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 Issues | Church History | F. J. Chavasse


Great Churchmen No. 24

F. J. Chavasse (1846-1928)

by H. Gresford Jones, D.D.

Second Bishop of Liverpool

Published by Church Book Room Press

The Cathedral Builder  

Liverpool Cathedral, both visibly and spiritually, is one of the outstanding wonders of our time. And no account of it can be adequate which underestimates the inspiring genius of Bishop Chavasse. The idea of a cathedral was nothing new. Mr. W. E. Gladstone had expressed the wish that someone would leave him a million of money: and when asked what he would do with it he replied, “Build a great cathedral for Liverpool.” With the creation of the see in 1880 it had been commonly accepted that if Liverpool were to have a Bishop, she must have a Cathedral too. The result was that in 1883 a committee was formed, and in 1885, with important after effects, an Act of Parliament was secured, providing not for a Cathedral only, but for a Dean and Chapter as well. Architects produced impressive designs accordingly. But it was then felt that the more immediate needs of the new diocese must have prior consideration. Churches, mission-rooms, clergy, must be first provided. And during the episcopate of Bishop Ryle the proposal lay dormant.

With the advent of Chavasse all was changed. It was at once evident that the building of a Cathedral was much upon his mind. And at his first diocesan conference a complete blue-print of his ideal emerged as the climax of his inaugural charge. Things moved rapidly. The “battle of the sites” ended in the selection of St. James’ Mount. The Bishop’s enthusiasm kindled a like fire in a group of influential laymen, drawn to him by his magnetic personality. An impressive list of promised contributions appeared. So that in little more than twelve months after his Enthronement, there was held in Liverpool Town Hall, on June 17, 1901, that historic meeting at which the mighty scheme was publicly launched.

It was a momentous occasion. The newly constructed council chamber was densely packed. I stood crushed in behind the semicircle of the councillors’ seats. The Lord Mayor (Mr. Arthur Crosthwaite) opened the proceedings. Lord Derby, the 16th Earl, then took the chair. Stirring speeches came from himself, from his son Sir Arthur Stanley, from Sir Alfred Jones, Sir Edward Russell, Mr. Arthur Earle, Mr. Brancker, and Sir William Forwood, who stated that £134,000 had been already promised. But it was the Bishop himself whose spirit and fervour most deeply stirred the imagination of that large assembly.

Why, he asked, was a cathedral needed? It would be, he said, a visible witness for God in the midst of the great city. It was required for diocesan and popular services. “We need a cathedral which will express and deepen the spiritual longings and aspirations of many among us.” And as to its character, “It must be in the first place worthy of Liverpool. ‘The house which is to be built for the Lord must be exceeding magnifical; of fame and glory in all countries.’”(1) It must be a cathedral of the whole diocese. It must be the offering of all classes—so that all could say, “We helped to build it.” The difficulties, he foresaw, would be very many and very severe: but “once having put our hand to the plough we must not look back, but with the Hebrew statesman of old, we must say ‘The God of Heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we, His servants, will arise and build’.”(2)

Since these words were spoken nearly half a century has passed, including two terrible wars. It is, indeed, stimulating to faith to “look up” and to see how significant, in spite of all difficulties, have been the issues of that memorable meeting in 1901. First the open competition of the architects and the selection of the superb design of Sir Giles Scott, under whose gifted oversight the vast edifice has stage by stage been reared. Then in 1904 the foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII, accompanied by Queen Alexandra. In 1910 the Lady Chapel was consecrated by the Archbishop of York, Dr. Cosmo Gordon Lang. In 1924, just twenty years after the stone-laying, the Choir and Transepts were consecrated by the same Archbishop in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary. More recently, in 1941, during the war, to the sound of guns, the great central space was added to the arena of worship.

A colossal achievement. Enter the Cathedral by the Baptistry, lift up your eyes to the clustered lines branching out in the groining far above you, note the delicate tint of the stone, the colour of the windows, the pleasing alternation of light and shade, then, below the great Te Deum window let your gaze rest upon the crowning symbol of our Faith, allow the majesty and the mystery of it all to descend upon your soul; and you realize how amazingly the Bishop’s dream-cathedral has taken shape.

Has the inner life of the cathedral kept pace with the outer? Have the invisible and the eternal grown, as the Bishop conceived, with the visible and temporal? These are vital and searching questions. Let me at least with unstinted gratitude acknowledge what has been already accomplished. So vast a cathedral must have an appropriate and commensurate ceremonial. And from the consecration ceremony onwards, thanks to the genius of our first Dean(3) and the rare gifts and qualities of our first Organist,(4) and not one whit less to the response of our whole cathedral fellowship, a certain quality and dignity has in such wise arisen in our services as to constitute something tantamount to a new school of Anglican worship, the influence of which is extending far beyond our borders. Is it too much to say that Liverpool Cathedral both visibly and invisibly is one of the wonders of our time?

What is the secret? “The cathedral,” said Archbishop Lang in his funeral sermon,(5) “has been built upon the confidence the departed Bishop had won throughout city and diocese.” A true estimate. To glance at the subscription list published in the cathedral handbook, so admirably compiled by Colonel Vere Cotton, is to appreciate the unrestricted range of the givers. People of every social, commercial, and religious affiliation in the diocese appear in it. A business man told me he had been one of a team to collect for it from house to house in Wigan. “It must be the offering of all classes,” said the Bishop. And it has been. Sir Frederick Radcliffe says truly, “The people of Liverpool were its founders.”

The cathedral has been built equally upon the confidence inspired by the Building Committee. Liverpool was quick to perceive that some of the most honoured names in the city were to be found upon it. Chavasse never tired of saying, “This is a layman’s cathedral.” From its inception the Chairman has been a layman: first Sir William Forwood (1901-1913), next Sir Frederick Radcliffe (1913-1934), and now (since 1934) Colonel Alan Tod, under whose statesmanlike leadership the mighty fabric, one of the greatest architectural achievements of the modern world, has slowly and majestically risen before our eyes.

Yet with all the gifts and all the leadership the miracle remains. So vast an achievement, at so vast a cost! One is always moved by it. One thing above all else accounts for it. As a monument to our saintly founder there has been raised, not a recumbent figure upon a cenotaph, but a simple bas-relief upon the reverse side of the throne: showing the Bishop, with a model of the cathedral at his side, in the attitude of prayer. By a sure instinct his friends divined the real secret of its creation. We who are trustees for its future shall be wise to remember his example.


>> Chapter 4: Founder of an Oxford College



1) 1 Chronicles xxii. 5.

2) Nehemiah ii. 20.

3) The Very Rev. F. W. Dwelly, D.D.

4) H. Goss-Custard, Mus. Bac., F.R.C.O.

5) March 17, 1928.










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