By Peter Doll
It has been one of the axioms of contemporary culture in Britain that cathedrals and museums have exchanged places. Cathedrals, which were once the spiritual homes of communities and regions, are now, in our secular context, visited simply as museums, as repositories of history, art, and architecture. Whereas, if you want to see where crowds of Londoners go for spiritual uplift on a Sunday morning, then head to the Tate Modern on the South Bank of the Thames. In the vast echoing spaces of the Turbine Hall you will see them gape in pious veneration at a succession of spectacular installations prepared and pre-digested for their consumption, certified to be safely secular.
In truth, this isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon. European and North American natural history museums in the 20th century exploited the plunder of empire to create cathedrals of science, temples of a faith in modern progress fed by our mastery over what was no longer viewed as God’s gift of creation but instead our possession to exploit. English cathedrals, in recent years and to varying degrees, have marketed themselves as heritage attractions, even hiding weekday Communion services away in side chapels so that they do not offend the sensibilities or mar the cultural experience of those who have come simply to see the building. Anyone connected with an English cathedral will have been asked on a Sunday morning (as hundreds of worshipers stream out the door) by a puzzled visitor, “So, do you still have services here?”
Perhaps it is a side-effect of global warming, but there is at the moment something of a thaw, a rapprochement in relations between museums and cathedrals, an acknowledgement that the secular and the sacred cannot forever be artificially separated from one another. As the Eastern Bloc Communist regimes of the 20th century came to realize, God cannot forever be repressed or submerged. He will out. This summer has seen what might be described as an exchange of relics between institutions of two faiths, faith in God and faith in science.
The British Museum has hosted the exhibition Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, immersing visitors in the visual culture of the medieval veneration of the saint, including a Swedish font, a window from Canterbury Cathedral depicting the miracles attributed to Thomas’s intercession, a stave-church-style reliquary from Norway, and an attested relic of Thomas’s skull, part of the corona sliced off by the knights who attacked him at the altar. And there in the museum, several times each day, attendants have to clean the case of the marks of touching and kissing left by pilgrims who have venerated the relic through the glass.
The relic in the nave of Norwich Cathedral this summer is at the other end of the scale from the fragment of Thomas’ skull, what might be called a corpus integrum or whole-body relic, in this case of an 85-foot-long Diplodocus carnegii unearthed in Wyoming in 1898. Although it is a plaster cast of a dinosaur skeleton and made up of bones from not one but five dinosaurs, this specimen has become a national treasure in its own right. Affectionately known as Dippy and holding pride of place as a star attraction in London’s Natural History Museum for 112 years, it has been given a national tour to eight locations in every region of the United Kingdom. Norwich Cathedral is the last stop and the only place of worship on the tour.
In many ways, this postponed exhibition could not have happened at a better time, coming as the country emerges from lockdown and visitors flock to Norfolk as a popular destination for “staycations.” Unlike those cathedrals and great churches like St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, and Salisbury, which are heavily dependent on entrance fees from foreign visitors, Norwich Cathedral never had the opportunity to rely on visitor income and has emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed. Happily, the 3,000-some visitors who come to see Dippy each day spill over into the rest of the city center, bringing a much-needed injection of vitality and trade for businesses badly hit by the lockdown and the shift to online shopping.
Just as there are those who see signs of the veneration of Becket’s relics as impinging on the “neutral” secularity of the British Museum, so there are those who accuse Norwich Cathedral of a capitulation to mere tourism and a betrayal of biblical values. While it is true that many cathedrals have in recent years drawn new visitors by hosting attention-grabbing attractions, ranging from the Gaia Earth Artwork to a putt-putt golf course, in most cases these installations have been predicated on opportunities to offer Christian teaching and reflection. Indeed, part of the Natural History Museum’s own justification for bringing Dippy to Norwich Cathedral was to encourage a dialogue between faith and science.
Institutions across the region early on recognized the significant impact Dippy would have and the attention he might bring to their work. Museums and scientists of disciplines ranging from medicine to paleontology to food sciences at Cambridge University and the University of East Anglia have gladly offered their services and resources, as have local schools, artists, and businesses.
For its part, the cathedral has used Dippy’s presence as an opportunity through art installations, displays, literature, and lectures to challenge the false dichotomy between faith and science and to encourage visitors to reflect on how a sense of the world as God’s gift might inspire us to be better stewards of his creation. Visitors approach the skeleton by walking through Mark Reed’s sculpture Your Waves Go Over Me (inspired by Psalm 42:9). This immersive wave incorporating three thousand fish draws on the insight shared by science and the Bible that all life (temporal and eternal) emerges from and depends on water. Many of those who have seen Dippy both in the museum and the cathedral have pointed out how different he looks in a Romanesque church shaped by a narrative of a loving Creator than in a context predicated on a violent Jurassic existence red in tooth and claw. The cathedral has found it just as much of a challenge to keep up with supplies of votive candles and leaves for the prayer tree as it has stuffed dinosaurs in the gift shop. All the while, the cathedral’s schedule of daily services has continued without any interruption.
What then are we to make of this exchange of relics? It gives us reason to hope that both church and secular society are recognizing that human life on Earth will not be viable without drawing on the resources and values of both faith and science. Climate change, COVID, and Afghanistan have been humbling experiences, putting paid to the modern myth of limitless growth and progress and to the western sense of entitlement to a disproportionate share of the world’s goods. Relics, whether the plaster-cast bones of a late Jurassic dinosaur or a fragment of a 12th-century “meddlesome priest,” take us out of our immediate existence and transitory concerns. They are reminders to us of the imperishability of the divine life breathed into creation, seeds of transcendence and pledges of the redemption of all creation, “Because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
The Rev. Dr. Peter Doll is canon librarian and vice-dean of Norwich Cathedral, UK.