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.