Thursday, July 27, 2017

Looking for God in Cathedrals

I have a very kind parishioner who reads the Daily Telegraph so that I don’t have to, which is a relief both to my liberal sanity, and to my pocket. Recently she passed me an article by Rozina Sabur (Telegraph 4 June 2017 here) provocatively titled Cathedrals are thriving for not ‘banging on’ about God. The article responds to a presentation by Sir Simon Jenkins, former chairman of the National Trust, at the Hay festival on his recently published book on England’s Cathedrals, and it makes depressing reading.

According to Sabur, Jenkins has discovered that the great success of England’s Cathedrals is found in their ability to respond to a demand from the public for a less religiously specific form of spirituality. I have little against this generally and am reasonably convinced that in a society where religious institutions are trusted less and less, finding ways for people who desire meaning through a non-specific spirituality to find a safe space to do that in the arms of the church (perhaps their parish church, as well as cathedrals) has to be a good thing, not least because it might serve to build up some of the trust in the church which has been eroded over the last thirty years.

Jenkins understanding of the unique selling point of the cathedral is telling though: anonymity, no one shaking you by the hand, and most worryingly, no one talking about God. Jenkins reports that this final insight into the popularity of cathedrals came from a cathedral canon who apparently said ‘unlike [parish] churches we don’t bang on about God’.

I suspect that there is some truth in this, albeit sketchy, analysis of the popularity of cathedrals England today which appear to be bucking the trend of congregational decline in the UK. I also suspect that this analysis, far from being a sign of the health of cathedrals, is a sign of something which will ultimately spell their demise, for what ‘no community’, ‘anonymity’, ‘no commitment' and ‘no God’ adds up to is ‘no church’. 

It is hardly surprising that this analysis has come from Simon Jenkins, who seems to see the future of England’s cathedrals as simply part of Britain’s great heritage industry. Unfortunately a number of Cathedrals are run as tourist attractions, places where a dead religion, frozen in aspic can be observed, and perhaps marvelled at for its beauty and transcendent aesthetic qualities, but not entered into, not experienced in a way which brings one closer to the mystery which framed the universe.

It is no secret that my cathedral is struggling financially. Reports were all over the news earlier this year that Guildford Cathedral’s rescue strategy of developing its large, prime real-estate site backfired when Guildford Borough Council turned down their planning application. Stories circulated about the Archbishop of Canterbury telling Guildford Cathedral that there would be no central funds available to help, and the same message came from the Diocese of Guildford. A brief look at the Cathedral’s published accounts quickly demonstrate their problem: with a number of stipendiary priests, huge numbers of administrative staff, a professional choir, a director of music and two organists, Guildford Cathedral has the sort of human resources you might expect in a church with a very committed (not least financially committed) congregation of around 1,000 souls. This mammoth operation, however, is supported by fewer than 250 regular worshippers. I suspect that behind this, Guildford Cathedral are unaware of who they really are, or what their real purpose is. They are caught between a secular assumption that they are a leisure and tourism business, a denominational assumption that they are a church, and (quite possibly) an internal assumption that they are a power-base which needs a staffing structure to match.

I am certain that a Cathedral could never pay its way as a leisure and tourism business, even if it entirely forgot about being a church. I am certain that Cathedrals need to talk about God, in ways which make sense to the people who step across their thresholds seeking something transcendent, so that when they find the one who transcends all they discover a person who loves them, and for love of them entered into that which he transcends. I am certain that, for the good of the Church of England, cathedrals need to discourage committed Christians from driving past their parish churches to make a Cathedral their regular place of worship simply because they like the choir and don’t have to talk to anyone. Above all, I am certain that cathedrals need not to think too highly of themselves. For all their history, their beauty, their power, they are substantially the same as a tin tabernacle on a council estate. Their true beauty is that they are places, to use T.S. Elliot’s phrase, ‘where prayer has been valid’, and as such they of equal beauty to any number of churches up and down the country. They are great, not because of their stonework, stained glass and choirs. They are great because of the God who is worshipped there.