What are cathedrals for?

Report reveals new perspectives on the nation’s ancient churches.

Last week I visited Durham Cathedral. I did so for no particular reason other than I was in Durham, and that’s what one does there. Amazingly, it didn’t cost me a penny. I was even given a little bookmark with a welcome from the Dean when I arrived. “That’s convenient,” I told the “listener”, a retired nurse who lives nearby, attired in a majestic purple robe. “I just bought a book.”

A recent report by Theos and the Grubb Institute entitled Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals presents new findings about the ways people understand their local cathedral. “People spoke of Church of England cathedrals as ‘our cathedral’, irrespective of who they were,” says Theos Research Director Nick Spencer, “and they meant it.”

Over a quarter of the adult population in England have been to an Anglican cathedral in the last 12 months. Among the most regular visitors are men (31 per cent), retired people (44 per cent) and those from affluent social groups (38 per cent), though a fifth of all 18-35 year olds and a fifth of those from lower economic categories have also visited. Around 20 per cent of those who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic have visited in the last year too.

The report drew attention to the evolving role cathedrals play in local and national life. Of those interviewed at Canterbury, Durham, Lichfield, Manchester and Wells, 93 per cent agreed that their local cathedral was a “venue for significant occasions in the life of the city and/or country”. Examples of such occasions cited by the report include the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, Leicester’s multi-faith vigils ahead of EDL rallies in 2010 and 2012, as well as Elbow’s choice of Manchester Cathedral as the venue for their “homecoming” gig last year. 76 per cent of local interviewees felt the cathedral was “relevant to their daily lives”.

In terms of tourism, 30 per cent of people agreed with the statement “I come here to appreciate the history and architecture of the cathedral, not for any religious/sacred experience”, while at the same time 84 per cent of the same group either agreed or strongly agreed with the idea they “got a sense of the sacred from the cathedral building”. So what does all this tell us? Of course, church attendance on the whole remains low (though cathedral attendance is up 30 per cent since 2000), but Adrian Dorber, Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, says the focus should be on “emergent spiritualities”.

Dorber writes: “[This report] is an attempt to give critical insight into the experiences cathedrals are handling and how they are serving an emergent culture and spirituality whilst remaining rooted in their history and the riches of Christian thought and tradition.” Nick Spencer continues this idea. He argues the report “shows that cathedrals are understood as inclusive institutions, accessible and hospitable to people irrespective of what they do or do not believe.”

In the year since Occupy’s entanglement with St Paul’s began, questions about the Church’s role in secular morality and public life have been widely discussed, from BBC 4’s series Cathedral Conversation to Rowan Williams’s observation in the Financial Times that “the Church of England is a place where the unspoken anxieties of society can often find a voice, for good and ill.”

Spencer goes on: “Founded on the conviction that the human is always imbued with an ineradicable dignity and responsibility around which temporal concerns, such as those for profit or security, must mould themselves (rather than the other way round, cathedrals invite us to place the ethical before the financial).”

Growing up halfway between Durham and York, the two cathedrals in those cities formed an axis of travel for summer days out as a child. Nobody ever really put into words why we visited those ancient monuments, we just did, and always felt that it had been with good reason when we left.

Cathedrals, on every level, imbue a hushed awe and participatory silence not exactly like that experienced in a museum or library. They are great places to spend time because their scale permits anonymity and an environment conducive to questioning and reflection. What’s more, within tightening constraints, unlike almost everywhere else, they don’t ask anything of you: financial or otherwise (yes, the big hitters do charge, but most don’t).

At twelve years old, a polite “listener” asked me not to take pictures in Durham Cathedral. I exited the building convinced of my damnation, have broken the divine laws of what Bill Bryson called “the best cathedral on planet earth”. “It’s just so they can sell you postcards,” my uncle said, leaning on a wall outside. I suppose they have to fund those bookmarks somehow.

The Very Revd Dr Adrian Dorber (left) at Lichfield Cathedral. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition