15 May 2021
Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
88, Ely Cathedral
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 Thursday was Ascension Day (13 May 2021). 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.
My photographs this morning (15 May 2021) are from Ely Cathedral. Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the low-lying wetlands of the Fens, so that it has long been known as the ‘Ship of the Fens.’ It is said the cathedral can be seen from almost every parish in the Diocese of Ely, which includes most of Cambridgeshire, parts of Norfolk and Essex, and one parish in Bedfordshire.
Ely, with about 15,000 people, is the third smallest city in England and was only recognised as a city in a royal charter in 1974. The Isle of Ely remained a separate county until 1965. Saint Ethelreda (Audrey), an Anglo-Saxon princess and Fenland queen, founded an abbey on the Isle of Ely in 673 AD. The Diocese of Ely was formed in 1108 out of the See of Lincoln, and the monastery became a cathedral in 1109.
Ely Cathedral is cruciform in shape and for its time was a model of symmetry. The nave, at 165.5 m (537 ft) is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England. The Octagon or ‘Lantern Tower,’ which replaced the central tower, is a unique structure and the glory of Ely Cathedral.
The main transepts were built at an early stage, crossing the nave below a central tower, and are the oldest surviving parts of the cathedral. Building work continued throughout the 12th century, when the western transepts and tower were completed under Bishop Geoffrey Ridel (1174-1189) in an exuberant Romanesque style with a rich decoration of intersecting arches and complex mouldings.
The Galilee or entrance porch was added under Bishop Eustace (1198-1215) in the Early English Gothic style. Under Bishop Hugh of Northwold, a new east end was begun in 1234, with a grand 10-bay structure. His chancel was completed around 1252.
The free-standing Lady Chapel was built in 1321-1349 in an exuberant Decorated Gothic style. The niches were once filled with an extensive sculpted cycle illustrating the life-story of the Virgin Mary, but they were damaged during the Reformation and the Lady Chapel was stripped of all decoration.
The great Norman crossing tower collapsed in 1322, damaging the first four bays of the Early Gothic choir. These bays were rebuilt, and the tower was replaced by the Octagonal Lantern. Although it is supported on eight massive masonry piers, the lantern is built from oak timbers. When it was completed in 1340, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe and it remains Ely Cathedral’s most distinctive feature, visible for miles across the Fens.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cathedral suffered only minor damage, but Saint Etheldreda’s shrine was destroyed, many of the statues in the Lady Chapel were severely damaged, and Bishop Thomas Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the mediaeval statues, painting and stained glass.
Ely Cathedral has undergone several major restorations: under James Essex in the 18th century; under George Peacock in 1839; under George Gilbert Scott, when the painted wooden ceiling of the nave was decorated by Henry Styleman le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry; and in 1986-2000.
The Victorian Gothic architect AWN Pugin was once found weeping in the Lady Chapel, disturbed by the destruction of its beauty. But he was inspired by the Octagonal Lantern Tower later when he was designing the chapel for the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Dublin.
Modern works of art in the cathedral include Jonathan Clarke’s sculpture, ‘The Way of Life’, Hans Feibusch’s ‘Christus’ (1981), and David Wynne’s sculpture (1967) capturing the moment when the distraught Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ on Easter Morning. But Ely’s most controversial modern work is David Wynne’s statue of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel. Robed in stark blue, she is rejoicing in the news that she is to be the mother of the Christ Child.
The Bishops of Ely include the Caroline divine Lancelot Andrewes (1609-1619), who oversaw the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible, and Matthew Wren (1638-1667), uncle of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (see 9 May 2021).
Stephen Sykes (1990-2000), one of the most eminent Anglican ecclesiologists, was Dean of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, Professor of Divinity at Durham and the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge before becoming Bishop of Ely.
Many of the early monastic buildings survive to the south of Ely Cathedral, so that Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use. They include the Porta or great gateway to the monastery that now houses the library of the King’s School.
John 16: 23-28 (NRSVA):
[Jesus said:] 23 ‘On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
25 ‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’
Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (15 May 2021, International Day of Families) invites us to pray:
Let us pray for families, connected and estranged, that they may feel God’s unconditional love.
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