Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral

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.

 

Cathedral exterior
Cathedral exterior

 

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:

 

Height of Big Ben 320 ft
Height of Big Ben 320 ft

Hold it up to electric light and all is revealed:

 

Height to top of cross 473 ft
Height to top of cross 473 ft

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.

 

Cathedral interior
Cathedral interior, a peaceful reflective space

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 view toward the altar
The view toward the altar

 

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.

 

View of the lantern
View of the lantern

 

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.

 

The view along Hope Street
The view along Hope Street

L8 Unseen, Museum of Liverpool

L8 Unseen

 

L8 Unseen runs at the Museum of Liverpool from 3 April to 6 September. It is a collection of striking images taken by photographer Othello de’Souza-Hartley. The pictures are all blown up to a large scale and rich in detail. Each one features someone or some group of people who live in Liverpool 8 pictured inside a building that reflects the history of Liverpool. The poster used to advertise the exhibition, and reproduced above for instance, shows Cherise Smith of the Tiber Young People’s Steering Group in the boardroom of the Liver Building.

There are also interactive elements in the exhibition in which you can listen to personal stories and send in your own photographs to add to the story. This has been incredibly successful and over 2,500 people have sent in their own photographs in the first weeks of the exhibition.

The blurb for the exhibition declares that “Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location”. This identity is based upon diversity, something that is rooted in Liverpool’s development from the eighteenth century onwards as a major seaport that brought so many peoples and cultures to its streets. But in this also lies the downside – Liverpool’s prosperity was based, from the opening of its first dock in the early eighteenth century until 1807, on the slave trade and so the exhibition notes that many of the places used “were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the slave trade.” This is undoubtedly true – even for buildings like the Liver Building, built as late as the twentieth century – for without that era of massive expansion when Liverpool became the pre-eminent slave ship port the continued advancement of the Victorian era and later would not have happened. This reprehensible trade carried on by so many people in Liverpool for a hundred years brought tremendous riches and provided the backbone of the city’s prosperity. So the buildings used include the Town Hall, The Black-E arts centre (which was once Great George Street Congregational Church), the Liver Building, a house in Abercomby Square, dock buildings, the Athenaeum Club and other places. There is no getting away from the fact that virtually the whole city was effectively complicit in a vicious trade but I can’t help feeling that somewhere like the Athenaeum perhaps indicates a slightly different attitude, after all it included amongst its founding members William Roscoe and his circle, people who opposed the slave trade from the start and were eventually successful in getting it stopped. We shouldn’t overlook the courage of people like Roscoe who stood out against the prevailing orthodoxy at the time.

My favourite photograph shows four religious leaders from places of worship in Liverpool 8, generally from near the top of Princes Avenue. Seated around a table in the Town Hall are representatives of the Al Taiseer Mosque, Princes Road Synagogue. St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and St Margaret’s Church of England, all resplendent in liturgical garb. One hopes that this gathering represents some sort of on-going dialogue between the different faiths rather than just a gathering for a photo opportunity. At least two of the religious buildings that they represent are amongst the grandest and most impressive buildings in the city and Liverpool, of course, had the first mosque ever built in England. What a shame the nearby Welsh Presbyterian Church, itself something of a mini-cathedral, is now gone, then they could have had a sober Presbyterian in preaching bands and black cassock join the group too. But the building has been derelict for years and the original congregation left in the 1970s. That illustrates one aspect of diversity which has almost entirely disappeared in Liverpool. When I was young the city was dotted with Welsh speaking churches, now I think just one small chapel remains. Sad to note the disappearance of this group, although even in Wales the types of churches that they comprised are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were.

But it is an illuminating exhibition that reflects the resilience and the vitality of Toxteth/Liverpool 8. As Laurence Westgraph says in his notes accompanying the exhibition “what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting, tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures.”