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Do installations in cathedrals draw outsiders?

12 January 2024

Andrew Village and Leslie J. Francis asked and received some surprising responses


The Light Before Christmas: The angels are coming!, created by Luxmuralis, in Liverpool Cathedral in December 2022

The Light Before Christmas: The angels are coming!, created by Luxmuralis, in Liverpool Cathedral in December 2022

CATHEDRAL son et lumière has become a regular part of the landscape, especially at Christmas. Something about an iconic building on a grand scale, psychedelic lighting, and evocative sounds brings out people’s love of the spectacular. It also brings out the punters and brings in the cash.

Such events are part of a wider landscape of installations and attractions that delight some and horrify others: the 55-foot helter-skelter (News, 16 August 2019), and Dippy the Diplodocus, at Norwich (News, 16 July 2021); a nine-hole crazy-golf course in Rochester (News, 2 August 2019); Space, the Universe, and Everything at Liverpool (News, 10 December 2021), to mention but a few.

Some argue that simply getting people into the building is enough justification, while others wonder whether the religious intent is somewhat contrived and unlikely to make any difference to those who would otherwise never be seen inside an ecclesial building. Son et Lumière with a nativity theme might have a more overt message, but would that be pandering to churchgoers and failing to attract the unchurched? People may argue either way, but one way to find out is to try and do some research.

A LIGHT-and-sound show, The Light Before Christmas: The angels are coming!, created by Luxmuralis, was live in Liverpool Cathedral between 2 and 9 December 2022. Participants were guided through three phases of the light-and-sound extravaganza: a secular Christmas celebration with Santa’s reindeer and sleigh floating across the night sky, flying angels with clocks ticking down to the big day, and iconic images of the nativity.

We organised a survey of participants by emailing ticket-purchasers and inviting them to take an online questionnaire after they had attended. One quarter of the nearly 4000 people who were sent emails responded, and, of those, 562 completed enough questions to give useful information. These were largely women (80 per cent), a majority of whom (61 per cent) were in their fifties or sixties. Most were not churchgoers: 63 per cent indicated that they either never went to church (apart from weddings, baptisms, or funerals), or went fewer than six times a year.

The survey allowed us to measure different sorts of reaction to, and engagement with, the visit. Did it enhance Christmas? Did it make visitors want to engage more with the cathedral? Did it touch them spiritually? Did it put them in a positive frame of mind?

We were particularly interested in whether there were differences between churchgoers and others in terms of how they experienced the event. Churchgoers were more likely than others to expect a more “religious” event (28 per cent compared with 17 per cent), but very few non-churchgoers (two per cent) felt that it was too religious for their liking.

Non-churchgoers were more likely than churchgoers to agree that the cathedral should put on more such events (96 per cent compared with 87 per cent), and less than three per cent of either group thought that the cathedral was the wrong place for this kind of event. Non-churchgoers were slightly more likely than churchgoers (95 per cent compared with 87 per cent) to agree that this event made them want to come to other such events; and, crucially, 42 per cent of non-churchgoers and 58 per cent of churchgoers said that the event made them want to come to services in the cathedral. Even among non-churchgoers, 36 per cent said that they felt closer to God.

If one of the purposes of such events was to encourage people to participate in the worshipping life of the cathedral, then The Light Before Christmas seems to have increased the intent to do so in at least half the visitors. Whether intent leads to action is another matter, but action usually needs some prior intention; so this must be a positive outcome.

ONE clear trend that has emerged from our initial analyses is that this particular installation seemed to be favoured more by younger rather than older people, and by those who rarely went to church rather than by regular churchgoers. This is an intriguing result, given the overtly religious theme (Santa and his reindeer notwithstanding).

Overall, these results suggest that these sorts of events might be both drawing in the unchurched and, perhaps, offering them positive experiences that may increase their likelihood of building more contacts with the cathedral community.

These are early days for this kind of research, but there is growing evidence that cathedrals can reach different sorts of people by offering different ways of engaging, such as tourism, concerts, events, sacred space, services, and so on. More work is needed to investigate how the cathedral touches these various kinds of “belongers”.

The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, at York St John University.

York St John University and Liverpool Cathedral have joined together to offer a three-year full-time and fully funded doctoral studentship to investigate this issue. Anyone who might be qualified and interested in conducting some research in this area is invited to contact Professor Village for more details: a.village@yorksj.ac.uk

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