How Newcastle Cathedral's New Dean Will Celebrate Christmas
Where better to celebrate Christmas than at Newcastle's Cathedral, the only one in the country dedicated to St Nicholas?
On 14th October family, friends, faith leaders and civic dignitaries gathered at Newcastle Cathedral for the formal installation of The Reverend Canon Lee Batson as the new Dean of Newcastle in the Church of England. Lee, who has moved to the North East for his new role, was previously Team Rector of the Epping Team Ministry, as well as Area Dean and World Church Partnership Officer in Chelmsford Diocese, where he developed a strong connection with the Anglican Church in Kenya. He’s particularly passionate about and proud of his work improving the lives of those with disabilities and dementia and victims of gender-based violence and domestic abuse.
‘Working with a tremendous team of colleagues, my job is to ensure that [Newcastle Cathedral] fulfils its core purposes, which are of course what you’d expect being a place where people come to worship and to get away from the white noise of life,’ says Lee. ‘Being one of the significant heritage venues in the city, and with all of the stories that the stones contain, it’s about how that helps to carry collected memory which then shapes who we want to be. All of that, to an extent, I could find in any church. What is key about Newcastle Cathedral is that it already is asking the question “so what?”. There’s the Lantern Initiative and how we might see that develop to encompass wider areas, for example.’
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The Lantern Initiative aims to reframe who a Cathedral is for. One of the Cathedral’s values, Radical Welcome, suggests looking around the Cathedral and noticing who isn’t there, and asking why. ‘I think that’s a really exciting thing to be entrusted with overseeing,’ says Lee. ‘Alongside that, we have the National Schools Singing Programme, through which we enable children from areas all across Newcastle the opportunity to be part of our Training Choir, which has more than 30 singers. From that starting point, we have a growing number of Probationer Choristers. That’s a core part of what this Cathedral stands for – providing a space where voices can be heard from different groups.’
Lee’s just getting his bearings in the city but says the North East is an ‘astonishingly, brilliantly beautiful area’, which he’s only just beginning to scratch the surface of. ‘You’ve got a vibrant city and there’s something really liberating about being in a city that wants to be a city of sanctuary,’ he says. ‘Then you’ve got all the post-industrial stories, the epic countryside and the coast – quite frankly you’ve got it all up here. I’m massively overly stimulated by this whole place and I think I’m already envious of those who have called it home for longer.’
Ahead of Christmas Lee has been taking note of the successful events that have already been taking place at Newcastle Cathedral. ‘I would argue that when most people think about culture in the church they think about what BBC Radio 3 listeners like,’ Lee laughs. ‘We do have that, we have phenomenal classical concerts going on all the time, but that also chimes in with silent discos, Shaun the Sheep on the Tyne, and the By Candlelight concerts. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether you listen to BBC Radio 2, 3, 4 or Radio 1, there’s something for everyone.’
The Church of England theme this advent is Follow the Star: Join the Song, celebrating and highlighting the transformative power of music. With the growing popularity of concerts by candlelight and the significance of candlelight at Christmas, Newcastle Cathedral’s Christmas events will include candlelit carols, candlelit midnight mass on Christmas Eve and a performance by a West End cast and a live big band by candlelight. These celebratory events are complemented by the Cathedral’s crib service (an interactive telling of the nativity), a traditional service incorporating carols and sacred music sung by the Cathedral Choir and choral music as part of the Festival Eucharist on Christmas morning, as well as lots of other events.
As part of the multi-million-pound redevelopment project, Common Ground in Sacred Space, the Cathedral’s pews were removed from the Nave and sold, improving accessibility and opening up space to host more of these events throughout the year. ‘I’m making no promises but I think the joy of the redevelopment is that it’s enabling us to dream things we could never have dreamt when the pews were in place,’ says Lee. ‘I put a boxing ring in my last parish because boxing does amazing things to stop people going into violence. It certainly raised a few eyebrows but it’s that kind of creative thinking I can already see in the events we’re organising. Of course as we look to Christmas, we’ve got some phenomenal things coming up which again is a chance for the city to hear voices from every section of our community.’
‘There is something in this programme for everybody to really connect with what the Christmas season is about’
Lee is looking forward to his first Christmas at Newcastle Cathedral as he sets the scene for the festive season. ‘Cathedrals are awesome spaces, whether you’re going to visit at the beginning of advent to hear beautiful, sacred music that’s stood the test of time with candles flickering, or to connect with part of ourselves that, whether you’re a person of faith or not, is there,’ he says. ‘It could be to attend any of the services – there is something in this programme for everybody to really connect with what the Christmas season is about: hope, anticipation and looking to the future. Not to forget that one of the greatest things about Newcastle Cathedral is that of the 42 of these places in the whole country, this is the only one dedicated to St Nicholas – the original Santa Claus. There’ll be opportunities for younger visitors to come and learn more about that side of the season too.’
On St Nicholas Day (6th December), the Choir of Durham Cathedral will join with Newcastle Cathedral’s own choir to celebrate St Nicholas, the patron saint of Newcastle Cathedral. This service will also mark the beginning of the 90th anniversary of the Friends of St Nicholas, a group dedicated to fundraising for the Cathedral. Throughout the Christmas holidays there will also be a range of activities inspired by St Nicholas. Visitors can create their own colourful mitre at the Cathedral's craft station, follow the trail booklet as it leads you on a journey around the Cathedral to spot images of St Nicholas, and discover what we can learn from his generosity today.
‘We’re supporting vital charities [including Crisis, Marie Curie and The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation] but also offering events which are free so families can come along and engage with the story without having to worry about the cost in the holidays,’ says Lee. ‘Amongst all the joy, one of the things I think the church can do is recognise that Christmas can be the hardest time of year, because we start to notice the chairs that aren’t filled the way they used to be. We’re all a bit death-shy in this country; we don’t like to talk about it even though we live with it, but we can be the ones to say come along, no one’s going to ask you any questions, and you can name the person you miss most. You can know that that’s as valid as coming along to have a blast with a vicar dressed as Father Christmas,’ (although Lee is making no promises on the dressing-up front)!
Amidst all the coloured lights and joyful music, the birth of Jesus is being celebrated, and this is why many people visit Newcastle Cathedral at Christmas. ‘I think on another level though, most of us want hope and a reason to hope,’ says Lee. ‘In the darkness of the winter season maybe the candles in all their fragility offer an image of what hope is. It’s fragile, but it’s there. The carols, the choir music and the awesomeness of the building, and the darkness of the world outside in comparison to the light inside, I suggest are some of the things that draw visitors in at Christmas. All I can do is continue to lead a building and offer a welcome whenever and however they want to engage in what we’re trying to do.’
Christmas is also a time to bid farewell to the year and look to the future, but Lee admits he has no current fixed plan for the future of the Cathedral. ‘It would be hugely arrogant as a kid from the South East to come into a building in the North East with a great team and say “this is my plan”,’ he says. ‘What I can say is that I was attracted to work here in this diocese and this cathedral, because it was already doing things that massively resonate with the priorities I had tried to develop at my previous ministry. If I were to have a plan it would be that if we sat down in a year’s time we’d be even more than what we already are: radically welcoming more people and offering worship that continues to inspire.
‘To be associated with the Cathedral doesn’t mean you have to be fully subscribed to the beliefs that inspire me, but it does mean being a part of an organisation or a movement which is actively seeking to say to those who don’t feel they have a place, that they do have one. In five years time let’s have more stories to tell of lives that have been transformed by the work we’re doing, and where those people can come from any demographic of the city.’
Lee is keen to encourage local businesses to book their place at the St Nicholas Gala Dinner scheduled for Thursday 25th April 2024, which promises to be a night of goodwill, to preserve the historical landmark and support its public-spirited work. Corporate guests can reserve tables for up to 10 at the event and an auction will take place featuring items inspired by the Cathedral's rich heritage. ‘The Gala Dinner is an invitation for those who wish to come along and hear more about our work,’ says Lee. ‘They’ll leave knowing not just that they’ve had a great meal but also that they’ve contributed to ensuring that the amazing work we do via the Lantern Initiative and with local schoolkids can continue to provide a better future for individuals.’
To find out more about the St Nicholas Gala Dinner, please email email@example.com. For information about the upcoming events at Newcastle Cathedral, visit newcastlecathedral.org.uk.