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The cathedrals’ secret

03 July 2015

Cathedrals: Stephen Hance explains their recent success


I WAS at a conference called Leading Your Church Into Growth (LYCIG) at the Swanwick Conference Centre, checking out the materials for use in Southwark diocese, where I am Missioner.

The materials were very good, and over dinner I found myself talking to a couple of others at the conference who were also residentiary canons of cathedrals. We agreed that what was missing was something specifically for cathedrals. And so LYCathIG was born.

On the train home, I sent an email around the diocesan missioners' network with the idea. By the next morning, more than half of the cathedrals or dioceses of the Church of England had been in touch to express an interest.

I shouldn't have been surprised. When the church research report From Anecdote to Evidence was published early in 2014, it highlighted two particular parts of the Church that are experiencing numerical growth. These were Fresh Expressions of Church, and cathedral congregations. (The report makes no claim that this is the only type of growth that matters, but it is the type of growth that the project was set up to research.)

And yet, although I work in a cathedral where the congregation is numerically strong, I suspect that we are fairly typical in having no particular strategy to grow the congregation. We see people come, and we rejoice that they do, but we don't necessary know why they do. (A handful of cathedrals, including Southwark, have undertaken their own research on this with Professor Leslie Francis; so we may know a little more shortly.)


THUS the Cathedrals and Growth Network was created, to draw together Chapter representatives from as many of our cathedrals as wanted to take part to learn from each other about congregational growth. All are welcome: anyone who has a shared responsibility and interest for enabling numerical growth, evangelism, and discipleship, even while we acknowledge that this is not the only kind of growth with which cathedrals are concerned.

The Network gathered for our first meeting at Southwark Cathedral last month, with representation from more than half the English cathedrals. We heard from Kevin Norris, of the Strategy and Development Unit, on the From Anecdote to Evidence research and its findings on cathedral growth, and then spent the afternoon in workshop groups talking about the key growth factors we observed in our own contexts, and how they differed from some of the popular perceptions of cathedral attendance - perceptions that are also being challenged by the research.


ONE of these perceptions is that people come to cathedrals in search of anonymity. I remember the rural dean at my first deanery-synod meeting after ordination bemoaning the introduction of coffee after the service as the time the Church of England lost its way. "I don't want to drink coffee and chat," he cried. "I just want to say my prayers and go home."

It is sometimes said that people are motivated to attend cathedral worship by a similar desire. But it's not true. Asked why they attend, one of the commonest responses people give is that they like the friendly atmosphere and the opportunity to make friends. One might contend that some choose cathedrals because their own parish is insufficiently friendly, too cliquey, or with too narrow a range of people, and not enough chances to make friends.


THIS leads to another perception, that cathedral growth is primarily transfer growth, i.e. that cathedrals are leeching off the local parishes to which people would otherwise go.

The picture is generally different. Many attending cathedrals were formerly unchurched, that is to say, they had never previously been a regular worshipper anywhere. A larger group were formerly dechurched, people who had once been regular churchgoers but who were not going anywhere immediately before coming to the cathedral.

Yes, there is a large group of people who had been going to a church, but transferred. It is interesting to find out why. Mostly, this is not because people prefer to be less visible, or to have less asked of them than in the parish. This is, of course, true of a few, as it is in any large, well-resourced church: just ask Holy Trinity, Brompton.

But, more typically, people leave their parish for a cathedral because something has gone wrong. They have been hurt or damaged somehow, and the cathedral provides a safe place where they can regroup and recover.

Some will stay; some will go back, or go on to somewhere else. Again, this is a pattern that any large church can identify with. But cathedrals allow some to leave their parish without leaving the Church. In that way, we are the Church's hospital, or recovery room.


FINALLY, there is a common perception that people come to cathedrals for glorious music, stunning architecture, a sense of history and heritage - but not for spiritual growth. Leaving aside the question of whether these things are opposed, the research suggests spiritual growth is happening in cathedrals.

Many give testimony to how their faith has come to life in a cathedral congregation. Real evangelism and discipleship, the focus of so much of our thinking and talking these days, is taking place in cathedrals.

So what does enable cathedrals to grow? The workshops at our first gathering suggested two factors above all others, which fortunately resonate with the research. The first is missional intentionality. Cathedrals need a clear and declared intention to grow, to enable growth, and to place their resources accordingly.

The second is multiple opportunities to worship in a variety of ways. Messy Church, fresh expressions, as well as evensong and the eucharist, increase the range of people who can find a spiritual home in a cathedral.

In that way, maybe cathedrals aren't so different from other churches after all.


The Revd Dr Stephen Hance is Canon Missioner, Southwark Cathedral, and Director of Mission and Evangelism for Southwark diocese.



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