Of the many warm welcomes I have had since I arrived in Wakefield a few weeks ago this was definitely the warmest – literally. I was sitting in a barber’s chair with a hot, damp towel wrapped around my head.
My Kurdish barber, Star, was poised with his razor, waiting to shave the small amount of hair that my ageing follicles grudgingly produce every few weeks. Despite the imminent prospect of a very sharp implement coming into contact with my very vulnerable scalp, his wholehearted welcome put me firmly at ease.
Tomorrow, I am to be installed as the next Dean of Wakefield Cathedral. Since moving from North Yorkshire, I have really enjoyed getting to know my new surroundings (the visit to the barber was part of my orientation process) and generally getting the feel of the city.
Star was right – it is a great place. As the new Dean, with overall responsibility for the leadership of the cathedral community, I am especially privileged to be based in a building that is both spiritually and physically at the heart of the city.
And although we can’t quite compete with Emley Moor television mast, the cathedral can at least boast the tallest church spire in Yorkshire (75 metres, if you were wondering) – a highly visible reminder to people miles around of the Christian presence in Wakefield for over a thousand years at the busy junction of Kirkgate and Northgate.
I call myself a Yorkshireman by adoption. Although I was born in Essex, I spent most of my formative years in Huddersfield. My memories of Wakefield Cathedral are associated with occasional visits by my church choir.
To be honest all I can remember of those visits as a child is a rather gloomy building with hushed voices, lots of dark wood, and rather dirty stonework. A young person, indeed anyone, stepping into the building today will have a totally different experience.
The removal of the Victorian pews, the stunning new lighting scheme, and the careful cleaning of all the stonework, windows and monuments have renewed and transformed the interior. Prayer and worship remain at the heart of all that we do, but the bright and flexible space allows us more easily to accommodate concerts, talks, study groups, tours, school visits, candlelit dinners and much more.
As Dean I want as many people as possible to experience the warm welcome that Wakefield Cathedral offers at the heart of the city. But the Christian faith is about much more than welcoming people into church.
One of the writers of the Old Testament reminds us that the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it. I take that reminder seriously, so another aspect of my new role will be to ensure that I get out and about in the city and district as soon as possible.
I want to find out about the opportunities and challenges facing our local businesses and commerce. I’ll be seeing how the cathedral can work more closely with our thriving cultural and artistic life. I’ll engage with councillors and officers in local government so that we can begin to identify ways in which we can work together for the common social and economic good in our communities.
Of course the wellbeing of the people of Wakefield and district is inseparable from the wider issues currently facing our nation. I begin my new role at a time when our political discourse is dominated by the issue of Brexit.
The Church of England Diocese of Leeds (which includes Wakefield) covers an area of West, South and North Yorkshire which reflects the sharply divided views apparent across the country.
Our diocesan bishop, Nick Baines, speaks for the Church of England on European issues in the House of Lords. He has written recently of the need for the UK to discern the way in which we can conclude the Brexit negotiations “most effectively and maturely so that we leave (the EU) in the best possible shape for the future”.
The Church has an important role to play in that discernment process, not least by challenging some of the unpleasantly aggressive language, behaviour and attitudes that have emerged in our national debate.
My installation as Dean takes place on the day that the Church celebrates the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament tells his readers: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I cannot claim to be an angel, but I do want to thank the people of Wakefield for the welcome and hospitality that I have received as a stranger. In turn I can assure you of a warm welcome to your cathedral – whoever you are, and wherever you’re from.
The Rev Canon Simon Cowling will be installed as the Dean of Wakefield Cathedral on Saturday.