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.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.