Six reasons why [some] cathedrals are doing well

The attendance statistics for Cathedrals in England have been published in the last 24 hours. As has been the case in recent years these are quite perky. Many cathedrals in England are busy, full of people and seven day a week operations.

The immediate response of the wider church to this though is complex. Indeed, if you look at the comments underneath the Thinking Anglicans post where this news was shared, you see a certain amount of cynicism. Very quickly people jump in and suggest that people are going to cathedral worship to avoid the entrance charges at those which charge, to get a good free concert from the choir, or to exercise some kind of faux faith that is somehow lesser than what will be found in real parish churches. A common charge is that cathedrals encourage believing without belonging – faith-lite which you can dip into and never really become committed to.

Well, cathedrals do allow people to exercise believing without belonging. They also allow people to belong without believing too. And thank God for that.

What church wouldn’t want people to come who are at different stages on the faith journey? What church wouldn’t want people to come if they were just curious? The answer would seem to be, quite a few.

Cathedral ministry is often dismissed by those in other churches, which is a shame as there’s a lot about being a cathedral that other churches could learn from and the keys to growth for some other congregations could be unlocked by reflecting on what is making some cathedral congregations grow.

These are the factors that I would identify as being important.

1 – Cathedrals get to use the C word rather than the other C word

The truth is, cathedrals are off to a head start because they’ve got a good brand. Once you hang the C word (Cathedral) outside a building you are saying to people – “You can come in, you are welcome.” The inherited culture that we have that surrounds cathedrals all over the world is that these are places which you can go to whoever you are. That can’t be underestimated and that is tricky to emulate in a place which isn’t a cathedral. I think that there’s a lot of people who would say that they simply can’t do anything about this in places that are not cathedrals. However it is even worse than they suspect. They get landed with the other C word – Church, which is itself becoming a toxic brand. The word Church speaks of exclusion rather than inclusion to many people. (Hey – if you don’t like this, don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just telling you it as it is). Years of negative publicity that have been generated both by grindingly slow synodical government and publicly poisonous episcopal leadership is not going to evaporate just because the Church of England has now very publicly affirmed that women can be (second-class) bishops. And it is not just the Church of England – none of the major denominations have governance structures that have been shining brightly in recent years. The word church has come to mean something unpleasant. This is hard to change as there is little culture of holding leaders to account in the church. However, if you want your church to be full of more people, it is time to start asking serious questions about why synods have become places where the church advertises the worst of itself and why bishops have become trumpets of intolerance and a whole set of values that nice people don’t believe. Cathedrals happen to have branding and identity that stands outside this ethos and that is part of why they are doing well.

Interestingly, there is a movement in some dioceses to declare particular churches to be Minster churches – local centres of mission. This is a good move – minster is a good word. The name change may itself be more significant than any of the other mission strategies surrounding such innovations.

2 – People have worked to make things beautiful for a long time

Cathedrals often look timeless. This is because they have been constantly changing and people through many generations have wondered how to make them more beautiful. This happens to neatly fit in with the current culture which is very visual. Things are beautiful for reasons. Often they are beautiful for financial reasons. When was the last time your church had an appeal to make it more beautiful?

One of the things that I encountered when on sabbatical a couple of years ago on the West Coast of the USA was an emphasis on beauty. Churches which were doing well often seemed to be places which people thought were beautiful and somehow outside the normal experience of life. I suspect that this sensibility is coming our way and we might be wise to prepare for it. Cathedrals are often places which people have worked incredibly hard to enhance. Enclosed space is not in itself beautiful. There are architectural and decorative tricks that have worked through the ages and still work today. Michelangelo managed to work without a digital projector screen. However, if he had one I suspect he would have used it to project something that was more aesthetically pleasing than a load of words in a clunky font.

Beauty matters and it is going to matter more in the years that are ahead. Cathedrals often have a head-start in this area but they don’t have a monopoly on how to create loveliness.

3 – People haven’t just worked on good music they’ve worked on stopping bad music

Quite often cathedrals are dismissed by people because they have good music that “can’t be emulated in the parish”. This is to close one’s mind and stop thinking about cathedral music far too soon. Sure, most local churches can’t do the kind of music that cathedrals do. Neither should they necessarily try. There are two aspects to getting music right though. The first is doing what you can well within the resources that you’ve got. The other is stopping people who are getting in the way of other people at worship.

I remember visiting a church once which was presenting a bunch of flowers to someone on her fiftieth anniversary of being the organist (she had taken over at 20). And she was terrible. She was proud of never having had a music lesson in her life.¬† I knew people who wouldn’t go to that church because the music was so grim. Now, we need to be kind, we need to be loving. But we need to think about the whole community.

Incidentally, I think that sometimes local churches get the music wrong by trying to do what they perceive cathedrals to be doing. It isn’t about one style. It isn’t about one hymn book. It isn’t about being fully choral. It is about enjoying yourself. (And by the way, I think a lot of worship in a lot of cathedrals is rather dull).

People sometimes say I haven’t a clue what it is like in “real” congregations which don’t have a nice organ/nice organist/choir/much of a congregation. Well come and join me for a weekday saints day I say. Full sung¬† mass with all the glory, all the beauty and all the dignity with 8 in the congregation, no organist, no choir but a load of goodwill and fun.

They never do come and see that either.

No-one ever asks me why my congregation is full of life and growth.

4 – People like to volunteer for something that is bigger than them and which will carry on without them

Oh, this is so tricky, isn’t it? People are very willing to volunteer but don’t want to be depended on too much. New people arriving at church need to be met with a mind to their needs from God and the church rather than God and the church’s need for them. People are frightened off from going to church sometimes because they fear they will be sucked in. However the other side of this is that very often, one of the needs that people have is to offer something – to be of service, to give of themselves and not just from their wealth.

I’ve learned in recent years that in order to get volunteers you need to make sure they don’t think they are doing this forever. You also need to support them better than most churches do. (We’ve all a lot to learn here including me). I’ve also learned that people like to be asked to do something that matters but don’t like being asked to do something that is crucial. There is a big difference.

One of the advantages that cathedrals have is that they are more than any one person can control, including the dean or provost. The ethos, the weight of history, the relationship with the wider community is complex and broad. Cathedrals don’t generally fall victim to being completely controlled by matriarchs and patriarchs in the congregation. People who would otherwise be the matriarchs and patriarchs can enjoy spheres of interest without the whole thing being dependent on them. And that is a good thing.

5 – It is never wrong to do things as well as you can

Cathedrals are often criticised for being elitist, as though that is a bad thing. For me though, I’d say that it is never wrong to do things as well as you can. We do things as well as we can in cathedrals for two reasons – firstly because of a culture of offering the best of human experience to God. (That’s not merely not a bad thing, it is a biblical thing). The second reason for doing things well is politeness. It is polite to a congregation to presume that they matter enough to do things well. Now people sometimes tease me about my black shoe fetish. But if wearing black polished shoes, practising before services and having meetings now and then (every week!) in which we talk about how to make the worship better – if these things help people discover a God who loves them then why not get out the shoe polish?

I regularly hear people saying that they wouldn’t go to the churches most local to them because it seems that no-one who is there cares about the worship. I don’t know whether that is true but I do know that it is a perception that I hear uncomfortably frequently

6 – Innovation [sometimes] pays off

The curious paradox is that conservative institutions which survive are often the most innovative institutions you will find. They change constantly to become more like themselves. This is true of cathedrals. A culture of commissioning things through the ages has led to places which seem to have been doing the same thing forever and ever and ever and yet, cathedrals are not changeless places. The worship may be timeless but they are constantly innovating. When I meet with other people who are involved in cathedral ministry I find myself meeting with other entrepreneurs. I’m unashamed of that too. In our day, the gospel message needs people who are prepared to take some risks to get it into the hands of those who need it most. Indeed, that has probably been true in every day.

Cathedrals happen to be innovative because they have innovative people in them. And to close, if you want a nippy observation from someone who often visits the Church of England, I’d say that innovative people who once might have become bishops have been steered towards cathedral ministry for one reason or another and that is starting to show, to the detriment of the episcopate.

I’d be the first to say that cathedral ministry is something special, unique and particular. However, I’d also be someone who, having worked in a much smaller church before coming here, would say that there is much for those in local churches to learn from the cathedral experience if people could stop being blinded by the things they see which they presume they can’t have.

Cathedrals are growing because of the way they really are. They are not growing because of the way many of those in local parishes seem to presume them to be.


  1. John McIntosh says

    A most interesting piece and your comments on music are apposite and timely. Thank you.

  2. I agree. With you, and with him!

  3. This is a brilliant post. While the direct context of this article is about Anglican cathedrals and parish churches in the UK, the implications are also relevant to congregations of other denominations and in other contexts.

  4. Rachel White says

    Inflation of church titles: rebranding a church as a minster may help to get away from the toxic c word, but does it necessarily indicate a movement towards missional work?
    What about when those currently leading a minster try to rebrand it as a cathedral (cf Southwell and Notts). Does this indicate a movement away from missional work and if so what are they aiming to move towards other than personal aggrandisement?
    Cathedrals sucking in resources and giving little back: Jesus said “Go OUT and make disciples … ” yet three if not more ordained clergy can be involved in any given cathedral service whilst their colleagues in parish ministry may well be trying to pastor at into the teens of church congregations on any one day. This does not seem to me to be a satisfactory or helpful use of scarce resources.
    Cathedrals may well be places of beauty in both visual and choral terms but Jesus himself set his focus on reaching out to the outcasts and those regarded as the unbeautiful. That is not to say that we should not aim to be the best possible but rather that we should be concerned with the bigger picture rather than concentrating a disproportionate level of resource to beautiful places.

    • But however, Rachel, in my experience, those cathedrals, parish churches, and other congregations which are places of beauty and centres of excellence in worship are also contexts in which authentic outreach and ministry happens. Conversely, congregations in which “any old thing will do” in worship are also settings in which not much happens in outreach and ministry.

      • In support of Bob’s comment, I’d like to add – at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam – that I became involved in Christianity only because of the beauty and solemnity of worship in the tiniest cathedral in the country – a place which struggles to keep going financially and practically now, but in which, in my lifetime, every effort has been made to ensure that the music is fine, the worship sensitively and beautifully achieved and the building cherished. If I had to listen to the pathetic music and slapdash liturgy that is a feature of some parish worship, I’d have scarpered long ago.

    • Nigel Coates says

      Rachel’ I think there is a misunderstanding here. Southwell minster made no choice to re brand itself as a Cathedral. It was made so in 1884 and has no authority to change that! In the last decade The diocese chose to be renamed as that of Southwell and Nottingham rather than Southwell and the minster remains the Cathedral church. We are entirely at ease with keeping a longstanding title of minster believing like you it underlies our calling to be outward looking and to serve our local communities as well as our wider diocese and some 80,000 visitors a year.

  5. Suzanne Bryden says

    Point number 4 resonates with me (as a lapsed church goer).

  6. Bruce Neswick says

    There are many thought-provoking ideas here, but some careful editing would help the message. “There’s a lot that about … ?” Ouch.

  7. Meg Rosenfeld says

    Kelvin, I wonder whether, during your visit to the West Coast, you were in California; and if so, whether you visited Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. As relatively new buildings go, I think it’s quite lovely in a very traditional manner, and the murals which portray the spread of the Gospel all the way to San Francisco are both unusual and informative. Here’s the bizarre twist: “Grace” is almost never identified, in any sort of news or interest story, as a cathedral of the Episcopal church; as a result, most non-Episcopalians are very surprised to learn of its denomination. This (to me) weird practice of deliberately omitting the E word was inaugurated by the Bishop previous to the present one, in hopes that people would come to feel that it’s everyone’s cathedral. I have no idea whether or not this has worked. I do know that my own feeling about “Grace,” based on nothing but gossip and ignorance, is that it’s a very snooty place where only the in-crowd goes to worship, and where all sorts of “innovative” (imagine sick-noises soundtrack) worship prevails on Sundays, although the Thursday evening sung Evensong–which I have often attended– is quite traditional. Being at present the entire alto section at a very small parish in the Haight-Ashbury, I haven’t got Sunday mornings free to go visiting at “Grace” or any other local church, but while I found your latest post fascinating, I can’t test the local reality against your findings. It’s made quite an impression, though, and I will probably re-read it a few times, especially the part about getting people involved, which resonates strongly with my immediate family.

    • Perhaps you should go to Grace Cathedral before making comments like this about it online, Meg.

      You can hear the sermon I preached when I was living in residence there a couple of years ago online and make your own mind up as to how innovative it sounds.

      If I’m honest, I was surprised how traditional Grace Cathedral was.

    • I loved my one visit to Grace Cathedral 8 years ago – we were warmly welcomed on the Saturday when we walked up the hill to rubberneck, and enjoyed every aspect of the Eucharist on the Sunday. The ‘welcomer’ was amazed that I recognised the Samuel Seabury panel on the mural.

      • Meg Rosenfeld says

        I’m glad you had such a good experience at Grace Cathedral! The murals have always fascinated me because, so the legend goes, the models were members of the parish staff and congregation. What fun it would be to have provided the face for an Anglo-Saxon queen, or a Spanish conquistador! I would guess that having someone come in and identify Samuel Seabury is a very rare treat.

        • All the pisky churches in Scotland I’ve been involved with have that very picture somewhere about them. In ours, it hung on the wall just inside the door for many years. Can’t think if it’s still there …

          • I had the same experience in Grace Cathedral some years ago. When the tour guide heard I was from the very congregation where Seabury was consecrated I got a round of applause from the group, and was treated like royalty. I did not manage a service, as I was just on a stopover, but the beauty of the place was breathtaking, and I expect the standard of liturgy and music was just as high.

  8. Meg Rosenfeld says

    You’re absolutely right, of course. Some day I shall go to a regular Sunday Mass. I quite enjoyed your sermon, and as I’ve never had to cense the altar, can only say that that is the one thing which all new members of the altar party here at All Saints fear the most–and I can certainly see why! You certainly know how to use a good dramatic pause! Did the lid fall off, or did the wee sparks jump out through the little ventilation holes?

    Another interesting “take” on the rich young man is that, unlike some of the other rich people in the Bible, he seems to have been obsessed with his belongings and the concomitant responsibilities, and getting rid of them could have freed him.

    It’s very interesting that so many people from other Protestant denominations, especially the more evangelical, have been drawn to the Episcopal Church because of its liturgy, pageantry–as you aptly put it, its beauty. Thank God that they have, bringing with them their enthusiasm and energy, because there seems to been a great exodus of cradle Episcopalians. I always wonder where they went.

    • Not sure about you use of the word “pageantry”, Meg. Suggests an element of triumphalism and showing off that is not, despite our joking about it, actually there. Ceremonial is rooted in symbolism, and the best stays close to that remit.

      • Meg Rosenfeld says

        “Pageantry” doesn’t have that connotation to me; I’m a theatre person and to me, performance is sacred. There’s no fakery involved, at least in my mind. No intention of being offensive.

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