cathedral attendance
Church of England

Why, when church attendance is falling, is cathedral attendance soaring?

An email was delivered to Cranmer’s Tower at 11.15am on Tuesday of this week. It was headed: ‘Record numbers attend cathedrals at Christmas’, followed by a very red, upper-case warning: ‘RELEASE AND STATISTICS EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01 24/10/18’. Why should good news be embargoed? No idea. You can’t imagine Jesus telling his disciples: “I fed 5,000 on the plains of Bethsaida, but the stat is embargoed for 12 hours”, can you? Perhaps he might if he’d promised Mark an exclusive, but why would he do that? Don’t you want good news to be shouted immediately from the rooftops? Jesus rose from the dead, but the news is embargoed until… O, you get the gripe. It’s not as if any Church of England bad news is ever embargoed, and there’s an awful lot of that.

But it is interesting, isn’t it, in a time of increasing secularity, idolatry, church decline and pervasive Godlessness, that the statistics on cathedral attendance show an increase. A total of 135,000 attended a Church of England cathedral to worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 2017 – an increase of three per cent on 2016, and the highest total since records began. But, interestingly, the growth isn’t only at Christmas. Attendances at cathedral Sunday worship throughout the year continue to hold steady, with average weekday attendances continuing a pattern of increase, with just over 18,000 attending in 2017, compared with 7,000 in 2000 when this data was first recorded. Over 10 years, the total number attending all regular services in cathedrals has increased by 10 per cent. The numbers attending a cathedral on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day has increased by 13 per cent over the past 10 years, evidencing sustained growth.

Why might this be?

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, the CofE’s lead bishop for cathedrals, said: “Year after year our cathedrals continue to have enormous appeal to worshippers and visitors. They are awe-inspiring buildings, places to explore faith and encounter God – and centres of learning, outreach, service to the community and civic life. This year they will be at the heart of the nation’s commemorations for the centenary of the end of the First World War.” He added: “Christmas is a natural opportunity for people to re-connect with their church or cathedral, and the growth in numbers of those doing so over the past ten years is very encouraging. We hope that still more people will have the joy of rediscovering the Christmas story in a cathedral or church in 2018, and our campaign #FollowTheStar is all about helping them to do so. Everyone can be assured of a very warm welcome.”

The Chair of the Association of English Cathedrals, the Very Rev’d Adrian Dorber, Dean of Lichfield, observed: “Cathedrals minister in a culture that is more and more diverse, spiritually attuned, but religiously unaffiliated. They offer a mixture of absolute reliability, being open every day, and missionary enterprise. We attract large numbers of committed and skilled volunteers and the public likes to visit not only at Christmas and for national commemorations but also for events, performances and exhibitions where they are free to think new thoughts, wonder, reflect and pray.” He added: “Much of our outreach work through education and music is reaching bigger numbers of schools and students year on year and it’s good to be able to help a rising generation with their discovery of their talents and knowledge. Cathedrals aren’t complacent about what opportunities lie before them, but these statistics accurately portray where they are making an impact and what they are trying to do.”

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Dr Eve Poole, who leads the Church of England’s Cathedrals’ Support Group, said: “The breadth of this data is testimony to the wonderful diversity of cathedral activity. Some visitors are drawn to their ephemeral music and liturgy, some to their majestic architecture, some to learn about our rich heritage; others to mark life events, to come together as a civic community, and to visit one of the many creative installations to which only these lofty spaces can do full justice.” She added: “This report reminds us of the broad appeal of these special places at the heart of our cities, which ably demonstrate what the Church of England has to offer the nation.”

It is a certain fact that cathedrals are awesome (except, of course, for Guildford). Perhaps people are drawn to (and expect) a noetic religious experience in the pre-Reformation mother church of a diocese: the worship is usually excellent, the music and choir sublime; the whole experience is one of ineffable sacred continuity with those who have worshipped in these buildings for a thousand years (or, in Guildford’s case, 50 years). Or perhaps, in a time of increasing doctrinal heterodoxy and theological plurality and spiritual confusion, there is a desire to be closer to the seat – the cathedra – of authority, in the hope that the chief teacher and pastor can shine a light in the darkness. Perhaps cathedral attendance is growing because they beat with a deeply spiritual heart: there is a regular cycle of prayer and praise, a daily Eucharist, and evensong. A writer to the Times today notes:


Sir, With reference to your report “Stress drives workers to God” (Oct 24), whenever I visit cathedral cities, I try to attend evensong, but it won’t please the Church of England to learn that it is because I find greater solace listening to the beautiful voices of the choristers — in a largely empty church, untainted by the faltering voices of a congregation singing hymns. My favourite church for evensong is Wells Cathedral, followed by Chichester.
Veronica Cowan

This is an interesting point: where two or three are gathered in the local parish church, the singing is invariably dire – even when the congregation swells to 10 or maybe a dozen for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, it is still rather dispiriting. People seem to be drawn by a cathedral’s music of majesty and splendour, transported, as they may be, to a place of spiritual pilgrimage deep in the heart.

Or perhaps they are drawn by the peculiar status of cathedrals, so that, far from seeking the spiritual authority of a bishop, what they really seek is a place outside episcopal jurisdiction. It is interesting that Royal Peculiars in particular continue to thrive as religious institutions: are people more attuned to the Queen’s jurisdiction than that of politicised (and often party-politicised) bishops? Maybe that’s it: a cathedral sermon by the dean is less likely to be lifted from the latest Guardian op-ed. Instead of being bashed about the head by the vicar’s tedious sermons on the holiness of gender equality, foodbanks, Palestine and the European Union, a congregation hears about Jesus, the God who became man, and contemplates him in silence, with reverence and awe, imbibing him into the bloodstream of spiritual refreshing, perhaps shedding a tear for the Anglicanism of memory and hope.

O maybe the real reason cathedral attendance is soaring is that you can visit, pray, worship and meditate with complete anonymity. Nobody knows you, and no-one is likely to seek to know you because you have clearly gone to the cathedral to remain unknown. Your hand may be shaken, and people will smile, but no-one will probe your fragility or invade your vulnerability, because you radiate an air of unknowability. You care deeply about the communion of the saints, but not beyond bread and wine. In the cathedral, it is just your breath of faith, an encounter with truth, and a conversation with God. It is not a dream of a forgotten past or the fear of an insecure future; it is the needs of the soul right now. If you seek a divine source of strength, joy and holiness, cathedrals will draw your eyes through centuries of stained glass and point them toward the light which may be found today; ‘the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ And when you have seen, you can leave without ever being known – except, of course, by Him.