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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.