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Angela Tilby: Cathedral reforms need spiritual foundations

24 February 2023

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Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral

CATHEDRALS are not always havens of calm and prayer. There are many recent examples of conflict and mismanagement — the recent death of Brandon Jackson, a former Dean of Lincoln, brought to mind the miseries of that great cathedral before and during his time there. More recently, there was the financial scandal at Peterborough, and the chaos of Christ Church, Oxford. Even in the past few months, two recently appointed deans, at Wells and Chichester, have stood down.

Part of the problem is that deans and canons inherit something of the monastic expectation that their chief work is prayer, while the reality is that cathedrals are hugely expensive to maintain, and require staff with financial and worldly acumen.

Attempts to reform the governance of cathedrals have been going on since shortly after the Lincoln débâcle. At first, it was through cathedral councils — an innovation that was never fully implemented. The new Cathedrals Measure, which is coming into use, is an attempt at more drastic reform. The relationship between Dean and Bishop is changed in favour of the diocese, with a lay senior non-executive member appointed by the Bishop with almost equal power to the Dean. The Chapter is stripped of authority, and the canons are subordinated to the Dean.

Whether these changes make for healthier governance remains to be seen. The omens are not altogether promising: a member of a current cathedral council involved in making the new system work described the paperwork explicating the new structures as “badly drafted legalese”, which suggests that they leave plenty of room for as yet unforeseen conflicts of interest and confusion of roles.

And then there is the ethos in which cathedrals are meant to see themselves less as houses of prayer and more as “venues” to be marketed, with the dual purpose of bringing in money and the somewhat incoherent hope that a more worldly and intrusive atmosphere will bring people to Jesus.

I can’t help wondering whether cathedrals are being punished for past self-indulgence and lack of accountability. This is fair enough, perhaps; the Lincoln canons of Dean Jackson’s time were extraordinarily self-indulgent. But true reform should surely have a spiritual foundation, and the monastic roots of cathedrals should be nurtured, not extirpated.

Unfortunately, the contemporary C of E dislikes ambiguities, and looks to centralise power rather than disperse it. There seems little readiness to acknowledge that the fascination of cathedrals lies in their independent history, their music, and their vast, structured spaces. I know several cathedral canons who regard themselves as too busy regularly to take part in the daily Office, giving the clear message that being a diocesan functionary is more important than “inhabiting” the cathedral that they are supposed to serve. One wonders whether the Lincoln imp has escaped to spread new mischief.

Obituary: the Very Revd Brandon Jackson

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