Some regard them as spiritually dead places which only appeal to tourists. Sally Hitchiner takes another look and discovers the unique evangelistic opportunities cathedrals offer each day.

Imagine you’re a good solid evangelical church leader. Fifteen years ago you planted a church that has seen considerable growth. You’re happily running your lively congregation when one day someone says to you,

“Why don’t you give that up and run this ’ere cathedral instead?” What would you say? John Irvine said “Alright!”

As part of my training for the Anglican ministry I had a five week placement with John at Coventry Cathedral where he is the Dean (or ‘vicar’). What I found was one of the best-kept secrets for anyone who prays for evangelism in the UK.

Whether you’re Anglican or not, this affects us all. “Cathedrals have got a bad press among evangelicals,” John comments, “We tend to think of them as historic monuments or pretty tourist attractions. Both these can be true, but the last five years have shown me there’s potential for a lot more than that.”

Tom Wright, New Testament theologian, popular author and the Bishop of Durham experienced a similar journey. “I don’t think I’d actually thought much about cathedrals before 1993,” he says, “I was lecturer in New Testament Studies at Oxford University at the time. I woke up one morning and said to my wife, ‘I’ve been doing this job for quite a long time and I feel I need a new challenge - I’d like to do something different: maybe work with adults rather than undergraduates.’ My wife rolled over and said, ‘Oh you’re just tired darling; it’s the end of term.’ A few minutes later she went downstairs and checked the mail. And there in her hands was a letter from John Major asking me to consider being Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. We stared at it in horror. You know, you say it here and it comes out there! So we drove up to Lichfield and met with the Bishop. And what we found was that cathedrals hold just the most amazing range of opportunities…”

15,002,600 opportunities a year (…to be exact)Excluding Westminster Abbey, the 43 Anglican cathedrals have just over 15 million visitors each year. In 2006 there was an average of 27,400 visitors every day. A third of these are in Canterbury or York, so if you happen to be the Dean of York Minster (for example) you have more than 4,500 people who may not know Jesus in your building every day.

I’m not sure we can take that amount in. One evangelistic opportunity every day is exciting, 20 is impressive. But 4,500 different people every day going through one church is just more than my mind can cope with! My Englishness takes over and I say “Oh how lovely!” and fail to take in the importance of what I’ve just heard…

Tom Wright believes that this is too great an opportunity to miss. “Cathedrals are strange beasts. On the one hand they’re held in by maintaining their historic tradition. But what I found though was that rather like Paul in Athens where he finds the altar to the unknown God [Acts 17], you have to decide what to do. Do you rubbish it? Or do you say, ‘Hey we can make something of that?’ There are millions of people for whom a cathedral represents an open door where they can tentatively light a candle or say a prayer or take part in one of our daily services and include God in their lives for a moment. Of course then you have to decide if their glass is half full or half empty. But I believe that for many it’s half full and this is the beginning of a walk towards relationship with Jesus that they may continue elsewhere. For those who are willing to see the potential and work patiently within the structures I believe cathedral ministry (and praying for this) pays enormous dividends.”

A survey conducted in Liverpool, Salisbury and Southwark Cathedrals in November 2006 showed that although three quarters of people said their initial reason for visiting was because of the cathedral’s historic or architectural qualities, about half of those surveyed admitted that they had found themselves lighting a candle or saying a prayer during their stay. Yet 16% said that they hadn’t considered themselves in any way religious or spiritual before their visit.

John Irvine comments, “One of our hopes here is ‘making tourists into pilgrims’. People arrive at cathedrals expecting a beautiful historic building and we try to make use of every opportunity to welcome them to think about deepening a relationship with God through their time here… Cathedrals are almost unique in that they are churches that the average people in the city feel they own. They’re often even the symbol for the city. People feel comfortable visitinghere for events in a way that is different from a local church… its somewhere different, separate from everyday life and yet it’s their space… possibly because they visited here when they were at school.”

In addition a further 250,000 children take part in school educational events in cathedrals every year. Six out of ten children in the UK visit cathedrals at some point in their education. Michael Jensen, who set up the youth-style congregation at Sydney Cathedral, Australia, comments, “The architecture of cathedrals is designed to say something about God: the buildings themselves are trying to preach the gospel. All it takes are skilled guides who relate well to the kids and let the buildings speak for themselves.”

Many of the volunteer and paid guides are people who have a personal faith and pray that in some way the children will grow in their own faith through their visit. Emma Griffiths, who moved from being a local RE teacher to heading up the schools team at Coventry Cathedral suggests that, “If you want to see God impact the children in the UK, cathedral schools work is a great thing to pray for.”

Christmas opportunities

Lynda Barley, the Church of England’s Head of Research and Statistics, comments that “Cathedrals… are increasingly points of contact with people on the fringes of church life and have a growing ministry on weekdays, on special occasions and major Christian festivals. Many are attracted to cathedrals for the sacred space they offer and services, particularly those at Christmas, are growing in popularity.”

The figures show that more than 130,000 people attended services in cathedrals on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in 2006, an increase of over a third (37%) since the beginning of the century. Services over Advent - the four-week period leading up to Christmas - attracted total attendances of 717,300. Is the UK getting over the modernist backlash against religion? Are people interested in having a sprinkling of Christianity in their lives again around Christmas?

Traditional and not-sotraditional approaches As well as tourists, it is striking to note how many people are becoming committed to cathedrals as church. Official statistics published by the Church of England reveal that an average of 24,800 adults along with 6,800 children and young people were members of weekly services at cathedrals in 2006; an increase of 17% since 2000. A church spokesman suggested that this was partly due to girl choristers being invited into more and more cathedral choirs. Anecdotally most of these families were not regular church goers beforehand.

A few Deans are looking at innovative aspects to the congregational aspect of cathedrals. A quick trawl through the website for Singapore Cathedral is a breathtaking eye opener for anyone who thinks cathedrals have to be stuffy in their style or woolly in their teaching. Michael Jensen explains, “The word cathedral originally comes from the Latin cathedra (or teaching seat) from the days when the Bishop was the centre of theological teaching as well as being the local magistrate, etc. I’m not suggesting we go back to this model…but at Sydney I guess you could say we’re implementing a little of this in that we’ve started having regular conferences for thousands of church pastors. Cathedrals often find themselves as a focal point of church from the local media. We hope what they see is the very best of church so we put a lot of effort into our preaching as well as having things like a ministry among the homeless, an established healing ministry centre, and of course the youth congregation as well as the traditional services of a cathedral.”

John Irvine expanded the regular Sunday services at Coventry by introducing Cathedral Praise – an informal service with band-led worship, preaching and space for prophetic words and prayer ministry. It has proven popular with many of those who continue to attend the more traditional services of the Cathedral and even with some youth who don’t.

“We never expected it to become so mainstream within the life of the Cathedral,” explains Irvine, “but as long as it is done in a way that is gracious to those who prefer the more traditional services, why shouldn’t a cathedral have a New Wine-style service?”

As well as more contemporary services it makes sense to include traditional church styles. “Very often evangelicals disassociate themselves from cathedrals not for theological reasons but for cultural ones,” says Tom Wright. “We live at a time of huge cultural diversity. There are a thousand different styles of music out there and many different expressions of what it means to be family. We need all the means we can, including some that evangelicals have turned their back on because cathedrals are a bit upper class, a bit snooty and they’re a bit Radio 3 or whatever,” he pauses. “That might be true but we have to remember that God listens to Radio 3 and not just Radio 1.

And there are a lot of people out there for whom the sort of pop-style music would turn them right off. However a Psalm, well sung with space and beauty, will make them listen to the voice of God like nothing else. I try to live by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9… where he talks of being all things to all men that by all means we might win as many as we can.”I asked Bishop Tom what his wish was for how my generation could connect with cathedrals? “The key thing is, you do not get more fruit from a tree by cutting off its roots,” he responded. “Cathedrals represent some of the Christian roots of this country. Roots are often the thing that you don’t see but if you cut off a tree’s roots,” he exhales “…well it just won’t do very well. Whatever denomination you are in we all have to build on the Christian heritage we’ve got in this country rather than throw it out and start from scratch.”

“One last question,” I say as my time with Tom Wright is almost up. “How can we pray for cathedrals?” “Well I’d love you to pray for people trying to lead these things. Just as there are great opportunities there are also great problems. When I was Dean of Lichfield I was effectively CEO of a large business. I wasn’t trained for that and at times it was very scary… But most of all please pray for cathedrals to build on the strengths they’ve got and to be open to opportunities that present themselves. And pray for cathedrals and local churches alike to work together whether they’re Anglican or not… even if some things that happen in local churches make cathedral clergy’s hair stand on end and vice versa,” he says with a chuckle. “God is working here and we do need your prayers!”

Sally Hitchiner is training for the Anglican ministry and is a regular contributor to Christianity magazine.