11 May 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
84, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

Liverpool Cathedral is the largest in the Church of England, and the longest and fifth largest in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Sunday (9 May 2021) was the Sixth Sunday of Easter and later this week we celebrate Ascension Day. My photographs this week are selected from seven cathedrals throughout England. Earlier in these reflections, during Lent, I used images from Lichfield Cathedral (15 March 2021) and Coventry Cathedral (19 March). But these cathedrals, which I have visited in recent years, have been selected randomly.

This morning (11 May 2021), my photographs are from the Church of England cathedral in Liverpool. Ten years ago (16 October 2011), the then Dean of Liverpool, now Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, invited me to preach at the Judges’ Service in Liverpool Cathedral. I was a guest too at the Judges’ Dinner in the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott Rooms in Liverpool Cathedral, and at a lunch hosted by the High Sheriff of Merseyside, the late Professor Helen Carty, at the Artists’ Club.

There are more listed buildings in Liverpool than in any other English city, apart from London. They include Liverpool Cathedral, which stands on Saint James’s Mount. There are two cathedrals in Liverpool: Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

The Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool is the largest cathedral in the Church of England, and the longest and fifth largest in the world: the external length, including the Lady Chapel, is 189 metres (620 ft), while its internal length is 146 metres (479 ft. The belltower is the largest and one of the tallest, in the world, and houses the world’s highest (67 m) and heaviest (31 short tons) ringing peal of bells.

This is only the third Anglican cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation –Saint Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt by Christopher Wren in London in 1666 after the Great Fire, and Truro Cathedral was built in the 19th century. Although Liverpool Cathedral is dedicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, its official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool. But it is known to one and all simply as Liverpool Cathedral.

The magnificent central space of the cathedral stretches east from the bridge towards the choir and the high altar. The central space dominates the view of the cathedral and its enormity gives an impression of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s vision of our relationship with God. This central space has witnessed a variety of services, occasions and events, with congregations up to 2,000 at a variety of worship and celebration services, special events and exhibitions.

When John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880, his new diocese had no cathedral. Saint Peter’s Parish Church served as a ‘pro-cathedral,’ but it was too small for major events, and the Rector of Liverpool at the time described it as ‘ugly and hideous.’ The site of Saint John’s Church, beside Saint George’s Hall, was unsuitable for a cathedral and those plans were abandoned too.

Bishop Francis Chavasse (1846-1928), a former principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, became the second bishop in 1900 and immediately revived the project to build a cathedral in the face of opposition from some evangelical clergy, who argued there was no need for such expense. Although Chavasse was an Evangelical too, he envisaged a cathedral as ‘a visible witness to God in the midst of a great city.’ A new site was chosen at Saint James’s Mount.

The cathedral historian Vere Cotton wrote that, ‘with the exception of Durham, no English cathedral is so well placed to be seen to advantage both from a distance and from its immediate vicinity. That such a site, convenient to yet withdrawn from the centre of the city … dominating the city and clearly visible from the river, should have been available is not the least of the many strokes of good fortune which have marked the history of the cathedral.’

The Liverpool Cathedral Act (1902) allowed the diocese to buy the site, but once the cathedral was open Saint Peter’s Church was to be demolished and the site sold to endow the new cathedral chapter.

The stipulations for the cathedral design stirred controversy, and Reginald Blomfield and others protested, describing the Gothic style as a ‘worn-out flirtation in antiquarianism, now relegated to the limbo of art delusions.’

There was further controversy when the commission went to 22-year-old Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960). He was from a distinguished line of architects that stretched back for generations. His grandfather, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), was inspired by Pugin to join the Gothic Revival, designed the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford and the Midland Grand Hotel at Saint Pancras in London, and his many restorations included Lichfield Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth. His father, George Gilbert Scott (1839-1897), was a leading exponent of the Gothic Revival, known for many buildings in Cambridge colleges.

But young Giles Gilbert Scott he was still in articles with only the design of a pipe-rack to his credit. His selection became even more contentious when it was revealed that Scott was a Roman Catholic. Scott was placed under the direct supervision of his father’s close friend, GF Bodley, work began without delay, and the foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII in 1904. At the end of the great open-air service, the choir of a thousand voices sang the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah.

However, Bodley’s collaboration with Scott became fractious, and Bodley’s absences from Liverpool were frequent. When Bodley died in 1907, Scott submitted an entirely new design for the main body of the cathedral that was approved in 1910.

The cathedral was built mainly of sandstone quarried – well, the Beatles did first call themselves The Quarrymen. The Lady Chapel, originally intended to be called the Morning Chapel, was consecrated by Bishop Chavasse on Saint Peter’s Day, 29 June 1910 – a date chosen to honour the pro-cathedral, about to be demolished.

The richness of the décor of the Lady Chapel dismayed some of Liverpool’s evangelical clergy, upset that were presented with ‘a feminised building which lacked reference to the ‘manly’ and ‘muscular Christian’ thinking which had emerged in reaction to the earlier feminisation of religion.’ To many, the new cathedral seemed to be too Anglo-Catholic in design.

The cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Chavasse on 19 July 1924, the 20th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone, and in 1931 Frederick William Dwelly became the first Dean of Liverpool.

The central section was completed by 1941 and was handed over to the Dean and Chapter. Scott laid the last stone of the last pinnacle in 1942, but work did not resume until 1948 and the bomb damage, particularly to the Lady Chapel, was not fully repaired until 1955.

When Scott died in 1960, the first bay of the nave was nearly complete, and it was handed over to the Dean and Chapter in 1961. The cathedral was finally completed in 1978. The cathedral celebrated its centenary in 2004.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is also remembered as the designer of the red telephone box, the now defunct Battersea Power Station, and the Bankside Power Station in London, now the Tate Modern. His other works include the Memorial Court (1923-1934) at Clare College, Cambridge, and the University Library on West Road, Cambridge, much criticised for looking more like a ‘crematorium or a power station.’

Archbishop Welby was succeeded as Dean of Liverpool by Canon Pete Wilcox, Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral and now Bishop of Sheffield. The present Dean of Liverpool is the Very Revd Sue Jones.

The Anglican cathedral dominates Liverpool’s city skyline and is clearly visible from the waterfront (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 16: 5-11 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.’

The enormity of Liverpool Cathedral gives an impression of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s vision of our relationship with God (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (11 May 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us remember the life of Mary Seacole, a compassionate and resilient woman who provided healing in times of conflict. May we emulate her caring attitude towards others.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The high altar and east window in Liverpool Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

With the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Revd Patrick Kelly, and the late Professor Helen Carty, then High Sheriff of Merseyside, and at the Judges’ Service in Liverpool Cathedral on Sunday 16 October 2011

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