National Report on Cathedrals: A Response

The Cathedrals Working Group has just published its first report. As someone with a mixed experience of Cathedral life.

When I was a curate, I was arrested during a booked event at Gloucester Cathedral. Several friends have been arrested at St Paul’s in London during and after the Occupy movement’s OLSX were evicted from the Cathedral steps.

These events taught me that their needs to be more theology to guide Cathedral chapters in times of moral crisis.

The report is relative short, dense, and practical, but it leaves us with one big awkward question.

The less headline-grabbing but energy-draining issues facing Cathedrals are front and centre of this report and its thoroughness and insights are fantastic.

But it also reveals a huge and vital gap in our thinking as the Church. Not so much the fault of the report but of the Church’s zeitgeist: amongst all the necessary and long-needed modernisation, where are the wide open spaces that theology should own?

The Bishop of Stepney is a convert to Cathedrals and the missional and spiritual possibilities they create: “. These amazing places incorporate everything the Church of England aspires to be in its best moments,” he writes (p.3).

Bishop Adrian Newman is the chair of the Cathedrals working group that published its first report in January 2018. Vivienne Faull, Dean of York is co-Chair

This has been a huge task to give anyone and they have done well not to be overwhelmed but to come up with a meaningful beginning to an important conversation.

There are 42 Cathedrals in the Church of England and they are diverse as the parish Churches around them – rural and urban, wealthy and close to penury, of different sizes.

Some act as parish churches, others are huge tourist attractions, and some are relatively obscure and under-visited.

In a time when all the headlines tell us that the Church is in numerical decline it is not enough to proclaim Cathedrals as proof possible of growth.

This report recognises their outlier status but attempts to look deeper at what does and doesn’t work – what brings life in a Cathedral and what the elephants in the nave might look like.

All the elephants in the room are about power and money, of course. And these are named and addressed regularly in the report.

In the executive summary these internal struggles are addressed constructively: rather than spending too long on the problems they focus on what seems to work: good governance with a clear line of authority.

It’s helpful that a current Dean and former Dean turned bishop should agree in print that: “All cathedral clergy and staff will come under the dean’s authority.” (p. 7)

You might wonder if this is born out of personal experience of frustration at the lack of clarity and the potential for court intrigue in Cathedral life? In fact, the group members have managed to have one to one conversations with nearly every Cathedral Dean in the CofE.

The number and range of conversations with key stake holders has been impressive considering the time and resources this group had to go on. But this isn’t the only potential arena of conflict: Cathedral and Bishop, Cathedral and Diocese, Cathedral and National Church, Cathedral and State.

Cathedrals are lightning rods for power battles – it makes me glad I’m not a Cathedral Dean!

Despite a brief to focus on governance and leadership – which is the focus of the report – there is plenty of space to reflect on ecclesiology, that is, the theology of churches, too.

They determine that the nature of a Cathedral is as “seat of the bishop,” (17) which is both literal and historically reasonable. The word “Cathedral” refers to the bishop’s teaching seat or “Cathedra,” and its presence in the building defines the space.

With help from Durham University’s Simon Oliver, they define Cathedral’s as place intended to gather and unify the Church – mirroring the vocation of the Bishop.

However, what seems apparent is that the report writers did not have a lot of published materials giving clear theological reflection and insight to go on.

The Working Group, recognising that it is clearly not the final word on cathedral ecclesiology, urges cathedrals to work with the national Church, Theological Education Institutions and universities to develop this ecclesiological thinking further. (p. 21)

I suspect there are doctoral theses out there that have been published the theology of Cathedrals, but they may never have seen the light of day or made it into many journals. If this is the case, what is the cause?

Most Cathedrals aren’t short of clergy and lay theologians in their midst but is there a lack of funding an intentionality about theological underpinnings of the vocation ‘to be a Cathedral’?

When Occupy London Stock Exchange appeared on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral over the winter of 2011 – 2012, it is fair to say that the Cathedral chapter were, in almost every conceivable way, unprepared.

The Bishop of London did not help matters, first urging the occupy movement to bring their “protest” inside to have a debate. Why would they want to do that and who said this was a protest?

Then appointing HTB Churchwarden, Ken Costa, who had public labelled Occupy as “naïve” and of “little consequence” to “listen respectfully to them.

One can only assume, as I’m sure the people occupying the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral did, that they were being condescended.

Famously the theological and moral failure of the Cathedral Chapter led to the resignation of the Canon Chancellor and, eventually, to the appointment of a new Dean.

But what did not happen, was serious theological reflection on the role of the Cathedral in public life and public theology.

Soon after I was ordained a deacon at Gloucester Cathedral, I was arrested in the cloisters of the same for a “breach of the peace.”

The Dean had been hoodwinked by a local group called the “Gloucester Prayer Walkers” who booked both the Cathedral and the Chapter house for a prayer meeting and then advertised events with a keynote anti-Semite fundamentalist Christian.

Most clergy in the diocese were horrified, a local mayor wrote a scathing public letter. I went to see the Dean of the Cathedral to politely and privately ask him to cancel the event. He would not.

The rest of is history. Except to say that my case to the bishop and to the police, after the event, was that I was not in breach of the Peace of Christ, God’s Shalom of justice and wholeness, but only the Pax Britannia, which is pacification of the people.

The recommendations of the report seem thorough, systematic, and integrated – meant to be taken together, rather than selectively.

  • On ecclesiology: more theological work is needed, and existing procedures and powers needed either revising or revisiting.
  • On governance: the creation of Senior Executive Team is the keystone recommendation for clarifying roles of Dean, Bishop, Chapter and other staff.
  • On Leadership: A greater focus on professional development and regularly accountability.
  • On Finance: An enhanced role of Chief Financial Officer, under the Dean, and better forecasting communication with national structures to avoid sudden cliff edge financial disasters.
  • On Buildings: A more organised and powerful platform for working together to relate to state is key. On Safeguarding: greater parity of accountability to parish.

When the Church of England announced a new MBA style training course for future leaders of Cathedrals and Dioceses, many of my friends were horrified by the managerial approach to Church.

On reflection I’m not convinced they are right, we are not “aping the world” when we use modern management tools any more than a Christian carpenter is doing by using modern wood-working tools.

Modernisation is not automatically antithetical to Christian virtue. But that does not mean we should throw out the theology with the bath water.

I’m really glad this report has been written.

I’m awed by the ability and skill of those who put it together. But I would hope for one more recommendation – and as a theological educator I show my hand here.

Seeing the thinness of theological material on the continuation of Cathedral life, what might we do to invest in more post-graduate study to fill the breach and re-animate the CofE?

This comment reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of members. 

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