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Annual figures reveal effect of lockdown on cathedrals

25 March 2022


An image from the Luxmuralis light show in Exeter Cathedral, which runs until Saturday night (26 March)

An image from the Luxmuralis light show in Exeter Cathedral, which runs until Saturday night (26 March)

THE effect of the pandemic on cathedrals in England has been revealed as annual figures showed a 64 per cent drop for in-person worshippers in 2020, when the country spent months in lockdown and cathedrals and churches were closed.

Most cathedrals adapted quickly to move services online, and, although emergency government funding helped cathedrals to survive their catastrophic loss in income, it is still today a “challenging environment” for most, the Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd David Monteith, warned, particularly as cathedrals now face huge rises in energy bills.

He urged people to continue to support cathedrals. “Cathedrals across the country are working hard to welcome back more visitors and worshippers, and the picture has improved in the time since this data was gathered,” he said. “But it remains a challenging environment, not least because of current utility cost increases.

“Cathedrals and churches are here to support their communities, including people who are still struggling following Covid-19, and as focal points for prayer and reflection and action in light of world events, including the war in Ukraine.”

The Association of English Cathedrals has also published a study that it commissioned on the economic and social impact of cathedrals in their communities, which estimated their contribution in 2019 to be £235 million in terms of local employment and additional spend from visitors: a small rise from their £220 million estimated contribution in 2014.

The submitted data from cathedrals showed that there were an estimated 3.2 million visitors in 2020: a 67 per cent drop from the 9.7 million visitors reported in 2019. Paying or donating visitors accounted for less than one quarter of all visitors: down from 39 per cent of all visitors in 2019.

Data for services and worshippers at cathedrals were taken from annual statistics filed by most cathedrals, although, where this was absent, the data were estimated.

The data showed that attendance at services fell to about 13,500 in 2020, from 37,200 in 2019.

The number of occasional offices, such as baptisms and marriages, also dropped dramatically, although the number of funerals dropped by a smaller amount. The estimated total number of funeral services in 2020 was 300: a reduction of 60, or 17 per cent, from the 2019 figure. But there was a 49 per cent decrease in the number of funerals held in a cathedral, and a 95 per cent increase in services conducted on behalf of a cathedral at a crematorium or cemetery, directly as a result of Covid restrictions.

Cathedrals were asked about numbers of volunteers and the numbers of those involved in music. Volunteer numbers stayed largely steady throughout, but the number of boy choristers was estimated to have dropped by ten per cent, and the number of adult choral scholars by 17 per cent.

The number of children and adults singing in voluntary choirs attached to cathedrals had also dropped by 17 per cent.

Occasional musicians were most affected by the pandemic: their involvement in services decreased by 84 per cent. “It would appear that the pandemic had a far greater impact on occasional musicians than on regular musicians,” the report said.

When the first nationwide lockdown began in March 2020, every cathedral moved to offer online services. The majority were still offering “Church at home” services by October 2020.

Tom Wood, a researcher in the Church of England’s Research and Statistics unit, compiled the report. In the introduction, he wrote: “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, cathedrals made huge efforts to continue to offer worship in various forms, and to continue to serve their congregations and communities.

“It is undeniable that the global pandemic has had a negative impact on cathedral life, as it has on many other facets of life; we stress that none of the figures in this report should be treated as a criticism of anything that cathedrals have been doing or not doing. If anything, the fact that cathedrals could still do so much in a year when so much ceased should be celebrated.”

Covid, however, was likely to affect cathedral finances for some time to come, the report warned. It found that the pandemic had forced cathedrals to adapt and find new ways to connect with people, not just through live-streamed services, but through producing online tours and activities for schools, which, as school budgets are overstretched, was seen as a key way to engage with students who are unable to reach the cathedral building.

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