Mention Barcelona, Cologne or Durham to someone and they may talk about the football team, perfume or pit villages – yet the chances are that, before long, their heads will be filled with images of great Cathedrals. Despite widespread secularisation and lack of Christian belief in many European countries, cathedrals maintain a grip on our imagination.
As tourist destinations and integral parts of many cities’ skylines, these cathedrals are well known. What’s not quite so well appreciated is the role that many of them are playing in the 21st century cities that surround them.
Cathedrals aren’t just big churches. As christianity spread from Jerusalem in its first few centuries, it organised itself geographically. Each Bishop would have jurisdiction over an area called a diocese, and his seat (Cathedra) would be placed in a church. That’s the system that spread out from those initial cities most important to Christian faith – Constantinople, Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch – that we’ve inherited today.
It’s widely, but incorrectly, thought that in England a city has to have a cathedral. Certainly that used to be the case, in practice if not in theory. In fact some of our largest cities – Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, only got their Cathedrals after the Industrial Revolution shifted populations towards them and made them more important.
Famously, for historical reasons, some small places have city status. Wells, the smallest city in England, has a cathedral with an imposing West Front. St Davids, little more than a village, has a cathedral, key to it being reinstated as a city in 1995, despite only having around 2,000 residents.
Even though they aren’t a requirement for city status, many cities are unimaginable without their Cathedrals. Ely would be a small market town without its giant “Ship of the Fens”. Lichfield would be a pleasant Staffordshire conurbation, were it not for the unique three-spired Cathedral. Lincoln would be nice enough, without the distinction of the building which used to be the tallest in the world.
But let’s be honest: their cathedrals make these places. The data back up how vital they are to local economies, according to a 2006 piece from the Journal of Heritage Tourism, showing they welcome “around 10 million visitors per year. Cathedrals generate substantial local economic benefits of some £150m per annum within their urban economies.”
In this context it’s easy to think of cathedrals as beauty spots which bring in a few tourist pounds to places which would otherwise be backwaters. In many cases, though, they’re being reinvented as hubs of both worship and community activity.
There are cathedrals stepping in to plug gaps in state provision, such as Newcastle Cathedral, which opened itself up as an emergency homeless shelter in the midst of the bitter winter of 2017-8.
Or when major incidents strike a city, they look to their Cathedral for leadership. The Manchester Arena bombing happened very close to the city’s cathedral. In the aftermath, the Dean (the senior priest of an Anglican Cathedral) was a prominent community leader. Similarly, after the London Bridge attacks, which were so close to Southwark Cathedral that it was also shut, it became a focus of the response of the local community including traders at the adjacent Borough Market.
A different kind of incident put St Paul’s Cathedral on the front pages. When they were turned away from the nearby London Stock Exchange, Occupy protestors set up camp outside St Paul’s, the seat of the Bishop of London. Although the initial response of the Church was criticised, much of the recent work of the cathedral has focused on finance, and highlighting the kind of problems the protestors were concerned about in the global financial sector.
The symbiotic relationship between a city and a cathedral has also been highlighted in Leicester. After the discovery of the body of Richard III there led to an uptick in tourists, the cathedral, which hosted a belated funeral for the King, is now building a new learning centre – meaning the city has appropriate facilities to cope with the renewed interest in Leicester and its history. The cathedral reckons this will boost its contribution to the local economy from £9m a year to around £15m.
Last year, representatives of the 42 Anglican Cathedrals in England and many more from the rest of the UK met in Manchester for the first ever national cathedrals conference. The range of projects they were engaged in was impressive.
Take Blackburn, for example. Like many similar post-industrial towns in the north, its centre is at risk from local shop closures, online demand and the departure of big national chains.
The Cathedral, working closely with the local council, is redeveloping the land around it to attract more businesses, offices and shoppers. The cathedral became the first for over 600 years to build a new cloister area – featuring offices, accommodation for cathedral staff, a new garden, car park and a number of rooms available to hire to the local community. By using its proximity to the train station and the rest of the centre, the cathedral has put itself at the heart of regeneration efforts which are having knock on effects on the rest of the centre.
The cathedral is even beginning to start its own businesses. Cathedra Gin, made by a local distillery, was announced last year. “This is not a novelty; this is a cathedral doing business,” said the Dean, the Very Revd Peter Howell Jones. “Blackburn is not a tourism centre, it is not a rich part of the world, and we need to reach out to markets beyond our town and region to be sustainable long term.”
Unlike in ordinary parish churches, attendance at Anglican cathedrals in England is on the rise. Numbers are up around 10 per cent in the last ten years. There are a number of possible explanations, including a desire for anonymity from people attending worship, the excellence of the music on offer, the opportunity for silence, and the beauty of the architecture.
What’s clear is that in the midst of the steel and glass structures surrounding them, cathedrals have an intriguing future – and a core role to play in many of our cities.
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