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Angela Tilby: We need to talk about cathedrals

22 June 2018


Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

THE hastily produced Cathedrals report that is now being rushed through the General Synod is based on a misconception about what a cathedral should be. For the compilers of the report, cathedrals are a “success” story, a trusted “brand”. But the financial crisis at Peterborough triggered panic on high, and a determination to bring cathedrals under wider control (News, 7 October 2016).

Governance and day-to-day management are to be separated, and deans and canons will form a minority on chapter (News, 15 June). This ends the comparative independence that cathedrals have enjoyed. The new order reflects the old Evangelical obsession with headship: all must be “led”. So the bishop will now be the Head Honcho (the one who “gathers and sends”, according to a cleverly tailored bit of ecclesiology); the dean is CEO; and the canons his or her subordinates. Musicians, architects, and craftsmen are ignored as no more than hired functionaries.

As so often in current church thinking, there seems little awareness of history. Our historic cathedrals are expressions of a delicate ecology which goes back to monastic rules, mainly Benedictine. Their principal position is the opus dei, the daily offering of prayer and worship. The independence of cathedrals at the Reformation enabled the emergence of the English choral tradition and the fine choirs that still draw the crowds on big occasions.

It is the God-centred dedication of clerks — clergy and lay — which makes cathedrals what they are. The bishop is guest, not host, in this house of God. It could be said that the proper function of cathedrals is to keep bishops honest by reminding them that they depend on a rhythm of prayer that they do not control.

Although the report is bad news for cathedrals, I have sympathy with some of its concerns. I have been involved with six very different cathedrals over the years. The truth is, there are ineffective deans who preside over chaos, and there are prima donnas among cathedral clergy.

But there are also chapters where the members actually like each other; deans who are both highly competent and courageous, unafraid to speak truth to power. The ecology derived from monastic rules is designed to enable levels of trust and candour far beyond those that the report deems possible.

Even so, musicians are rarely integrated as they should be. The new arrangements can make this only worse. Suppose the cathedral is required to adopt a money-making strategy that prioritises selling the cathedral space for evening functions: this means cutting back on regular evensongs. Several lay clerks are sacked. Gifted musicians see the way the wind is blowing, and look for other jobs.

Gradually, the ecology on which the Christmas music depends is destroyed, killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Cathedrals need reform, but they first need to be understood.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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