AS CHURCHES learned this week that their coronavirus shutdown could end in July, administrators of the nation’s cathedrals are beginning to consider what life in the “new normal” will be like.
With their doors closed, many have adapted new technology, live-streaming services and linking remotely through apps such as Zoom. But cathedrals have also taken a severe financial hit, with the loss of collections, no visitor spending, and the cancellation of events that often fund a significant proportion of their annual expenditure.
“On top of daily worship, events are the bread and butter of what cathedrals do, but they are going to be low down on the list of things relaxed,” the Church Commissioners’ Head of Bishoprics and Cathedrals, Michael Minta, said. The Commissioners fund each cathedral’s dean, two residentiary canons, and some lay staff.
Cathedrals had had great expectations for 2020: the Year of Cathedrals and the Year of Pilgrimage were expected to boost visitor numbers and involvement. “There was a real positive vibe last year that things were really going to be good for everyone,” Mr Minta said. “But, instead, many have had to stand staff down, buildings are closed, their cafés and shops are shut, and income has been lost.”
Larger cathedrals, such as Canterbury and St Paul’s, which rely on tourism from overseas, have been badly affected; Durham’s 750,000 visitors, one third from overseas, provide one fifth of its annual revenue of £7 million.
In March, the Archbishops’ Council announced a financial package, which was mostly used to pay staff wages (News, 1 May and 3 April); Mr Minta is now consulting about how best the cathedral network can be supported. The Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee is looking at how it can deploy the £10-million Cathedral Sustainability Fund.
“No one has yet come to us with an urgent plea for assistance, although we do know one or two are struggling,” he said. “I am not sure if I can give a prediction for the future just yet; I’d like to be optimistic, but I suspect it will take years, not months, to get back to normality. I think the guidance is a little clearer now, and will develop all the time.”
He has been impressed by how cathedrals have employed social media to keep in touch with their communities. “Several deans have told me that their online services and programmes have increased audiences compared with actual events, and they intend to carry on with them. They are getting lots more hits, which is wonderful. That is definitely one positive — provided they get on and do it now: otherwise they might slip back to their old ways. They should increase their online offering for the local and wider community.”
Cathedrals are staging a host of online events, from live and pre-recorded services to one-off events such as the virtual Easter-egg hunts at both Exeter and Bristol, and the 40 choristers “quirentine” at Bristol, in which they are singing together from home. There are children and family activities, an online pilgrimage, and a musical journey. Portsmouth has an online coffee morning, Lichfield has a 3D tour of the building, and Norwich is helping children to explore local history.
St Edmundsbury is hosting virtual music competitions for young musicians. The Dean, the Very Revd Joe Hawes, said: “We have to find a new way of being a church — worshipping online, pastoral care over the phone, a bank of daily, uplifting music recitals — all evidence that, despite the empty offices, pews, and pulpit, we, as a church, are still here.”
Chichester is running weekly online art tours. The Dean, the Very Revd Stephen Waine, said: “I think live-streaming will be here to stay for many cathedrals and places of worship, as we have had a huge number of viewers — not just locally, but from across the globe. When we reopen our doors, services in the cathedral will, of course, continue, but live-streaming will allow us to give people access to what we are doing at a time which will suit them as well.
“I think things will be different, as many people have discovered a greater sense of community spirit and learnt to value one another more.”
Southwark Cathedral, which receives two-thirds of its income from letting rooms and conference facilities, is to review its operations in the light of the pandemic. The Dean, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, said: “We can’t go back to how things were before. We now have a new online congregation, which is three times the size of our regular Sunday congregation, and we can’t abandon those people once lockdown is ended.”
The Dean of St Davids, the Very Revd Dr Sarah Jones, faces a different situation in Wales, where the lockdown has not been relaxed. She said that reopening for public worship was likely to be “complex and gradual”, partly because of concerns over spreading the virus by singing.
“It’s also possible that public worship may come later than opening for private prayer by individuals, and for more general visiting. There may be restrictions on congregation sizes that lift gradually. Rules, arrangements for funerals, weddings, memorial services, etc., may be separately addressed. There are all manner of other possible variables and unknowns.”
For the Dean of Truro, the Very Revd Roger Bush, his first experience of a live Facebook session was both “scary and exhilarating”, but he plans to do more. “It was a really positive experience,” he said, “an introduction to a new audience.”
He cautiously welcomed the possibility of churches’ reopening in July, but asked: “Open for what? There will be many phases to work through before the ‘new normal’ is part of our weekly and daily practice.
“At the moment, we haven’t had a serious-practical discussion about what a post-Covid world will be like, but we are considering possibilities — like having a regular streaming service for key services, live-streaming significant ones, more online engagement with, hopefully, a new audience, and how we use the building in a world where large-scale gatherings will be at a premium. We are also considering the theological explorations of what it means to be church; what it means to be a scattered as well as a gathered community.
“The use of space, both physical and virtual, is being considered. This is an important thing to do, because the current lockdown has not stopped our mission and outreach in its tracks, but given us an opportunity to see where potential and further development lie.”
At Peterborough, which had to weather its own financial crisis four years ago (News, 29 July 2016), work has started on what the “new normal” might be. The Dean, the Very Revd Chris Dalliston, welcomed the news that churches could be open by early July, but warned that there would still be some significant constraints on entry, and especially on worship and congregational singing.
“Choirs would also need to be socially distanced, and that would also present challenges,” he said. “We anticipate that we will emerge slowly from the lockdown, prioritising safety at every stage. That will inevitably have a financial impact, and we are working to mitigate that impact as best we can.
“The cathedral is blessed by having a reasonably broad spread of income. We will have a very lean year this year, but we hope that 2021-22 will be better, not least because a large proportion of visitors are drawn from our own city and region rather than being reliant on international visitors.
“There are clearly some difficult decisions to be taken, at least in the short-term, but we are small team, and have already been working under tight financial disciplines since our domestic crisis of 2016, and need to retain our capacity to meet new opportunities as they emerge.”
The Dean of Bradford, the Very Revd Jerry Lepine, said that the cathedral staff had had to learn “a whole load” of new online skills. “Ideas that we had, but never had the time to develop, have suddenly happened in a very short time. It is hard work, but there is a freshness about it and the response has been really positive.
“Being financially challenged is not a new experience for us: it’s the norm. But there is a spiritual resilience and prayerfulness in this community that has shone through over the past few weeks.
“The future is yet to be discerned. It will look different to the one that we were expecting. Developing a certain spiritual agility born from wise reflection will be the name of the game.”
The Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett, said: “While it’s likely that the markets will recover in the months following the end of lockdown, it is evident that social-distancing measures will be in place for the foreseeable future, and this may make larger events unmanageable. I hope that cathedrals might soon be open for private prayer, but I don’t expect we will be holding county services here in the short term.”
Exeter Cathedral was facing significant financial challenges, the Dean, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, said. “We started the year with a balanced budget, but now can expect virtually no commercial income from visitors, events, our café, or our shop.
“This is forcing us to review every aspect of cathedral life to see where savings can be made, and is encouraging us to find new income sources, including grants, and a broad appeal across Devon asking people to support their cathedral through these difficult times.”
Bristol is modelling best- to worst-case scenarios for visitor income, donations, giving, and trading activities against various timelines. It is also considering its 2021 budget and ten-year financial forecast. A spokeswoman said that the cathedral’s short- to medium-term position was positive.
The Acting Dean, Canon Michael Johnson, said that they had devised a four-point plan to get through the crisis: stream online services, keep in touch with congregation members, look after staff, and keep an eye on what happens when they reopened.
“It is remarkable how we have come very quickly from discovering that there are recording programmes on our laptops to producing some really professional offerings,” he said. “Online viewing numbers are impressive. However, these numbers need interpretation. Some people will join for just a few seconds; so we don’t get too excited about the big numbers. However, we are reaching many more people than would have been present physically. This is one area we will be exploring once we come to the ‘new normal’.”
One unexpected difficulty that he discovered was setting up a home altar for the eucharist on Maundy Thursday. “I needed two piles of books to make the table high enough before covering it with a suitable altar cloth,” he said. “After searching through various theological tomes, and being unable to get the two piles the same height, it was two piles of Asterix books that came to the rescue.”