There are times when the Minster is full of people. We are increasingly partnering with others to shape ‘the Minster Quarter’ into a part of the city centre that is an inviting place to be. At the recent African Festival, 3,800 people visited the Minster in 36 hours – and the surrounding retailers also reported their best shopping day in 3 years. Within the past two months we’ve hosted Sanctuary – a weekend festival showcasing local bands, beers, and food; Messy Minster – a holiday club in the last week of the summer holidays; a very successful Wedding Fayre; and the African Festival to coincide with the arrival of The Lion King at the Sunderland Empire.
But alongside the events, when the building is full of noise and movement, we note another very different trend: the people who come into the space when the building is empty, precisely because they need to find a quiet space, a still space, a breathing-space in the midst of the movement going on all around. Daily. Not quite a stream – that might undermine the purpose - but a constant trickle.
And the request for us to host conversations between different groups who live and work in the city, because this is a space where people of different views can be heard because they are listened to. This is not unique to our Minster by any means, but would increasingly appear to be a characteristic of larger city-centre churches: that part of their distinctive calling, and gift to the wider community, is what I heard the CEO of a (different) northern city describe to a conference of such churches yesterday as our ‘convening power’. Places where, as someone put it, the ‘unspeakable things that need to be spoken, can be’ – given time, and space.
We want to play our part in the flourishing of our city, in every sense – including economic or financial capital (as over the African Festival weekend), physical capital (space for gathering), intellectual capital (learning from those with a different experience of life), relational capital (building partnerships to work together for the common good), and spiritual capital (the resources to navigate the deeper seas of our common life). [link to my most frequently visited post, written in a previous context.]
It matters to me that there is a diversity of things going on here, that there is life in all its fullness, including its mess and noise and celebration. Some find it incomprehensible, that we should permit such ‘secular’ activity in a ‘sacred’ space. Others would like to see ‘visitors’ translated into ‘congregation members’, to attendance at our weekly services. We do see some of that. But for me, that people discover this gift in the heart of the city and return for the stillness, the sense of God’s presence, a connection with those they have loved and lost, a connection with the history of this city that transcends the pre-occupied present … this is a significant metric.
That they might find a breathing-space, where the Spirit broods over the waters, waiting for the moment to call out what will become - light out of darkness, and life out of chaos – that is the first gift in order for life to flourish.
After all, unless the Spirit breathes life into us, we are but dust, billowing in the endless rubble of a city being dismantled and re-routed. When we stop rising to receive that breath, we return to the earth from which we came: for if we will not tend it with our hands, we can at least nourish it for a moment with our marrow.
And yet, where can we find such breathing-spaces?
Some, at least, are finding one such space here.