People flock from across the Diocese of Norwich, which includes almost all of Norfolk and a sliver of north Suffolk, to visit, to attend celebratory services at the ‘mother church’, and to enjoy its music.
Canon Andy Bryant preached at a recent Sunday Evensong to which cathedral volunteers were specifically invited. His sermon conveyed poetically the majesty of Norwich cathedral, built to glorify God. This is the text of his sermon. I’m grateful to Canon Andy for permission to reproduce it here, and I have illustrated it with a small selection of views from this wonderful building.
Given your affection for this place, how would you describe Norwich Cathedral?
We have various stock phrases we use to describe the cathedral: a place of Christian worship for over 900 years, a Christian presence at the heart of Norfolk, a place of worship, learning and hospitality, the home of the bishop’s cathedra, one of the most unaltered Norman cathedrals in England, the home of the greatest collection of medieval roof bosses anywhere in the world.
All of these statements are true and yet… and yet none of them, nor all of them, fully do this place justice. It is all these things and more, so much more.
A place of history and yet a living building
The cathedral is complete but still being added to, it is rooted in tradition and yet endlessly changing and evolving. Once it was a place of bright, perhaps even garish, decoration; now it has an empty beauty, and part of its beauty is the way it is worn and eroded, scarred by fire, damaged by violence, altered by each succeeding generation and littered with graffiti. Its soaring spire draws attention to itself, but it is hidden behind walls, it invites all to enter yet keeps them out by two imposing gateways. It draws the eye, yet in drawing the eye it hides itself. If you look up you miss all that is lower down, and if you look down your miss all that is above you.
Light dances on the walls but produces shadows that hide. It makes a big impression and yet delights with tiny details. It is a whole but only reveals itself in parts. As it draws you in, new vistas open up and other parts recede from sight and become hidden. It reveals as it hides and hides as it reveals. The changing time of day, the changing of the weather and the changing seasons all play their part in both revealing and hiding.
A place built to glorify God
The sheer scale and size stills the mind and body, but also creates a restlessness to discover and explore. It both calls forth silence and invites music. It celebrates life but you are walking on graves; you make your own unique pilgrimage in the space, but you are always treading on the footsteps of those who have gone before you.
It is a place where each new generation seeks to make its mark and yet in the unfolding chapters of history is the realisation that nothing is ever really new. It is a space built to the glory of God, and worship shapes the way the building is laid out. Font, pulpit and altar dominate, speaking of the God encountered in word and sacrament. And cross and crucifix speak of a God who became incarnate came to earth as one of us, making God known in human form. God’s story is literally carved in the stone of the roof of the building. It seeks to make God known whilst also understanding the unknowability of God, speaking in equal measure of the presence and mystery of God, of the one who is both approachable and unapproachable, to be loved and to be feared, who comes in love but overwhelms us in awe.
The longest guided tour can never do justice to all this building stands for. No words ever fully describe it. Our visitor book repeats words such as beautiful, awesome, wonderful, hinting at the impact of the building but never doing it justice. The longer the association with the cathedral, the harder it becomes to find the words that adequately express all that it means. There is always more to say, more to be seen, more to be experienced.
A place that points towards mystery
And the cathedral exists precisely for this purpose, to say to all who pass by that there is more to life. The spire points beyond itself, saying, “Look, there is more”, and nave, choir, presbytery and chapel are all spaces which hint at that which is still waiting to be discovered. Whatever we carried with us on entry, the building shows us there is yet more to be added to our lives, but it also invites us to consider what we need to let go of, that we may leave lighter, re-orientated, newly focused – it is a building that both gives and takes, that adds and subtracts.
In wood and stone our Norman forebears sought to give shape and give form to mystery. Each passing generation has tried to make their mark and reveal something more of that mystery or cast it in a new light, and so has enriched our exploration and discovery within the prayer-soaked walls today.
There is always more to know, to see, to experience in this place precisely because there is always more to know and experience about God. Our pilgrimage through this place echoes our life pilgrimage, giving us both new insight and a deeper understanding, comforting and challenging us in equal measure, reassuring and searching us.
Free guided tours of the cathedral are available Monday–Saturday, on the hour, between 10am and 3pm. Groups of eight or more should book in advance and will involve a small charge.