You know how it is. We often do not visit the places local to us or, having visited them several years ago, somehow tick them off of the list as done it and seen it. Although I know Chelmsford Cathedral well, and have attended worship there, I had not taken opportunity to visit as a tourist for more years than I care to mention.
Purchasing the new Guide Book (January 2014) from the bookstall, Chelmsford Cathedral is a revelation! The building was designated in 1908 when a Diocese for Essex was decided upon, and although in the early days there were grand schemes to extend the former parish church to huge proportions, this never happened because of other priorities. There have been modest extensions to the building during the twentieth and early part of the twenty-first century, but the building still has a town, or should I say City, parish church feel. Essentially the structure is fifteenth Century with a rebuilt Nave of 1800-03, after workman had accidently undermined a pillar causing it to collapse. The rhyme “Chelmsford Church and Writtle steeple fell down one day but killed no people” might be known to some readers. Inside, though, it is modern but tasteful. It had a major refurbishment in 1983 when much of the heavy Victorian work including its pews were removed and replaced with chairs which created a flexible space where concerts could be held. The Chelmsford Cathedral Festival began in 1984, for example, and ran for many years. But it’s the modern art which captures your attention, though not in any sense a vulgar way.
The decoration of the Cathedral is credited to the inspiration of the recently retired Dean, Peter Judd. When the Chapter House and Vestry block was extended and new lighting installed in the Cathedral, the Dean commissioned Peter Ball to produce ‘Christus Rex’ (‘Christ in Glory’) to be placed above the chancel arch. Christ is shown with arms outstretched in welcome. When the organ was moved from the North Transept – there are incidentally two organs, both modern though you would not know – a blank or blind window was filled with Mark Cazelet’s ‘The Tree of Life’ (2004), painted on 35 oak panels. It depicts an Essex tree. Judas hangs from one of its branches. Adam and Eve as children run the wheat field. A landfill site shows a contrast of the use and abuse of our land. Peter Judd hoped it would convey the thought of trees renewing themselves every year, which holds something of a Christian message too. Then in 2010 four panels were filled in the clerestory of the chancel. These are icons produced by the Orthodox Community at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex. These are of St Mary the Virgin, St Peter, St Cedd, and Christ. But there is more to see. You need the Guide Book. You need to look because cleverly these works of art are not garish but blend with the historic setting.
Chelmsford Cathedral might be a parish church cathedral but it is one not to be missed on any visit to the newly designated City, or church crawl.
Chelmsford Cathedral. Guide. 2014, with introduction from the New Dean, Nicholas Henshall.
Tuckwell, Tony. Coming of Age. The Life and Times of Chelmsford Cathedral 1914-2014 (2013)