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Mothballing the Mother Church?

Written by Martyn Percy, posted on Friday, April 24, 2020

Locked old wooden doorsJust a few weeks ago, when there was still a semblance of normality in the world, our iconic Cathedral was occupied at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and had nearly half a million visitors a year.

Almost overnight that all changed. Quite possibly for the first time in 800 years, last month the doors were locked shut for most of the day, with a solitary verger making his regular checks on the fabric of the building. The daily life of prayer and worship for the Cathedral continues within the precincts – the Dean, Sub Dean, four Canon Professors and Precentor all live on site – but of course it’s not quite the same.

Since the lockdown, and especially since Holy Week, our life of prayer has continued to evolve, as we have moved forward with live-streamed and recorded services, which have gained a large and growing following. In this season of resurrection, there is new life. And as at Pentecost, new kinds of outreach: with many more, far and wide, drawn to the ministry and mission of the Mother Church.

So what of ‘Mothballing the Mother Church’? Mothballs were first invented in 1891, and are small balls of naphthalene stored among fabrics to ward off moths. They tend to work in most places, though Oxford seems to have evolved particularly hardy moths over the years. However, to ‘mothball’ meant, from the early 20th century ‘to store things away with mothballs that could be used again immediately’.

The term was popularized in 1946; ‘to lay up or disuse’ was popularized in 1946 in the USA in reference to warships at the end of World War II.

You might ask what the difference is between mothballing and just locking the door and walking away? The short answer is quite a lot. For a start, the Cathedral is a sacred space, and it needs TLC whether it is empty or full.  TLC here does not just mean Tender-Loving Care.  It also means Time-Labour-Cash.  It also means Tremendous-Loyal-Congregations.

Mothballing is what we do when we expect to be using something again – soon, and at the latest, a short season away. So, for the sake of all versions of TLC, our on-site verger runs through a checklist of things to keep an eye on: the roof could spring a leak; a window might break; a host of plumbing and heating problems might potentially crop up. Some of these things happen in the normal course of Cathedral life, but they are spotted quickly by staff or by the many hundreds of worshippers and daily visitors.

Although it might seem a way off now, normality will return, and mothballing will allow us to worship in the Cathedral together again as quickly as possible.

So the Cathedral is not closed in any conventional sense. The light of the aumbry in the sanctuary still burns as it always does, reminding us of the abiding presence of Christ in this place. In this necessary phase of mothballing, we continue to care for and cherish your Cathedral – for our congregations, city and counties of the Diocese today, and for future generations. We all hope and pray that it will not be long before we are back, and the Cathedral restored to full use once more.

But for now, we watch, wait, hope and pray.