As we come to the end of a truly momentous year for the city – during which the 900th anniversary of the Cathedral was celebrated in just about every way, and in every corner – The Moment talks to Dean of Peterborough, the Very Revd Chris Dalliston, about the events of 2018 and where we go from here...
You arrived as Dean back in January, just as the Peterborough 900 celebrations were getting underway. What have been the highlights of the past 12 months for you?
It has been an incredible year. For me personally, arriving in the depths of winter and coming to this extraordinary building at the beginning of its 900th year was an amazing experience – as was settling into Peterborough and realising what a rich place it is. Some of its diversity and complexity is hidden from public view, but the more you dig into life here, the more you see what’s going on and the more you see what wonderful relationships there are between different community groups. It’s been a real privilege working alongside people of different faith communities. One of the highlights was being able to offer space in the Cathedral Precinct for the Islamic community to celebrate iftar. It was a great joy to share with them in that important part of their celebrations of Ramadan. And we are also participating in the Hindu community’s celebrations of Diwali, so there have been those kinds of things for me personally, discovering the wealth and richness of community life here, which have been wonderful.
Obviously the 900th anniversary has given us the opportunity to do all sorts of things in the Cathedral – to celebrate its life, to welcome people in, to raise our profile, and for me to be involved in the abseil 150ft down the northwest tower of the Cathedral alongside the Chief Executive of the City Council, which was quite an experience! Lovely to have government and faith communities participating and sharing together – and that same weekend we had the royal wedding, of course, which was broadcast live in the Precinct and thousands of people came and shared in the wonderful summer weather we had. The fantastic summer this year gave us lots of opportunities to do things like that, and in the middle of the summer we hosted the world record breaking gathering of 900 fairies [actually 878 fairies, but still a record!]. It was very special to support Anna’s Hope in that, which is such an important charity based here in Peterborough. Then, as the year has gone on, we’ve had the amazing experience of having Tim Peake’s Soyuz space capsule and the Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram… Those few weeks were quite extraordinary, with thousands of people coming to the Cathedral, many for the first time – and many from Peterborough coming for the first time, too, to see these things but also to discover the richness of our great building as well, and the wonderful way these great works of art and science play against the stones of this ancient building and the spaces they’ve occupied. When the Museum of the Moon was here as well as the space capsule we had 7,000-10,000 visitors in a day, which is quite extraordinary. We’ve had around 120,000 visitors in the space of three months, which is more than we previously had in a whole year. All that has been absolutely wonderful, that rich and poor, great and small have all come to visit and say ‘this is our Cathedral’. How great is that?
Do you think this year has shifted the perception of Peterborough, both inside the city and beyond?
I think so. I think it’s been about reminding people what a great place Peterborough is, what a depth of history it has – and that’s important to people. This morning I was at the opening of the new Council offices at Fletton Quays which is occupying an old railway building, and renewing that has allowed it to take on new life. In a similar way, this Cathedral was once a Benedictine abbey and there are lots of principles from that past that we want to continue to celebrate, including of course the Benedictine tradition of regular patterns of worship, but also the rich hospitality and generous welcome to people. So, reclaiming the past and reshaping it in a contemporary way, for us, as a 900-year-old cathedral but with a mission for the 21st century, is something we’ve been able to explore more deeply over the past year.
Having all these people coming has awakened in us a sense that our calling is as stewards of this building on behalf of the city and the wider community – it’s not just for our benefit. It is a building that is owned and loved, or has potential to be loved, by the whole city. At its heart is the love of God, which is for everyone regardless of who they are or where they come from, and we want to make that real in the way we offer a welcome and hospitality.
2018 has also been a turbulent year, politically. Does that make this mission more relevant than ever?
In the past centuries Peterborough was a small place and this was probably a very monochrome community, but now it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country, bringing all sorts of people into the area, so there are big challenges. One of the other things we are trying to do is support work with homeless people, using some of our Cathedral buildings to help those people move into a more settled and stable life. That would have been part of the monastic tradition, and one we are trying to reclaim. But we do live in a society that in many ways has become more divided, with lots of differing views about how to move forward, and to that we bring a kind of unconditional offer of space, of hospitality, of prayer for all. I think it is really important that we have these spaces in our society that are not partisan, but are there for all to claim, to own, to inhabit and to celebrate. If we can create a place where all can feel comfortable, that is quite a special thing in a world where the temptation is to occupy your own stronghold and objectify other people. We have our own clear views about our own faith and tradition, but it’s not an exclusive claim, which is why we have been working with our friends of different faiths and backgrounds, including science. These things are not conflicts, these are different ways of interpreting ourselves as human beings, and in many respects are complementary ways of doing that.
Because this year is the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI there has also been work going on in the faith communities in the city to mark the often hidden history of the contribution of the Imperial or Commonwealth nations – people of all and every faith – who all played a part in the First World War. When we had our Armistice Day commemoration on 11 November we talked about offering a place of honour for the faith communities to come and participate – well, that offer was made and very warmly received. It was a world war, and people from right across the globe were caught up in it – my own grandfather at the time fought with the ANZACS in Gallipoli. History is often written from a narrow perspective – from the point of view of your own culture – but now we’re in a multicultural nation with a diverse society, so it’s important we tell the stories of all the people who are part of our community now, and celebrate that together.