Which would you rather: a cathedral or a car park?

22 June 2018

Come what may, these great churches must serve their local community, argues Jack Straw

Blackburn Cathedral

The new cloister at Blackburn Cathedral, completed in 2016

The new cloister at Blackburn Cathedral, completed in 2016

THE creation of the diocese of Blackburn in 1926 was an explicit piece of social engineering. It was William Temple, then Bishop of Manchester, who made the decision.

There were at least two more obvious choices: Preston, the county seat, and Lancaster. But Temple knew that the deprivation in the cotton industry of east Lancashire was worse even than elsewhere in the north-west, and believed that turning the former Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin into the cathedral would provide a much-needed boost to the area.

Temple’s vision was successful. It could not insulate Blackburn from the economic blizzard that raged through the textiles areas in the late 1920s and ’30s; it never promised to do that. But it was a huge boon to the spirit and to the spirituality of the area, and changed for the better the way in which the area felt about itself.

Nine decades later, the cathedral is even more at the heart of the community, and now has the first new cathedral cloister in four centuries.

So important is it to the area’s definition that I often used to tease my “heathen” pals when they were having one of their ritual rants about the declining part played by faith in our society. I would simply ask how they would feel if Blackburn Cathedral were demolished, to be replaced by an extension to the shopping mall, or a car park. They would look at me blankly, and then concede that, maybe, I had a point.

WITH this in mind, I suggested to colleagues on the Cathedrals Working Group that we should ask council chief executives who had cathedrals in their areas what they thought about their significance to the local community.

The chief executive of the Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, Harry Catherall, and his professional association (with the poignant acronym SOLACE: Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) duly obliged by organising a survey. Just over half of the relevant councils — 25 — responded. There was a good spread: 12 each from the Northern and Southern Provinces, one Royal Peculiar (St George’s Chapel, Windsor), and a good mix between parish-church cathedrals and the more historic foundations.

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The survey asked what part the cathedral played in the life of their area and wider community; what kind of engagement it had with public-sector partners; and whether either, or both, could be improved.

Most respondents felt that the cathedral was a vital factor in shaping the identity and image of their town and region. This is obvious and unsurprising for the older, historic cathedrals such as Durham and Exeter, where tourism is a major part of the local economy, and the cathedral is at the heart of its tourist “offer”.

But this was also the case for almost all of the newer parish-church cathedrals. The centrality of the cathedral to the civic life and identity of the community was a drumbeat in the answers that we received. It is emphasised time and again when an area has something to celebrate, and still more when it needs to grieve and commemorate.

SO FAR, so very positive. But almost all the local-authority respondents also felt that their cathedral could do more. Many thought that it could be more adventurous about the kind of events and activities that it became involved in, including hosting events not directly linked with the cathedral’s interests, but which benefited the wider community. Some thought that, while their cathedral was good at serving the local community, it could do more to commemorate national events.

There was a welcome recognition, however, that none of this should get in the way of the cathedral’s primary function as a place of Anglican worship.

A number of cathedral towns and cities now have large communities of people of other faiths in their areas. This is particularly marked in places such as Blackburn and Bradford, where about one third practise the Muslim faith, often concentrated in the older areas in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral.

This may create challenges in terms of the size of resident congregations; in my experience, however, neighbouring Muslim communities have been immensely supportive of the important part played by their cathedrals.

We did not ask the chief executives to second-guess the key exam questions set for the Cathedrals Working Group on governance, finance, leadership, and accountability. But I believe that it is the hope of all members of the group that its recommendations serve further only to strengthen relations between the cathedrals and the people whom they serve — including some of my sceptical heathen pals.

Jack Straw is the former MP for Blackburn and a former Cabinet minister.

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