The thing which I find most impressive about our British cathedrals is, strangely enough, not the grandeur, the wonderful stained glass, or the majestic pillared naves inside them, it is the way that they are able to grow and change with the times. They are open, inclusive spaces which have stubbornly resisted the temptation to fossilise and this is why their congregations are growing while parish churches mostly decline. They understand that people today are not joiners. We like to find our own way and come to our own conclusions and each of us has a different starting point. There are no easy right answers. Those who are not steeped in religious culture- and that is many of us- need to be given a chance to have time out and think. A cathedral gives those who walk through the doors an opportunity to do that. Of course there are services and if you want to learn about Christianity you can do that, but you can also learn about yourself. You can sit in silence, take in the beauty and the quietness around you and work out for yourself what you think, rather than being told. In medieval times a criminal could seek sanctuary in them, and know that they were safe until the coroner arrived to bring official justice and we can still take sanctuary from our own lives in a different way. They provide a breathing space.
It is a brave thing for a cathedral to commission a modern Art work and place it centre stage in a traditional setting and it is also a brave thing for an artist to attempt. Tracy Emin’s installation under Liverpool Anglican cathedral’s west window- a huge area of stained glass with four windows covering 150 square metres by Carl Johannes Edwards was first put in place as a temporary installation in 2008 as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s European city of culture year. It is a single sentence in pink neon, in her own handwriting and it reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me.“ It is a deliberately ambiguous statement- one with great power- which allows us to bring our own needs, experiences and concerns to it and it accepts everybody. We have all given and received love, throughout our lives, in many different forms and from many different sources. We may not be able to put its meaning into words, which is why so many people keep trying, but we know what it is when we feel it.
The installation is visible from almost everywhere in the cathedral, either wholly or in part. It keeps reappearing as you walk around the space and becomes almost like a mantra, reminding us gently of the most important thing about faith and the most important and noble thing about human beings- our capacity for love.
When it was installed Tracy Emin said that she wanted to “make something for Liverpool cathedral about love and the sharing of love” and she has succeeded quite beautifully. Everything in Liverpool Anglican cathedral was placed there to express love of God and her work opens up this truth so that all people, of any faith and none, can think about what is the best part of us all. It’s title, For You, is a very personal one and it reminds us that love is a gift, rather than a decision or an obligation.
The architect Giles Gilbert Scott devoted most of his adult life, from the age of 24 to his death at the age of 62, to building Liverpool Anglican cathedral from soft local sandstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and he died without seeing it completed but he was able to put the last tower finial in place. The work was finally completed in 1978 and only the west end, where the Benedicite window and the installation is set, differs from his original plan. I’m sure that Tracy Emin’s work would surprise him but I hope he would be pleased that his great project continues to inspire and grow and that it can still mean something in a much changed and much more secular world.