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Death of cathedrals: reports ‘have been exaggerated’  

28 April 2017

Stuart Purfield

Bunches: a service thanking God for the asparagus harvest took place last weekend at Worcester Cathedral, part of the tenth annual British Asparagus Festival, which runs until June

Bunches: a service thanking God for the asparagus harvest took place last weekend at Worcester Cathedral, part of the tenth annual British Asparagus F...

SUGGESTIONS that as many as half the 42 Church of England cathedrals are in danger of closing as a result of continuing financial mismanagement have been dismissed by the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman.

The Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, called the stories “grossly erroneous”.

Dean Dorber was speaking during the three-day annual conference of deans, in London this week. “There are financial stresses but these are not new,” he said. “I am optimistic, but there is panic in high places, and we need calm rational discussion rather than public hand-wringing.”

The story appeared in a Guardian report at the weekend, based on comments made by Bishop New­man, who is to chair the new Ca­­thed­rals Working Group, set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York earlier this month to investi­gate the governance, management, and rising maintenance costs of cathedrals (News, 13 April). Speak­ing on Sunday, the Bishop, a former Dean of Rochester, sug­gested that half the cathedrals in the UK were struggling.

“Over the course of the last 100 years, there has never been a time when the cathedral sector has been riding on the crest of a wave,” Bishop Newman told the paper. “The challenges are not new, but we’re looking at a new scale and depth.

“My finger-in-the-wind estimate is that perhaps half of cathedrals are facing some significant financial challenges, although pretty much all of them are planning on how they’re going to get through that.

“Although it seems unimaginable, it is possible to imagine a situation where an individual cathedral could get into a situation so desperate that there is no obvious solution.”

The Bishop was responding to a report published last Friday by the National Audit Office, prompted in turn by complaints from the National Secular Society, which concluded that there were “a num­ber of areas for improvement in the governance, operation, and over­­sight” of the First World War Cen­tenary Cathedral Repair Fund. The Government has allocated £40 million towards the cathedral fund since 2014.

On Wednesday, Bishop New­man agreed that his comments had been overstated. “At any one time in living memory, a good number of cathedral chapters will have been wrestling with how to make their cathedrals financially sustainable. This shouldn’t be news to anybody; the chal­­lenges have always been there.

“The national media love to call this a crisis, but that’s not a word I’m applying to cathedrals. On the contrary, I’m struck by the com­mitted and dedicated way in which cathedrals are responding. The fact that they continue to flourish in the face of these challenges is a testi­mony to their long-term resilience, the quality of their leadership, and their extraordinary ability to reson­ate with people’s search for faith and spiritual meaning.”

Dean Dorber said that the deans were looking forward to working “more closely” with the finance team of the Archbishops’ Council, and welcomed the spirit of collaboration. The mood of the confer­ence had been “fairly buoyant”, despite concerns for the difficulties that “a small number” of cathedrals were facing, he said.

“These are not intractable. Given the profile and popularity of cathed­rals, we need to plan for more sus­tainable futures; and we will resist panic measures which fail to understand the real strengths and achievements of the last 20 years.”

The deans had focused on mis­sion, he said, rather than “wring­ing their hands” worrying about the future. “We should remember that cathedrals are visited by 11 million people every year, and offer a spirit­ual welcome to a diverse public. Their role in maintaining a Chris­tian profile in our culture is undeni­able, and they have a real appetite to work creatively with the rest of the Church in mission and service.”

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