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What cathedrals can learn from St Benedict  

by
31 March 2023

Reform requires more than simply rebalancing power: hard spiritual graft is needed, argues Peter Doll

CATHEDRALS, like other prominent institutions, can be subject to conflicting personalities and struggles for power. Measures to reform cathedral governance — including the most recent, the 2020 Cathedrals Measure (News, 27 November 2020) — have tended to focus on redistributing the balance of power, so as to prevent future calamities.

Unfortunately, reform measures have failed to make any connection between cathedrals’ core purpose (sustaining a community of prayer) and the work of management and governance which sustains it. Canon Angela Tilby argued recently: “True reform should surely have a spiritual foundation, and the monastic roots of cathedrals should be nurtured” (24 February). I would like to suggest what such spiritual foundations might look like in the life of worship, in management, and in governance.

Several cathedrals today, particularly those with monastic foundations — such as Gloucester, Peterborough, Worcester, Canterbury, Winchester, St Edmundsbury, and Norwich — seek to use the Rule of St Benedict as an inspiration and guide in our own day. “Canons”, after all, are people who live by a rule, and the reflections that follow are the fruit of some years’ engagement with that tradition.

The new constitutions acknowledge that the cathedral’s primary function is to be a house of prayer, and that the chapter’s chief responsibility is to be a community that prays the daily Office and offers the eucharist each day.


ACADEMICS in business studies, and business leaders such as Stephen Bampfylde, recognise, however, that Benedict’s Rule has important lessons for personnel management in the secular sphere. This is because the Rule is fundamentally about how people can live and work well together. The three core principles of the Rule — stability, obedience, and conversion of life — can readily be understood as values in business life.

Most people depend on stability, on having a predictable pattern and recognised responsibilities in their lives. Employees should be committed to supporting the mission, work, and ethos of their cathedrals (whether or not they are people of faith), while chapters, as employers, should trust and encourage their employees and nurture their skills. Worship needs to be the effective source of the cathedral’s life and to shape all its other activities.

The principle of conversion of life, on the other hand, recognises that life never stands still. The institution that does not change and evolve in response to its environment will wither and die. For healthy change and development to take place, chapter, staff, and volunteers must be co-dependent partners in enabling the cathedral to prosper and flourish.

If stability and conversion of life are opposite poles of human experience, they are connected by obedience, which Benedict understands as a mutual attentiveness and listening to all, from the youngest to the oldest, which leads to appropriate action. For Benedict, the burden of obedience falls most heavily on the abbot and his assistants; for they are responsible for the spiritual and material flourishing of all the members.

Thus, Benedict speaks to the life of worship and to the ethos of management in cathedrals. But what of the Holy Grail of cathedral reform: governance?

In a 2003 lecture, “God’s Workshop”, Rowan Williams addresses directly the issue of conflict and power in the common life. He bases his reflections on Benedict’s “Tools for Good Works”, in chapter 4 of the Rule, as a summons to stability.

Rather than rely for order “on a faintly magical command structure”, if they are to persist in their communities and not to go away when life becomes complicated, members of chapter will have to be transparent, will have to be peacemakers, and will have to be accountable.

Transparency is simply about honesty — first with oneself, and then taking that vulnerable self-understanding into relations with others. The chapter is necessarily a workshop of self-knowledge. If I am to be accepted by others for who I am, then I must also be prepared to live and work with others just as they are, in their infinite variety.

If a community is to be stable, it cannot be a place “where influence and hierarchy are a matter of unceasing struggle”, Lord Williams says. The last three of the Tools for Good Works make plain the necessity of peacemaking: “To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ. To make peace with one’s enemy before the sun sets. And never to despair of the mercy of God. Struggle in community life must not be about power but about our recognition that others are the means of [our] own sanctification.”


THE Cathedrals Measure is all about accountability, but the accountability with which Benedict is concerned is not to the Charity Commissioners, but before God.

This is not to say that the reform is not necessary. After all, a Benedictine ethos did not prevent a catastrophe at Peterborough (News, 29 July 2016). Such an identity needs to be more than window-dressing. Chapters need to recognise that flourishing — even according to secular metrics — depends on members’ doing the hard spiritual graft of openness, honesty, and transparency.

If cathedrals are to flourish in this or any other age, they cannot rely simply on balancing structures of power. They will have to be true to their core purpose, to practice what they pray and preach, and to set their values on the Kingdom of God. To these ends, Benedict is a reliable guide.


The Revd Dr Peter Doll is Canon Librarian and Vice-Dean of Norwich Cathedral.

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