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Noticing Cathedrals

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Today, Theos and The Grubb Institute launch a new research report into the present and future of Church of England cathedrals. The research was commissioned long before the Occupy Movement captured headlines last October and its launch has coincided with that anniversary.

In one respect, it is obviously appropriate that a report examining English cathedrals should be discussed on such an anniversary. Shortly after the Occupy Movement moved in last year, Rowan Williams remarked that “the Church of England is still used by British society as a stage on which to conduct by proxy the arguments that society itself does not know how to handle.” In October 2012, this is visibly – painfully – evident. What might have been a technical and elusive discussion was played out on a stage which set it out as an ineradicably moral issue.

But it is also a slightly unfortunate marker. Occupy grabbed the church, and much of the country, by the scruff of the neck and shook. The crisis passed, the camp settled in around the cathedral, the protest remained at the back of the public conscience for a while, and everyone finally moved on in February (returning, briefly, in the form of few protestors who chained themselves to the pulpit last night.) But cathedrals are more than simply protest venues, however suited they may be to that.

Spiritual Capital, the report summarising the research study, shows that cathedrals are understood as inclusive institutions, accessible and hospitable to people irrespective of what they do or do not believe. They are also, however, recognised as Christian buildings, as it is that identity that makes them a suitable backdrop for a popular demonstration about financial ethics. Founded on the conviction that the human is always imbued with an ineradicable dignity and responsibility around which temporal concerns, such as those for profit or security, must mould themselves (rather than the other way round, cathedrals invite us to place the ethical before the financial).

It is ironic, then, that this very reason (for a cathedral’s suitability) was in danger of being obscured last year by some rather temporal concerns. Occupy became a bit of a soap-opera in which every pundit had an opinion on what should the St Paul’s Chapter, or the protestors, or the Corporation of London, or the police should or should not have done, and the bigger picture was lost.

Spiritual Capital found that people’s opinion of cathedrals and the role they played in English society extended beyond such high-profile cases. The cathedral helped many reflect on their understanding of what it is to be human in a variety of different ways. Thus, people who were tourists, or visited for specific, cultural reasons, often became alert to a sense of the sacred in and through the cathedral. The cathedral’s liturgy, its space, its history communicated with visitors, connecting them with the spiritual in ways they often weren’t seeking and didn’t always expect. The cathedral’s pastoral support could meet people when there was nowhere else to go. Its community activity provided a resource by means of which different bodies in local society could come together, meet and eventually work within one another. The manner in which it choreographed moments of memory, loss and grief (recently evidenced by the moving funeral services of the two police officers murdered in Manchester) helped communities come to terms with traumas that confused and threatened their self-identity.

In short, cathedrals would play the Occupy role, of locating pressing ethical concerns within a bigger canvas, all the time. In small, incidental ways, overlooked by the media and public but noticed and pondered by the individuals to whom they spoke, cathedrals and the people who worked in them were repeatedly participating in entirely undramatic dramas, as tourists became pilgrims, visitors worshippers, and strangers friends. 

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick


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