This year Salisbury celebrates one of the most remarkable stories of medieval England. It’s the story of the Cathedral that moved.
In 1220 the consecration stones of a new Cathedral were laid and anointed, only 2.5 miles from the site of the existing Cathedral. Bishop Richard Poore and his clergy had determined that the hilltop of OId Sarum was no longer an appropriate place for their foundation. So, with breath- taking audacity, they moved it to the plain below, where five rivers meet, and where it has stood ever since.
Why did they make this costly and laborious decision? It was principally a bid for liberty. At Old Sarum the Cathedral had been built cheek-by-jowl with the royal castle. The lives of the clergy and their everyday activities were directly under the watchful gaze of the military garrison. Parishioners could only come to pray with the consent of the soldiers. Festive liturgical processions would find themselves locked out of the Cathedral’s precincts.
This must all have been deeply frustrating, but in 1170 the stark cost of over-close supervision of the English church by the monarch had been made clear. Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered in his own Cathedral, on his way to Vespers, by the king’s knights. The Salisbury clergy may have concluded that putting some distance between them and their sovereign was altogether desirable...
So our Cathedral was built as a bid for liberty: liberty from arbitrary and unchecked power. In our 800th year Salisbury Cathedral continues to take seriously this historical legacy; for example, during March, on three successive Tuesday evenings, we will host the second series of Salisbury Conversations. In these experts and commentators will exchange their views on three contemporary issues. Each of these threatens to diminish human life, just as the proximity of armed guards once did, in Old Sarum. The issues are: the power of algorithms; gender (in)equality; and the inexorable advance of the climate crisis. Christian voices will be heard alongside secular voices and each Conversation will be broadcast by BBC Wiltshire and made available online.
By focussing our attention on threats to liberty today the Conversations are just one way in which, 800 years on, we honour our pioneering founders. Liberty matters to the followers of Jesus because truth matters to the followers of Jesus. One of the promises he made was that “...the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). My hope is that in our conversations this Lent we will edge a little closer to the truth.
The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury