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The great survivors

08 September 2017

Nicholas Orme explains how cathedrals evolved to endure


Remnant: the ruins of the 12th-century Lindisfarne priory. The monastery was founded in the seventh century and was the seat of monk-bishops, beginning with St Aidan. In 1537, the priory was closed under Henry VIII (r.1509-47)

Remnant: the ruins of the 12th-century Lindisfarne priory. The monastery was founded in the seventh century and was the seat of monk-bishops, beginnin...

CATHEDRALS are back in the news. A working group of the Archbishops’ Council is reviewing their functions, less than 20 years after the last great reform of their work (News, 13 April, 2017 and 2 July, 1999). Problems of governance? Apparently. Problems of finance? Certainly. Problems of mission? Perhaps.

Once again, questions arise, as they must often do to a visitor armed only with general knowledge. What are cathedrals for and why are they here? Are they part of the State or the Church? Self-governing bodies, or under some higher jurisdiction? Religious houses or parish churches? Places of worship or heritage sites?

Some people seem to fear that asking such questions risks damaging an ancient established order. In fact, these issues have been present almost ever since cathedrals were first probably recorded in Britain — at London, Lincoln, and York — in 314. Let us begin with the first one: who is responsible for governing them?


CATHEDRALS began as their bishop’s principal church and seat in his diocese, and for their first 800 years or so they were effectively under his rule. He appointed their senior clergy (except in those that, from the 600s to 1540, were monasteries) and had ultimate control of their endowments. As late as the Domesday Book in 1086, a cathedral’s properties were normally attributed to its bishop, with the comment that some of them were used to maintain its clergy.

Only in the 12th century did bishops and cathedrals permanently divide these properties, owing to changing legal necessities. Cathedrals then became self-governing for most purposes and grew jealous of their independence, barring the bishop as far as they could from all but ceremonial functions. But that did not stop interventions from other quarters. During the 14th century, the popes claimed the right to appoint many cathedral clergy. In due course, the Crown assumed this claim, nominating deans and (after the 1540s) the canons of the 13 cathedrals re-founded by Henry VIII.

By the 1830s, Parliament was involved. The Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Act of 1840 took away many of the endowments of all cathedrals, reducing their resident clergy and using the money thus freed for the benefit of the wider Church. In turn, intervention by Parliament gave way to that from within the Church itself, expressed through the Church Assembly and its successor of 1970, the General Synod.

During the 20th century, these bodies enacted four great Cathedral Measures, ratified by Parliament. Three regulated the governance of cathedrals and a fourth their fabrics. The first of them, in 1931, removed most of the remaining landed endowments. Modern cathedrals continue to be partly self-governing under codes of statutes, but partly dependent on their bishops, the Measures, and external grants of money. This creates tension, but the tension is an ancient one, not new.


A SECOND question is the religious status of a cathedral: religious house or parish church? From the seventh century until the Reformation, several English cathedrals (ultimately ten) were monasteries. The remainder were what historians call “secular”, staffed by canons living individually, owning property, and free to move about in the world. Each kind of cathedral engaged in elaborate worship, which occupied its clergy for most of the time.

Canons were often absent, working for kings or bishops or studying, so that a force of deputies emerged to replace them, known as vicars choral. But whoever engaged in worship — canons, monks or vicars — a cathedral was not designed to be like a parish church that provided Sunday services for a congregation or the pastoral rites of baptism, marriage, and funerals. It was primarily devoted to worshipping God in the finest ways that could be devised.

This distinction worked to a limited extent, however. All cathedrals, even monasteries, welcomed visitors, to display the importance of the spiritual work that they did. They gave such visitors the opportunity to watch the worship and to venerate shrines and images. Furthermore, eight cathedrals actually contained parish churches and congregations, usually worshipping in part of the nave. Two of these, at Ely and Hereford, survived until quite recently.

In the 19th century, cathedrals came under criticism for their wealth and irrelevance, hence the Act of 1840. One way in which they responded was to improve their outreach to the general public. Traditionally, cathedral services took place in the choir and were largely attended by the middle and upper classes. In the 1850s, huge Gurney coke-burning stoves and gas-lighting enabled naves (hitherto empty spaces) to be used for evening services aimed at “artisans” and “working men”.

These became very popular for several decades, somewhat to the irritation of neighbouring parish clergy who found their congregations depleted. But outreach of this kind continued, and cathedrals turned into places that, for many people, functioned as parish churches. This process was extended by the co-option of parish churches to be cathedrals, beginning with Ripon in 1836. Eventually, the Church of England acquired 18 such churches. They brought with them congregations whose needs had to be fitted into the governance and mission of the new foundations. Now, under the Cathedral Measures, all congregations have representation on governing bodies.


FINALLY, there is a tension between worship and worldliness. This, too, is ancient. Medieval cathedrals were places apart from the world. You entered their precincts, as you still do at Salisbury, through fortified gateways that were closed at night. You could take sanctuary in a cathedral from the secular authorities. Inside the building, there was the daily round of services and shrines and images that could be venerated.

Yet the world could not be excluded. Cathedrals welcomed donations, and most spread collecting boxes around for the purpose. You could buy candles and pilgrim badges, or pay a verger to receive a tour. People crowded into cathedrals as dry and sociable places, particularly the huge naves and cloisters. St Paul’s was notorious for its stall-holders, strollers, beggars, pickpockets, and servants seeking employment. Falstaff hired the thief Bardolph there. A countryman arrested for urinating against a pillar in 1632 said that he did not know he was in a church.

This tension between wanting to admit the world and preserving a cathedral’s character has lasted. It is most obvious, perhaps, in the issue of admission fees. Up to the mid-19th century, it was usual to pay to see a cathedral and sometimes even to sit in a seat at a service. Vergers were poorly paid and survived on tips and fees. There was a wish to keep cathedrals respectable and decorous inside; to discourage the riff-raff.

When society became more democratic, and cathedrals wished to reach out more widely to the public, admission fees began to be abolished. One of the pioneers was the Dean of Chester, Frank Bennett (1920-37), who made entry free, and developed several of the other characteristic features of modern cathedrals: a quiet chapel for prayer, leaflets to guide visitors, and a cafeteria to refresh them. He found that asking for voluntary donations produced more money than fees. Gradually, most cathedrals began to offer free entry, apart from special areas like treasuries and towers.

The costs of running a modern cathedral with its huge bills for maintenance, utilities, and salaried staff has made this openness hard to sustain. By 1992, two had reintroduced admission charges, and the number now stands at ten. Everywhere, endeavours have been made to raise money in other ways: through donation boxes, shops, and restaurants. These raise nice questions — as do display boards, exhibitions, and concerts — about how far a cathedral should be a place of worship, or a heritage site for tourists. There is no simple answer.


NONE of the issues mentioned above will ever be solved for all time, but cathedrals have been resilient in coping with them. For all their anomalies and ultimate unnecessariness, they are great survivors. Five times in history, their end has seemed near, and yet they have survived to live another day.

Their first crisis was the worst of all: the fall of the Roman Empire. The collapse of Roman Britain into small kingdoms under Celtic and Anglo-Saxon rulers led to the probable extinction of most of the previous cathedrals, although some of their sites may lie beneath their later successors. By the time of the next crisis, the Viking invasions of c.800-1016, cathedrals were in a stronger state, and, although a few disappeared, most clung on. Even the Vikings did not prevent the functioning of York, and the move from Lindisfarne to Durham seems to have come about for other reasons.

The third crisis was the Reformation. In much of Germany, bishops disappeared, and so did cathedral chapters. It would have been hard for the Tudor monarchs to rule the English Church without bishops, but cathedrals had no essential function. They were rich and vulnerable, but they survived because Henry VIII positively liked them. He ensured that the monastic ones were refounded with deans and canons, and added another six in former monasteries. He valued their worship, which resembled that of his chapel at Windsor, and he ensured that such worship should extend to his new foundations, along with useful functions like schools and almshouses.

Cathedrals did suffer under Edward VI. Cranmer had no love for them, and his Prayer Book turned their worship on its head. Previously, cathedrals — notably Salisbury — had set the standards for parish worship. Now the Prayer Book enforced parish worship on cathedrals. But Edward was short-lived, and Mary and Elizabeth returned to Henry’s policies. Elizabeth staunchly upheld cathedral worship against the wishes of her mainly Puritan church leaders and courtiers.

The fourth crisis came in the 1640s, when the Puritans gained political power and cathedrals shared in much of the unpopularity of Charles I and Archbishop Laud. In 1649, a short time after the king’s execution, they were abolished as institutions, and there were even attempts to destroy their buildings. This time, salvation came from local communities. Mayors and councils took over cathedrals and made them into civic churches. Few were closed, and, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, it was not hard to restore them. Even their properties returned, the purchasers becoming leaseholders on favourable terms.

The last great crisis came in the 1830s. By then, cathedrals were seen as wealthy and selfish anachronisms, their endowments as suitable funds to finance poor clergy and new churches in the industrial towns. Some leading campaigners wished to abolish them completely and turn them into parish churches. But again they survived, for a variety of reasons. One was the gentlemanly ethos of contemporary politics. Prime Ministers Peel and Melbourne and their successors had relatives and friends among the leading clergy. So the Act of 1840 only pruned cathedral endowments. Even then, existing deans and canons were accorded the right to keep what they held for life.

A second reason was the prevailing love of medieval art and culture. The cathedrals were its great visible achievements. To some, like Charles Kingsley and William Morris, they embodied the qualities of what was thought to be an ideal age. And the third, perhaps most unexpected, reason — one that religious conservatives fought hard against in the 1830s and ’40s — was the growing power of the population at large. Rising incomes, greater leisure, and easier travel on the new railway network brought people to cathedrals for worship or recreation to a larger extent than ever before.

Fortunately, since love of the Middle Ages and of tourism is still with us, the outlook for the survival of cathedrals remains good. Our planet is a living one because of the geological turbulence within it. Cathedrals have problems, but may it not be that the tensions that they experience are signs that they, too, are still dynamic, useful, and able to evolve?


Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University and a lay canon of Truro Cathedral. His new book, The History of England’s Cathedrals, is published by Impress Books at £20.

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