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Praise and warnings in cathedrals review

18 January 2018


The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge meet the Sub-Dean, Canon David Stone, and choristers at Coventry Cathedral after taking part in the Litany of Reconciliation on their visit to the city on Tuesday. The couple spent the morning touring the cathedral

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge meet the Sub-Dean, Canon David Stone, and choristers at Coventry Cathedral after taking part in the Litany of ...

“SERIOUS governance mistakes” have been made at cathedrals, and legislative change is needed to correct “inadequacies” in their regulation, are the conclusions of a review commissioned in the wake of a cash-flow crisis at Peterborough. It also says that many cathedrals are struggling financially.

The report of the Cathedral Working Group, published on Thursday, agrees with the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, that the 1999 Cathedrals Measure is no longer adequate. Chapters are operating without enough scrutiny, and have embarked on building and development schemes despite lacking project management capacity, it says.

Concluding that “there is something remarkable to celebrate in the life of cathedrals, and something serious to be addressed,” the report acknowledges that cathedrals have become “an attractive brand, often understood better by the wider community than by the Church”. It seeks to improve governance “without undermining the missional and entrepreneurial context within which cathedrals seem to flourish”.

The working group was set up last year by the Archbishops’ Council after the episcopal visitation of Peterborough Cathedral, where a cash-flow crisis led to the involvement of the Church Commissioners, forcing out the Dean and making several staff redundant (News, 13 April).

Bishop Allister argued that the safeguards in the Cathedrals Measure were “clearly insufficient”, and could cause “serious risks to the reputation” of the Church of England. His comments prompted deans to defend cathedrals’ independence (News, 13 January).

The working group has agreed that “the inadequacies of the Measure have been exposed, and there is a need for legislative change to correct them.” They write: “We do not believe that it is sufficient simply to try and improve current practice — a more radical change is required.”

At the heart of their proposals is the retention of the Chapter as a governing body; but non-executive members (of whom two-thirds should be laity), would outnumber the dean and residentiary canons. There is also a call for cathedrals to be regulated by the Charity Commission.


WHILE acknowledging that, in many places, there were positive relationships between dioceses and deans, the report highlighted tensions. In his valedictory sermon at Peterborough, the Dean, the Very Revd Charles Taylor, spoke of “those who would like to see power concentrated at the centre, in order to impose a bland, uniform theology” (News, 7 October 2016).

In his foreword to the report, the chairman of the working group, the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, calls for “penitence for those occasions when relationships between cathedral and diocese, bishop and dean have broken down”.

He writes: “Cathedrals can easily turn inwards and be organised for the best interest of Chapter, or staff, or volunteers, and not for the needs and hopes of those outside their doors. Chapters can be too protective of the spiritual capital of the cathedral, resisting opening their hearts and the cathedral’s giftedness to bishop and diocese.

“Bishops, sometimes lacking experience or understanding of cathedrals, can fail to understand the riches the cathedral can offer, fail to receive the gift of the cathedral with grace, or fail to find in the cathedral a fount for mission. These failings are to the detriment of the whole Church.”

Many Chapters manage cathedrals with “ambition and creativity”, he writes, “but often with too little resource or training. . . Some serious governance mistakes have been made. Chapters have much to learn.”

PAThe Very Revd Adrian Dorber (left), with the then chief executive of English Heritage, Dr Simon Thurley, at Lichfield Cathedral, in February, 2008


THE report recommends that the dean continue to chair the Chapter. The diocesan bishop would appoint a senior independent lay member as vice-chair. The Chapter would be required to appoint a finance, audit, and risk committee (ideally, two separate committees: one for finance, and one for audit and risk), chaired by a non-executive Chapter member.

It warns of a “self-review threat” arising from the involvement of a significant proportion of Chapter members in the operation of the cathedral, and identifies a lack of “effective independent scrutiny”. It goes on to recommend that day-to-day cathedral operations be managed by a senior executive team, including the dean, chief operating officer, and chief financial officer. The Cathedral Council would be focused on “stakeholder engagement”, and would not have any legislative function.

Cathedrals would be registered with the Charity Commission, bringing them under the Charities Act. Every five years, a quinquennial assurance review, commissioned by the Bishop, would take place.

Before drafting the report, the working group held a wide consultation, which included 35 one-to-one conversations with deans, some of whom felt “systemically disempowered to review the clergy in their teams or to manage them”. The report expresses concern that residentiary canons can function “with a degree of unhelpful independence from either the collegial vision of the Chapter or the line management of the dean”.

Deans must be “empowered to lead”, it says, recommending that they conduct yearly reviews of canons, and that all cathedral clergy and staff come under their authority. One of the findings at the Visitation at Exeter Cathedral was “poor communication and divisions among and between the Dean and Residentiary Canons” (News, 23 September 2016).

The report praises the “mini MBA” for deans (News, 15 July 2016), and says that they should be given “specialist support” in finance, asset management, project management, and marketing. It recommends that bishops work with deans to “utilise the significance of the cathedral in the liturgical, teaching and missional life of the diocese”. They are not leaders of “competing fiefdoms”, it emphasises.


THE report warns that a “large number” of cathedrals are under “significant financial pressure”, and highlights a “reputational risk for the entire Church, especially where a cathedral is unable to pay its creditors in full”.

It diagnoses “a level of systematic under-funding that needs addressing by Church and State”, and recommends that the Government be approached about a state contribution to a “national cathedral fabric fund”.

It also recommends the establishment of “some kind of central support services function”, enabling cathedrals to access financial advice, and says that no large building projects should start until all funding is committed.

There is also a recommendation that the rules governing the spending of the contribution by the Church Commissioners to cathedral finance be relaxed, enabling deans and Chapters to deploy them in different ways.

On the subject of safeguarding, the report says that cathedrals are “lagging behind the rest of the Church”.

Further consultation is expected before a final report is submitted to the Archbishops’ Council in March. The group urges that its recommendations be “adopted as a whole rather than being cherry-picked”.

This week, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, welcomed the report as “a very good summary of the issues, with interesting and positive ideas on how to respond to them”. The recommendations, including registration with the Charity Commission, would “go a very long way to addressing some of the structural weaknesses in governance”.

Good-practice recommendations had been in place for “quite some time”, he said, but they had “not always been put into effect”. A key challenge, he said, was the recruitment of people to serve in governance positions, given the salaries commanded in the secular sphere.

Independence was a two-edged sword that had “allowed cathedrals, in the best case, to flourish, and enabled their diocese to do well; in the worst case, it has allowed people who want to go their own way, and are not willing to co-operate with others, to do so”.

He agreed with the working-group’s decision to reject a purely secular model of governance — “We are not here to make as much money as possible” — and said that healing had taken place since the episcopal visitations. “We are interdependent, and our future lies together.”

The Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, who chairs the Association of English Cathedrals, described the change to governance as “evolutionary”, and “a fairly minor development”. He warned that a “much more dirigist regime”, under which cathedrals became “just a sub-department of [the] General Synod”, risked losing “the sense of place and identity that they transmit to cities and regions, and the buy-in that local communities bring”.

Being registered with the Charity Commission would make fund-raising “much more straightforward”, but he expected “misgivings about additional bureaucracy”.

The relationship between bishops and deans relied on mutual understanding, he said. “The complexity of cathedrals, and what they are trying to do, can seem quite exotic when compared with the parochial system. There can be misunderstandings about who is doing what.” But, when a good understanding was in place, “you can fly.”

He was glad that the report had isolated underfunding as “one of the key problems. That kind of living hand-to-mouth has sometimes prevented cathedrals’ being able to bring in the skilled services and staff they need.” Visitor and worshipper numbers were rising; so there was an urge to “catch up all that potential and interest, which can lead to making mistakes: sometimes ambition outstrips capacity”.

He concluded: “There is no divide between being an oasis of spiritual delight and a well-run and accountable charity.”


THE report has been published a month after the English Churches and Cathedrals Sustainability Review, conducted by Bernard Taylor, which recommended that a “nationally administered fund for works to keep cathedrals safe and open” be considered (News, 21 December). It also follows on the heels of the report by the Faith Minister, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, Cathedrals and their Communities (News, 5 January).

The latter’s conclusion — that cathedrals were “in very safe hands” — appears to contradict the findings of the working group, which, while celebrating the sector, raise serious concerns about governance.

Among the recommendations of the working group is a call for more work on the ecclesiology of cathedrals. The “staggering” increase in visitor numbers — 37 per cent in the past ten years — is among the aspects celebrated in the report, which acknowledges cathedrals as a “success story”.

“These amazing places incorporate everything the Church of England aspires to be in its best moment,” Bishop Newman writes in his foreword.

Read the report here

Comment: How to make cathedrals fitter for the future

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