The internet. Omniscient, all-seeing, sometimes wrong. A bit like God, really. So it’s fitting that, when it comes to tussling with the meaty religious questions of our time, the Internet offers shaky and unreliable testament.
And SevenStreets is talking the biggest, weightiest, loftiest, hugest religious question of all.
Yeah, that’s right: Who’s got the biggest cathedral?
Go seek absolution.
Here’s the thing – we didn’t even know this was a story. That is, until we met a gaggle of sociable silver surfers, US rotarian tourists no less, still frothing with excitement after witnessing, first hand, the ‘biggest Anglican Cathedral in the world’.
Here on a UK religious sites field trip, these Golden Girls tell SevenStreets that Liverpool’s a surprisingly popular pilgrimage destination.
“You think it’s just the Beatles that get the tourists? Forget it!” Josie says. And, while Lennon might have claimed to be bigger than his Son, there’s no doubt – God had the bigger house.
Actually, Josie and co have been to Menlove Avenue. There’s really no case to answer.
There’s nothing a travelling American likes than to tick off a Guinness World Record in every port. But really? Our cathedral? We knew it was big. But the biggest in the world?
We have a peek at their improvised guide books: floral ringbound notebooks stuffed with printed out pages from a selection of Stateside travel sites.
Sure enough, there it is – a photo of the sturdy central tower, all 331 feet of it, soaring heavenwards. Beneath, in the slightly over-scented prose of the US travel writer, is the caption “The glorious silhouette of Liverpool, England’s Cathedral of Christ – the world’s largest Anglican Cathedral – ranks as a must visit on any itinerary for vacations in the city which bestowed the Beatles upon the world.”
Only, not everything is as clear cut as it seems. There is division in the ranks. Not all our visiting friends are singing from the same guidebook.
Josie is from New Jersey. And she shows us another travel publication – this one by Frommers, a reputable, if dour, US guide-book series. Within its Liverpool section, our cathedral is described as ‘the fifth largest in the world, and the second largest Anglican Cathedral’.
And Josie’s not for budging. She believes she’s visited the world’s real largest Anglican house of God – St John the Divine, squeezed rather unceremoniously in the lower streets of Manhattan, just to the top left of Central Park (it’s on Amsterdam Avenue, should you seek out the address of the Lord on Google Streetview – pic below).
Liverpool and New York – they like to think they share a special bond. Heck, we were almost twin cities until, post 911, everyone wanted a piece of the action, and all bets (and twin city invites) were off.
So a dispute over who’s got the biggest Cathedral, well, it just seems so wrong. Surely it’s SevenStreets’ duty to solve this schism before the gays and women ruin it for everyone. Or, more accurately, for the religious hypocrites.
So, working on the theory that if the Internet is God, surely Wikipedia is Saint Peter – spreading the world, penning the gospel, and generally bigging up the brand to the rest of us.
And it is in Wikipedia that we learn, of Liverpool Cathedral:
“It is the largest cathedral in Britain and the fifth largest in the world which ultimately makes it the largest Protestant cathedral in the world, although this title is disputed with the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York.”
Here’s what we know we know…
Liverpool Cathedral was designed in 1903 by Giles Gilbert Scott, then only 23, and took 74 years to complete. What’s not in dispute are its heaviest and highest peel of bells, its tallest and widest Gothic arches, and its largest fully operational pipe organ.
Little wonder that, in a possibly pre-emptive strike, Cathedral-employed PR gurus recently re-branded this monumental building ‘The Great Space’.
There’s no denying, it really is great, in all senses of the word – no-one who visits can leave without a suitable sense of shock and awe. And a bit of a sore neck.
And Liverpool Cathedral is great enough for Visit Northwest, our region’s official tourist body, to declare it ‘the largest Anglican Cathedral in the world’ in their promotional material. It’s a view shared by the Rt Revd N S McCulloch (we call him Nigel), Bishop of Manchester, on the Manchester Anglican Diocese website recently.
Two nil to us then? It’s looking good. Throw in a reference to its No1 position in the official Anglican Church Music website and it’s beginning to look like it’s game over, Josie.
Time for some more facts?
Liverpool Cathedral’s official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool. It occupies a total area of 9,600 square metres and was built mainly of sandstone quarried from the Liverpool suburb of Woolton. The cathedral’s bell tower is the largest in the world. Its refectory serves the best chicken and mushroom pie in the country.
Josie’s not having any of it. She recalls a piece on a site called Sacred Destinations claiming St John The Divine is definitely the largest cathedral in the world (St Peter’s doesn’t count, she tells us, as it’s a Basilica).
“I know its Nave is the longest and highest, it says so on the NYC Architecture site…” She shows us. It does.
SevenStreets digs around a little more, and we find Sacred Destinations to be an exhaustive, globe-spanning compendium of a site – detailing the world’s most impressive religious buildings in all their heft, depth and breadth.
It’s looking grim. Sacred Destinations gives the title to St John. And a letter from a Cathedral guide in the NY Times adds weight to their claim. And yet, tantalisingly, Sacred Destinations also includes a reference to the Guinness Book of World Records, which states, under ‘Largest Cathedral in the world’
…The largest church that is a cathedral is either the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York or Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in England (the title is disputed)…
So we’re no nearer a definitive answer. We assume this is as much to do with the internet’s endlessly frustrating streams of conflicting information as it is to do with quite how you get your arms around something quite so knotty and complex as the size and shape of a cathedral. We even consult books – real, tangible books. That’s just as futile, but with added bus fares to the library.
Longest nave? Tallest ceilings? Biggest volume? Greatest groundspace? Most stone used in construction?
Doubly confused, we speak to Holly Hayes, editor of the Sacred Destinations website.
“My largest sites page is based on Wikipedia information,” Hayes tells SevenStreets.
“I generally try to avoid using Wikipedia as a source, and this has been a good reminder of why that’s a good idea! The first paragraph of their article on St. John the Divine says that its claim to be the largest in the world “is disputed by Liverpool Anglican Cathedral”, as mentioned in a reference book on the New York site. But I’ve never been able to track that book down…”
Seems it only takes one untruth to be seized on before it is spread by believers across the globe. Who’d have thought?
Hayes points to another section of Wikipedia, which attempts to offer a more scientific approach – ranking churches by more-or-less objective criteria – cubic volume.
But this is just plain depressing.
According to new calculations, Seville Cathedral is now considered the largest church in the world – having pushed in front of Saint Paul’s in London. What? Where did that come from?
On the verge of giving up, we decide there’s only one way to settle this dispute once and for all. Go straight to the top.
Well, not the very top. But as close as we can and still be able to upload a feature afterwards.
SevenStreets spoke to The Dean of Liverpol, Justin Welby.
So, settle this dispute for us, if you can, we pleaded. Is Liverpool home to the largest Anglican Cathedral in the World, we asked?
“Liverpool Cathedral ranks as the largest Cathedral in the UK and the fifth largest in the world,” Dean Welby told us. “And as an Anglican Cathedral it is the second largest by most sensible definitions behind St John the Divine.”
We can’t help but look a little deflated. All that internet nonsense, and Josie held the Word of Truth in her crumpled bumbag all the time.
“Liverpool Cathedral is a great space that is testament to a vision of an awesome God,” he adds, and, before our lips start to quiver even more, The Dean swiftly, comfortingly, adds:
“But what’s really important to us in the Cathedral is that the visitor gets a chance to encounter God.”
If ever there was a lesson in the sin of pride, we reckon SevenStreets has just learned it.
Still, we were right about that chicken and mushroom pie.