PHILIP HALCROW sees Tony Robinson tell the stories of 'awe-inspiring' cathedrals
HE has been walking on the roof of Canterbury Cathedral and unboxing archaeological finds from beneath the floor of York Minster – and along the way Tony Robinson has been learning more about the highs and lows in the stories of these landmark buildings. In Channel 5’s Britain’s Great Cathedrals, he is visiting six sites and taking a look at their past and present.
In whichever cathedral he has been, Tony has been in awe. In York Minster he marvelled at the Great East Window, ‘the largest expanse of medieval glass in the country’, which, measuring 23m high and 9m wide, is about the size of a tennis court. The building’s medieval stained-glass windows depict Bible stories and in past times would have played an important role in communicating them to people who could not read.
In Canterbury Cathedral, Tony talked of how the architecture would have been cutting edge. ‘Above all else,’ he said as he walked in, ‘a cathedral is intended to be a reflection of Heaven. So when you pass through its doors it symbolises a spiritual journey through the house of God.’
But a glimpse into the past of cathedrals suggests that they have at times been something other than a reflection of Heaven.
Tony interprets some of the architectural features of Canterbury Cathedral – as well as its very construction – as being a ‘statement of power’ by the Normans. After their invasion, they replaced Anglo-Saxon leaders and went on a building spree to show they were here to stay.
The same cathedral was also the site of an event that ‘sent shockwaves throughout Europe’ – the murder in 1170 of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket. He was killed on the spot by knights who believed they were carrying out the wishes of King Henry II.
In cathedrals’ hundreds of years of existence, they have been caught up in violent conflicts, power struggles and monumental fallings-out. If anyone is looking for a clue as to why, they can probably spot it in any stained-glass windows, carvings or tapestries that communicate Bible stories – or in the pages of the Bible itself.
The truth is – says the Bible – that humankind is not what it should be. The truth is that no one is who they should be, whether or not they have helped build a cathedral, worshipped in one or simply visited one.
But the Bible goes beyond pointing out that we are flawed. The message at its heart is that, through Jesus, God has provided a window on his love for us.
Jesus offered forgiveness to people whose self-centredness, self-righteousness and prejudices were causing damage to themselves and others. His words were a guide to life. He showed that no one need feel themselves beyond hope.
It’s why one Bible writer, who was well aware of how much he had been forgiven, said that he wanted people to ‘grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18, 19 New International Version).
That awe-inspiring love is the foundation of the faith expressed in cathedrals everywhere. Those who have put their trust in it have found that it changes their view of their own history and gives them a hope for their future.
The War Cry
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