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What are cathedrals for?

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

Dean of Lichfield Adrian Dorber stands behind the screen at Lichfield Cathedral.
The Very Revd Dr Adrian Dorber (left) at Lichfield Cathedral. Photo: Getty Images.

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.