Exposure to different cultures often stimulates insight. Familiarity can create a lack of observation and reflection. Many years ago, visiting the Cathedrale de St-Pierre in Geneva, I was struck by the empty side chapels and alterations to the sanctuary. Familiar with cathedrals in England and elsewhere, the presence of both similarity and difference was disconcerting. Seldom have I seen a new theology so reshape and inhabit a physical space.
What I saw in Geneva may, however, be an experience shared by visitors to the Anglican cathedrals of England. The empty plinths on the outside of church buildings reflect a change driven by the shifting sands of theological conviction. For many the vacant niches may hardly raise an eyebrow, whereas for others they token a loss which continues to be felt.
The Church of England took a pragmatic approach to religious change. The wholesale removal of statues in many European churches was not repeated in England. Just as liturgy made a selective combination of words from different sources, architecture reflected a middle way. Some saints remained – as St Peter today towers over the many unoccupied niches of York Minster. While these changes to church buildings may feel ancient history, in 2020 the issue of who we place on pedestals has never been more discussed or contested. The privileging of the powerful, even when wealth was built on the atrocities of slavery, led to the forced removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.
Far too slowly we are challenging and changing the stories our forebears set in stone. It is hard to imagine that future decisions about public sculpture will ignore the need to accelerate a wider representation of people in society. Westminster Abbey’s modern martyr statues illustrate the changes that can be made and the impact this has upon the community. With figures such as Manche Masemola and Janani Luwum the Abbey witnesses to a much more inclusive company of saints.
We are mostly unaware of that “great multitude that no one can count”. However, the Book of Revelations tells us that they come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”. These are the saints whose faith and love for God is absent from the pages of history. The people whose unseen care and courage has changed the world without drawing wider attention. They are countless and uncounted – but their unlooked for reward will surely come in the blessing God has promised. Occasionally, with wisdom, the Church recognises one of this great company as an example to inspire – but such examples must speak to the reality that saints come from the whole of humanity.
Perhaps today would be a good day to ask ourselves who we would put on a pedestal? Who has touched and inspired our lives and brought the hope of God’s love to others. The people who have kept company with the persecuted and refused to abandon those in need.
I am sure that many saints pass among us unnoticed. In every age there is injustice to challenge, and in the days of Covid-19 we need as many saints as we can muster. The people who will not allow the poor to be left behind as economic hardship follows hard on the heals of rising infection, illness and death. Those who challenge the casual ageism that bats away the significance of a death with the words ‘they were elderly’; ‘they had an underlying condition’; or ‘they were obese’. It is the distancing-language that separates you from me; us from them.
Maybe we need empty plinths around our cathedrals. Spaces that remind us that most saints pass through this world without comment, and that God calls the people we think are the least likely bearers of faith . On some pedestals there are saints in later life – continuing to live out a love that knows no end.