Newcastle Cathedral's Story Chair Empowers Women in Criminal Justice System

First published on: 11th September 2023

A unique 'Story Chair' was unveiled on Friday 8 September in the Crypt of Newcastle Cathedral.

This remarkable piece of furniture serves as the focal point of an innovative project that involves women with firsthand experience of the criminal justice system, having designed the chair to explore their stories, shed the past, and shape new futures. This pioneering initiative is the result of a collaboration between national social justice charity Changing Lives, the School of Design at Northumbria University, Newcastle Cathedral and the North East Probation Service.

As part of the project, over 50 participants from Newcastle, Ashington, North Tyneside and Sunderland joined in eight weeks of workshops, honing storytelling and craft skills to illustrate their experiences – many marked by domestic violence and trauma. The 'Story Chair' addresses the harsh reality that many women in the criminal justice system return to oppressive and exploitative environments, leading to recurring offending.

The Cathedral’s Revd Jon Canessa explains: “When they visited, the women were captivated with the Cathedral’s crypt, asking if they could use it as a place to share their stories so that others might better understand their experiences.”

Jon heads up the Lantern Initiative, which takes inspiration from the Cathedral’s iconic Lantern Tower and strives to be a beacon of light for those experiencing dark or difficult times. He says: “We want to ensure the inspiring, humbling and powerful stories of these women are heard and celebrated.”

As visitors enter the Crypt, they encounter three 'whispering trees’ – crafted by the chair’s craftsperson, carpenter Nick James, who worked closely alongside the women. The trees house audio narratives of personas serving as conduits for sharing the women’s stories. A toolkit has also been developed for use by organisations including those working in the criminal justice system and others from wider community projects.

The Revd Peter Dobson, Newcastle Cathedral’s Canon for Outreach and Discipleship, says: “The chair serves as a symbol for us in the Church of what happens when we take notice of who is not around us, when we own up to the behaviour which has been excluded or marginalised, and when we commit to ‘being with’ as opposed to ‘doing to’ one another. It has been the most extraordinary journey. A reminder too of what cathedrals can do beyond simply hosting but reaching out and facilitating partnerships.”

The chair will remain at Newcastle Cathedral until the end of September before starting its tour and moving on to the National Trust property at Seaton Delaval Hall. The women will be involved in selecting other future venues that will host the chair. The project received support from The British Academy and was presented at their Summer Showcase in June. To find out more, please visit Newcastle Cathedral's website

Photo credits: Simon Veit-Wilson on behalf of Northumbria University

Powered by Church Edit