It is always seems a bit odd to me when the church talks about cathedrals as though they are a homogeneous group, for there are many types of cathedral: there are the great metropolitan cathedrals (St. Paul’s and Liverpool for instance), there are city cathedrals (Coventry, Sheffield and Birmingham), there are small city and market town cathedrals ( Wells, Hereford) and there are parish church cathedrals (Derby, Portsmouth, Blackburn). Some cathedrals are world heritage sites or places of real beauty (Durham and Salisbury) whilst others are a little more contemporary (Guildford). Some cathedrals seem to engage with and resource the diocese, as the mother church, other cathedrals come across as atomized and isolated. Cathedrals are both something of a mixed bag and a mixed blessing.
I am pretty sure that we could come up with many more categories of cathedral; my list is not exhaustive. There are also churches that are cathedralesque in nature: some of the crown peculiars (St. George’s Windsor, Westminster Abbey) and the greater churches (Tewkesbury Abbey and Beverley Minster). And, of course, just being legally designated as an entity doesn’t say everything about the quality of vibe of the entity.
Like many, perhaps even most, who attend cathedrals (on my rare weekends off we tend to worship in a cathedral), I have found the quality and vibe to be extremely variable. I have also found the numbers to be a bit hit and miss. I am not convinced that talking about cathedrals as homologous entities is useful. Some are growing in number, some are seeking to work with their congregations so that they also grow in-depth and holiness, some are passionate about mission and evangelism, some seek to serve their diocese as the mother church, but some simply do what they do and hope that people will turn up. Being afforded the status of a cathedral isn’t enough; the character of a thing, isn’t determined by the label on the thing. So how can we assess the character and commitments of cathedrals?
The obvious starting place is probably with the liturgical experience as the most common argument put forward for growth in cathedral worship is the quality of the worship. Quality is, in some ways, a strange term when related to worship. Quality can be a word used to donate a sense of technical excellence, but what it doesn’t necessarily do is shed light on the level of humanity lodged within the excellence framework.
I have attended cathedral services where I have felt as though I have witnessed a jolly good performance of something that I would have gladly paid to attend and, I have been to cathedral services where a sense of real warmth underpins the entirety of the liturgy. I have been to cathedral services which score a maximum 10/10 for technical excellence and yet where the chapter simply disappeared after the Eucharist and others where the ‘performance’ might only have scored 7 or 8/10 but where the Dean was to be found serving coffee after the service. I know which I prefer! My sense is that flourishing, nurturing (and possibly growing?) cathedrals have a real commitment to diaconal expressions of ministry. My own approach to mission and evangelism as a priest in a choral, liturgical and sacramental context, has been shaped by what I think of as the diaconal-cathedral model. Thank you to all who have modeled it for me, so well.
There is one place above all others that intrigues me in a cathedral: the shop. Its pretty simple the shop tells you everything you need to know about the cathedrals commitment to mission and evangelism. The tragedy is that in some cathedrals the shop is more akin to a National Trust outlet. Cathedrals which take mission and evangelism seriously have affordable guides to prayer, reading the bible and so forth. In fact I can’t really understand why cathedrals don’t produce their own free take homes.
A third lens through which the quality of a cathedral can be assessed is through the composition of the chapter. I am always intrigued when a cathedral has a canon pastor or a canon missioner. The presence of the canon pastor would seem to indicate that a cathedral is taking its congregation seriously and is deeply committed to its growth in holiness. The presence of a canon missioner is suggestive of a commitment to diaconal expressions of mission and evangelism.
I have never had a problem with labels in the sense that they do provide a short cut into expectation. Labeling a church a cathedral should provide some insight into the style of worship on offer, but what it can’t do is provide any meaningful information relating to the depth and warmth of the experience or the commitment to mission and evangelism and the desire to resource.
The Church of England needs her mother churches, her cathedrals, to model all that is good and holy. Our cathedrals need to be generous and inspirational. They need to be resourcing, diaconal and missional.
For the good of the whole church they need to be far more than well attended visitor attractions. They need to exude a sense of the living God rather than being what we might think of as religious museums. Some do this, others don’t. Whatever cathedrals may be the one thing they are not is homogeneous.
As a post script the cathedrals that have impressed and inspired me most this year are Blackburn and Truro. The greater church that left me stunned by the quality of its hospitality, where such hospitality was clearly an expression of its Benedictine foundation, is Tewkesbury Abbey.
These three have been, for me, exemplars of the diaconal-cathedral model of church.