Liverpool contrarian


This is a longer version of a piece I published in the Guardian a few weeks ago on Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

I see it every day, straight ahead, as I drive down Hope Street in Liverpool on the way to work. A ring of flying buttresses, like a tent’s guy wires, soar towards a central cone and a glass lantern tower topped with a crown of thorns. Medieval cathedrals were meant to stop the breath, to astound pilgrims and worshippers by defying gravity, human scale and other earthbound limitations. This younger version looks similarly unlikely: an upturned funnel of Catholic chutzpah. One might call its architectural style “Liverpool contrarian”. How odd that people can walk past it without even looking up.

50 years ago this weekend, at Whitsun, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral was opened and consecrated. In 1967 many of the city’s buildings were scarred by bombs, marked for the wrecking ball or covered in soot. And here was this proudly modern structure, rising up out of a town of blackened stone. The architect Michael Manser likened it to “a gargantuan concrete aberration from the Apollo space programme”. Locals nicknamed it the Mersey Funnel or the Wigwam.

It was built cheaply and quickly, after Edwin Lutyens’s original plan, for a massive Romanesque domed church, was abandoned for being over cost and overdue. Even this more modest building seemed like a triumph of faith over evidence. Church attendance was in decline; the great age of cathedral building had ended 600 years earlier. The cathedral’s key ingredient, reinforced concrete, was being more commonly used to build multi-storeys, high rises and motorways. Seeing Almondsbury interchange under construction in 1966, the minister for transport Barbara Castle had declared: “These are the cathedrals of the modern world.” A planned inner ring road in Liverpool was about to cut the new cathedral off from the city centre. But this urban motorway never got built, and much of that brave new 1960s architecture of concrete and steel has since been bulldozed. The cathedral is still here. Unlike your average flyover, it was clad in white ceramic and Portland stone, so it still looks almost new.

Its opening coincided with two other events. On 25 May 1967 Penguin published the poetry anthology The Mersey Sound, bringing this underground movement, hitherto confined to the upstairs of Liverpool pubs, into the mainstream. A week later, on 1 June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper. A series of events on in Liverpool this May and June, “50 Summers of Love”, celebrates this triple jubilee. In truth, linking these three things—cathedral, anthology, album—is a stretch. By 1967 the Beatles had left Liverpool and belonged to the world. The Mersey poets’ manor was the art-school, Bohemian enclave at the other end of Hope Street. Their poems often namechecked “the cathedral”—Brian Patten imagined it dissolving in “a white-hot fireball”. But they meant the Anglican one, the sandstone, neo-Gothic goliath half a mile to the south.

From a distance, though, the Wigwam does look a bit like a piece of 1960s pop art. The writer Nicholas Murray, a teenager in 1967, recalls being bussed in to see it from his school in Crosby. “I have never forgotten the impression it made,” he writes in his book So Spirited a Town, “of newness and modernity and light.” Like Murray I was raised a Catholic and I associate it, like him, with shadows and secrets: badly-lit Victorian churches, low-wattage votive candles, knee-knackering confessionals with the priest’s face a pinkish blur behind the grille.

Now I work in a university building that was once a convent, across the road from the cathedral. From my desk I can see the lantern tower, and hear the four apostle bells cranking up, ready to slice the air with noise. YouTube has silent British Movietone footage of the cathedral’s opening, with a shot of the Sisters of Notre Dame waving from what looks like my office window. Working in this building, with its holy water fonts, leaded windows and Our Lady grottoes, brings it all back. Sometimes I think I can smell that familiar Catholic musk, made up of frankincense, candle wax, old missals and damp. The new-style lecture theatre consoles even look a bit like altars. “The mass is ended,” I feel like saying when I am stood behind one. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

The cathedral over the road has a very different feel. “The ministers at the altar should not be remote figures,” Archbishop Heenan of Liverpool had written in his instructions to the architect, with the Second Vatican Council in mind. “They must be in sight of the people with whom they offer the sacrifice.” The architect, Frederick Gibberd, solved this problem with a single blow. He was doodling on the back of an envelope and the idea just came in a rush, he said, “like a composer with a new tune in his head”. Simple: a thin shell, like a tent, raised above an altar.

Unlike most cathedrals, which are partitioned into nave, transepts, sanctuary and choir, Gibberd’s is a single flowing space: a giant room, rinsed in warm reds and blues from the stained glass. “Architecture finds its highest expression in the art of enclosing space,” Gibberd wrote at the time, “and nowhere is this spatial enclosure more sublime than in the Cathedral.” For the altar he asked a local stonemason, Leslie Rumsey, to source him a single slab of white marble. After two years searching in Italian quarries, Rumsey found a nineteen-ton block near Skopje in Macedonia. This huge slab sits in the room’s centre, so that every seat is within 80 feet of it.

Along with many other non-believers I can take a perverse pride in feeling unillusioned—like the atheist in Jan Struther’s poem “Prayer”, facing “the flying spears of grief/Unarmed, yet proudly keeping/Faith with his unbelief”. These days my unbelief is faint-hearted enough for me to slope off to the cathedral now and then, to sit at the back while a service is on. The Dean has one of those soft Liverpudlian burrs that marry perfectly with the cadences of the King James Bible. I heard that, just before the cathedral opened, they fired blanks from a service revolver all round it, and timed how long it took for the reverberations to die away. It took six seconds: too long, according to those who know about acoustics. But I have come to like the elongated echo, the way the words bounce off the walls and wash you in a bath of liquid vowels.

The sociologist Grace Davie has argued that cathedrals appeal to us today because they offer “vicarious religion”, a “believing without belonging”. As we stand at the sidelines, taking off our cycle-clips in awkward reverence, the cathedral fulfils what Davie calls “the desire for anonymity—meaning the option to come and go without an explanation, or even a greeting, and to move gradually from one stage of commitment to another”. We have outsourced the job of worship to a dwindling core of professionals. At cathedral evensong, even the singing is sub-contracted to the choir. And yet you never feel left out. Instead you feel as if a space has been carved out for the mind to wander and find its own equilibrium, before you are decanted once again into the noise and haste of your own life.

Others seem to use this building in the same non-committal, no-strings way. On the piazza that Gibberd built over the roof of Lutyens’s crypt, impromptu games of football break out. On the outdoor plinths, packed lunches are unfurled. On the 56 steps up to the entrance, the same man jogs eternally up and down, like Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The ancient temple was made only for god; the cathedral is made for all,” wrote the French art historian Marcel Aubert in 1937. “Vast, high, protected by its vaults, amply lit, it shelters all its children who come there to hide, to seek reassurance or information.” The cathedral was never just a place of worship; it was a little town, offering both sanctuary and community. When Amiens cathedral was finished at the end of the 13th century it could fit all the city’s population, nearly 10,000 of them, inside it. Until the department store arrived in the nineteenth century, cathedrals were the only lavish building that was open to all.

Nowadays public places can feel almost too welcoming. The cathedral invites you in but without seeming needy like this. It never asks you to “get involved” or “have your say”. It does not offer free Wi-Fi. It has none of that jazz-hands jolliness where everyone is “excited” and “passionate” to be serving whatever it is they are serving you. (The same tin-ear jauntiness led Tesco to claim, in an advert this Easter promoting its offers on cider and beer, that “Good Friday just got better.”) Unlike the Apple Store in Liverpool One—a bit like a cathedral, I think, with its grand entrance, light-filled nave, and huge altars where believers come to worship the iPhone 7—there is no danger of being pounced on by evangelists seeking converts to the techno-faith.

The cathedral is a place to go, in other words, when the rest of the world feels shouty and oversold. It asks nothing of you, other than that you match its quietness with your own. Since libraries became spaces for “social learning”, and the quiet zones on trains became just slightly less noisy zones, a cathedral is now almost the only public place where us deep introverts can inhale that scarce and precious drug, silence.

Before I begin to sound like a full-time miserabilist, I should say that what really draws me to the cathedral, since I do not believe in God, is my faith—battered but basically intact—in other people. You don’t need to believe in an afterlife to find solace in Gibberd’s church-in-the-round. But you do need to believe in this life, and in the value of spaces that show an unspoken solicitude for others, that feel solid and anchoring, that allow us to mark time against them and give shape and form to our existence.

The final element of Gibberd’s plan, the ceremonial steps up to the main doors, was not completed until 2003. (An ancient plaque bolted into the brickwork tells the story: “This project is funded by the European Union…”) Like Rome’s Spanish Steps, these steps draw the eye but also lead your gaze up and beyond them. You can best feel their effect by walking along Hope Street in the late afternoon of a December Sunday. It’s dark and cold and you have that stomach-tightening, fag-end-of-the-weekend, work-in-the-morning feeling. But the tower is brightly lit from the inside, the bells are calling people in for carols, and the steps motion you up to warmth, light and hope.

Photo: West elevation of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral © Andrew Dunn, 4 December 2005, Wikimedia Commons.