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Opinion: How cathedrals can point to the life of faith

20 October 2023

Finding ways to draw visitors to the Christian story needn’t mean handing out tracts at the door, argues Michael Higgins

WORSHIPPING at a sensitively sung choral evensong in a cathedral can become a spiritual moment never to be forgotten. Sitting quietly at the back of a long nave and gazing into the distance, as the sun pours through the east window, can trigger a life-changing meditation. Dwelling on an inscription on a memorial plaque can bring you “up short” and spark profound thoughts.

Such experiences in cathedrals are low-key and discreet. Many feel that this is how it should be; the sacred stones should be allowed to speak for themselves. Votive candles, which visitors can light in memory of a loved one, or prayer requests to be offered at cathedral worship later that day, are permitted; but anything further might smack of unwelcome proselytising.

Two developments suggest that some changes to this approach could be useful.

First, admission charges. In my early days of serving at a cathedral, I was horrified by them. It seemed near-blasphemy to take cash allow someone to enter a place of worship; but I soon realised that, if imminent bankruptcy was to be avoided, a charge was inevitable. Keeping a massive building in good repair, heated, and well-staffed through voluntary gifts was an impossible task. I recall being heartened that, even in Trollope’s day, Mr Harding paid his two pennies to be admitted to Westminster Abbey. Large numbers of cathedrals now charge for admission.

But, sadly, when money changes hands, relationships also change. The visitor is transformed into a paying guest, and the precious line between cathedral and stately home or museum is blurred. The old cathedral joke springs to mind: “I am a pilgrim, he is a visitor, you are a tourist.” As jostling coach parties throng the building en route to the next tourist attraction, any sense of the sacred can easily be lost.

SECOND, mission and outreach are currently key words in the Anglican vocabulary, as priests take up appointments such as “Diocesan Mission and Outreach Director” or “Mission Strategy and Development Officer.” As these new initiatives take place — and there are different views about their effectiveness — cathedrals are crowded with folk who see the building as a fascinating architectural experience, but little more. It may take their breath away; but awareness of God, faith, or worship is not uppermost in the mind of the average visitor to a cathedral. Here is an opportunity, untilled ground.

Both developments indicate that the current discreet, “low-key” approach to drawing cathedral visitors’ attention to matters of faith might usefully be reviewed. This is not to advocate direct “in-your-face” evangelism, with tracts handed out at the door; there are other ways in which cathedrals can point more explicitly to the life of faith.

The ethos in which money is extracted from visitors on entry is highly significant. The use of turnstiles and barriers at admissions desks can create the impression that money is being taken for admission to a tourist attraction that is not much different from any other. In the admissions area, there could be a prominent notice making it clear that visitors are entering a place of worship, and explaining why an entrance charge has become necessary.

Most cathedral guides give a professional and comprehensive account of history and architecture. Some, however, feed in how particular parts of the cathedral have spoken of faith to prominent historical figures, or even allude to personal faith experiences in the building.

Cathedral guidebooks also offer opportunities. Some years ago, Wells Cathedral produced a “faith guidebook”, with stations at key points in the building encouraging visitors to look at the architecture and history with the “outer eye”, before moving on to consider it with the “inner eye” of faith, and dwell on the spiritual truth behind each part of the fabric.

Some cathedrals arrange for a priest in a cassock to be always in the building, “loitering with intent”, happy to engage in conversation with visitors. He or she may also use the loudspeaker system every hour, “on the hour”, to invite visitors to be silent for a few moments, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. It is a practice that establishes the building as a place of worship, although it calls for a priest with “people skills” and the ability to use the loudspeaker system effectively.

VAST numbers of visitors have no idea what the Christian faith is about. For many years, one cathedral had a permanent faith exhibition, designed to “unpack” worship and the faith behind the building. It was designed by a bright young priest, and was executed professionally by a leading firm in the exhibitions field, and attracted the attention of many visitors.

Cathedrals are one of the Church of England’s “success stories”, as their congregations continue to grow. Alongside serving the existing flock, may they find new ways of drawing the attention of their visitors to the faith behind the stones which inspired the builders all those centuries ago.

The Very Revd Dr Michael Higgins is a former Dean of Ely.

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