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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Crumbling Cathedrals?

Well, if they're not crumbling yet, they will do one day. I once preached a sermon for Advent in Durham Cathedral in which I said this.

"We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t marvel at wonderful stones and buildings, least of all when we are sitting among them in a World Heritage Site.  But that doesn’t mean that they last for ever.  Buildings, like people, are mortal. What Jesus says about the temple is also true of this place.  We can hardly bear to think of these wonderful stones and wonderful buildings lying toppled one far-off day in a heap of rubble.  And yet, in aeons to come, when the sun is in its death throes and planet is swallowed up in a vast red expanding disc, and the history of the human race is done, the Cathedral, like everything else we have built and cherished, will be dust and ashes.  To claim anything else would be idolatry.  St Paul says that what is seen is transient; it is what is unseen that is eternal. We need to judge accurately where eternity belongs. Temples have their day and are gone: in the celestial city, says the Book of Revelation, there is no temple."
I was making the point a trifle dramatically, I suppose. But we need to remind ourselves, religious people especially, that we must look at things sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of what lasts for ever. We wander among the stones of Fountains Abbey or Glastonbury or Tintern and see how history and the relentless flow of time have their own way of crumbling mighty buildings and anticipating their ultimate destiny.
But a recent news item in The Times headlined Crumbling Cathedrals was, I think, a little premature (how sub-editors always fall for alliteration!). Deans are right to claim that their cathedral buildings have probably never been in such good condition since the days they were built. This is thanks to assiduous care and oversight by cathedral chapters, architects and surveyors, fabric advisory committees and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE). It's hugely costly, but it's a labour of love. Simon Jenkins' recent book on Cathedrals is only the latest to pay tribute to this magnificent collective effort. A cathedral may merit one star or all five in that book (why have star ratings at all, I want to ask?) but the care invested in it will be to exactly the same standard. Having worked in four different cathedrals, I've seen for myself how imagination, hard graft, technical skill and eye-watering amounts of money are willingly expended out of the love people have for these great national institutions.
These great national institutions. That's a point I want to underline. Cathedrals belong not only to their diocese or city or county. They belong to the nation. Like bishops, cathedrals are there to serve the nation and in the case of the medieval cathedrals, this idea would have been embedded from the outset in how they were understood. It's obvious that Canterbury and St Paul's are national institutions. But it's not so obvious even in the case of York, Durham or Winchester, let alone the smaller or younger cathedrals. And the legal definition in the Cathedrals Measure 1999 rather colludes with a more localised understanding when it speaks of "the seat (cathedra) of the Bishop and a centre of worship and mission". Cathedrals are not less than that, certainly. But they are a lot more than that too. And this becomes evident every time there is a crisis in a cathedral. It's always big news in the national media. It's assumed to be a matter of nationwide public concern.
Let me warm to my point. The "crumbling cathedrals" headline is largely about the parlous financial position cathedrals find themselves in. And here there is no argument. The funding regime under which cathedrals operate is ludicrously inadequate to serve their present mission, let alone respond adequately to the ever-increasing expectations that are laid on them. Some cathedrals - a few lucky ones - have enough recurring income to service their day to day operations. But even they are only "just about managing". A large number are so constrained that they are not able to invest as they should and as they want to in the liturgy, the spirituality, the music, the arts, social service, intellectual activity and the architectural heritage that makes them such popular destinations for both visitors and pilgrims. Large-scale fabric is ravenously hungry for resources. And that greed is never satisfied.
Our country is proud of its cathedrals. They are among the glories of our land. Cathedral towers and spires populate the British landscape of the imagination. They feature prominently in the way this country is branded and marketed to visitors. I don't need to go on. So my question is, why is the nation as hesitant as it is in helping to fund these institutions that contribute so significantly to our collective wellbeing? Why doesn't it do more to lift the heavy financial burdens they struggle beneath so that the funds they hold can be allocated to the mission they exist to serve in their localities, their dioceses and the nation as a whole?
It's true that "the state" does provide some help, up to a point. The Heritage Lottery Fund has supported many a cathedral development project, including at both Durham and Newcastle. The former Chancellor's First World War Centenary Cathedrals Repair Fund offered two tranches of £20 million for cathedrals to develop fabric projects associated with the memory of the Great War. Historic churches and cathedrals have had access via English Heritage to funds for fabric maintenance, though sacred buildings are no longer ring-fenced. But whatever the route by which money is made available, the funding environment is highly competitive. Need far outstrips available funds, and the evidence is that resources are becoming scarcer than they used to be. The effort involved in submitting bids is hugely intensive, not to mention the challenge of voluntary fundraising to match offers made by funding bodies or private benefactors.
I've wandered round cathedrals in continental Europe for most of my life. I know France best of all. France has a secular constitution that rigorously excludes any blurring of the boundaries between church and state. Laïcité is a sacred principle. But when it comes to its architectural patrimoine or built heritage, the French are European leaders in investing in their priceless legacy. Cathedrals and greater churches (and a fair few lesser ones of historic importance or beauty) are maintained by the state to a very high standard. You look at the hoarding outside a cathedral that is undergoing restoration and you find that while the church and local commune both contribute a little, it's the département, the region, the nation and the European Union that fund most of the work. The ministry of cathedrals goes on without the burden of prohibitively expensive maintenance. You can read how it works here.

My question is very simple. If France, a wholly secularised state, can enter into this kind of funding partnership with the church, why can't it happen in the UK?

Let me talk about England for a moment. Here, the majority of Grade 1 listed churches belong to the established church. So there is (or ought to be) a presumption that church and nation exist in a symbiosis that enhances the role of each for the public good. I think it is time that the Church of England presses the case hard for substantial state funding support for the fabric of its cathedrals. The principle of direct state aid has already been conceded by the First World War Fund. I don't deny that when public funds are so contested, it would perhaps be controversial to begin with. But the sums of money that would be involved, say £50 million a year, would be paltry compared to the budgets for health, education, social welfare or defence. But they would make a substantial difference to cathedrals. And I don't simply mean Anglican cathedrals, though I would expect the Church of England to take the lead in negotiating such a scheme. All church buildings that satisfy heritage criteria and are understood to be "cathedrals" within their particular tradition would qualify. And whatever scheme is devised for England would also of course apply to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I don't know if church leaders have the stomach to open up this conversation. But there are compelling reasons that it's urgent. Negatively, I'm not alone in fearing that cathedrals are facing a crisis of financial sustainability. They are amazingly inventive when it comes to levering in funds, but the best initiatives in the world are not sufficient to address the problem globally. Visitor admission charges make a difference only when a cathedral already has more than about a quarter of a million visitors. That rules out half the English cathedrals, and these are inevitably the less well-resourced.

But I believe that any deal should be based on a more positive perspective. The value cathedrals add to the national and local economy is well researched and documented. We can put figures on the contribution they make to employment, tourism, visitor spending in hotels, restaurants and shops, uplift in local property values and so on. Their indirect and intangible benefits are incalculable but real. I doubt that anyone in government would dispute this, or question that cathedrals are indispensable heritage assets that belong to the nation. There's no reason why a public that increasingly values its built and landscape heritage would not think such a scheme well worth believing in.
At present, a Cathedrals Review Group is looking at the governance and management of cathedrals and how they can become more sustainable. I hope its report, due in the new year, will be bold in asking the nation to rise to the challenge of contributing realistically to the necessary maintenance of its cathedrals. Of course there would need to be carefully designed structures of national oversight and accountability to make sure that public funds were being administered properly. Chapters might groan at the idea of yet another layer of scrutiny on top of those to which cathedrals are already subject.

But I think it's a price worth paying for the kind of security such a "heritage contract" would offer both cathedrals and the nation. If worries about premature crumbling (take that both literally and metaphorically) were to be lifted, it would set cathedrals free to exercise their mission in wholly new and wonderful ways. They are already very good at it. This would help them to become even better.

Let's say it again. Cathedrals are great national institutions.


  1. Last time I was in Durham for the "Big Meeting" I noticed that the cathedral's central tower was covered in bandages. It is good to see that the greatest cathedral on planet earth is receiving such TLC in order to prevent it from crumbling. I look forward to seeing it again once the bandages have been removed and the Zion of the North is restored to its former glory.

  2. Many thanks for this and for all your posts. This is something that has exercised me for some time, and it would be interesting to know whether Bernard Taylor’s report on church buildings (commissioned by Mr Osborne) has come out. My anxieties are not so much to do with cathedrals as with parish churches (as well as the less fashionable cathedrals). I have worshipped at more than 3,500 parish churches over the last decade and the demographics are catastrophic in 95%+ places. I would reckon a complete financial collapse is quite near to hand (although it has been predicted frequently over the last couple of generations). However, the Church is fast running out of options. The problem with getting the state to pick up the tab is that the wider political climate has become increasingly antipathetic to organised religion, and public subvention of the Church is unlikely to prove popular – this would be the case even if this were not a period of austerity and economic anxiety.

    At present (and as you will be well aware) we have a system whereby churches are ‘closed for regular worship’ (a disingenuous phrase, since the closure is definitive), and are then put through a not especially scientific process in order to determine their future use. It is often a matter of happenstance as to whether an ancient building will be vested in the CCT/FFC or put to some secular use (or, worst of all, privatised by being turned into a residential unit). Since the ability of local communities to rise to the occasion is highly variable, the resources of the CCT/FFC have been stretched to their limits (despite the recent increase in the CCT budget) and DBFs (in whom closed churches are temporarily vested) have every incentive to maximise yield in view of their rapidly increasing pension liabilities, a very large proportion of our stock of ancient churches is at risk of being lost to the public forever (see the current fate of Astwood in Bucks or Grimsdale in Cumberland).

    You may recall that Combes and Briand did not just vest cathedrals in the French state, but that all parish churches and other religious buildings were vested in the communes under the supplementary law of 1906 and the decree of 1912. In addition, the Church of France was comprehensively dis-endowed (in much the same way as the Church of Ireland and the Church in Wales). The vesting of parish buildings in the state was a considerable boon to the French Church, although friction could be acute where there were anti-clerical mayors, and many communes (essentially, the pre-revolutionary parishes) are frequently hostile or are simply too small to care for their churches. The state of many parish churches is therefore variable, although I understand that the culture ministry or departmental authorities sometimes provide assistance. Of course, the position is quite different in Alsace-Lorraine, where the Wilhelmine system still prevails. If England (and perhaps also Scotland and Wales) were to go down the same path and title were to be transferred to central or local government, state aid would only be palatable if the Church were to be partially dis-endowed: in other words, the Commissioners would have to transfer a proportion – perhaps a large proportion – of their capital to DCMS (or some other body) who would then have a permanent fund for maintenance, which could then be topped up by the Treasury. Naturally, worship could continue to be held gratis, but there would presumably be additional emphasis on putting the buildings to alternative use. Rather than transfer the entire stock, however, title in those establishments extant prior to, say, 1840 should pass (this would include Victorian re-builds of ancient foundations), plus those Grade I or II* buildings erected after that date. In this way the institutional ad hoccery of the Pastoral Division and the uncertainty and anxiety associated with the closure process would cease. However, all this needs to be done quickly, before it is too late and the political mood changes further.

  3. Part of your problem, Michael, is that many people believe that churches and Cathedrals are already funded by the government. Many people don't know that Cathedrals are still in use as churches and not purely monuments. They complain if there's a service on!

  4. Crossing the Channel a year or two ago I visited Chartres my favourite Gothic cathedral. It was good to see that millions of Euros were being spent by the French government on its restoration. I was also delighted to see that Malcolm Miller, the English guide, was still there. I remember first having a brilliant guided tour of the cathedral by him as long ago as the early 1970s. I believe that he is a graduate of Durham University.