The Labour of Love

01 October 2021

By The Ven David Gunn-Johnson

The last time I penned an article for Cathedral Life I focussed on some carvings atop a pillar in the Nave. This time I am looking at the South Quire aisle and St James’ Chapel.

The Cathedral is blessed with a considerable company of guides and I stand in awe of their knowledge and the training they receive. I am not of their number, have not their expertise, and am careful about showing my ignorance but this part of the Cathedral has, for the past thirty years, fascinated me. The reasons for that fascination are multi-layered. On the top is the story of George Down the Master Mason who oversaw the rebuilding of the Chapel after it was bombed. Over the far altar, carved in stone, is his own image, complete with cloth cap and briar pipe. Legend has it that the only time he was seen without either was when Princess Elizabeth came to visit while the restoration was in progress. He loved the story of the Cathedral’s one eyed cat, brought in to stop the rats from eating the bell ropes and so he carved their likenesses, cat and rat, above the entrance arch.

Across the aisle is the Bishop’s throne; a towering edifice which for safety’s sake, was taken apart at the beginning of the war and placed in a bunker at Powderham. The Master Carpenter who was in charge ensured that every piece was carefully labelled so that the plan for rebuilding could be followed. At the end of the war the bunker was opened and the air was full of fluttering white things. At first he thought they were butterflies but no; the strings on the labels had rotted! And yet, he and his workmen set to and put it all back together, and so it stands today as it has stood for centuries.

However, the final layer of fascination, for today at least, lies in the memorials which now line the walls. Look at them carefully if you have not already. Most of them look like jigsaw puzzles; made up of fragments lovingly pieced together. Some of them have splendid inscriptions which would not be allowed today, such as the memorial to a woman ‘whose mind possessed an energy which does not often mark the female character.’ Not a legitimate comparison in the least! But autres temps autres moeurs.

These were all put together by teams of volunteers helped by specialists who sifted through the rubble until those we see today were whole again. That took vision, patience, perseverance and long term commitment. It was indeed a labour of love, from which we who have loved the place in turn might learn. In the book of Proverbs we find, ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ All the work going on in and around the Cathedral even now is born of a vision of what it might look like and be for this and the next generation. Finding the funds to make it all possible is a work of patience (filling in all those forms!) and perseverance. Refusing to believe that ‘no’ is the final answer. And finally being willing to sign up for the long haul. We have some wonderful people, both among our own staff and from outside agencies, working at all of this and we are truly blessed.

Perhaps we can best honour their work by applying the same vision, patience, perseverance and commitment to living out, and revealing for all to see, the spiritual truths that are the raison d’etre of our Cathedral.

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