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Roll up! Roll up! The cathedral circus is here. By Sister Teresa

Blog | Feb 26, 2024

Norwich's helter-skelter

The necessity for my New Year’s resolution became apparent several weeks ago. It is going to have to be the avoidance of prejudice.

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, very specifically warns us against favouritism when passing judgement (1 Timothy 5:21). The usual person one favours is oneself, often without taking nearly enough time and trouble to think about other people’s opinions and indeed feelings, which may be hurt.

I was harrumphing to an Anglican clergyman friend from the Norwich Diocese about how disgraceful it was that those in charge of the beautiful, numinous and awe-inspiring Norwich Cathedral should have installed a helter-skelter in its nave, back in 2019.

He told me I was wrong, and gave several reasons why. The main one was that it encouraged people who would normally never go to church to visit their own cathedral: their birthright. The number of visitors to the church went up by 40,000 thanks to the temporary installation.

The cathedral is vast, and the helter-skelter occupied only a fraction of its space. And it wasn’t there permanently.

Once there, visitors became aware of the silence surrounding them, as well as of the beauty of the medieval building. Many stayed to visit the numerous side chapels, and took time to pray there.

They found a sense of peace which they would not have come across without the helter-skelter. Paradoxically, thanks to its presence, they were able to discover what sacred space means.

Best of all, the view from the top was sensational; for perhaps the first time in the cathedral’s long history, many members of the public were able to see, close to, the ceiling bosses for which the building is so rightly famous. Normally these are visible only to those on scaffolding working on its fabric, and so not accessible to most.

I felt ashamed of my uncalled-for and blinkered opinion. I checked the helter-skelter on the internet as I had assumed that it would be vulgar. I found it a pleasing and elegant object in its own right: red, white and gold, heraldic colours, which flowed effortlessly from the vast stained-glass window behind it.

There was nothing vulgar about it – and even if there had been, would it have mattered? Much of creation is very vulgar indeed: one has only to think of sunsets or some of those strangely-coloured deep-sea creatures to find oneself wondering just what God thought he was up to when he made them up.

I should start pulling myself together and avoid prejudice now. Join me?