On a recent visit to Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral I was struck by the beauty of the place – not quite for the first time – but on a profounder level than I had experienced before. It is a building of the 1960s in every way, with a lot of the problems that would be associated with such a building, especially one that was, in the end, built quickly and on a limited budget.
The original plan had been very extravagant indeed, a massive structure that would have dwarfed the large Anglican Cathedral nearby. Sir Edwin Lutyens was brought in to provide a plan for the second biggest cathedral in the world, the model for which can still be seen in the Museum of Liverpool. I have a promotional postcard from the 1930s that shows just how big they expected it to be:
Hold it up to electric light and all is revealed:
But although the crypt was completed and remains part of the continuing cathedral the great romanesque building of Lutyens’ design could never be constructed after the war. Somewhere in the crypt there is a brick with my great grandmother’s name on, one of the thousands of faithful who made a contribution to build the northern cathedral in the 1920s and 1930s. But although I wasn’t an Anglican, in my youth it was the Church of England cathedral that played a bigger role in my life. We went there for school Founders’ Day, often a bit of a trial, especially when I was dragooned into the junior choir. I was also there for the Boys’ Brigade Liverpool battalion church parades. These I found much more enjoyable especially when I was a member of the colour party and got to process through the cathedral and sit in the choir stalls, learning along the way quite a bit about liturgy and the conduct of worship. But no visitor to the Anglican cathedral can fail to be impressed by its sheer grandeur, it is a breathtaking building.
So I didn’t go to the Metropolitan Cathedral often and when I did it was reminiscent to me of the ‘space race’, of something very modern and a bit utilitarian. The bare concrete walls didn’t help in this regard. Coming straight after Vatican II its central altar and circular design is another typically sixties design which is fine if you like that sort of thing but I have never felt that worship in the round was necessarily the best way for any group of faithful people to gather.
But if you go in the cathedral today, as I did recently, you are struck by a quiet, luminous beauty. The blue of the stained glass windows seems to fill the space with a peaceful, reflective sense. The bare walls are frequently covered by tapestries and different hangings which create interest and warmth and although, when I visited, there were a number of school parties being shown round, the atmosphere of peace and worship was never interrupted. This I think is testimony to the skill of the guides and the attentiveness of the school pupils. The circular space has one great advantage in that if you walk around you discover a truly meditative experience. Indeed I felt so enthralled that I walked round twice and would happily have continued in my perambulations if other matters had not called upon my attention.
The light seemed to flood in from the lantern on this particular sunny day and infused the building with a sense of the numinous. It made me glad that I had gone in. There is a great deal of art to view. Again much of it very redolent of the 1960s but there’s nothing wrong with that. Not all of it can appeal to everyone but some of it struck me on that day as impressive, Robert Brumby’s terracotta statue of the Virgin and Child seems to fill the corner of the Lady Chapel very appropriately, for instance.
But leaving the cathedral on this sunny day I had to go and look again at the site of Hope Street Church. This building is now long gone, just one of a number of sometimes quite grand churches that once featured on these surrounding streets, it has to be said. You can read about Hope Street Church in a previous post. But the building on the right of the picture now called the Liverpool Media Academy, right next to the Philharmonic Hall, was once the site of James Martineau’s Church. The view from outside now looks along Hope Street to the modern cathedral opened in 1967.