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Silent discos and luxury retreats are needed to restore Canterbury’s finances, says Dean

26 February 2024

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Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

AGAINST a background of running costs of £30,000 a day, and an income down by £1 million a year since the pandemic, the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd David Monteith, has defended the decision to hold silent discos this month.

Dean Monteith also suggested that there was a “gentle evangelistic dimension” to such events (Comment, 23 February).

A 1990s silent disco was held in the cathedral for two nights this month, eliciting criticism from some quarters after footage was shared online. An online petition (“Anglican Deans, stop turning our great cathedrals into nightclubs”) has collected more than 2600 signatures. It was organised by a Roman Catholic layman, Dr Cajetan Skowronski.

In an essay for The European Conservative last week, Dr Skowronski wrote: “In place of the cross, we have a DJ elevated with arms outstretched as if in mimicry, towering over the multitude of revellers, who, though gathered together, each separately listen to their pop music via their own headphones, atomised by technology. ‘Strictly 18+’ and ‘Stocked bar on site for the duration’ stand out in the description of the event. . .

“We might imagine that the cathedral structure itself conveys its sacredness, as centuries of prayer and worship have saturated the very stones of which it is made, which in turn breathe out into the nave. But do they feel it in any serious sense? . . . They are paying for the fact that they will drink and dance to profane music in a place not meant for drinking and dancing to profane music.”

Dr Skowronski met Dean Monteith after collecting the signatures, and provided an account of their conversation in the essay. He and a group of supporters also prayed by the gates of the cathedral on the night of one of the discos, and are planning to repeat their vigil at some of the many other silent discos set to take place in Anglican cathedrals in the coming months, which include Guildford, Chelmsford, Exeter, Ely, Coventry, Sheffield, St Edmundsbury, Llandaff, Manchester, and St Albans.

Another perspective on the controversy was provided by Ben Phillips, a researcher in music, religion, and culture. In an essay for the magazine The Critic last week, he wrote: “Few are discussing why many of our cathedrals host these events. The reason is not missiological or ecclesiological; it isn’t about relevance or “community” either. It’s about having the funds to keep the doors open.”

Canterbury reports, on its website, a deficit of more than £1 million a year, referring to the cost-of-living crisis, Brexit, and “the long shadow cast by the damage done to the Cathedral’s finances by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

A 2021 report for the Association of English Cathedrals — The Economic and Social Impact of England’s Cathedrals (News, 10 August 2021) — noted that, across the sector, the government-mandated closure of cathedrals during the pandemic resulted in a fall of almost 80 per cent in the income generated from the use of cathedral facilities. Visitor numbers fell by 70 per cent in 2020.

The latest figures from Church House suggest that there were 4.56 million recorded visitors to cathedrals in 2021: down from almost ten million in 2019 (News, 24 March).

At Canterbury, visitor numbers are down by about 20 per cent since the pandemic, representing an annual loss of income of more than £1 million. Historically, the cathedral has relied heavily on overseas visitors. This market has been slow to recover since the pandemic, exacerbated by Brexit border-control arrangements, according to its latest annual report. Many language schools were affected by the pandemic, and the result is fewer language students. An additional challenge is the cost of responding to the Church of England’s 2030  net-zero-carbon goal.

The annual report notes that unrestricted free reserves were “heavily depleted” during the pandemic. The Chapter took out a £4-million coronavirus business-interruption loan in the year to 31 March 2021, to help manage cash flow. This now stands at £2.13 million, notwithstanding interest, and repayments of £800,000 a year are required. In 2021, it received a £2-million grant from the Culture Recovery Fund (News, 16 April 2021).

Most of the cathedral’s income comes from property — about £1.5 million p.a. after costs; the other key source is admission charges. In an introduction to the annual report, Dean Monteith wrote that reliance on visitor income “needs to be addressed for future sustainability. . . We will continue to engage with people and broaden our outreach, putting mission at the forefront of what we do.”

Analysis of the cathedral’s Christmas services suggests that collections generate about £1 per person. This is roughly the the same as ten years ago. High numbers of online views of services (News, 9 April 2021), which numbered 65,000 in December, generate little in income.

In 2023, the cathedral stopped supplying free entry passes to people living in the precincts from the New Year, charging £6 instead (News, 11 November). Adult admission is typically £17, while children and students are allowed entry free of charge.

Among the seven values listed in the annual report are “to encourage ideas and innovation to meet the challenges of the 21st Century and ensure our relevance to the communities we serve”.

“It costs about £12 million to keep our doors open, before we undertake any major repairs or stewardship of the site,” Dean Monteith said last week. “Our commercial activities utterly subsidise our worship. We will need a vivid and diverse events programme to be developed, in addition to our existing income-generation activities, if we are to survive. This will do three things, all equally important and intertwined: we will connect with new audiences, many of them without any actual or very little contact with the Church. There is a gentle evangelistic dimension to this.

“We will generate income to support our mission, because most visitors believe the State or the C of E pays for Canterbury Cathedral and not them; [and] we will create relationships with our local and wider community, because fund-raising is never really about money but about people and their response to healthy relationships which are expansive and inclusive in character.

“We need a both/and approach to understanding the mission of cathedrals as places of worship, witness, and welcome to and for Jesus Christ, and also as community places there for the times the community needs us, and as places of connection, commerce, study, prayer, the arts, food production, and every other aspect that used to characterise the life of a monastery — only in the modern day. One side of this permeates the other in remarkable and creative ways.

“It is a conundrum, but I see God at work here every day, and God promises provision for his people and for his work. I am learning that we need to be imaginative about where we now look for support and relationships.”

Many of the country’s 42 Anglican cathedrals have long relied on concerts, lectures, exhibitions, conferences, and festivals to help to supplement finances, and many are now familiar with student graduations, Christmas markets, corporate events, and dinosaur displays. The events programme at Canterbury Cathedral is relatively new, however; the silent discos are expected to generate income of between £10,000 to £12,000.

They were organised by Silent Discos in Incredible Places, which has developed partnerships with a number of other cathedrals, including St Albans, which reports that tickets for its event sold out in an hour. Its Dean, the Very Revd Jo Kelly-Moore, who chairs the Association of English Cathedrals, said last week week that cathedrals “hold so much of the social, religious, and political history of our country, while always being open and free for worship, solace, prayer, and hope. We offer creative encounters with God through being open to visit every day, through our daily rhythm of prayer and services, the arts, and other special events.”

All cathedrals had to “build an economy around us to be sustainable”, she said, referring to running costs of £6000 a day at St Albans.

While attention at Canterbury has focused on the silent disco and on a residential four-day Lent retreat, costing £950 a head, many of the cathedral’s upcoming events are free of charge, including half-term activities, monthly “singing for well-being” sessions, an organ recital, and “floragami bouquet-making” in its new community studio — one of the results of a nine-year development project costing £34.5 million: the “Canterbury Journey”. A new visitor centre and shop have also been established.

Financial challenges in the sector are exacerbated by the loss of English Heritage’s dedicated grants for cathedral repairs, which ended in 2010. Canterbury is not alone in reporting a deficit: a recent inspection at Guildford identified a need for repairs costing a total of £4.4 million during the next five to ten years (News, 14 April 2023). The Dean there reported that reserves had fallen to below £300,000, which is less than six months’ projected cathedral expenditure.

The disparity in cathedrals’ assets was highlighted in a report to the General Synod last year (News, 1 December 2023).

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