I sat in the Cathedral congregation on Sunday morning and looked at the Nicholson screen. That’s to say, I looked at a very large-scale photo of the Nicholson screen – fixed onto the hoarding that covers the fact that behind it the Nicholson screen is gradually being dismantled, piece by piece to be taken off site and stored carefully. Later in the year it will be brought back and refabricated, some 5 metres further east, to form the backdrop to the new Sanctuary, and the front wall of the Ambulatory where the tomb of Richard III will lie. So there it is, looking almost as large as life, as it has been for over 80 years, the scene against which worship takes place. And there it isn’t. Appearance – and reality.
But as we’re taking this magnificent piece of joinery apart, guess what we’re finding? It may look gloriously moulded and well fitted. But behind the scenes, it’s been nailed together with odd scraps of wood and spatch-cocked joints to force it to fit into the space. Whoever was supervising those workmen, they were much more concerned with what would be in the public eye. Much less with what it looked like where no-one would ever see it – until now. Appearance – and reality.
As I looked around the congregation that morning, I saw the usual mix of young and old, regulars and visitors, smart and casual, all representing many nations, in a very Leicester way. And I thought of how very respectable and liturgical and Cathedral it all looked and sounded. And yet of how on the way in my passengers, are a Pakistani Christian couple who have had to seek refuge here because of threats to their lives from extremists in their own country, told me of first-hand news this week from his brother in Khafji, Saudi Arabia, where he had also sought refuge from Pakistani extremism, and where the congregation of 28 people that he was usually part of had just been rounded up and disappeared into captivity – for praying. For doing just what we were doing in the Cathedral, almost as if it didn’t cost anything. The readings on this Holy Cross Day told us that “God loved the world so much that he sent his Son… …not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.” And the sermon (thanks, David) reminded us that often it is what we most fear that must be confronted in order to find the salvation that God offers us. Appearance – and reality.
It can sometimes appear that what we are about in this phase of the life of the Cathedral is being dictated by a tourism-driven celebration of a long-gone part of English history that a one in a million chance has brought to life in the present. and at one level, perhaps we are. But look behind the scenes and maybe you’ll find something different. A group of people striving, as Christians around the world strive, to confront our own fears, to face down the hostility of opponents with integrity and love, and to make our own lives more forgiven and more forgiving – and, please God, more honest. To move beyond appearances, to reality.
Well – that’s what I found myself thinking. Maybe you had to be there.