Why do we find cathedral fires so disturbing?

The toppling spire of Notre Dame de Paris. Image: Getty.

The inferno that destroyed the roof of Notre-Dame du Paris has stunned people across the world. In part, that’s because cathedrals, and other symbolic religious buildings, are supposed to survive us.

From the outside, these places are massive, solid, stone structures that imprint themselves on their cities and on the people that live there. They are often at the heart of a city, and among their oldest structures. Yet the history of these buildings is the history of a perpetual battle with entropy and fire.

In 1984 lightning struck York Minster, the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, which lies at the heart of the medieval English city. The resulting fire consumed the roof of the south transept and shattered the rose window.

After the fire, the Minster was rebuilt. This was, however, not the first fire at York. The 1820s and 1840s fire had left large parts of it a roofless shell. In the 1960s, huge structural repairs were needed to stop the central tower crashing into the nave.

The central steeple of Notre-Dame was a modern addition, in cathedral terms, having been added during the 19th century renovations. Those had been prompted by Victor Hugo's passionate arguments to save the building after damage caused in the French Revolution. A few years ago, modern-day Hugos were highlighting the decaying fabric of the building again. Acid rain was eating into the limestone buttresses; the stone was crumbling.


That same weather damage happens to all cathedrals. In the 1980s, on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Britain, I picked up a fallen shard of limestone from a flying buttress. On the roof of St Pauls one time we took a shortcut, and I realised we were walking between the two domes of the cathedral, and the huge beams were what stopped gravity bringing the stone down. Flying buttresses, which we now see as part of the design, were originally a medieval fix to stop gravity taking effect.

You will almost never visit a cathedral that does not have some scaffolding on it, because someone is always working to keep the edifice up. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is not technically a cathedral but a basilica, meaning it has been granted special privileges by the Pope, and the reason we visit it is in part to see its continuing construction. Though construction started in 1882, it is not yet finished; yet the older end has already undergone reconstruction.

Despite this endless cycle of construction and repair, people often have a visceral response to a cathedral being damaged. ChristChurch Cathedral in New Zealand collapsed so severely during the 2011 earthquake that it can no longer be used. Despite its previous history of partial collapses, the church remains committed to rebuilding it, because of its symbolic value to the city.

A 1916 engraving of Old St Paul's as it appeared before the fire of 1561 in which the spire was destroyed. Image: Francis Bond/Wikimedia Commons.

If you think of symbols of London, you'll think of that dome of St Paul's. That dome rose over the firestorms of the blitz, captured in a photograph. But Wren's dome is not the first St Paul's: it was built to replace the one destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. The old St Paul's was medieval gothic, with a huge central spire, which had been built to replace an even earlier one that had been destroyed by another fire, in 1087.

Other cities are also defined by their most iconic religious building. The Hagia Sofia in Istambul was built in the 500s as a Byzantine cathedral for the Eastern Orthodox church under Emperor Constantine. It’s also been a Roman Catholic church and a mosque. From the time it was completed to now, it has dominated the skyline of the city that surrounds it. The churches that stood on the site before the Hagia Sofia was built were – you’ve guessed it – destroyed by fire.

Whilst many fires are accidental, some of them are deliberate. At least one of the earlier fires at York was definitely arson. The Dresden Frauenkirche was destroyed in the Allied firebombing of the city in 1945. It has been completely rebuilt as part of rebuilding a city that had been almost flattened. Like the Sagrada Familia, it is not technically a cathedral; but it is still a symbol.

It’s the same symbolism that makes us respond to Notre-Dame, regardless of faith. As the spire burnt, we reacted with horror because stone shouldn't burn, and because we understand how iconic buildings are at the heart of cities. Modern Paris grew up on Île de la Cité, with Notre-Dame at its heart, just as St Pauls is in the heart of the City of London.

Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, because it always is. Despite entropy, gravity and the tendency for cathedrals to burn, we continue to rebuild them.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.