Four years have passed since my wife and I visited the Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, England. We were in the very happy company of our dear friend Peace Matsiko whose idea it was that we check out one of old England’s most magnificent jewels. It made a great impression on me.
As we approached the City of Lincoln in the English East Midlands on July 26, 2016, the Cathedral’s towers dwarfed this beautiful old English town of very pleasant low-rise buildings, ancient gates and cobblestone streets. The Cathedra’s location on a hill added to its ecclesiastical majesty. The approach to its main gate triggered thoughts of the history and powerplay that that building, which was constructed from 1072 to 1311, had witnessed.
The comfortable sunny afternoon allowed a leisurely stroll around the enormous structure. One was immediately struck by the grandeur of a building where no expense had been spared in man’s effort to express architectural gratitude to God. Built in an age in love with beauty, not just function, this Early English Gothic cathedral displayed an exquisite loveliness that seemed unbothered by modern humanity’s fast-paced living.
Measuring 147 metres (482 ft) long, 24 meters (78 ft) wide and 24 meters (78 ft) high, the Cathedral’s stone materials, sourced from the limestone rock upon which it stands, presented the image of power, strength and indestructibility by human agency. However, nature had already laughed at humanity’s endeavour with disastrous effects. An accidental fire burnt it down in 1141. An earthquake severely damaged the original copy in 1185. In 1237, a central tower of the rebuilt church collapsed during a sermon, burying members of the congregation. In 1311, the rebuilt central tower was graced with a spire that rose very high towards the heavens, making the Lincoln Cathedral the tallest building in the world for more than two centuries. However, a very severe storm brought the 160-meter (525ft) spire tumbling down in 1548.
It did not take me long to see why the Lincoln Cathedral was highly regarded by connoisseurs of great art and architecture. Its columns, the three towers and the intricate details of the exterior stonework, doors and windows drew one’s imagination to a period of unlimited royal opulence. Not surprisingly, King John, considered to be one of England’s nastiest rulers, ran his kingdom from the neighbourhood.
Upon entering the Cathedral, one could not but imagine the history to which the walls and magnificent arches had been witness. For example, the best one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta (sealed by King John on June 15, 1215) is owned by Lincoln Cathedral. It resided in the Cathedral for eight centuries until it was loaned to the nearby Lincoln Castle, where it is securely displayed.
Lincoln Cathedral was a military barracks for Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary troops during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. It was during that war that King Charles I, head of the Church of England, was executed by Cromwell in 1649. My enjoyment of the extraordinary magnificence of the interior arches, the ceiling, ribbed vaults, the altar, the nave and the choir was tempered by the multiple graves beneath the sanctuary’s floor. The plaques on them reported the remains of bishops, lord chancellors, a queen, duchesses, countesses, theologians and other anointed blue bloods. It felt a little odd walking over the dust that was all that remained of men and women who had cast larger than life shadows over England during their brief sojourn on Planet Earth. One was reminded of one’s own mortality and the words of King Solomon, author of Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
I did not see graves of ordinary mortals, though this did not mean there were none in the enormous building. Not that it mattered. Whether one lived in royal splendour or rotten squalor, death was a non-partisan equaliser. The burial place of one’s remains was completely meaningless. What mattered was the destination of one’s soul, predetermined in life by one’s acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Saviour.
The cathedral organ was one of the most impressive I had seen in old churches. Built in 1898 by Henry Wills, it was beautiful but not overwhelming. The organ sat where the Composer William Byrd, who died 397 years ago on July 4, had sat and written some of the finest Church music that is still sung today. One imagined the angelic voices, under Byrd’s direction, and his organ filling the Cathedral with divine-inspired sound.
One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Lincoln Cathedral was the exceptional patience and understanding of my companions. The two wonderful ladies let me wander around, feeding images to my camera, my mind imagining what it must have been like to see this magnificent building take shape, get repeatedly destroyed and then rebuilt by people whose names were mostly forgotten.
What royal commands and ceremonies had been held there? What was it like when Thomas Wolsey, the famous Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII, ruled as Bishop of Lincoln in 1514? What sermons had been preached from its extraordinarily beautiful altar?
What conspiracies and plots had been hatched in there? How had the notoriety of the scandal-filled fight in our lifetime, pitting Brandon Jackson, the Cathedral Dean, against Rex Davis, the Sub-Dean, affected the Church of England? And what did the Lord, to whose glory the building was dedicated, actually think about it all? Questions flowed freely, with no answers, of course, but a joyful experience in itself.
As always, when I visit these glamorous church buildings, Matthew 13:1-2 springs to mind. ‘As Jesus went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”’ It is always humbling.
Describing one’s visual and emotional responses to architectural masterpieces like the Lincoln Cathedral is futile. One has to visit the place to see why it is considered one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Europe. We are greatly indebted to Peace Matsiko for making it possible for us to walk back to the English Middle Ages. The Lord willing, we shall return.