Featuring reflections, stories and news from our members across the UK on Heritage, Faith, Pilgrimage & Welcome, Community, Experience, History & Awe!

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  • St Albans Cathedral – a vibrant history: relevant, accessible, engaging

    Isabelle Lepore, Adult Learning Officer at St Albans, shares her insights on St Albans Cathedral’s visitor programme with us as this month’s guest blogger. Enjoy!

    ‘What is it that drives a wealth of learning?’ I was asked this question recently and one word sprang to mind: Community. Almost by definition, learning is a desire to be more connected with the goings-on of the world (both past and present) and to share our more personal ideas and experiences with others. The most challenging aspect of sustaining a wide-reaching and well-attended programme of learning, like in many cathedrals and cultural heritage organisations, especially in a fast-paced and data-rich century, is remaining relevant and accessible.

    Over the past year I have spent here at St Albans Cathedral, starting as a Learning and Events Assistant and now acting as Adult Learning Officer, I found that a number of factors affect these concerns. Seasonality is key, for instance, with the hybrid delivery of talks having a greater appeal to those unable to travel out in the darker, wintry months. Taking a thematic approach to putting on a series of events can be very effective, especially with those that tie into the Cathedral’s history. These are best-loved by the community, especially when they coincide with termly festivals run by the Education Centre, with school groups re-enacting Roman banquets or peasants’ revolts.

    We are fortunate to have such a rich history surrounding us. Indeed, St Albans Cathedral is the oldest site of continual Christian worship in the British Isles, from its beginnings as a small Saxon church to a notorious Abbey and Monastery and, finally, to a parish church and Cathedral. The inheritance of faith and learning is emphasised by the early journey of St Alban, Britain’s proto-martyr and thousands of other narratives which, throughout time, have been preserved in our library and archives. These are repositories of the hidden stories of this place and underpin all learning at the Cathedral. We use artefacts in our workshops and curate exhibitions (which are free to all visitors), drawing from the materials and records of the rituals surrounding the building to create a tangible link between the ingenuity and the devotion of people in the past to those of today’s community across the diocese. From early astronomical clocks, to medieval wall-paintings and graffiti and to our annual Alban Pilgrimage, this vibrant history is exactly what drew me here: a living heritage and a space where history and spirituality overlap.

    Indeed, as a place of prayer and worship, we are unique in the sense that some of our events reflect a similar commitment to the mission and ministry of the Church. Indeed, faith can be expressed in having the passion and the conviction to speak in one’s own voice about their beliefs and the future of the Church they belong to. This has come to light in some of the panel discussions that we have hosted, ranging from conversations about the role of LGBTQI people within the Church, to what environmental hope there is for the planet. Those who decide to take our Certificate in Theology course are especially encouraged to explore and actively engage with their faith as they attend evening classes, undertake research, complete essays or language exams. The topics of our modules have ranged from: The Art of Storytelling in the Bible, to introductions on Christian Prayer, Church History and the Holy Spirit. Also,as a centre for learning ancient languages, we run courses and monthly reading groups that often centre on scripture written in their original Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Old English.

    We continue to celebrate a wide scope of learning through an eclectic programme of talks, courses and workshops, each exploring new topics, ranging from the importance of music, literature, art to science and faith. Previous examples of our talks include: marking the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, exploring the triple helix of science, faith and magic, discussing the future of Public Broadcasting with a former radio presenter, hearing Wulfstan II’s fiery sermons, delivered in their original Old English, and understanding England’s history through the untold narratives of people of African descent. At the core of this varied programme is a wish to support ongoing research into narratives of the past, present and future and to unearth the stories that shape us.

    Already this year, we have hosted a special series of events to complement the Peace Doves installation, designed by Peter Walker Sculptor. From a night of bespoke jazz music, to an inspiring testimonial from Eva Clarke, a survivor of the Holocaust, and bestselling author, Wendy Holden, to a captivating performance of poetry given by the writer and singer-songwriter, Malcolm Guite. All have been welcome to experiencemusic, poetry and conversation under a cloud of doves and to be immersed in these three unique interpretations of peace. Whilst the doves have taken flight from our Norman tower, this September we are delighted to be celebrating 40 years since the first schools visited the Cathedral to partake in trails and interactive workshops. The study centre, which is centred around learning for an adult audience, will also have reached its 50th anniversary this year. So… watch this space!

    In the lead up to an exciting and jam-packed summer term, I have been reflecting on the thoughts engendered by another fantastic conference with Cathedrals Plus, which was generously hosted by Worcester Cathedral earlier this year. I came away asking more challenging questions about the role of education within ecclesiastical spaces. How can a balance be struck between missional work and generating funds to continue running programmes? How can we engage with a wider and more diverse audience? Whose stories are yet to be unearthed in the history of our Cathedral building? As I write this, we are about to enter Lent and, buzzing with these reflections, I will look forward to Easter as being a time of abundance and transformation, yielding new answers to these questions and a refreshed commitment to lifelong learning.

    For further information about our programme, please visit https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/Pages/Category/adult-learning

    Isabelle Lepore, Adult Learning Officer

    Images by Toby Shepheard

  • Conference Report 2024

    Cathedrals Plus: Working Together: Sustainable Partnerships
    January 17th, 18th and 19th 2024 held at Worcester Cathedral

    This conference aimed to explore new approaches to developing fruitful partnerships between our members’ sacred spaces and other organisations, communities, and faiths.

    There were 49 delegates in total, including the organizing team and Council, based at either the Premier Inn or the Travel Lodge. The start time was relatively late, to enable people to travel on the Wednesday morning. Check-in at the hotels was from 4pm, so this meant a delay for some, but luggage was stored securely until the evening. Cathedral volunteers supported the conference by offering guided tours, and by ‘manning’ the reception area throughout the three days. The organizing team (Daniel Parnell, Joanne Wilson, Sarah Page, Jackie Holderness) met on Tuesday afternoon, to put up signage, check workshop venues and set out the delegate welcome packs and lanyards. Delegates very generously supplied the contents for these bags and each one included a Pilgrim Passport.

    The Worcester team and the interim Dean, Stephen Edwards made us all very welcome. They had ensured that the Old Palace and the Undercroft Learning Centre, plus several other breakout spaces were warm, comfortable and available to us for the conference.

    Bishop John Inge opened the Conference with a profound and inspiring examination of the value and significance of our sacred spaces. Day One continued with interesting volunteer-led tours of the Cathedral, before we enjoyed a very powerful and moving dramatic performance of The Passion by a touring Christian drama group, the LAMPS collective (LAMPS is an acronym which stands for Love, Action, Music, Poetry and Stories).

    The Cathedral kindly prepared a special order of service to celebrate the conference, at Thursday’s patronal evensong for St Wulfstan of Worcester. The catering team were helpful, meals were tasty and specific food preferences catered for very well. Thursday evening’s Gala dinner, which was generously subsidised by Ecclesiastical, was held in the old Chapter House and followed -for the energetic few- by exploring local hostelries!

    Anthony Cane, Dean of Portsmouth and our incoming Chair, was able to be with us for the Wednesday but had to leave on the Thursday, so Jane Brooke, the outgoing Chair, chaired the Council meeting and then the AGM on his behalf. Minutes of the AGM can be downloaded here. The finances of the organization are in relatively good shape, but it is likely that we will have to raise the annual membership fee, if we are to support an annual conference, which traditionally runs at a loss.

    Thanks were expressed to Jane Brooke for her excellent chairmanship over the last two years. Jane has ensured that Cathedrals Plus has been able to rise out of the post-pandemic ashes and we now have 43 members. We are still hoping that ALL the Cathedrals and Greater churches will eventually join us.

    Thanks to Laura Arends, the Regional hubs were able to meet and set up connections and networks for each region. These hubs are very helpful to colleagues, especially those new to Cathedrals Plus. Diana Ives encouraged people to join the Whats App chatline and coordinated two inspiring Sharing Ideas sessions (one with an Education-focus and the other with a Visitor management focus) to which colleagues contributed practical and valuable examples of successful initiatives. Everyone’s contribution was greatly appreciated.

    The Thursday and Friday workshops were also very successful.  Delegates were able to attend 2 out of 8 choices (see Conference Programme) and Cathedrals Plus is very grateful to all the workshop presenters who contributed so effectively to the event. Workshops included sessions by:

    • Phil Stephens and colleagues from Ely Cathedral who have developed successful outreach partnerships with schools;
    • Debbie Ducille of the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) who shared the ever-expanding ministry with older people through the BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy;
    • Jane Butler of the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) who focused on Messy Church goes Wild;
    • Sarah Moring, of God and the Big Bang, who outlined valuable STEM partnerships between science and faith;
    • Jo Wilson of Worcester who discussed County lines and the Clewer initiative;
    • Charlie Rowbotham and Sophie Staines who shared their work on contested history at St Paul’s Cathedral;
    • Steffan Engstrom of the Worcester Eco group; and
    • Alexis Paterson, Director of the Three Choirs Festival who explored the challenges faced by those in events management.

    All our plenary speakers spoke powerfully on the theme of partnerships and community. Anthony Cane kindly opened the conference by explaining why he thought Cathedrals and greater churches are important. Canon Ivor Moody, from Chelmsford Cathedral, shared his fascinating experience of inter-faith partnerships and gave us much to think about. The celebrated artists, Jacqui Parkinson  and Peter Walker, have exhibited extensively in sacred spaces around the country. They both gave thought-provoking and moving PowerPoint presentations about their own artistic drive and vision.

    Jacqui traced her work, from smaller embroidered pieces through the thread-like pathway of her career, to the large-scale pieces which are currently touring the UK. Each delegate was also given the colourful booklets that accompany her exhibitions. 

    Peter helped us to reflect on the role of art, and what it is that defines a ‘work of art’. He reminded us of the power of the language of art and the importance of the viewer. His own immersive visual experiences, such as Remembrance, have reached thousands of people, including those who might never have entered a Cathedral or sacred space.

    Throughout the three days, there was a positive ‘buzz’ amongst the delegates who were clearly delighted to be able to meet in person again, after the challenges of the pandemic. Sadly, several colleagues are no longer connected with Cathedrals Plus, but it was reassuring to meet newcomers -from Education and the Visitor departments -who will bring fresh vision and new ideas to what we do. It was good to note that the conference was also attended by several members of the clergy.

    Another conference, for 2025, was proposed, with some potential themes, and two offers to host it have been received by Council who will decide by the end of February.

    Watch this space and mark January 2025 in your diary!
    Jackie Holderness, Secretary Cathedrals Plus

    Cathedrals Plus Worcester Conference 2024 Feedback Summary.

    % Excellent or Good
    1.How well did the conference meet your expectations & needs?93%
    2.Relevance to your work93%
    3.Value and quality of the keynote presentations96%
    4. ThursThursday workshops91%
    4. FridayFriday workshops100%
    5.Impact and value of the LAMPS dramatic performance83%
    6.Cathedral tours89%
    7.Optional trips83%
    8.Pre-conference information and general admin96%

    There were 29 feedback forms returned but some boxes were not completed.

    Based upon the completed responses, the overall average mark out of 10 for the conference was 8.6.

    What was of most benefit to you on this conference?
    Nearly every response referred to Sharing Ideas, Networking and meeting colleagues in person. Many also said they were inspired by hearing about others’ challenges, and creativity in developing new projects/ideas. 

    What might you do differently as a result of having attended?
    Several answers stated seek new partnerships, connections with other organisations and charities, as well as connecting more regularly with colleagues in other cathedrals/churches for support and ideas – especially through the regional hubs.

    What specific improvements to a residential conference would you suggest?
    Most people commented on the rather packed programme and would favour a few more breaks and ‘down time’. Most also would have preferred to have time to check into their hotel earlier in the day but the hotels’ check-in was after 4pm.

    Many also wanted more time to explore the host site independently and some even opted to skip one of the sessions to do this! 

    Any themes that you would value in future conferences (be they online or residential)?
    No two answers were the same here, so all the below are just individual responses.

    • Art in churches & cathedrals & using the cathedral building effectively
    • Story-telling
    • Working with volunteers
    • Income
    • Diversity, SEND and equality issues & provision
    • Topical global issues
    • More visitor experience as opposed to education focus

    Conclusion: The overall feedback was extremely positive, with additional comments added to thank the organisers and everyone who donated bits for the ‘goodie bags’!

  • Day 3 – Annual Conference at Worcester

    The final day of our Annual Conference was equally enthralling and inspiring as the previous two! A practical sharing session of resources led by Diana Ives of Southwell Minster provided further top tips for creating engaging activities; Four different workshops to attend led by cathedral staff in their sector of interest (Community Engagement, Challenging History, Climate & Ecology, 3-Choirs Events); followed by a thought-provoking Key Note speech by Peter Walker, Sculptor, Artist & Designer focussing on his personal reflections on art and its meaning, and how art might be understood or received by viewers/visitors.

    Gathering feedback from delegates was key to the Council’s follow-up and evaluation of the conference and we are grateful to everyone for attending, presenting and sharing their experiences and ideas with others during our time together. Jackie, our Secretary, will prepare the Conference Report and we will post this as a blog shortly. Thank you and we look forward to reading your comments here, and meeting you again soon!

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