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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, June 25, 2004
    Buried in the bricks
    Sunday I'll be in Liverpool Cathedral for an ordination service: always a spectacle, a pinnacle of the church's year, a celebration of commitment, an event to look forward to, which has a profound effect on those taking part [see my description of my ordination service].

    Some would say it's just a load of pomp; take away the spirit and it is. And true enough, the Cathedral has seen plenty of pomposity over the years. Like the laying of the building's foundation stone by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in July 1904. As the Daily Post recently described it, "All the toffs from the fine city of empire, the merchants and the ladies in their fur stoles, tossed gold coins into the hole, where the foundation stone was to be laid to a grand house of God. Perhaps they thought the money would buy them favoured places in Heaven, just as it had on Earth."

    The largest Anglican cathedral in the world was being built with the money of those who'd flourished in the city then called Gateway to Empire, while neglecting their near neighbours, some of the poorest people in the Western world. It was being built through the sweat and the blood of poor men, underpaid labourers, working in conditions making them vulnerable to injury and death. But the ceremony made no mention of them.

    On 19 July this year the Cathedral's centenary celebrations will echo Edward and Alexandra's grand visit. But today, browsing in News From Nowhere, the story of another, previously hidden, Cathedral ceremony emerged. It would seem that in anticipation of the grand occasion in 1904, two men decided to hold their own foundation ceremony beforehand.

    Jim Larkin, a trade union leader, and Fred Bower, one of the highly-skilled stonemasons working on the building, walked around the site. "Within a stone's throw from here, human beings are being housed in slums not fit for swine," Larkin observed.

    So, on June 27, 1904, three weeks before the King, Queen, and civic dignitaries arrived, the men composed a message "from the wage slaves employed on the erection of this cathedral" to a future socialist society, and, along with a copy of the Clarion and the Labour Leader, placed it in a biscuit tin deep inside the brickwork and covered it. On July 19, the foundation stone was lowered on top of it, giving Liverpool the Secret of the Stone.

    So, buried deep in the brick of that vast monolith to faith and capital, is a people's protest, a whisper of defiance and hope for those whose history has been buried until now. Ron Noon has produced a small book called The Secret in the Stone which tells the story of Larkin and Bower, and is supported by the Merseyside Construction Safety Campaign.

    And on Sunday at 1.30, after the church has emptied of newly-ordained deacons and their well-wishers, a group will gather around the foundation stone and commemorate the men's silent witness. Today, having first read my copy of Noon's book outside on the Cathedral steps, I made my own little vigil.