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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Could Jeremy Corbyn lose after all?

Saving Labour's numbers are plausible - but they feel unlikely. 

Saving Labour, the anti-Corbyn organisation, has released its analysis of figures showing that, far from the landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn expected by the bookmakers – and indicated by his dominant showing in constituency nominations and in the only public YouGov poll of the race – they predict a much closer race – one that Smith will edge by 3902 votes.

The numbers are the result of Saving Labour’s analysis of its own mailing list and information about where exactly the £25 supporters and trade union affiliates live and what they do. But are they right?

Well, their estimates for the party membership fit with everything we know thus far.

Saving Labour estimate that Corbyn will defeat Smith among members by 57 to 43 per cent. That’s within the margin of error shown in the only public YouGov poll of the race thus far, which put the two candidates at 56 to 34 per cent, with the remainder undecided.

It also fits the pattern of constituency nominations – yes, Corbyn has taken 84 per cent of those, but when you look at the underlying figures, what you’d expect is a roughly 60-40 vote share. (The excellent Psephography Twitter account, which has also been collating CLP nominations, has produced a similar projection to mine.)  

That brings us to the known unknowns of the Labour leadership race: affiliated trade unionists and the registered supporters who have paid £25 for a one-off vote in the Labour leadership race.

The turnout figures for both are a carbon-copy of last year’s, which feels about right, although who knows, perhaps the sense of it being a foregone conclusion might lead to a turnout drop in the manner of Labour’s second successive landslide in 2001.

To overturn that heavy defeat among members, Smith would need big wins among trade unionists and registered supporters, both of which went for Corbyn by large margins last time.

My immediate response to Saving Labour’s figures – which, you guessed it, show him getting exactly those big wins among those sections – was “how very convenient”. But again, the underlying figures are plausible and fit with what we know: that many of last year’s £3 supporters became full members shortly after Corbyn’s victory, and many of the members most opposed to him left in short order. Look at it this way: if last year’s £3ers were drawn from “Old Labour in exile”, it is possible this year’s £25ers are “New Labour in exile”.

As for the trade union figures, Saving Labour believe they have successfully focused on recruiting trade unionists in fields that Corbyn has set himself against – aerospace, defence and pharmaceuticals. And again, this is perfectly plausible. We know, thanks to a series of polls commissioned by Ian Warren, a former Labour staffer, that support for Corbyn has fallen among members of the affiliated unions.

Plausible, but, not, I think, likely. Why not?

Let’s start with those trade unionists. Yes, we know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that enamoured of Corbyn. But we also know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that concerned with the Labour party. That’s partly why more than one of Labour’s trade union general secretaries is striking a far more pro-Corbyn tone in public than in private – because while their Corbynscepticism may be closer to that of the millions of union members who don’t vote in internal elections, they need to retain the support of Corbyn-backing activists who do vote.

It feels more likely than not that the tiny minority of trade unionists who choose to vote will be closer to the politically active members of their own trade unionists, particularly as Saving Labour had a relatively small window to recruit trade unionists.  

As for the £25ers, having rung round local parties, my impression is that, on average, a third of them are members who joined after the freeze date, with the rest unknown. It could be, therefore, that these additional sign-ups are “New Labour in exile”.

But again, it doesn’t feel likely. Although the support base for both Corbyn and his opponents, is, on the whole, able to afford to pay £25 for a vote, my feeling is that regardless of how much you earn, £25 still feels like quite a bit of money. Remember that for most of the window, it was unclear which of Angela Eagle or Owen Smith were going to be the candidate to take on the Labour leader – and neither of them were lighting up enough stages to motivate people to shell out to vote for one or both of them.

So while the numbers are certainly believable – I’ll believe it when it happens.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.