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Artillery Row

How can we pay for our cathedrals?

Critics of silent discos in Canterbury Cathedral are silent on how to fund our churches

Another season of fury has descended on “Church Twitter”, surrounding Canterbury Cathedral’s set of “Silent Discos” held last weekend. The usual suspects have grasped their pearls, with comments ranging from the biblical to the lyrics of house/pop hit “Horny ‘98” by Moose T vs Hot ‘n Juicy. The comeback, from a varied coalition of liberal universalist Christians, heritage professionals and drunken mums of the Gen X generation, has mounted to unquantifiable claims regarding the Church of England’s mission and discipleship, remaining “relevant” or simply a requote of “Horny ‘98”.  

But few are discussing why many of our cathedrals host these events. The reason is not missiological or ecclesiological; it isn’t about relevance or “community” either. It’s about having the funds to keep the doors open. As we saw dramatically portrayed in Downton Abbey, and as David Canadine commented in his study of the decline and fall of the British aristocracy, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy:

The proud citadels of the old élite have become the beleaguered relics of their embattled successors. From Woburn to Chatsworth, it is the saving and the upkeep of the great house that is the all-consuming object of aristocratic existence.

Our cathedrals are facing the same existential crisis that the aristocracy experienced post-World War II. That of knowing what to do when “the big house” becomes a financial black-hole, and (almost) all is offered up to feed it.  

Many places have cut to the bone to keep afloat

Since World War II, cathedrals have followed the economy in a series of continuous boom-and-bust cycles, where perilous periods of shoring up were followed by a few years of calm before starting all over again. Much of the restorative works of the 19th to mid-20th centuries are being found defective — in the same way RACC was thought the saviour of 1970s construction, concrete encased metal eventually corrodes, and Victorian techniques with glass and tile fare badly in heat. Years of low interest rates have left financial investments underperforming; many cathedrals have quietly sold off land and property to keep afloat. Staffing costs have rarely kept up with inflation — bishops often speak of the “living wage” from benches in parliament, but rarely were they served in their cathedrals by staff paid near that. Many took to lightning redundancies and restructuring during COVID in fear that not doing so would preclude them from state or other help — but that was, again, a short-term solution that has not demonstrated any long-term preservation. Any hopes of financial stability post-COVID were dashed by the volatility in domestic markets and rising energy costs.  

Many places have cut to the bone to keep afloat. Choirs are finding possible business models difficult, with many acknowledging them as a “loss-leader” — costing several hundred thousand pounds a year but returning little back in revenue. A “luxury” in terms of business model, but a non-negotiable in terms of a cathedral’s core function: the worship of God. As a number of long-standing cathedral professionals in unconnected conversations have quipped to me in recent years: “Cathedrals aren’t that much fun at the moment”.

Initiatives such as Silent Discos, the Museum of the Moon, Dippy the Dinosaur and crazy golf in the nave of one cathedral may encourage people to experience the building and “get a buzz” of spirituality, but in effect, those are secondary to the need to get people in to part with their cash simply to keep the doors open. Such events now are core profit generators in terms of financial stability, but all being swallowed by the black-hole that is the building. As the 13th Duke of Bedford wrote in regard to setting up his family seat as a heritage attraction in 1972: 

I will not try and pretend that I embarked on the idea primarily out of a sense of social obligation… the initial drive was purely economic. I wanted to find some way of perpetuating Woburn [his family’s estate] intact. Opening it to the public seemed the only way of doing it.

This is an existential crisis. The time has come for serious conversations — not just about the 10 year, or 20 year, but 100 year lifespan of cathedrals. What is their future as places of worship, as historical beacons, as places of gathering by the wider community? 

Cathedrals have, like the fictional Downton Abbey, tried to hold on to their existence whilst the realities of the outside world bear down upon them faster than they can handle.  Many are finding the navigation of this challenging, trying to run the religious aspects on a painfully lean budget, whilst channelling any excess into ensuring commercial enterprises that are financially generative are invested in and promoted. This situation is untenable in the long-term, as by continually ploughing money into the fabric whilst cutting expenditure in almost all other areas, any sort of function (be that religious or toward the wider community) will slowly grind to nothing. All that would be left is the shells of what used to live. 

In an era of perverse short-termism, conversations that will outlast any of those participating in them matter. Government, the heritage industry, charities and the wider community need to be engaged into the future path for each of these buildings. There are no easy answers — but some thoughts come to mind:

 An in-extremis argument (or “Lose the tower, save the choir”): Lord Heseltine, when Environment Secretary, brutally stated:

I cannot see any justification for subsidising people to live in surroundings which they cannot afford… I do not think it is fair to the owners themselves, let alone to the taxpayer, to encourage them to go on living beyond their means.

In a time where plenty is lacking, it should not be beyond question that the church withdraws to something more manageable, leaving the historic edifice to be run purely on a heritage basis. Whilst for many, this would be unpalatable, this option would let the church continue in more manageable circumstances, where they can still fulfil their function without living in constant fear of the economics. Collection plates would once again service the mission and ministry of a cathedral, not be subsidising ongoing repair work. 

 A continental model of church taxation would be unpalatable to many – but a heritage tax could mean that many cathedrals, churches and other heritage buildings could bid and be awarded money for major capital works – in essence, keeping the roof on for longer. Bernard Taylor’s report of 2017 suggests a “nationally administered fund for works to keep cathedrals safe and open” be explored – 7 years and 8 Culture Secretaries on, little progress has been made.

 Lastly, a more radical version of the second option: State preservation of church buildings has long been seen as end-goal; but the French system of continued acrimony between state and the Roman Catholic occupants of many of the churches would, in effect see only basic remedial work undertaken, and leave many buildings worse off in the long-term.

The long-term “elephant in the room” stares every cathedral directly in the face. Pearl-clutching purists and liberal secularists need to stop the petty war of words; to keep doors open on Sunday morning, discos may happen on Saturday night. It’s not ideal — in a perfect world, I’d be clutching my pearls with them; but this is in no way a perfect world. We are now in need of sustainable, long-term solutions, before the doors close for good and all that is left is an empty shell.

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