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

Saturday 29 November 2014

Cathedrals: a success story?

What do we make of the latest statistics about cathedral attendances?

I've been a cathedral dean for half my ministry, and was a canon residentiary before that. So I once knew a fair amount about Coventry Cathedral and Sheffield Cathedral. 12 years at Durham completes a trio of three very different cathedrals (and if you count my years as an honorary vicar choral at Salisbury, that makes four).

In the last decade or so, the rhetoric has been that cathedrals are 'a success story of the Church of England'. (Some immodestly replace the indefinite article with the definite.) I've often wondered what this means, and whether success/failure language ought to belong to the way we perceive church life. In the heritage sector, there is now much more talk about the importance of 'intangible values', not just the things we can observe and measure. I'm not the only one to worry that church growth/fresh expressions language is seduced by the easy appeal of measurables ('bums on seats'). I doubt if these are what ultimately matter when it comes to understanding the dynamics of a faith community.

The metrics of weekday service attendance in cathedrals (which has doubled in 10 years) are telling, but it's not obvious what they mean. Here in Durham, the simple act of transferring the daily eucharist from the early morning to the middle of the day tripled or quadrupled attendances at a stroke. Some worshipper are regulars, but many (often the majority) are guests who are pleased to find that they have stumbled across a service during their visit. It helps to convey the message that cathedrals are active, working churches.

But pace some other deans, I doubt if many Durham Cathedral regulars are coming in preference to attending Sunday worship. I see a number of familiar Sunday faces at all our weekday services (that day's volunteers in the Cathedral, for example). I know plenty of others whom I've met at Sunday services in their parish churches. What weekday worship can offer is the chance of 'double belonging': parish on Sunday, cathedral during the week, especially on festivals and holy days. It's a mark of these people's discipleship that public worship isn't simply a Sunday only business.

The other key aspect of weekday worship is its evangelistic potential. John Wesley famously called the eucharist a 'converting ordinance'. The same is true of the daily office, especially choral evensong. It can come as a surprise to unchurched visitors that the Cathedral is not simply a grand heritage site, and that religion actually goes on inside it. ('So you still hold religious services in this place. How amazing!') I've known people in all the cathedrals I've worked in who came to faith through attending evensong. We have a steady stream of choir parents who are confirmed here as a result of coming to hear their children sing. St Paul says that worship 'shows forth the Lord's death until he comes' - a strongly missionary idea. So cathedrals work hard at making liturgy not only beautiful and transcendent, but also accessible, humane and warm.

Perhaps cathedrals are themselves a genuine 'fresh expression', not like a parish church, not better or worse, simply different. In Durham we rarely use the word 'congregation' because that doesn't really describe the communities that gather here for prayer and worship. They are more like the third order of a religious community, associating to and identifying with the 'foundation' in its discipline of daily and weekly common prayer. The extent of some of our worshippers' utter commitment to daily prayer both moves and shames me.

Cathedral life can mean loss as well as gain. You won't find in a cathedral the same quasi-family intimacy you get in a parish. You won't find the same sense of locality that parish boundaries create. On the other hand, a cathedral can affirm and help develop a person's rule of life by offering a range of services and opportunities for spiritual exploration that are beyond the scope of most parishes. And it's definitely not true to say that most worshippers drift in and out of cathedrals without properly 'belonging'. A recent study of cathedrals has found, perhaps surprisingly, that cathedral people feel a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to their place. In all the cathedrals I have worked in, their communities have been made up of loyally committed people. But they practise a different kind of 'belonging'.

I don't think this aspect of cathedral ecclesiology has been sufficiently studied. It would be good to set a theologian this task so that cathedrals can understand 'success' in more nuanced ways, and can shape their mission in the light of it.

1 comment:

  1. Chaplain John Bunyan8 December 2014 at 05:22

    Just anecdotal comments from an ancient Australian priest. I have visited many cathedrals in England, Ireland, and Scotland - Episcopal and Presbyterian - over the years - and again during each of the last three years.(1) Durham - where I was at S.Chad's 50 years ago - is as wonderful as ever though cathedral services are now more elaborate (not even stoles at the high altar then). In September this year I attended e.g. Saturday Choral Evensong, early Sunday HC, and - a favourite - Sunday Choral Matins at Durham. I walked out before Sunday Evensong began because of LOUD discordant preludes, something I encountered also on a Sunday evening at S.Giles' in Edinburgh. (2) Another example : I joined a long queue for a weekday Evensong at the Abbey : some may come to avoid paying the unfortunately necessary entry fee but inside all were quiet and reverent as we waited (not so in many parish churches). The Dean thoughtfully took up the themes of the Lessons in the prayers, and as always there, despite the crowds, the presence of the clergy at the west end of the Abbey after a service conveyed a sense of warm welcome. However, one would like there and elsewhere to have the words of the Psalm(s) always printed, and indeed sometimes ferial responses or responses to simple psalm chants in which we could join, and a short hymn - bridging the gulf between the "high culture" of much cathedral music and where many visitors are at. (3) I'd welcome a very brief sermon at the weekly services or an a brief note on the Lessons. (4) I did not stay for a weekday BCP HC in Wakefield Cathedral, held not in the Lady Chapel where there are pews that could have supported me, but in the nave where pews have been replaced by undistinguished chairs that give no support to elderly people if they wish to kneel - and indeed where there is no provision for kneeling at all, despite our Lord's own example. However, Evensong sung by Wakefield's girls' choir was the one I shall remember most - beautiful singing of simple music and a gentle sense of prayerfulness. In such lesser cathedrals, where tourists are few, I suspect that attendances remain fairly small. (5) I welcome the various great things one finds in cathedrals, for example the fine modern art in Durham, but NOT meals or markets or secular activities, whatever medieval precedent may be claimed for them (would an Orthodox cathedral or a Roman Catholic one allow those ?). The prayer candles now used even by Scottish Presbyterians are a great help not least for those who find it hard to pray in more formal ways. Very helpful also are the volunteers, so welcoming and assisting in all kind of ways. (6) Choral Evensong - I should hope a little less elite and a little more congregational - does provide for those "on the fringe", the seeker, the agnostic, the uncommitted - and most who identify as Anglicans fall into those categories. In parish churches however, with the absence of Evensong now in most, often the only service is the "Eucharist" (itself a mysterious term to the outsider) and while the Holy Communion should remain central, having it alone on a Sunday, as Bishop Michael Marshall has said, has helped to further "unchurch" many of our people in England - and in Australia. I am sorry that sung Matins has gone from too many cathedrals and from most parish churches. I'd welcome a return to Choral Matins in all cathedrals and in parish churches a flexible, imaginative Matins, at least sometimes, in place of the Ante Communion, as a service for those not confirmed and not communicants - the majority of our members. This might be on days important in what one Church Times writer spoke of as the "people's calendar" as distinct from that of the liturgists! I have have drawn on scholars of all traditions - evangelical, broad or liberal, and catholic, to support this thesis in my little book "Morning Prayer Matters" (bunyanj@tpg.com.au).