Staff at Sheffield Cathedral have offered two contrasting approaches to the Christmas season.
Canon Keith Farrow led two Marys, three angels, four kings and a mixture of shy and showbiz shepherds in a ‘Singalong Nativity’ carol service recently for 90 people.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything with young children,” said Keith.
“Mary and Joseph kept wandering off, perhaps on the road to Bethlehem. You just have to go with the flow.”
After the carollers finished their Christmas craft activities, the Reverend Beth Keith and her colleagues prepared for the next advent activity by lighting candles all round the building, aiming to transform the 102 year old cathedral into a much more ancient experience.
“We want to allow people the time and space to explore the building,” she said.
“It’s a place where people really experience God’s presence, especially at this time of year when it’s so busy, it gives people the option to be still and pray or meditate.”
The cathedral will be hosting five ‘prayer installations,; inspired by 8th century Advent Antiphons, which will be sung in the cathedral in the days before Christmas. The installations included a labyrinth chalked on the floor, a work by local artist Jen Mick, a selection of prayer keys and the ‘Emmanuel’ installation of a foetal scan on the altar in the Cathedral crypt.
The ‘Are You There?’ event at the weekend brought 130 people to see and experience the art works by candlelight. Beth said: “I think there’s a legacy that lives on in places where prayer has happened every day for hundreds of years.”
, there’s a legacy that lives on in the building, and I think that’s important to people.”
Keith Farrow added that the Cathedral’s midnight service on Christmas Eve has probably been taking place for a thousand years or more, in the building’s long lost predecessors on the same site from the ninth century onwards.
“The Sheffield community has always bonded together here,” he said. Nowadays, the Cathedral aims to be open to those of all faiths and none, he added, as ‘a place for all people’. For example, there’s a series of Christmas services for local charities including Shelter, St Lukes, the Alzheimers Society and the Cathedral’s own Archer Project, which has been helping local homeless people for over 25 years. “Hosting the Archer Project here means we’re the only Cathedral I know of with a dental surgery on site,” Keith said.
He noted that the Cathedral is now a local church for the growing city centre population, including students from all over the world. Ancient churches would be the hearts of their community, he said, and the Cathedral aims to be open to everyone over the festive season. “Christmas is not just about Christmas trees and tinsel and presents and fluffiness, at the centre of it is a life-changing event.”
The building can offer a place for quiet reflection said Beth Keith. “Christmas is a wonderful time, but it can also be a difficult time for people, so we’re acknowledging that,” she said. December is one of the busiest times of year for the Cathedral, said Canon Farrow, and this year there are many attending with a sense of feeling vulnerable in an unstable world, he said.
“I think we all have a responsibility for our own response and reaction to all these things. For me I think of the ‘golden rule’ and I’m pinching the words of Jesus by saying: ’do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. You can’t go far wrong with that.”
He added: “You could offer time to a charity, or is their someone in your community you could offer help to? It’s also about listening to each other. Sheffield is a very hospitable city, it’s a place for everybody, and I think Sheffield people are supportive and responsive and accepting. I think now we should should strengthen those characteristics, and minimise any sense of people feeling excluded.”