Something strange is happening in the long decline of Christian Britain. We know that church attendance has plummeted two thirds since the 1960s. Barely half of Britons call themselves Christian and only a tiny group of these go near a church. Just 1.4 per cent regularly worship as Anglicans, and many of those do so for a privileged place in a church school.
Yet one corner of the garden is blooming: the 42 cathedrals. At the end of the last century, cathedrals were faring no better than churches, with attendances falling sometimes by 5 per cent a year. With the new century, everything changed. Worship in almost all 42 Anglican cathedrals began to rise, and it is now up by a third in a decade. This was in addition to visits by tourists, who number more than eight million. There are more visits to cathedrals than to English Heritage properties.
Business is booming, too. Cathedral turnover of £220 million has almost doubled in a decade. This is not just in the ‘canon’ of medieval cathedrals but in depressed Blackburn, Wakefield and Bradford. Ten cathedrals now charge for entry and the ‘big six’ — Canterbury, York, Durham, St Paul’s, Winchester and Salisbury — make no claim on central funds. If all cathedrals charged, many of the church’s financial woes would be relieved.
What has happened? An answer is not easy to find. Becky Clark, the Church of England’s officer for cathedrals, credits the strides they have made in pushing out the boundaries of their work. Cathedrals have moved into concerts both rock and classical, lectures, conferences, workshops and art galleries. They have become local champions of education, social welfare and urban regeneration — in other words, non-religious activities. They have acquired, says Clark, ‘an appetite for risk which is often lacking in religious communities’.
The same theme is echoed by Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead in a new diatribe against the C of E, That was the Church that Was. They attribute cathedrals’ resurgence to their autonomy. Ruled by deans and chapters, cathedrals are immunised from what by common consent is the church’s stifling centralised bureaucracy. They lend themselves to fund-raising, can draw on local talent and have taken on roles from an increasingly moribund local government. They are reverting to their medieval function as one-stop cultural and civic institutions.
Others find in the rise of the cathedral a more subtle form of appeal. The sociologist Grace Davie sees a cathedral’s strength as lying, specifically, in not being a parish church. It makes no demands on the visitor. It requires no show of loyalty. To Davie, the cathedral offers a ‘vicarious religion’, responding to ‘a desire for anonymity, the option to come and go without explanation or commitment’. In a cathedral you can hide your faith behind a pillar with none of what Brown and Woodhead call ‘all that banging on about Jesus’. No one demands you pray.
This analysis finds support in the C of E’s own ‘growth research’ programme, which stresses the cathedral as a place for ‘peace, contemplation, worship, music and a friendly atmosphere’. Significantly, it is midweek evensong that has boomed, not Sunday matins or mass, with attendances doubling in a decade. These visitors are untroubled by Philip Larkin’s church as ‘a shape less recognisable each week/ A purpose more obscure’. They come for the music.
As a non-worshipper who has spent the past two years studying these buildings, I find this plausible and refreshing. Cathedrals are by far the most magnificent group of buildings in England. They have survived, mostly for 900 years, as dominant features of the English landscape. In its day, Lincoln cathedral was the highest building in the world after the pyramids. Exeter and Winchester had vaults that were the envy of Europe. Nothing matched the English cathedral in size until the Crystal Palace and the Victorian station.
But I found cathedrals subtler places than this. Unlike those in continental Europe, Britain’s have fiercely distinctive personalities, the product of additions and subtractions over centuries. They may be awe-inspiring (Durham), uplifting (Ely) or just lovable (Chichester), but each is different from every other.
A cathedral is a true museum, however much modernist bishops and deans hate the term. It embraces architecture, sculpture, painting, stained glass, wood-carving, calligraphy, embroidery and, above all, music. Its contents are displayed not in cases but beneath walls and roofs of unsurpassed beauty, intended by their builders as composite works of all the arts and crafts.
This gives a dimension to the enjoyment of a cathedral that is beyond the mundane. No museum equals the sensation of looking up into the octagon of Ely, or climbing the Chapter House steps at Wells, or gazing on Lincoln’s Angel chapel. A Grinling Gibbons carving in St Paul’s, a Piper window in Coventry or even a naked Antony Gormley in Winchester seems more evocative in a cathedral.
The resurgence of these institutions is shared with another facet of the nation’s religious life — pilgrimage. Numbers trekking to Iona, Walsingham, St Albans and Canterbury rise by the year. As with cathedrals, it is hard to distinguish those with religious intent from those seeking secular stimulus, those who like ‘hiking with a purpose’, keeping fit or seeking companionship. Clare Balding’s admirable Ramblings programme on Radio 4 recently joined a Canterbury pilgrim, Jacqui, off to celebrate her recovery from alcoholism. No one mentioned God. But then religion as therapy is as old as Stonehenge.
I have found in England’s cathedrals an intangible mix of aesthetic and contemplative satisfaction. The most celebrated — notably the 25 in the medieval ‘canon’ — have qualities of a great novel or symphony. They can overwhelm both the senses and the emotions. The drum arcades at Durham, the spire at Salisbury and the leaf capitals at Southwell are masterpieces the equal of any in Europe. Their soaring popularity challenges those inclined to pessimism about the human condition.