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Birmingham Cathedral or Birmingham’s Cathedral Church: a distinction with a difference

Birmingham Cathedral or Birmingham’s Cathedral Church: a distinction with a difference

🕔15.Oct 2013

George Bernard Shaw scorned almost every aspect of formal education: schools, teachers, discipline, the curriculum, and, despite being a co-founder of the London School of Economics, universities – institutions, he suggested, wherein “a fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry”.

Having spent most of my adult life in universities, I do pedantry pretty good, which is why I was disconcerted by recent reports that “Birmingham Cathedral is planning a year-long series of faith and heritage events to celebrate its 300th birthday in 2015” (Birmingham Post), and of a “‘Wow’ arts project to celebrate 300 years of Birmingham Cathedral” (Birmingham Mail).

OK, I admit I’m intrigued to know whether the ‘Wow’ project is itself a ‘heritage and faith event’, but my greater concern at this point is the 300 years. Because of course 2015 isn’t our Cathedral’s 300th birthday or anything like it. To be precise, or pedantic, it’s only its 110th.

You don’t need a very long memory to recall just a couple of summers ago the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attending a Thanksgiving Service for the 300th anniversary of St Paul’s Cathedral. Now that was the real deal: a new cathedral, built to Sir Christopher Wren’s design after the old one had been gutted in the Great Fire, and declared complete by Parliament on, apparently, Christmas Day 1711.

And you don’t need that much longer a memory to recall back in 2005 the centenary events presided over by Bishop Sentamu, during his last months here in the city before taking up his position as Archbishop of York.

There was a special centenary service in the cathedral, but that year’s ‘Wow’ project was a 280-mile ‘Lent trek’ by the two Anglican Bishops – John Sentamu (Birmingham) and John Austin (Aston) – in which they aimed to visit, among other venues, every one of the 200 or so churches in the Birmingham diocese.

It was an apt way of commemorating what was actually the 100th birthday of the creation of the Birmingham Diocese, of the installation of the first Bishop of Birmingham, and of St Philip’s parish church becoming the Cathedral Church of St Philip – the church containing the seat or throne (‘cathedra’) of the Bishop.

And the message was reinforced by the Bishops beginning their journeys separately from Worcester and Lichfield Cathedrals, in recognition of the Birmingham Diocese having been a merger of parts of the two dioceses of Worcester and Lichfield.

The problem, then, to my pedantic way of thinking, is the potentially misleading phraseology in which the 2015 celebrations are being announced: “300 years of Birmingham Cathedral”, rather than, for instance, 300 years of Birmingham’s Cathedral Church.

The Dean too, The Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, seems keen on the bigging-up ploy. A couple of weeks ago she tweeted: “Dedication Sunday today @bhamcathedral consecrated 4 Oct 1715”.  There’s even an ambiguity about the home page of the Cathedral’s website: “Birmingham Cathedral has been a place of Christian worship since 1715”.  Sorry, but it was St Philip’s parish church that was consecrated in 1715, and St Philip’s that has been a place of worship since 1715.

There’s no point shouting “Pedant!”. I can’t hear you, and I gave you every warning.  Anyway, I’m going to try to make the case. First, as already suggested, I think there are some easy ways of being more accurate without becoming unacceptably clumsier. Birmingham’s Cathedral Church and St Philip’s Cathedral Church both to me seem preferable for the present purpose.

Secondly, although almost everyone reading this blog will know full well that Birmingham hasn’t been a cathedral city, or indeed a city of any sort, since 1715, the same can’t be assumed of every resident or visitor.

It’s purely impressionistic, but I sense that the proportion of Brummies knowing that not all cities have Anglican cathedrals is higher than that of the population as a whole – partly because, like Wolverhampton and Stoke today, Birmingham itself was one such city between1889, when it was granted city status, and 1905, when the Cathedral arrived.

For those unaware of such things, either of my slightly fuller titles would serve as the first step in an introduction to the history of St Philip’s, to the Cathedral, and to what is actually being commemorated in 2015.

Many of us are fond of our city cathedral and find it genuinely attractive. And I mean the structure and interior of the building itself, not just the Burne-Jones/William Morris stained glass windows – rightly celebrated, but sometimes, I sense, at the cost of other features, like my personal favourite, the nowadays rare oak-panelled galleries.

Not even its admirers, though, would seriously claim that our cathedral has an architectural distinction to match the Gothic or Early English splendour of, say, Salisbury, Lincoln, Durham, Wells, Ely, Winchester, or, nearer to home, Lichfield, Worcester or Gloucester.

These are purpose-built monuments, often decades or even centuries in construction, and that is their appeal. St Philip’s was, and essentially remains, a fine example of a large, English Baroque parish church built for the worshipping needs of a rapidly growing 18th Century industrial town – and that is its very different appeal.

It is one of England’s smallest cathedrals, and one of the first of the minority that were formerly parish churches. Its history, therefore, is properly a two-part one, first as a parish church, latterly as the city’s cathedral, the two parts directly reflecting the history, growth and development of Birmingham itself.

It’s like the two-act structure of the classic musical, the rousing finale to Act 1 being the year 1905, with the creation of the Birmingham diocese, the selection of St Philip’s as the Cathedral Church, and the enthronement of the remarkable first Bishop of Birmingham, Charles Gore.

None of these momentous events was straightforward or easily predictable. The case for the creation of an urban Anglican diocese of Birmingham had been around since at least the acquisition of city status in 1889, if not since the establishment of a Roman Catholic diocese in 1850. But it required the politically improbable alliance of the socialist Gore, as Bishop of Worcester, and the aging Liberal Unionist, Joseph Chamberlain, to make it happen.

Gore’s motive, evidenced by his becoming his own chief fundraiser, was to divide and swap his large and burdensome Worcester diocese for the new Birmingham bishopric, but at which cathedral church – St Martin’s or St Philip’s – remained an open question, the latter only edging it by offering an administratively easier transition and being conveniently enough located for both railway stations.

You’ll have seen Bishop Gore. He’s depicted in the bronze statue outside the Cathedral as a rather traditional-looking gent, but in fact was the complete opposite. Ecclesiastically a reformist Anglo-Catholic, politically his views were not just Christian Socialist but socialist period.

As Bishop of Birmingham, he participated extensively in civic life, speaking and working both locally and in the House of Lords for numerous causes, including workers’ education, collective bargaining and workers’ rights, and the abolition of exploitation of particularly female workers in ‘sweated industries’.

My rather rambly point here is that the 300th anniversary of St Philip’s provides a gift-wrapped opportunity to get more visitors into the Cathedral, raise it from its currently embarrassing position of 55th in Tripadvisor’s listing of 190 Birmingham attractions (just behind Grosvenor G Casino), and in doing so to tell them something about the interlocked histories of both the Cathedral and the city.

And my personal – and admittedly pedantic – view is that this would be assisted by not appearing to suggest that 2015 is the anniversary of just another old cathedral, but of an exceptional parish church that, as its town has grown into a city, has itself been transformed into the ‘Mother Church’ of the Birmingham Diocese.

Cover Image: St Philip’s Church, Birmingham, as shown in Birmingham Illustrated (1851), p. 56. (via


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