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What cathedrals are good at

19 October 2012

CATHEDRALS have been the flavour of the past decade, to such an extent that parish churches cannot be blamed for finding them a touch irritating. Attendance at cathedral services began rising at the turn of the millennium, and those working in C of E public relations have been more than happy to quote figures that buck the downward trend. Viewed as a whole, cathedrals have become much more professional in welcoming visitors and nurturing the spiritual yearning that lurks in many. Government grants have contributed to this, and new statistics - that more than a quarter of the adult population of England visited a cathedral in the past year, including one fifth of those who said that they belonged to no religion - will support the present level of funding, however inadequately it meets the demand.

There are elements of this week's report by the Grubb Institute and Theos, Spiritual Capital: The present and future of English cathedrals, which have the potential to irritate further, however. The report talks, for example, about a cathedral's being "a beacon of faith", "a space where people can get in touch with the spiritual and the sacred", and "a hub to engage the life of the wider community". It would be a poor parish church that could not lay claim to these attributes. Furthermore, the report describes the cathedrals' "unique ability to bring together members of the community in response to local distress". St Peter's, Machynlleth, could have done with being bigger when it held a service of prayer for the missing five-year-old, April Jones, a fortnight ago; but could a service in a cathedral in a distant town have better served the grieving community in any other respect?

It is unfair, however, to criticise a report too much for what it does not say. Further research is needed to question those who, for example, choose never to attend worship in a cathedral even when they live near by. Anecdotal evidence suggests that discouraging factors include the very things that attract what the report calls "peripheral" visitors: size, architectural grandeur, services that are less participative, and a respect for personal space that borders on neglect. The fact that most Chapters are aware of such hazards to belief and fellowship, and have taken steps to counter them, is a key reason for congregational growth. Closer examination is needed, however, to discover whether a pattern exists for the conversion of people from visitors to pilgrims to believers. Much, too, can be learnt from the parish-church cathedrals - more diocesan centres than tourist attractions - and from the greater churches, such as Bath Abbey and Beverley Minster, which have also experienced growth.

Parish churches can learn many lessons from the success of cathedrals, not least the need to be open, well maintained, and provide excellent worship; but cathedrals need to remember, too, that they work best in partnership with the parishes of the diocese.

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