Seeing it Differently: the conversations and encounters beyond the helter skelter

By The Revd Canon Andy Bryant, Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care - 21 August 2019
Seeing It Differently Service (c) Bill Smith_Norwich Cathedral (3)
Do you think anyone noticed that there was a helter skelter in Norwich Cathedral?

Now it is all packed away and on its way to Prague. Looking back on the last 11 days, what should we remember?

I could write of the numbers that visited the Cathedral, the amount of media coverage or the quantities of Christian literature given away. But this was never about driving up visitor numbers or getting lots of publicity.

Instead Seeing it Differently was always about the encounters and conversations that would take place. The main focus was not the helter skelter, nor the other installations, but on the 14 trained volunteers in the Cathedral each day, engaging with our visitors and the connections that were made. And throughout those 11 days those encounters kept happening and they are the true legacy of this memorable event.

As one self-confessed lapsed Christian put it, ”for the first time in years I started to feel a connection with the Church again”. For many this was their first time in the Cathedral and having been drawn in by the helter skelter, they went on to enjoy exploring the rest of the building, “I never thought you would get me in a cathedral, but I am definitely coming back”.

A man walking the Trust Trail took off his blindfold and spoke of how the experience had made him reconsider his understanding of trust and he would need to go away and think further about this. A woman leave the Bible Box spoke of feeling hugged by the Word of God. An atheist reading the Stories of Seeing it Differently spoke of being moved reading the stories of journalists and scientists explaining why they believe. An older woman finished reading the stories and said, “This is wonderful – it will stay with me for the rest of my life”.

Walking the labyrinth, a grandmother finally found the strength to talk to her grandchild about the death of her husband; their grandfather. Lying down and looking up at the Nativity roof bosses a man spoke of finding a connection with God.

Around the helter skelter the most repeated word was “joy”. Those who climbed to the top of the helter skelter spoke of the impression made by the great West Window seen close up, the beauty of the bosses and the chance to see the Cathedral from a different perspective. And many older folk spoke of reliving their childhood on the slide back down. A child left a message saying, “Today my Grandpa was young again”. A woman told a member of staff in the shop, “I saw the laughter and the smiles, and I knew God was in this place”.

Cathedrals are places which seek to acknowledge the whole of life and are large enough to contain a range of activity and emotion at the same time. The buzz around the helter skelter and the stillness of those lying down and looking up. Conversations about the stories side by side with the lighting of candles and the writing of prayers.  Visitors mid explore caught up in the daily pattern of worship that went on in its unbroken rhythm.

Sometimes these can collide in unexpected ways. A woman began her day going to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to receive radiotherapy only to be told she was too ill to receive the treatment. Her friend suggested a visit to Norwich Cathedral.  Perhaps they both came expecting peace and quiet but instead they discovered Seeing it Differently. At the end of the day she sent us a message, “Thank you for today at the Cathedral, for all the fun and smiles. It provided a much needed distraction on what has otherwise been a difficult day”.

Many spoke of the warmth of the welcome and how the Cathedral felt accessible and inclusive, but one visitor made us all see things differently, “Being Autistic I see differently but I struggle to see the same. A series like this allows people like me who see differently to be included among those who normally only want us to try to see their same way”.

For a small minority, the presence of the helter skelter seemed irreverent but one six-year-old offered her own insight in response. She told the volunteer how much she loved the colour in the West Window seen from the top of the helter skelter. Then she wrinkled up her heard thinking and pronounced, “I think God likes colour. I think he’d like all the colours in my rainbows” – she had rainbows on her dress. The volunteer took the cue and told a certain Ark Bible story at the end of which the little girl turned with a big grin and said, “God made colour for us, He wants us to be happy”.

Seeing it Differently created many memories and offered a unique experience and the stories keep coming in. Last Sunday, away from the Cathedral, someone new came to a Norfolk church. When greeted at the door she said that half way down the helter skelter she felt God say to her that she should go back to church - so there she was.

Seeing it Differently was always intended as mission. It may not be how everyone sees mission, but it was mission. It was the Cathedral doing what Cathedrals have always done, re-telling the story, engaging in conversations about faith and inviting people to see things differently.

To see a gallery of Seeing It Differently images click here

Picture: Bill Smith

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