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Close inspection

19 January 2018

THE Carillion collapse shines a sobering light on many different aspects of commercial life, one of which is the concept that certain enterprises are too big to fail. The principle might apply to banks, but when it came to a construction company, the Government de­­cided that Carillion, like most enterprises, must be subject to market forces. In church terms, the failure of a cathedral falls into a similar category. Far less money would be involved, and far fewer staff. None the less, several have issued the equivalent of a profit warning. The Cathedrals Working Group’s report, published this week, regards cathedrals as “spectacular and wonderful expres­­sions of the mission of God in this world”; but it also talks darkly of the “faultlines” exposed in the recent past in Peterborough and Exeter, and of the “large number of cathedrals under significant financial pressure”.

The solution, according to the working group, is not more money (though it recognises this need) but better management. Mechan­isms must be put in place, it argues, to ensure that cathe­drals be­­come financially secure. What the report advocates is, in effect, the end of the franchise model. Cathedrals have hitherto been allowed the freedom of a franchisee — the use of the brand and endorsements from head office in exchange for a little maverick entre­preneur­ism. The results have been good, on the whole, though the spectacular growth of the past ten years shows signs of tailing off. But the franchise model expects the franchisee to take all the risks. The reason that there was a working group at all was the realisation that, unlike a florist or a pizzeria, cathedrals are more integrated into the wider Church. It would be hugely damaging to the Church’s image, and possibly to the country’s, if a cathedral had to close its doors because it was no longer able to pay its staff.

As the proposals in the report are debated, the central issue of independence will come up re­­peatedly. Have cathedral congrega­tions grown, against trend, because they are able to be “creatively marginal” places, in the Dean of Chelmsford’s words? Or might they be more successful integrated more into the mission of the diocese and using its resources? The report attempts to have it both ways, preserving deans’ autonomy, but giving them greater respon­sibility for what seems to be a two-tier method of manage­ment. When the former Dean of Peterborough spoke about his lack of “financial expertise and business management”, he described them as “neither what I was trained for, nor specifically called here to do”. The report talks optimis­tically about creating an audit and risk commit­tee as well as a fi­­nance committee. None the less, the prospect that a theo­logian, or liturgist, or musician, or evangelist might be appointed to a deanery in future seems less likely than before. Cathedrals might be more safely managed, but they might well lose their spark.

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