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Leader comment: See the value

03 September 2021

IT MIGHT seem a little odd to read an assessment of the economic benefit of cathedrals (News, 20 August). It is certainly odd to see figures that exclude worshippers. It would be naïve, though, to imagine that economic considerations were not present in the decisions to build most cathedrals at the very start of their history. The costs of building, maintaining, and staffing what were, at the time, among the largest buildings in the country were not assumed without careful calculation of what income they might generate. Most were endowed with land, the rent from which paid many of the expenses; but several benefited from, and cultivated, an association with a saint in order to plug into the pilgrimage trade. The good news from this month’s report commissioned by the Association of English Cathedrals is that tourists and “leisure visitors” to cathedrals pre-pandemic were approaching ten million a year, and that cathedrals boost the local economy by an estimated £235 million a year.

An indication that a little intelligence is being applied to this cost-benefit calculation is the mention of volunteers: the 15,375 people who, in 2019, helped to keep cathedrals open and thriving. A more hostile approach might see such volunteering as undermining paid employment in our cities, or, alternatively, a drain on the time of thousands of people who could be contributing in other ways. This report, however, argues perceptively: “Research has shown that volunteering can lead to a range of positive outcomes, both for the individuals involved and the wider community/society, which suggests that cathedrals generate important social benefits as a result of providing a focal point for volunteering.”

So much for the local economy. What of the place of cathedrals in the wider Church of England? Had the Vision and Strategy planners come clean and spoken of a “mixed economy” instead of a “mixed ecology” (Comment, 23 July), it would have been easier to link this economic information about the value of cathedrals into the general discussion about mission and finance, i.e. the reason that the Church should continue, and the means it has to do so. It is still surprising to see cathedrals regarded in many dioceses as a special case, some way off-centre from the Church’s future strategy. Is it because, despite the recent changes in governance, cathedrals are still felt to be unbiddable, with their own concerns and charism? Are they regarded as akin to department stores in an age of online shopping? (The BBC reported last week that 83 per cent of big department stores had closed in the past five years.) Or is the Church missing a trick: congratulating itself on the £10 million-plus a year (pre-pandemic) that the Commissioners contribute to cathedral ministry, when they should be investing a great deal more in institutions that have such strong existing links with their communities?

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