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

Monday 22 January 2018

A New Report on Cathedrals

The eagerly awaited Cathedrals Working Group Draft Report was published last week. It is now out for consultation. I'd like to offer this blog as a contribution to that process.

I confess I had misgivings about setting up yet another review of cathedrals. My worry was that this process was a clear consequence of the much publicised crises at Peterborough and Exeter Cathedrals. It would have been so easy for the Working Group's debates to be driven by anxiety towards quick-fix solutions that would, hopefully, deal with the "problem" of cathedrals once and for all. Such imagined solutions, applied to institutions centuries old, would at best have been premature, and very probably, entirely wrong.

As a former cathedral dean, I am mightily relieved that this report, far from succumbing to those easy temptations, shows a great deal of theological intelligence and common sense. And it's good that the report starts out on a robustly positive note. These amazing places" (writes the Chair of the Working Group, Adrian Newman, himself a former dean) incorporate everything the Church of England aspires to be in its best moments: congregations are growing and visitor numbers are remarkable; people on the edge of faith experience them as safe spaces to explore Christianity; they have become a focus for enquiry and activity in the public square, gathering places for communities at times of national crisis or celebration, and a crucial source of ‘bridging’ social capital at a time when darker forces threaten to fracture the social landscape.

There isn't space for me to comment on every aspect of this wide-ranging review, so let me restrict myself to two key themes.

1 Mission, Role and Ecclesiology
The Report makes a real attempt to offer some theological reflection on the nature of a cathedral as a church. It develops the idea of a "gathering place" in the sense that it is in the cathedral, the "seat", that the bishop symbolically gathers the people of his or her diocese whether to celebrate the liturgy, teach the faith, care for the diocese and lead in mission. It recognises too that the cathedral has its own presidential "gathering" role in times of local or national celebration or lament, to bear witness to "public faith" and to keep memory alive. A mind tuned to Benedictine nuances might offer a word to complement this gathering function, hospitality.

But I don't think this introductory section quite cracks the ecclesiological question, what is a cathedral? It's good that it doesn't fall for the "parish church plus plus" idea that a cathedral is simply a local church on a bigger scale. Here and there it uses the word congregation, for example in relation to one area of growth in cathedral life, midweek services. But this is precisely where congregation is not a helpful idea. Many, and in some places most, of those who attend midweek services such as evensong are not remotely part of a resident assembly of worshippers, a congregation; rather, they are transient, visitors who happen to be in the building at the right time, or pilgrims who have made the journey specifically to attend a one-off act of worship. Even those who assemble for the principal Sunday service, attended as it often is by guests from other worshipping communities, not to mention visitors who have stumbled unexpectedly on an act of worship and stay for it, is not really a "congregation" in the parochial sense.

What word might we use then? I've suggested elsewhere that we might liken a cathedral to a religious community or monastery, one of the six ecclesial identities explored by Peter Atkinson in a recent book and referenced in the report. This emphasises the role of the foundation whose primary calling is to perform the cathedral's daily cycle of praise and prayer through the offices and the eucharist. So those who attend these acts of worship would be more like a community of oblates or a third order belonging to the monastery. They associate to the cathedral's rule of life and, to the extent that they wish or can, make it their own. This model needs a lot of drawing out, but I'm persuaded that it would free the cathedral from having to fulfil the expectations of a parish congregation and instead, live out a different ecclesiology that, alongside parishes, would enrich the life of the whole church. Maybe the next iteration of the Report might explore this.

2 Governance and Management
The problems at Peterborough were largely explained as a result of poor governance and management. I blogged about this a year ago when the Bishop's visitation charge had just been published. I pointed out how the Cathedrals Measure already provided an ample framework for good governance, safeguarding both the principle of chapter accountability and the participation of the bishop in the governance structures. It was not a question, I wrote, of revising the legislative provisions but simply of making sure that those with responsibility tasked by the legislation were doing their jobs properly. No governance structure is better than the people who have to implement it.

I feared that this report might be over-hasty in increasing the powers of both bishop and cathedral council in the direct "ordinary" governance of the cathedral. (The bishop's role as visitor remains unchanged.) But it has done neither. Indeed, to my surprise, the jurisdiction of the council over the chapter as holding its accountability is abolished, and its role reconstituted to that of a stakeholder body of friends and advisors. (The statutory role of the college of canons is also written out, other than for the election of the bishop.) So the cathedral's "corporate body" or legal entity is reduced to the chapter alone (which is as it was before the Cathedrals Measure, though then, unlike now, chapters did not include lay people, whereas in the new proposals there will always be a majority of independent lay members, one of whom will be the bishop's appointee as vice-chair).

I am clear that it has always been right to see the chapter as holding formal legal responsibility for every aspect of the cathedral's life, and to regard members as holding trustee responsibility for it. Many of my fellow deans never liked cathedral councils and found that they contributed little to the flourishing of the cathedral. I have to say that this was not my experience in the two cathedrals where I was dean. Especially in Durham, the council took its accountability and scrutiny role very seriously, and this was a good discipline for the chapter when it came to preparing the budget, the annual report and accounts, and the strategic plan. Without a council to report to, where will the chapter be accountable, I wonder? I guess that in practice, the audit committee would perform the role of making sure that there is an effective internal dialogue in the cathedral, and the capacity for rigorous self-criticism. But it will be harder for a committee of the chapter to do this than for a body that sits above it, whose chair is the bishop's appointee and at which the bishop is an attender.

I want to add that I am pleased with the recommendation that cathedrals should be subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commission. The role of the Church Commissioners in relation to cathedrals' legal financial framework has always been unclear, not to say anomalous. I am also pleased that parish church cathedrals will at last be brought fully into the legislation, a task that the Cathedrals Measure left unfinished. I argued the case for doing this in 2006, in an essay in Dreaming Spires: Cathedrals in a New Age (edited by Stephen Platten and Christopher Lewis). But be warned! It may be a lot easier to hold the aspiration than deliver the reality.

The Report proposes a senior executive team to perform the management functions of the cathedral, thus freeing the chapter to focus exclusively on governance, leadership, strategy, risk and managing change. In Durham, we worked hard on this; indeed, one of my chapter colleagues would alert us when we were sliding into operations by asking grumpily, "what is this doing on the chapter's agenda, and why are we discussing it?" However, even if the senior executive team met monthly, I doubt that a chapter could get away with meeting only once a quarter. The university governing body I belonged to met every two months and this seemed about right. The executive met each week. With the degree of legislative compliance that now falls to every public institution, not to mention the sheer complexity of cathedrals, I think the pattern of meetings will need to be very versatile according to circumstances.

The Report has helpful recommendations about finance, major building projects and safeguarding. Maybe I'll return to those in a future blog. For now I simply want to underline one recommendation that could be in danger of getting lost in the detail. It's number lxiv (yes, Roman numerals!): The NCIs (National Church Institutions) and AEC (Association of English Cathedrals) should work jointly on an approach to Government and large philanthropic organisations with the aim of establishing a significant, possibly endowment-based, cathedral fabric fund for the UKWhile cathedrals are grateful for the funding that comes their way through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Chancellor's two recent tranches of funding to mark the centenary of the Great War, it is nowhere near enough to safeguard and develop these marvellous buildings that belong to the built heritage of the nation. If cathedrals are to be realistically supported in the future, and continue to open their doors to millions of visitors, this is an essential requirement. There is a clear need for a strategy to deliver such an outcome. I'd hoped that the Report would take this further than it does. So a great deal of work (and I'd say, urgent work) needs to be done to take this recommendation much much further.

And finally, will the phrase Dean and Chapter, that historic, familiar and much-loved phrase in England, be restored as a legal designation of the cathedral's governing body, please? It was unkind and unnecessary of the Cathedrals Measure to excise it.

Thank you to those who are serving on the Review Group and have worked hard to present these well thought-out proposals. They deserve to be welcomed by cathedrals. I look forward to what will emerge from this consultation period and hope that this is a helpful discussion-starter in respect of some of the matters covered in the Report.


  1. This is an insightful and generous response, Michael. My fear is that the recommendations in this report will simply give us bland, technocratic deans. Profits are replacing prophets - and scholars. We will not see the likes of Colin Slee, Wesley Carr and Michael Mayne - nor Michael Sadgrove - in an English deanery for some considerable time. That could make cathedrals less attractive to those who have been contributing to their growth. It will also point up the emerging divisions between the academy and the church (or its hierarchy, at any rate). Christ Church, Oxford, will be our last beacon of independence.

  2. Thank you for this piece. I have made two representations in response to the consultation. In my view the review was unnecessary: as I see it, the problems at Exeter and Peterborough are insoluble - Exeter was largely stripped of its assets at the Reformation; Peterborough, like all of Henry VIII's new cathedrals, was endowed with a pittance. The same problems stalk the other category C cathedrals detailed in the Howe Report. I see this new review as having been prompted by the bitterness felt within Church House that the Commissioners (with their £8bn+ asset base) should have been forced to subvent Exeter and Peterborough. However, the Commissioners appear to have forgotten (conveniently) that a substantial portion of their asset base has its foundation in the expropriation of capitular assets by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1840.

    My view is that all churches established before about 1830 and all Grade I and II* church buildings erected after that date should vest in the state. At a stroke the Church would be relieved of the nightmare of maintaining them (a burden which - we are continually told - militates against mission), and the risk of most ancient churches closing over the next generation would be eliminated (I have worshipped at 4,000 churches and consider that fewer than 5% have viable congregations). In return the Church should be partially dis-endowed: £3.5bn should be transferred from the Commissioners to the state to form a permanent repairing fund. Of course, the Church - being hopelessly myopic and (possibly) foolish - will never agree to this, so we will lose most of our parish churches (as the recent Taylor Review noted, in an aside).

    How would cathedrals - having been vested in the state - be managed? The Secretary of State (for DCMS) would appoint a governing board of civil servants for each cathedral. The board would be responsible for everything bar liturgy. It would be entitled to co-opt such experts as it pleases. There would still be a chapter, and it would comprise a dean and such canons or prebendaries as may be extant in each diocese. However, only the dean and the canon/prebendary in residence would be resident at any one time, and only those two individuals would be represented on the governing board. Whether the dean should be ex officio chair or not is moot. The chapter would have the discretion to determine the liturgy, and it would be able to exercise a veto over any decision of the board that it might consider invidious to the mission and purpose of the cathedral.

    There would be no residentiaries absent the dean (existing residentiaries would be allowed to retire, but would not be replaced). Five or so residentiaries made sense when there were hundreds of stipendiaries in each diocese, but in current conditions this can no longer be warranted. I would restore the size of the pre-1840 chapters, and stop creating honorary canons. Instead, the prebendary of X, who would also be rector or vicar or Y, would come in from his or her parish for a week or two to take residence in the single residence/flat retained in each close. This would, to some extent, be a reversion to pre-1840 practice. Thus, the diocese would be brought into the cathedral, and the cathedral would be taken out into the diocese. Canonries in closes could then be let, and the income used for other purposes.

    The Newman Report also makes no mention of minor canons - a regrettable omission, since in my experience they have often borne much of the work. In fact I would probably dispense with them altogether, or reduce colleges of minor canons or priest vicars to something approaching a fiction. A lay clerk can well intone the V&R, and prayers ought to be led by the dean or canon in residence.

    1. My feeling is that you are not understanding that having a very small number of clergy makes it almost impossible to continue with the regular office that distinguishes Cathedrals, even those that did not have a monastery foundation. The issue of using up a lot of priests that are needed in parishes could be addressed firstly by establishing a system of the Cathedral clergy helping out more in parishes. Not ad hoc, but flexible, and variable according to local conditions. And also, shock horror, by using Readers. The Church has lay ministers which it is frequently very reluctant to use, especially in high profile or high status roles. A Reader can perfectly well lead evensong. They do so in many parish churches. The world will not come to an end if they do so also in Cathedrals. And some of us can sing!

    2. Having attended daily offices for 8 years at two different cathedrals (and having probably attended at least several thousand cathedral services), I think it is perfectly possible to ensure that the daily offices are performed if there are only two resident clergy. Absent Sundays, there are usually three services at most cathedrals: morning prayer (15 minutes), eucharist (30 minutes) and evensong (35-40 minutes). Only one priest is required at each, though it is typical to have two read the lessons at the latter and, as you rightly note, this could be undertaken by a reader. About 90 minutes of daily worship doesn't take up too much of anyone's working day, and its not as though these services require much or, indeed, any preparation by the clergy if they have suitable intercessions to hand (it is different for the musicians, however). Sundays, of course, are different in that almost all cathedrals now have a sung eucharist, frequently with concelebration (unnecessary though it is); that would require one extra priest to be in the vicinity for about 70 or so minutes.

      So, actually, I think 2 resident clergy is quite sufficient. And, to be honest, at the cathedrals I know well, it is frankly rather rare for resident clergy to attend all offices (and I have encountered some who have attended the bare minimum).

      You mention clergy helping out in parishes. Why shouldn't they hold parishes (as frequently used to be the case)? There are occasions where the member of the chapter has a living (e.g., St John's Peterborough or St Margaret's Westminster) but, too frequently, chapters do little or nothing for local parishes - whose putative congregations are often lost to cathedral services. Cathedrals can therefore function as spiritual upas trees: destroying Church life for miles around (though not always so, if a local parish church is strongly evangelical, and caters to a market that the cathedral does not accommodate).

      In the first of my representations I did suggest that chapters could start to include lay readers, pastoral assistant, Church Army officers, etc. This has started to happen on occasion over the last couple of decades. Lay deans and prebends are not unheard of in Church history (though not always in the most edifying circumstances).

    3. Hmm. Fair enough, though you sound a little like someone who thinks that weather people only work for five minutes before six o'clock every day! But you can't get tone of voice into a post. Having to be there every day does take it out of you. People are entitled to days off and holidays. And aiming for a schedule all the time wastes your time. It's the same with having to get your children to and from school. It may take only an hour, but actually, you can't get on with anything else for at least half an hour before. I do know Cathedral clergy who seem not to be bothered about the place, unfortunately. I don't think this is the way forward, frankly. It has a depressive effect on the congregations. And I have also seen a system in operation where most of the clergy are present most of the time, even if there is a guest preacher or something. It's good for there to be a collegiate system. Clergy feel supported by their colleagues, and get to know each other well. But where there is a desperate shortage of parish clergy, it seems like a real poke in the eye to any parish clergy who happen to be there. The comments about Readers taking services were aimed generally! Some people do act as if this would be the end of civilization as we know it!

    4. Athena: your comments seem correct to me. If each diocese could afford 250+ stipendiaries then I would say, fine, it is OK for each cathedral to take up 5-7 stipendiary clergy (say, 1 dean, 4 residentiaries and one or two minor canons). However, a number of dioceses now have little more than a hundred stipendiaries (and in many places the number is falling), and even these are barely affordable under the current parish share system. Many benefices have in excess of ten parishes: in parts of the country I have encountered monster benefices of nearly twenty parishes, served by only one or two stipendiaries.

      I would far rather resident chapters be reduced to one or two clergy than ancient parishes be closed. If the collegiality of chapters is to be lost in the process, then so be it (and I should add that a good many parish churches are a good deal more impressive and important than a number of our cathedrals).

      I agree that 90 minutes of daily worship may require a little preparation, but in default of any homily, perhaps not that much. The reason why I have argued that there be a canon/prebendary in residence for a couple of weeks at a time is precisely so that the resident dean be given some relief, and also so that the temporary residentiary gets a short break from parish ministry (albeit on busmans' holiday terms). The idea of vesting cathedrals in the state would also relieve cathedral clergy of the administrative burden for which they are not trained (though the Working Group is recommending training), so that they can concentrate on worship and mission.

      You mention that a reduction in cathedral clergy would have a depressive impact upon congregations. Whether it would or not is moot; in any event, I would far rather see clerical resources concentrated upon parishes: the cathedral is, after all, only the head atop the diocesan body, the health of which is every bit as important. You also mention the value of the collegiate system: it is true that when there is the right combination of personalities, it can work very well - but recent history (and a plethora of earlier instances) has shown how badly the rock pool nature of cathedral life can affect and afflict clergy who are ill-suited to it, and how it can sometimes bring about the worst in people.

    5. Actually, you're right that the college may work better in theory than practice. But I have seen churches, Parish churches too, where colleagues work well together. And where they don't, I have seen the effect it has on congregations. And I fear we don't agree about leaning more towards Parish churches than Cathedrals. Numbers are growing in most Cathedrals, though not all. You should always "plug" the successes!

  3. Norwich seems to be alone in still referring to Dean and Chapter, whatever the Cathedrals measure might have decreed. And Westminster, of course, which probably never came under that edict anyway being a royal peculiar

  4. I'm afraid I simply hadn't twigged that this report was different to the one that came out last year. I'm confused! Yes, I agree that there seems no reason to abandon "Dean and Chapter". Lay people on Chapter? Absolutely. And preferably not just nice Mrs. Smith who wouldn't say boo to a Dean! But also not just high status people. Why is it always the retired head of a health trust, or the local landowner? With a token appearance from Mrs.Smith! Shouldn't a Reader who is licenced to a Cathedral be automatically on its governing body as an equal and valued colleague?
    You're right about accountability. This seems like a big mistake.
    I think you are using the word "congregation" in a very specific way. Not having read the report, I don't know how the word is used there. But can't it be used simply to mean the people gathered together here and now? The two Cathedrals I know well have very few visitors most weeks, even for Evensong. Most of the, erm, congregation, are regulars. Or else there isn't anyone there at all! There are hot times for tourists, of course, but otherwise I think your experience will not be every Dean's.
    Listed buildings should be paid for by the state! Either in their entirety, or with a sufficient grant.
    Thanks for highlighting this. I may read it! Cathedrals are a really important part of the church's ministry.