My capacity for being ‘born again’ has dwindled with the music of time. When I went forward to be ‘saved’ at the summer tent revivals that were our only pastime on hot summer evenings, my sister claimed I was ‘just showin’ off.’ I was also collecting the modest loot given to the newly converted: pencils printed with ‘Jesus Saves’ in gold letters and small metal crosses too flimsy to see you through an active Christian day. Not that I would have worn them. My family were Episcopalians who did not believe in religious display. Although I was fascinated by Southern Baptists who were baptised in the Tallahatchie River and mesmerised by the Pentecostals who handled snakes and spoke in tongues, I was brought up in the discreet, zeal-free faith of the Anglican church.
We weren’t just Anglicans. We were high Anglicans. Father Chrysler chanted services in plainsong. Incense stung our eyes on holy days and we wore sooty dots on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. The blood of Jesus Christ was real wine from a silver chalice and we felt spiritually superior to the Methodists who drank grape juice from Dixie cups.
Except for The Church is One Foundation and some Easter hymns and Christmas carols, the musical side of our worship was not convincing. Thanks to the Baptists, I can sing every verse of I Was Sinking Deep with Sin and The Old Rugged Cross, but Anglican hymns are as tricky as T. S. Eliot set to music by Benjamin Britten: not easily engraved in tuneful memory.
Sometimes I miss the spiritual lustiness of those summer evenings long ago. In a vague way, I’m always on the spiritual lookout. I read Ronald Blythe, who carries me through the seasons and the liturgy from harvest to harvest. When ‘Thought for the Day’ comes on, I flip off the kettle and listen, just in case the ‘Thought’ clears my spiritual fog. And for the past six years I’ve watched a miracle taking place here in my market town of Bury St Edmunds: the creation of a cathedral tower.
I don’t use the word ‘miracle’ easily. How this tower got built-how it found acceptance from the existentialist Millennium Commission, how it combined the inspiration-and legacy-of the cathedral architect Stephen Dykes Bower, who left £2.4 million for the ‘completion of the cathedral’ including his plan for a spire, and then how Dykes Bower’s assistant of 30 years, the architect Hugh Mathew, produced a more distinguished, more glorious design-it is all miraculous stuff. Even the Barnack stone from a quarry exhausted in 1450 by the building of Ely and Peterborough Cathedrals, was discovered to have a rich seam. More than 8,000 tonnes were extracted to provide the 2,000 tonnes of the very best stone in England. A miracle as good as those fishes and loaves.
Carved stone was laid upon carved stone. Flints were knapped, lime mortar mixed. It has taken a mere six years to build a 150 ft perpendicular Gothic tower that will last another 1,000 years.
And the tower has already begun to assert its spiritual authority. Whether you are on Angel Hill or in the Waitrose carpark, you look up and are astonished. I’m not saying that the tower rids all doubt-this is not the Age of Faith-but it quickens the spirit. Emily Dickinson wrote: ‘We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.’ The majestic Cathedral Tower, a sacred silhouette in the secular prairie of Suffolk sky, makes believing Nimble. It feels like a miracle.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on August 4, 2005.