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Cathedral conundrum

28 November 2014

BEFORE cathedral administrators preen and parish clergy despair, it would be wise to give the latest figures showing cathedral growth a closer look. This is not, much as we hate to admit it, a sign of a growing love of excellent music and liturgy. Attendance at Sunday cathedral services over the past decade has remained basically static - not necessarily a bad result at a time of falling rolls, but not a cause for special celebration. The big growth has been in average attendance at mid-week services (including Saturdays), which doubled from 7500 in 2003 to 15,000 in 2013. Cathedrals have not been asked about whether they have added services over the years; so it is hard to know the exact cause of the doubling in attendance. They were, however, enjoined to count an individual only once if he or she attended more than one midweek service; so this is a genuine rise. The annual figures need to be treated with more scepticism: the figure of 526,600 for additional regular services, e.g. fresh expressions and schools, is not an additional "half a million people" as stated in the rubric, but half a million attendances by a much small group of regulars.

It is clear to all what cathedrals have got going for them: an impressive, prominent building, open, staffed, welcoming, free, and public enough not to frighten off passers-by. But if cathedrals were really perceived as places of welcome by an increasing proportion of the public, one would expect to see a rise in the number of casual visitors not intent, necessarily, on attending a service of worship. This is not shown in the statistics: attendance in 2013 was 10,247,700 - an impressive number, but half a million fewer than in 2003. All in all, then, the statistics show a decade of activity in the English cathedrals, some of which has borne fruit in terms of numbers - which is not to say that there have not been fruits of another kind. These figures offer challenge as well as reassurance to cathedrals.

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