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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Turn on the Lights! Cathedrals and Spiritual Capital

I have been reading a report called Spiritual Capital: the Present and Future of English Cathedrals.  You can download it at:

I think I knowthe cathedral world reasonably well.  I first came into full-time cathedral ministry 25 years ago, and have been there ever since (to come clean: Canon of Coventry, Provost, then Dean, of Sheffield, and now Dean of Durham.  I should also add that as a young priest I was a vicar-choral at Salisbury Cathedral where I sang services a few days a week.  This is a cluster of very different cathedrals, and each of them has taught me much.).  The deans of England hold regular meetings that give us a national perspective on cathedrals.  So I read this report with more than usual interest.  I need to read it again before I can absorb all that it says (and our Cathedral Chapter will wish to discuss it carefully later this year) but here are some rather general - and provisional - comments.

What makes this report especially interesting is that it doesn’t start with a theory of what a cathedral is.  It is entirely led by evidence.  A research project lasting much of this year gathered information from six cathedrals, Durham being one.  One of the important aspects of this was to ask the public to complete a professionally designed questionnaire.  There were also face to face meetings with a great variety of individuals and groups of all ages and experience. I was keen to have choristers, ex-choristers and other young people contribute to this discussion. The researchers wanted to hear from as wide a range of people as possible: visitors, worshippers, volunteers, civic leaders, those promoting tourism, people who had never visited a cathedral at all (hard to find, those), people who loved art and music, people with or without an explicit faith, people who regarded themselves as having a spiritual dimension to their lives (however it was expressed) and those who were convinced atheists.

What this complex survey was trying to do was to understand not only who comes to cathedrals but why.  It is motives, attitudes and perceptions that can and should be our teachers.  How welcoming is our cathedral perceived as being?  What about how money is asked for?  How are visitors and pilgrims changed by coming inside, touched by what they see and experience?  Why do people choose to worship in a cathedral – or not?  How can we describe the ‘spirituality’ of a cathedral?  How does a cathedral enrich the spiritual and social capital of diocese, city and region – and what do they in turn have to give the cathedral? And so on.   

At the end, the authors tentatively offer some reflections on how cathedrals might flourish in the future.  They suggest that cathedrals should:

·       Continue the on-going work of reflecting together on the nature of this cathedral’s spiritual capital and how it can be put to work.

·       Maintain alertness to the specific and changing zeitgeist of its community and in particular the unresolved ambiguities.  (This is a comment on how cathedrals help the wider community at points of tragedy, not only through ceremonies and services but also through their knowledge of where social action and other kinds of engagement are happening.)

·       Explore how to make connections with those groups in the community that may be less familiar with the cathedral and less likely to come into its orbit (such as lower socio-economic groups, local businesses etc).

·       Articulate clearly its understanding of its distinctive role as a cathedral and maintain dialogue with the diocese about how this contributes to and complements the diocese’s understanding of its own mission.

·       Explore how the cathedral can best resource and support the bishop so that he is strengthened and spiritually upheld and nurtured in his ministry.

·       We are clear from the study that this ministry of holding the community’s ambiguities and the internal contradictions they trigger is costly. It will only be sustained if it is deeply rooted in the cathedral community’s rhythm of prayer and worship.

I’ve sometimes summed cathedral ministry up by saying that what we need to do in our cathedrals is to turn on the lights and fling open the doors. Cathedrals are wonderful places of mystery (and this comes out in some of the comments quoted in the report).  But mystery must not be an excuse for complacency, for not trying harder to do justice to their potential as places of sanctuary, meeting, learning, dialogue, evangelism, supporting the bishop and diocese, social service and transacting the business of their communities. There was a time when cathedrals seemed to float in Olympian splendour above the life of both church and world.  That isn’t true any longer, thank God.  But there is so much more potential to be realised. 

We know that up to 11 million people visited the 42 cathedrals last year (over 600000 of them came to Durham). That tells us something about the pulling power these places have, and the limitless opportunities for evangelism, interpretation, education, service and spiritual formation that cathedrals have. It will be our own fault if we don’t respond energetically and inventively to these openings which are handed to us every day on a plate. This report will help us.

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