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’.