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Cathedrals: a forgotten model for church growth

16 July 2021

Why are church-plants seen as the only game in town when it comes to reversing decline, asks Jane Shaw

CATHEDRAL congregations and communities have been growing in the 21st century. According to official C of E statistics, attendance at cathedral services grew by 13 per cent in the decade from 2009 to 2019. That is just attendance at services. The statistics do not take account of all the ways in which cathedrals engage the spiritually curious and the wider society; nor do they tot up the tourists and pilgrims who go back home and explore their faith in other places.

This growth did not come out of a vacuum. Throughout the 20th century, cathedrals increasingly opened their doors to the broader community, were patrons of the arts, and enlarged their educational and civic engagement.

So, why, when it comes to models for church growth, does there seem to be only one game in town for the Church of England: church-plants?

It was reported recently that the Archbishops had supported a proposal for 10,000 new lay-led churches — effectively church-plants in people’s houses — doing away with “key limiting factors” such as competent clergy and much-loved church buildings (News, 2 July). Many people have expressed their surprise, shock, and hurt at both the proposal and the language in which it was conveyed. Others have run the numbers to show that the model is simply not viable.


SO, HERE is a proposal: let’s use cathedrals as another model for church growth. I am constantly amazed that the C of E never considers this: it seems so obvious. Cathedrals appeal to people who would probably never go near a church-plant. Cathedrals evoke awe as we enter them, helping us to appreciate the beauty of holiness and the glory of God.

They cater to “passengers” (Comment, 9 July), and, let’s face it, many people need that at times. When someone taking the first steps towards faith, or tentatively coming back to church after a period away, quiet anonymity can be essential. When we are tired and worn out, we just need to be in a sacred place without people badgering us to be on the coffee rota or to go on an Alpha course. As one cathedral provost said to me, cathedrals are full of pillars that people can safely hide behind, until they want to emerge and start to participate. Furthermore, cathedral music is good, the preaching usually thoughtful, and the liturgy well done.

Cathedrals also present a different and, in my experience, successful model of mission: one that’s about throwing open the doors and welcoming everyone into a wide range of activities. They enable people to enter by many different pathways: the arts, pilgrimages, talks on pressing issues, and outreach, service, and social-justice programmes. These activities develop the broader cathedral community, and, from them, a person’s curiosity about “church” can grow, leading to deeper engagement.

I am puzzled about why the Church of England keeps coming back to just one model: church-plants and discipleship. The church-growth report From Anecdote to Evidence (2014) stated “there is no single recipe for growth.” So let’s try a range of models.


RESOURCING parishes is vital, too. Sometimes, there is a tension between cathedrals and parishes, but there doesn’t need to be. The parochial system’s vast network of churches and clergy is extraordinary and irreplaceable. Properly resourced, parishes could offer some of the same pathways to faith as cathedrals offer.

The parish church is a great asset: a building that local people find beautiful and would be sad to see closed, but for which they don’t usually feel any responsibility. So, might parish churches increasingly become hubs for the whole village or community, with concerts and talks, clubs for the elderly, pop-up meals for the whole village, and a home for the local post office or library when those vital institutions face closure?

In this way, the congregation can show the love of God to the wider community, and, at the same time, encourage that community to use, enjoy, and take ownership of a building that is often costly to keep up. As with cathedrals, participation in other activities may well lead to tentative, and then not so tentative, steps towards church and faith.

Cathedrals and parishes both exercise a ministry of presence, serving the whole community. Growth is not just for the sake of growth: it is intimately tied to pastoral care, service, love, and social justice. In the face of the one model of church growth that is currently on offer, it is imperative that cathedrals and parishes work together to offer alternative ways to reach the spiritual seekers, the “nones”, and those on the margins.

And the next time that the C of E wants an expert on mission and church growth, I hope that they will call on one of those many clergy who have been quietly but surely growing cathedrals for years.


The Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Principal of Harris Manchester College, Professor of the History of Religion, and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. She was formerly Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

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