to place his or her posterior was rough-hewn, with the knot of the wood pressing uncomfortably upon the anatomy. The seat had moreover an inbuilt forward slope, so that the bishop had constantly to concentrate on not falling off! No chance of snatching some moments of sleep here.
In truth it is all rather a good parable of today’s church, and particularly of leadership within that body. Hence it has a certain relevance as the bishop prepares to take the chair when the church gathers in diocesan synod once again this month. On the one hand, there must always be a magnetic attractiveness about how the church conducts itself, particularly as it gathers for worship. Beauty and holiness are always inextricably linked. Those who minister in the church must never lose their sense of the essential loveliness of what they are called to do. Ugliness, lack of integrity, ungraciousness … these things should have no place among us.
Yet leadership in the church should offer no complacent comfort, no prospect of slumber. To attempt to interpret the faith in the world we know must always be an uncomfortable thing. There will be times when the world seems indifferent or hostile; yet there will also be times when one feels uneasily that there is more authentic love out in ‘the world’ than in certain aspects of the life of the church. The teacher of the faith must at times have an uneasy relationship with the very institution they purport to lead. To sit at the threshold between the church and the world is the right place to be, yet it is also a messy and disturbing spot. One will not survive at all without the correct blend of vigilance, empathy and openness to the activity of God’s Spirit in the midst of the unexpected. One can never simply settle back in the chair and watch the drama of liturgy and life with passive contentment. A few moments too much of that and one is likely to become an episcopal Humpty Dumpty!
I could carry the imagery too far, but I relish the overall picture especially as we prepare to meet in synod. For numerous hours hundreds of us will sit on our chairs, listening and learning and planning. The whole experience if it is to have value should be a genuinely lovely one – at its best music to the soul – yet never a comfortable or a passive one. There will be plenty of problems and challenges and visions and robust wholesome discussions to keep us wide awake.
(Incidentally, having said all the above, I doubt I quite have the nerve actually to ask our six deans to design as many new and uncomfortable cathedrae in our various cathedrals!)
We welcome warmly the Revd David Bayne and his wife Alison who have recently come to live among us in retirement near Carnew. Alison has roots in these parts. David has just retired after a long and fruitful ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. While, of course, they deserve space to enjoy this new chapter in their lives, David has been given permission to officiate here and we look forward to having the benefit of his involvement and wisdom from time to time.
Michael Cashel Ferns & Ossory