We must not sacrifice the vital heritage of our great cathedrals

An article in Monday's Yorkshire Post by the Very Rev Jonathan Greener, Dean of Wakefield.

Wakefield Cathedral

Yorkshire is justly proud of its five Anglican Cathedrals. 

The great Minster at York, the Mother Church of the North of England, towers over our region, not just a monument to beauty and heritage, but a centre for celebration and consolation. It welcomes over a million people each year from across the world. 

Ripon Cathedral has a history stretching back nearly fourteen centuries, and continues to attract countless pilgrims and visitors to the shrine of St Wilfrid. 

The cathedral is Sheffield’s oldest building, but meets today’s needs through its Archer Project, which offers pathways away from homelessness and exclusion to Sheffield’s vulnerable residents. 

Bradford Cathedral serves the whole diocese, rural and urban.  It has a particular commitment to the regeneration of the City of Bradford, and to advocacy and action towards justice for oppressed people. 

Meanwhile, Wakefield Cathedral is currently undergoing a major building programme. The renewed nave will allow it to better fulfil its role at the heart of the community and city: a place for all people, of faith, and no faith. 

The concepts of Big Society are nothing new for Yorkshire’s cathedrals. All five depend on the generosity of volunteers to keep their doors open. 

They provide a meeting place for the clergy and parishes of their diocese. They give priority to hospitality and quiet prayer. They seek excellence in music, education and the arts, and offer a daily programme of public worship throughout the year. Each is distinctive in its role and mission as it seeks to respond to its particular location and diocese, but together they form a vital part of the texture of Yorkshire. 

The long histories of these buildings embody the story of our region. Yet history offers no guarantees for the future. For if the present proposals from the Church of England’s Dioceses Commission to unite the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon and Leeds come to fruition, they put at risk the future of the cathedrals in these three dioceses. That is not the intention: the draft scheme spells out the value of the three cathedrals and proposes to retain all three. However, a dangerous consequence of this very large new diocese will be to destabilise the role of these cathedrals and thereby to threaten their sustainability.

What is a cathedral? In 734 AD, the Venerable Bede described in a pastoral letter to Archbishop Egbert of York how the purpose of a cathedral is to provide a chair (or cathedra) for the bishop and a centre for worship and mission throughout his diocese. 

That letter continues to define the Church’s thinking to this day. Which is why, throughout Western Christendom, the norm is to have one cathedral per diocese. There are one or two historical and international exceptions, but these simply serve to reinforce the normal pattern of a single cathedral per diocese.

Yet the proposal is for three cathedrals in the new diocese. So the challenge will be to maintain the individual role and identity of the cathedrals in Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield and to explain how they are really one cathedral operating in three locations. 

The pressure will be immense to promote one as the real cathedral, and to water down the influence of the other two. 

Related to this essentially theological question, but undoubtedly more deadly, is the issue of cathedral finance.  Cathedrals are funded from a number of different sources, including congregational and visitor giving, historic endowments and external grants. 

All 43 cathedrals in the Church of England receive statutory funding for three clergy from the Church Commissioners, who manage the historic assets of the Church of England. These clergy play a key role in the governance of the cathedral, and in facilitating its life and worship. 

Certain poorer cathedrals also receive a discretionary grant from the Commissioners to fund other staff. It is only thanks to these additional grants that the cathedrals in Ripon, Bradford and Wakefield are able to keep their buildings open seven days a week, and fund music, administration, and the other essential ingredients that make up cathedral life. For all three live on a financial knife edge. 

The Church Commissioners have endless calls on their funds, and many observers will begin to ask why they should give grants to more than one cathedral in any diocese. Indeed the draft report already proposes the possibility of reduced funding for clergy in the cathedrals of the new diocese. 

Yet without proper staffing and funding, their trajectory is downhill. Their worship, their music, their open doors are all in jeopardy, not to mention the loyalty, trust and relationships that have been cultivated over so many decades.

Why should Yorkshire’s historic cathedrals pay the price for these untried and unconvincing proposals from the national Church? To date, the compensatory benefits of a much larger diocese have not been spelled out. Bigger is not self-evidently better. The three dioceses vote in March 2013 to determine their futures. 

It is essential that by then the proponents of the scheme furnish coherent arguments for change in order to allow informed and reasoned debate. It will after all be tragic to sacrifice these cathedrals, their heritage and their mission, along with the three dioceses they serve, for little or no overall gain. 

We must not overlook a more sinister threat still. Should this new pattern of amalgamating dioceses be rolled out across the nation at large, what will become of all those other great cathedrals that serve as beacons of Christian faith across our land?

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