Cathedrals are growing. But so what?

I was interested, of course, to look through the press release this week about which churches are growing in the Church of England.

One might have thought at a casual glance and by the way that the headlines were phrased that there was evidence that the Church of England was growing again but it isn’t and the churches that are growing are not coming anywhere near to making up the losses from the churches which are not growing.

Several themes emerge, including:

  • Significant Growth from Fresh expressions of Church (new congregations and new churches) with around 21,000 people attending in the 10 surveyed areas of the 44 Church of England Dioceses.
  • Significant growth in Cathedrals, especially in weekday attendance. Overall weekly attendance grew by 35% between 2002 and 2012.
  • Declining numbers of children and young people under 16 – nearly half of the churches surveyed had fewer than 5 under 16s.
  • Amalgamations of churches are more likely to decline – the larger the number of churches in the amalgamation, the more likely they are to decline

There are not many surprises here – these themes have been emerging for the last two years. The last of them might give us pause for thought in Scotland where the push to cluster churches together with the promise that this is the best way forward is sometimes heard quite loudly. I’ve always said that linkages are generally less than the sum of their parts and you have to travel quite a way to find a linkage that has led to growth.

My mind is particularly caught, of course, by the assertion that cathedrals are growing. Now, Scottish cathedrals play by different rules than English cathedrals but I’m still interested in what is being said about cathedral life all the same. It would be fair to say that the picture would not be so clear across Scotland when it comes to cathedrals. My own congregation is reasonably bouncy at the moment and that is sometimes put down by other clergy as being the “cathedral effect”. Oh, cathedrals are doing well generally, I am told by people who don’t want to listen to what it is that makes them do well.

Cathedrals are doing well. But so what?

Cathedrals in England are, at least in part, funded by the state. (Part also funds the maintenance of Glasgow’s medieval cathedral, but that is another matter and for different reasons). [UPDATE – English friends who have read this are keen to point out that one should regard the Church Commissioners as “external funders” rather than state funders. I take the point, but most of the subsequent arguments still hold]

No-one ever seems to say, “Well, cathedrals are doing well, perhaps we should have more state funding of churches”. There doesn’t seem to be much recognition that the state plays a big part in paying for what is going on in English Cathedrals. Here in Scotland the congregation of St Mary’s has to find the money to pay me. If I were the dean of an English Cathedral I would be in a Crown Appointment and paid by the state. Those congregations down south also benefit from cathedral canons being paid for by the state and certain maintenance being done, not least to Cathedral roofs.

People are also sometimes dismissive of cathedral growth because it seems to be based on the fact that lots of people seem to want to “believe and not belong”. In other words, people rather like turning up for something nice liturgically but don’t want to spend their time keeping it running. There’s bound to be a bit of this, but so what? The Church of England at least is predicated on the idea that it is there precisely for those who live about the place who don’t contribute their time and talents. That’s what being an established and national church is all about isn’t it?

It also seems to me that cathedrals are often powerhouses of volunteering. Hereabouts in Glasgow we’ve got about 50 people who volunteer their time and talents to take some kind of leadership role within St Mary’s and maybe another 100 or so who volunteer to do something or another along the way. And you know what, just a few of those people pr0bably want to belong and not believe for cathedrals are also places where the sceptical and the doubting can and do want to contribute something.

Then there are the reasons that cathedrals are growing.

I think that is isn’t difficult to name the things that make churches grow:

  • A friendly demeaner – or at least the notion that this might be a place where one might make some friends. Also known as finding God in other people.
  • A sense of the holy or the transcendent. Finding God in ways that in some way reach beyond the everyday and the humdrum.
  • Music that the congregation is comfortable with and enjoys. (And this one ain’t about style at all).
  • An attempt to present things as well as possible – yes the quality question. People are used to high quality presentations these days – why should they expect anything less at church.
  • Governance that can sort out trouble and help troubled people not to upset everyone else. We don’t think about this nearly enough but appropriate authority structures are crucial to any growing church.
  • Good welcome procedures
  • Good communications – websites and all the rest that are built on ethos and not just info

It so happens that cathedrals can often do quite well at these things. These are some of the reasons that they are doing well at the moment.

However, I can barely think of anyone from outside the cathedral scene who really wants to know why it is going well and who has much interest in learning from what cathedrals do well.

I may have a go at addressing some of the things said about “Fresh Expressions” in the C of E report later. For now two things are worth noting – firstly that there does not seem to me to be much evidence in the report that Fresh Expressions Thingys are making that much difference statistically because they seem to be being measured in very different ways to other more traditional congregations. Also there does not seem to be much research on who is paying for Fresh Expressions Thingys. The question of how many bums are on beanbags is hard to resolve. Who is paying for the beanbags is easier to establish and it very rarely seems to be the users of Fresh Expressions Thingys. In short, there’s a suspicion around that Fresh Expressions Thingys are being sponsored by rather trad congregations via diocesan grants schemes. That was certainly the feeling I got from Fresh Expressions Thingys that I encountered in the USA when I was travelleling there on sabbatical. The constant questions when Fresh Expressions Thingys are being talked about are how do you evaluate success, how much is it costing and who is paying the bills.

Having said all that, I was very struck by someone who said to me a while ago that the reason that St Mary’s is doing well at the moment is not because it is a cathedral but because it has been nurtured into being a Fresh Expression of traditiona church which happens to appeal to a bunch of people that never thought that church would have anything at all to offer them and who are surprised to find themselves caught up in the business of heaven in a place of surprise and wonder.

The Church of England research is fascinating, deserves to be talked about and raises far more questions than it answers.

Cathedrals are growing.

But so what?