Ex Cathedra: From the Chair – Do Cathedrals Matter?

In a recent article, the Association of English Cathedrals has posited that “Cathedrals matter”. Whilst perhaps unsurprising to most, this refers to new evidence which confirms the significance of our cathedrals, and that these unrivalled structures do indeed matter.

Their place in our built and/or historic environment is both critical and self-evident, but equally important, is the wholly positive effect these buildings have upon local economies and communities.

Contributions of cathedrals are wide-ranging

2019 saw England’s forty-two Anglican cathedrals contribute £235m to their host cities’ local economies, providing 6,065 jobs and 15,400 volunteering posts, the latter comprising 906,000 hours. Their doors opened to 14.6m visits, 308,000 of which were by schoolchildren, and 9.5m of which by tourists.

The same year saw cathedrals host a wide and varied mix of arts, music, heritage and culture comprising 9,850 events every two to three days, whilst providing the backdrop to numerous television and film projects.

From a social perspective, they hosted foodbanks, ran support groups for the vulnerable, unemployed and homeless, whilst running outreach programmes to schools, residential homes, hospitals, lunch clubs, parent/toddler groups and community cafes.

Not just for worship

As part of the A programme, more than two thirds of cathedrals are assisting the Church of England achieve carbon reduction targets by 2030. 

Building upon studies from 2004 and 2014, recent research comprising The Economic and Social Impact of Cathedrals in England and produced by research consultancy Ecorys for The Association of English Cathedrals, sought to establish how cathedrals utilise assets to encourage not merely mission, but more general well-being.

This demonstrates the continuing relevance of these deeply historic buildings to their communities, and not merely for the purposes of worship alone.

Cathedrals DO matter

Here, cathedrals and their fabric are shown to be not only well cared for, but to be socially and economically key with respect to their stewardship of history and the country’s associated musical, artistic and spiritual inheritance, whilst serving their communities and other stakeholders in myriad ways.      

During the pandemic, visitor numbers declined by seventy five percent from 2019, with a commensurate decline in visitor income, and over seventy percent of cathedral staff being furloughed. Combined with an 80 percent fall in income due to the decreased use of cathedral facilities, along with limited congregations and therefore collections, the outlook appeared bleak.

But cathedrals matter and this has never been clearer than during the pandemic, which has seen the clear advent of new opportunity. Although 75 percent of social projects foundered, services such as food deliveries and online facetime for pastoral support have emerged. Worship has also gone online with – on average – cathedrals providing two Sunday services and six midweek services. 

Technology has further assisted outreach via initiatives including online prayer walls, candle lighting, tours, pilgrim trails and art exhibitions.  At the close of 2020, one third of cathedrals offered online resources for schools, tours, talks and activity packs.

The value of cathedrals is widely recognised and they have been supported as such

It is not only heartening to find that today’s cathedral remains fit to adapt and respond to rapidly changing and challenging circumstances, but as institutions, continue to remain valued across a wider arena.

Here, cathedrals benefitted from new, corona-virus grant programmes from not only the Church Commissioners, but also the government and other independent bodies. Such grants totalled £27.8m and were largely spent on repairs to enable the safe opening of cathedrals, whilst maintaining key activities.

In short, Ecorys’ research has found that cathedrals continue to contribute significantly toward their local economies, whilst maintaining a positive impact upon local communities. This research further establishes that – whilst challenging – the pandemic has elicited new creative prospects that render the cathedral as relevant as ever.

Their position, prominence and role in our lives is not merely writ large in our townscape, but still more patently, across local communities and the social cohesion and buoyancy of these during trying times. Which is all well and good, but unlikely to be the case without the buildings themselves. Cathedrals do indeed matter.  Long may they last.

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