Christopher McElroy


The transformative power of music

Music can touch us in ways that words simply cannot.  On November 22nd we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of music.  In an intriguing poem by W.H. Auden, set to music by Benjamin Britten (who himself was born on St Cecilia’s day in 1913) we read

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions

To all musicians, appear and inspire:

Translated Daughter, come down and startle

Composing mortals with immortal fire. 

The words that capture my imagination are ‘visions,’ ‘inspire’ and ‘startle.’  Other words might strike you!  God offers us beautiful music such as Britten’s composition to effect movement within us.  I’m sure you can recall a moment when a piece of music has struck you, stopped you in your steps, tugged at your heart.  There will be pieces of music which are special to you because they represent an important occasion or memory. 

A piece of choral music dear to my heart is Totus Tuus by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki.  I recall the first time I heard it – the music captured me, absorbing my senses, mind and imagination.  I was certainly inspired and had visions, and felt that I became at one with the text ‘Totus Tuus’ – I am all yours!

For Catholics, such an encounter can be seen through the lens of sacramental imagination.  Seeing and hearing sacramentally means acknowledging God as creator of all, of all that is good, beautiful and true.  It is to understand that God has gifted us beauty in our world precisely to draw us towards him, to invite us into a communicative relationship.

It is through our encounter with God’s creation that we become transformed.  The French writer Paul Claudel himself experienced a transformative encounter with musical beauty during the singing of the Magnificat during Vespers on Christmas Eve one year at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris:

‘It was then that the event happened that has dominated all my life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books, all the arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor to tell the truth have they even touched it.’

Like Claudel, we are each called to journey into the Divine.  The music is an opening not a closing, a revealing rather than a concealing, depths that emerge gradually, not instantaneously.  As the scriptures tell us, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.’ (John 6: 44) Beautiful music is not something which simply pleases our senses, but first and foremost a form of revelation, an encounter between God and his Church through Jesus Christ.  This beauty serves to illuminate God’s goodness and truth into our world. 

Music has a particularly privileged evangelical role in our modern society.  Authority and facts are old news, relativism and the turn to self are all, church attendance is down.  Religious art however still continues its popularity, and indeed sacred music from the church’s treasury is arguably more popular today in the world than it has ever before been.  Gregorian chant sells CD’s in the millions, groups like The Sixteen and Tallis Scholars make a living out of recording and performing renaissance choral music and modern day composers such as Henryk Górecki and Sir James MacMillan are imbued with a Catholic sensibility in all that they write. 

Such music certainly captures the imagination of a wide cross section of the public, bringing to them to what Saint Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, described as an ‘epiphany of beauty’ which guides them, knowingly or unknowingly, towards the source of all being.   An encounter with music illuminates our faith.  It has the power to inspire, startle and transform us.  For the believer this leads to Christ, for the non-believer it can be the catalyst for an encounter with the form of Christ, the first step on the road to evangelisation.  Following the way of beauty through music allows us to be drawn beyond ourselves, from our daily routine and ordinariness, to the beautiful, the transcendent, to God the source of all being. 


Beauty and the Liturgy

What makes a beautiful liturgy?  The music, the preaching, the architecture, the people?  Much ink has been spilt, music composed and many churches re-ordered in the name of restoring or creating beauty.

Let us return to the central act of the Christian faith: the last supper.  On the night before he gave himself up, Christ showed his love for us all by giving thanks to God, and offering himself through his body and blood to us all.  This selfless act took place against the background of his preaching, healing and evangelising ministry and with the knowledge of the dreadful acts to come.  The selfless act of Jesus is the paschal mystery of love.

The aesthetic value of the liturgy then cannot be measured in human terms, nor be primarily dependant upon works of art, but rather it must be judged by its capacity to radiate the paschal mystery of love.  As Archbishop Piero Marini (Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations 1987-2007) put it:

‘If art is to collaborate with the liturgy it needs to be evangelised by love.’  

In our liturgy Christ himself becomes the gesture of the church.  As liturgical musicians our role is to enable the beauty of Christ to shine forth in the liturgy.  Does the music we choose, lead and sing express the paschal mystery of love?  Does it convey the message of Christ to the gathered community?

Our Sunday celebrations are not merely a remembrance of a past event, but an actualisation of the Church of God in a particular time and place.  We carry out this celebration through a ritual act we call the liturgy.  Just as Jesus did in the Last Supper, we follow an order.  Our liturgical order is the space through which Christ imbues us with his love.  We must guard against trivialising the power of ritual, introducing new fads or gimmicks, but rather allow the gathered community to experience Christ in all his beauty on their own terms.  The beauty of liturgy is not fully perceptible through a single experience.  Rather, like a rubbing away at a precious metal we seek to uncover the riches which Christ has revealed through his death and resurrection.  

We know we have experienced a beautiful liturgy when our words and actions are imbued by the love of Christ.  The liturgy is not an optional extra in our lives, or something aside from it, but rather the ‘source and summit.’  The beauty we experience in the liturgy guides our interpersonal relationships, our thinking and our actions.  Liturgical beauty, therefore, is not for its own sake, but rather it is to imbue each of us as disciples of Christ.  We cannot (or should not) dictate how we receive this beauty, but rather we must surrender ourselves to the possibility of the pneumatological encounter.

At each liturgical celebration through our music we should strive to allow the paschal love of Jesus Christ to radiate.  We must allow the music to speak in ways we cannot comprehend.  We must allow the gathered community the time, space, silence and detachment from themselves so that the music may speak to us all of the love of God, through his son Jesus Christ.

Women deacons, priestly orientation & initiation rites

The recent announcement by Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the question of women deacons takes its wider place in the continuing reception of the Second Vatican Council.  One of the strongest arguments for the creation, or ‘restoration’ of women deacons is that they existed in the early church. Such evidence has been uncovered and assembled by a number of scholars, such as the American professor Phyllis Zagano (one of those appointed to the Papal commission to examine the woman’s diaconate.).

Another recent issue to surface is the orientation of the priest at Mass.  The recent interest was sparked by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who spoke at a conference in London in July exhorting priests to celebrate Mass facing eastwards from Advent of this year.  Again, plentiful evidence exists that the common orientation of the early church was indeed facing east, to the direction of Christ’s second coming.

Here in my own Archdiocese the Archbishop has recently issued a pastoral letter reverting the order of the sacraments of initiation.  Over the last few years children in the Archdiocese have been receiving the sacraments of initiation in the order baptism, confirmation, first holy communion.  This sequence again follows historical evidence from the early church The present Archbishop has, following consultation, decided to revert the sequence to the more commonly 21st sequence of baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation.

What each of these three examples have in common is that one of their primary arguments is based on a ‘return to the sources’, a movement made known under the banner of ressourcement Many of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were likewise based on this return to the sources, perhaps less on specific issues, but more as an attempt to capture the theological and ecclesiological underpinnings of the early Christian Church.

The turn to ressourcement was however balanced by Pope John’s call to ‘open the windows and let fresh air in’ summed up in Italian as aggiornamento The twin concepts of ressourcement and aggiornamento worked together throughout the conciliar process to revisit the sources of the faith, but at the same time to think about how the modern day church could best express the central tenets of the Christian faith today.

Two word of caution must be issued with regards to historical evidence:

  1. As expressed best by Professor Paul Bradshaw, just because evidence exists for something in one locality, doesn’t mean that it was happening in other locations, or at other times.  In other words the evidence might suggest the practice in that location at that time (or of course, might not!) but don’t take that to mean that this practice was standard throughout the early Christian world.
  2. Just because evidence exists of a particular practice in the early church doesn’t necessarily mean that it is something we want to do today. The first few centuries of Christianity were a somewhat different culture and world to what we live in today.  We wouldn’t for example want to return to a culture were women were distinctly seen as second class citizens (and told to be quiet in church!)

So, in the light of all of this we can see that in each of the three issues to surface recently (women deacons, priestly orientation, order of sacraments of initiation) the historical evidence only plays a part in the test of what would be the right way forward for the church today. Equally important considerations today would be

  • Theological/ ecclesiological teachings of Vatican II and how these issues relate to them
  • Cultural issues in today’s society, and how these issues relate.

In the case of the three examples I raised, 

  1. In the initiation sequence, it is clear from the Liverpool example that any historical evidence is being minimalised in deference to the cultural ‘norm’ in today’s church which in many ways sees confirmation as a teenagers opportunity to ‘confirm’ their desire to engage with the faith.
  2. Orientation of the priest: the swift ‘blowback’ from Cardinal Nichols and the ‘clarification’ from the Vatican both strongly defending the post conciliar practice of the priest facing the people on theological and cultural grounds makes it clear that again, the issues of today are likely to hold firm over any available historical evidence.
  3. In the case of the possibility of women deacons, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen.  Presumably the commission will meet, they will review the historical evidence (as Pope Francis specifically asked them to) and then the Pope will himself make a decision based upon their recommendation.  The question will I suspect, once again, be whether the female diaconate is desired today from the theological/ ecclesiological angle and whether it is culturally desired.

How mercy changes everything

Have you ever been headhunted for a job – offered a salary, benefits, hours of your own choosing? And even if you didn’t seem interested the employer kept offering you better terms.  No?  Me neither!  But this is what God is offering us today!  He is offering us a life changing package with great benefits.  God’s offer is all about love – he offers us his unconditional love, and in return ask for our love.

Unlike a job offer, there are actually no pitfalls to God’s offer!  Many however have chosen not to take into their hearts the reciprocal love of God.  This is where mercy comes in: mercy changes everything!  Rather than giving up, God continues, day in day out, to offer offer us this unconditional love.  God sent his only Son to the earth to prove that he was deadly serious about his offer.  We speak of ‘Good’ Friday and not ‘Bad’ Friday, because by dying on the Cross Jesus carried the sin of the world: an act of merciful love beyond comparison.

In many cases today we prefer judgment to mercy.  We are all prone to making snap decisions and then blocking out other viewpoints: witness the political climate leading up to the referendum tomorrow.  A dreadful consequence of such thinking was the tragic death of the MP Jo Cox last week.  However, even out of such a tragedy, the mercy of God was apparent in the statement issued by her husband when he stated that his wife would ‘have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.’  

Hate is the direct opposite of mercy.  Christ’s Church is not, and must not be allowed to be, a religion of hatred.  Yes, rules and doctrines are important.  But they serve to allow us to more clearly encounter and accept the merciful love of God.  In order to make this more clear, Pope Francis has proclaimed 2016 as the Year of Mercy, specifically promoting two encounters: Firstly, the opportunity to pass through a holy door and secondly, through the sacrament of confession.  In both of these encounters we are offered abundant mercy, unconditional love and total forgiveness.  

Where as a prospective employer will likely get tired of waiting for you to accept their generous offer, God in his generous mercy, does not.  The role of the Church today is to act as a conduit of God’s mercy, constantly inviting people to experience the merciful love of God.

Looking towards the future

Have you noticed how much we do looking towards the future?  We save money for holidays, new cars, to pay the bills.  We buy our shopping for the week ahead.  All of these decisions are of course made in the present, and we reserve the right to change our decisions, or our reasons for those decisions on a daily basis.

As a musician (or as I have discovered, as a runner!) one can spend many days/ weeks/ months working towards one big event, be that a concert or race.  The big day arrives and all the preparation pays off.  We bask in the glory and rejoice in the success.  But then what?  Often we feel deflated, unsure of the point anymore.  But usually, with a short period of time some new aim piques our interest and we once again have a focal point.

On a daily basis I am privileged to work with Cathedral choristers.  Rehearsing and performing for up to three hours each day, five days a week means that we see a lot of each other and sing a lot of music!  Motivation of a group such as this takes on a different slant to one’s individual motivation.  In the the case of the team, one has to (subconsciously or otherwise) surrender one’s own motivational aims to the good of the communal goal.

I often recall to the boy choristers the story of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge of Manchester United (nb. As an Everton fan I have no special love for Manchester United, but the example is very clear!)  What was the motivation that kept Sir Alex and his players going day after day, win after win, season after season in what has been clearly the most successful premier league management of the last twenty years.  I suspect the answer was twofold.  A desire to win, and a desire to be better the next days than the day before.  The point I make to the boy choristers is that I am sure that when Manchester United won a game that Sir Alex would focus not on how good they were today, but one what they needed to do to be better the next day.

What these examples I have outlined all have in common is a focus on the future, which guides us in how we should live the present.  None of these examples however really has an ultimate ending.  Holidays come and go.  Football managers and teams come and go.  There can be no ultimate end.

Another institution that looks towards the future is the Church.  Indeed one could go as far as to say that this is indeed the point of the Church.  Jesus came to earth, as an act of love and obedience to the Father, to die for our sins, so that we might all share in eternal life.  This eternal life is our future.  The book of Revelation describes what the eternal banquet will be like through the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev 19.)

In perhaps the most famous prayer of all, the one Jesus himself taught us, the Lord’s prayer, we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom: ‘Thy Kingdom come.’  The Lord’s prayer also recognises that our biggest struggle as Christians is between good and evil, but that we ask for the Lord’s guidance and forgiveness so that we may partake in the coming Kingdom. (We wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Kingdom..’)

Many of our liturgical and eucharistic texts exhibit similar eschatological traits.  However, I would argue that much of our liturgical practice over emphasises the rational, here and now aspects of our celebration.  Liturgical music, both in its texts and its musical compositions particularly demonstrate this.  There is a danger that our worship today is self enclosed and not orientated towards the future promise of eternal life.  Today we are just as likely to experience a liturgy that is primarily influenced by the local culture and political trends.  The primary culture of the liturgy is the paschal mystery – the reality that Jesus Christ died and rose again so that we may have eternal life.

Like a team sport or activity, the liturgy is a communal activity.  We must surrender our own wants and desires to the will of Christ and his Church, to receive the gift of Divine love and offer in return our lives to the Glory of God.  All of the examples I have highlighted are focussed towards the future: each is inwardly and outwardly motivated and drawn towards their ultimate culmination (whether that be a cup final, a concert, the end of time) but equally exists in the here and now, and therefore draws inspiration from the future hopes to motivate itself in the present.

In the examples highlighted earlier of choristers, runners, footballers the future aim (be it a concert, race, final) is in reality only a medium term goal.  Once achieved a ‘post event’ blues can develop.  The finite end ordinarily would not occur with death, but earlier.  We retire as a footballer/ athlete or we take time out as a chorister once our voice changes.  The future life promised by Christ through his Church however is the ultimate.  It lies on the other side of death.  It is both our long term goal and our present reality.  It motivates us to live a Christian life, sure in the certain hope of eternal life.  Being a Christian is not a choice, but a way of life.  We are called, but we must respond and choose to follow.  Our role is to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth, a role that does not allow for post-event blues.  It is the promise of eternal life that differentiates the Church from my earlier examples.  The path is not a simple one, but like the manager of a football team, or athletics coach, we have someone looking over our shoulder encouraging us and orientating us to the end game.  Lets not loose sight of the future!


Participation in the past, present and future

We exist in the present.  But we came from the past.  And we will go into the future.

The way we act today cannot fail to take into account our past, and the consequences of our decisions affect our future.

We cannot therefore live solely in the present.

We live in a house constructed in the past.  It has taps that will allow us to wash in the future.  We currently have food in the fridge which we bought yesterday, but we will eat tomorrow or the day after.

Everything we encounter in our lives (including our own self) is a dialectic of past, present and future.

According to St Augustine, time is not measured solely by external means (e.g. days of the week) but by the active understanding of our mind.  Time becomes an action in which our mind actively creates our past, engages with the present and attempts to forsee our future.  Our memory engages with our attention and our expectation.

As identified by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, we do not engage in such temporal thinking in isolation, but rather our memory, attention and expectation are constantly interplaying to produce understanding.  We interpret our past based on our present and in full awareness of our future needs.

The importance of understanding our thinking in this way, is that we both receive and recreate our past (memory) into the present, AND our memory (past) interprets us in the present.  Our past helps us to ‘understand’ our present, but our past also challenges how we understand ourself in the present.  I recall my school days, and understand that my love of music came from my experiences there.  However, my schooling experience also challenges virtually every aspect of my thinking and actions today, both musical and otherwise.

Understanding then may be seen as a process of self-understanding and self-actualisation.  Our past both shapes our present and future, but also helps us to better understand ourselves.  Understanding is not of course just rational: it is an action of the mind, of the heart, of the soul.

Our past does not limit our future.  The chicken which is in our fridge having been bought yesterday and intended to form the centerpiece of our Sunday roast can instead become chicken chopped and boiled into a broth for our soup.  Our new use for the chicken doesn’t change the original intention, but rather as the past meets present the future needs identify a different way of proceeding.  The past, present and future interconnect.

It is often said that some people think with their mind, others with their heart.  The inference being that those who think with the mind will be less emotionally affected in their decision making.  In reality, we cannot separate the two.  Understanding is a self actualisation where our future shapes our present and our past informs our future.  Our mind, heart, rationality work in tandem in our hermeneutical spiral.  Our past experiences can motivate us to rise up and attack, perhaps engaged through some past wrongdoing.  Our consideration of a present problems can be heaving informed by our future worries.  How we see these situations teaches us much about ourselves, both and we were, we are, and how we will be.

Through music, Man ascends to God

Our lives may be seen as a journey. A journey to the promised reward of the heavenly kingdom. The liturgy that we celebrate Sunday by Sunday, day by day, is in itself a rehearsal for that day when we will join with the whole company of heaven in the praise of God.

It might seem strange to suggest that our liturgies are a rehearsal. We come together as a community, both those present, those gathered in other locations and those who have gone before us, to join together as one body in the praise and worship of our God. In the liturgy we learn of the experiences of our forefathers, we relate the sacrifice of Christ to our lives today and we look forward to our participation in the eternal banquet.

The music we offer in itself is a journey. St Thomas said ‘Praise itself is seen as a movement, a path, more than an understanding, a way of reaching to God. Music leads us away from what is opposed to God and leads to a sense of reverence’ (ST II-II, Q. 91, Art. 91, ad. 1 co)

The music that we liturgical musicians provide assists people on their journey, and more than that, provides a sense of direction. Indeed, St Thomas also said that is it ‘Through the praise of God man ascends to God.’ There can be no greater privilege for us to lead others on this journey and bring them closer to the merciful love of God.

First appeared as an Editorial in September 2015 Newsletter of the CCDM

CCDM conference

CCDM conference 2015


Planning a conference off the beaten track can be a risky experience.  However, it is often when we take risks that special things happen as a result.  This weekends CCDM (Conference of Catholic Directors of Music) conference in Buckfast Abbey was such an occasion.


Delegates travelled from across the country to the South West to experience culture, beauty, conversation and Buckfast tonic wine (more on that later!)  A key feature of this conference was the opportunity, due to the financial generosity of the Abbot, for delegates to arrive on Friday and for the conference to take place over two days.  This allowed members to have the opportunity to have more informal conversations, a vital part of any human interaction.


The weekend began with a tour of the distillery on the Abbey grounds where Buckfast tonic wine is made.  Delegates were given the opportunity to sample the wine and to discover how it is made.  The tour was followed by the Conference dinner at which the Abbot of Buckfast, the Rt Rev David Charlesworth welcomed us and shared a little of the history of Buckfast Abbey.  At 9pm all delegates made the short walk to the Abbey church for the final service of the day, Compline, which was chanted by the monks in darkness.


Saturday began with a tour of the abbey grounds prior to the first session of the day led by the local ordinary, the Rt Rev Mark O’Toole, Bishop of Plymouth.  Bishop O’Toole had clearly gone to some trouble to prepare an address that would both educate and challenge the delegates.  Speaking broadly about the role of liturgical music in our liturgies today, and more specifically on the importance of the the musical training of seminarians the Bishop highlighted the importance of liturgical music and the priorities which need to be placed on it.


The conference was ably hosted by the Abbey Director of Music, Philip Arkwright.  His organisational skills allowed the weekend to flow without interruption and his musical skills were evident in the high standard of singing by the Abbey Choir at Vespers.  In his presentation on the musical life at Buckfast, Philip shared with us the exciting plans for a new organ which is to installed in the Abbey Church prior to 2018, when the community will celebrate a thousand years of christian witness and worship on the site.


After lunch we were treated to a brief talk by Dom Sebastian Wolff FRCO, a monk of the Abbey and noted composer.  He spoke of the changing requirements for liturgical composers in the church and the influences that had shaped his own compositions.  During his time at the abbey (some 66 years if I recall correctly!) he has written a wide variety of music for congregations, choirs and organists much of which is available for purchase from the Abbey shop.


The final session of the weekend was delivered by Dr John Milsom, visiting professor in Musicology at Liverpool Hope University.  Dr Milsom questioned the delegates about how they chose and utilised various sorts of music in their liturgies before demonstrating how composers of liturgical music in the renaissance period had equally composed music with an awareness of the context in which it would be used.  As musicians and liturgical practitioners we can very much get to used to doing things ‘as we like them’, or ‘as we have always done them’.  Dr Milsom’s session however forced people to sit up and start asking questions they might not have previously considered, leading them to reconsider previously held assumptions.


The weekend concluded in the Abbey Church with the singing of First Vespers of the Sixth Sunday of Easter led by the Abbey Choir directed by Philip Arkwright and ably accompanied on the organ by Organ Scholar Philip Broadhouse.  Congregational participation was strong in the singing of the psalms, and the choir illuminated the liturgy with motets by Matthew Martin and Colin Mawby and the service concluded with an organ voluntary composed by Dom Sebastian Wolff.


As stated at the outset of this report holding a conference in a secluded location such as Buckfast was a risk.  However, it was clearly a risk worth taking.  The location provided an excellent backdrop to the conference with first class facilities and excellent organisation.  We received true Benedictine hospitality and I am sure, all came away feeling renewed from our interactions with fellow members and speakers.


Thanks are due to all our speakers, to Philip Arkwright for carrying out all the onsite organisation, the Abbot of Buckfast for his very generous hospitality and welcome and the CCDM committee for the hard work over the last year of preparing for this conference.  Finally, the conference exists for the benefit of its membership.  It was heartening to see so many members attend this conference.  It is my hope that, buoyed by this experience, members will make a concerted effort to attend future conferences starting with St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham on Saturday 7th May 2016.  I look forward to seeing you then.


Dr Christopher McElroy

Chair, CCDM

The architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: PART 6

This is the final blog posting in a series of 6 focussing on the architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.  In this posting I will consider the placement of the organ and choir, before offering some general thoughts and conclusions to the series of blog posts.

The architect, Frederick Gibberd placed the choir behind the altar.  This placement both allowed the choir to be part of the liturgical ministries and ensured the continuity of the circular shape, whilst not running the risk of disenfranchising members of the congregation. The positioning of the organ was a functional requirement, in that it needed to be placed in a position from which it could speak freely into the space of the Cathedral. Naturally then, the choir was placed directly in front of the organ pipes so that all musical leadership is provided form the same place.

Some experimentation has taken place regarding the direction and placement of the choir since the building was completed. Gibberd designed a raised choir enclosure, which had all singers facing directly towards the high altar (as can be seen in the picture below from the consecration of the Cathedral.)

dedication sanctuary

Whilst this was a suitable arrangement for Mass, it was not at all effective for the choral celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, in particular sung Vespers. Experimentation led to the choir enclosure being removed, and choir stalls influenced by Anglican Cathedrals being placed in front of the organ case.

choir and organ



One wonders, had the Metropolitan Cathedral been built a decade later that it actually was, would it have been a different building with new liturgical principals? Whilst the placing of the altar in the midst of the people was a bold and innovative move, it does somewhat preclude adapting the building today. Whilst its usage for large diocesan occasions is obvious, does it serve smaller scale gatherings as effectively?

Gibberd himself expressed a hope that the building would be adapted and grown upon as was necessary in the future. Positive developments in this respect have been the majestic artwork that covers many of the walls in the cathedral that depict both saints and occasions that live strongly in the memory of the cathedral community. Noting the slow speed with which the liturgical movement took a hold in England one doubts whether building ten years later would have strongly influenced the design. It is striking that after winning the competition, Gibberd said ‘I have only the slightest knowledge of the new Liturgical Movement.’

One suspect that the members of the cathedral committee, and to a lesser extent, Archbishop Heenan, should be credited with the innovative liturgical design, and the decision to not place certain permanent items as the ambo and cathedra. Medieval cathedrals often illustrated the power and wealth of a city, displaying monumentality in both conception and material. However, these buildings rarely were/ are useful in a liturgical sense. Liverpool however should be proud, in possessing a Cathedral that illustrates both stature and beauty, sitting prominently on the skyline, whilst at the same time fulfilling a truly liturgical role as the center of Roman Catholic worship in the north of England.

The architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: PART 5

Between the sanctuary and the circumference of the circular space lie the pews for the congregation. As a building conceived before Vatican II, the Metropolitan Cathedral was required to have several ‘side altars’ or chapels for individual priests to say daily mass. Gibberd’s design incorporated twelve small chapels surrounding the nave, which he described as being among the most significant elements of the whole design of the Cathedral: ‘Not before has a cathedral been enclosed by a series of buildings which, independent in both designs and construction, are yet interlocked with the total space and the total structural form.’

met floorplan

Most of these chapels extend into the nave, but some (e.g. the St Columba chapel) are self-enclosed. Several of the chapels are dedicated to saints with special associations to Liverpool: St Martin de Porres is the patron of LAMP, St Columba, apostle of the North of England. Others have para-liturgical / devotional uses such as the Reconciliation chapel and the chapel of the Holy Oils, leading towards, but not detracting from the heart of the liturgy. In the liturgical sense, primary among the chapels are the Blessed Sacrament chapel and the Baptistery.

BS chapel

The Blessed Sacrament chapel’s principal liturgical roles are twofold. It is the secondary worship space for use with smaller congregations. Daily mass is said in the chapel that lies on a direct axis behind the high altar and the cathedra. Its primary liturgical function however, is that it houses the tabernacle which contains the reserved sacrament. The decision to place the tabernacle in a separate chapel, and not on the high altar as was normal in Roman Catholic churches before Vatican II was common in Cathedral churches.

met baptistry

As was common in pre Vatican II churches, the baptismal font was placed in a separate baptistery near to the entrance of the Cathedral. This provision follows a long tradition of having separate baptisteries, often of large proportions and grandly decorated.  Shortly before the design of the Metropolitan Cathedral was submitted, the German RC Liturgical Commission set out principals to be observed in relation to baptismal fonts in new churches:

In the ideal church this ‘spring of baptism’ would be given monumental treatment and be placed in a separate room near the entrance. According to venerable tradition this room should be circular or polygonal, with the font in the center; and the inward meaning of the ritual of baptism leads us to the same architectural solution. For at the core of this ritual man appears not as an actor, but merely as the passive recipient of the mysterious actions of God, and accordingly the appropriate structural form is not a long room, which in symbolic language expresses action, but a room which is centrally planned, and which, since its axis is vertical, has a passive character. (Baptistery Martin Dudley: Bradshaw, Paul (ed) The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship London, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. p 56)

Whether or not this statement influenced the cathedral committee directly is unknown, but what is abundantly clear is that they have subscribed to both the theology and praxis of a separate baptistery. The font, made from the same marble as the high altar, lies in an enclosed baptistery of around five hundred square feet along the perimeter wall of the cathedral in a setting that clearly illustrates the importance of the sacrament.


Today opinion is divided as to the question of whether the positioning of the font in a separate baptistery is conducive to the idea that initiation is the responsibility of the whole church.  The primary motivation for the desire today to have a more prevalent baptismal area stems for the success of the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA.)  However as this rite was not released until 1972, this movement was not strong enough to affect a change in Liverpool. However that the debate was already in focus in the early 1960’s is apparent from Gibberd’s own words: ‘Clearly Liverpool rejected a modern tendency to regard the sacrament of baptism, or re-birth, as being one which involves the whole seated congregation and not merely a group of relatives and friends.’  He goes on to outline the difficulties that would have been presented by having the baptismal font as a liturgical focus in the nave of a circular building, detracting as it would, from the altar.