Arms of the Cathedral of St Michael and St George Anglican Compass Rose

Cathedral of St Michael and St George

A Brief Description and History of the Grahamstown Cathedral

The Anglican Cathedral of St Michael and St George stands in solid grandeur at the heart of the city of Grahamstown, its soaring spire a dominating symbol of religious aspiration.

Only by entering through its impressive doors can an appreciation of the building's full architectural and decorative beauty; its reflection of the region's turbulent history; and, primarily, its significance as a place of worship, be grasped. And many find it an oasis of calm in a busy world.

'When was it built?' visitors often ask. Over a period of about 190 years, in an odd sequence of building operations.

The south wall is a relic of the old St George's church, begun in 1824 and opened as a place of worship in 1830.

In 1853 St George's, by virtue of the appointment of a bishop, became a cathedral. This made it the mother church of a vast diocese, a diocese in which the church has grown so much that it has twice had to be divided.

Plans began to be formulated for a more worthy edifice than the church, described, in 1848, by Bishop Robert Gray as 'well situated but miserable in point of architecture'. The eminent British architect, Sir Gilbert Scott, agreed to design it in the popular neo-Gothic style.

The first feature to be erected was the tower and spire, completed in 1878. Next, in 1893, at the opposite end of the existing building, came the chancel. A hundred years ago, in 1912, the two structures were united by the nave which accommodates the congregation. This necessitated the demolition of all but the south wall of the old church. Sir George's design, adapted by his son, John Oldrid , was completed in 1953 with the building of the Lady Chapel.

A church is more than a static building: it is an active community of faith. A succession of gifted diocesan bishops, cathedral deans and other clergy, and of dedicated parishioners have passed on Christian teaching and traditions, lived out its precepts of worship and of service to its members and to the wider community, and witnessed, sometimes quite vigorously, to the world in which this cathedral church is placed.

And placed, it has been in a world of conflict: violent clashes over land occupation during the nineteenth century; the South African War of 1899-1902; two world wars, and the long struggle against Apartheid. Some of the memorials on its walls reflect the effects of these conflicts on the church community. The emphasis now is on reconciliation.

There have been internal conflicts, too. During a period of complicated legal and ecclesiastical disputes, a contentious dean forbade the bishop to preach in his own cathedral! For a time there were two churches; St George's and St Michael's. Peace came in 1885 and also a new name: the Cathedral of St Michael and St George.

There have been many changes since those days, disturbing in some instances, but never again has there been so serious a rift.

Today the parish family is a varied one comprising people from different walks of life, generations, races and nationalities. Different languages are used, and a range of services offered, from quiet weekday communions to exuberant student services; from contemplative worship, to grand occasions such as ordinations; from active family services to more sedate offerings. The congregation is served by a team of excellent preachers and caring ministers.

Music includes the grandeur of organ music and the beauty of choral singing, now enriched by the young voices of members of the recently formed choir school. There is a marimba band, some of its well trained players coming from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds. Student services are enlivened by guitars and drums.

With the many distractions of today's world, the questioning of a need for formal religious structures as well as of the validity of a belief in a power beyond the material world, there has, admittedly, been a decline in church attendance, but Christ's message of love is not diminished and certainly faith is alive and well at the Cathedral of Saint Michael and St George.

One proof, at this time of year, is Spiritfest which offers music, drama, art and lectures in a Christian context, and the chance to tour the building or worship with the congregation.

The book Grahamstown Cathedral: A Guide and Short History by Charles Gould (1924) with updated information and a new introduction by Jeanette Eve. is available at the reasonable cost of R100.00 plus p&p