Messages of Hope

Cathedrals: a forgotten model for church growth

Published / by Sandy

Pilgrim Uniting Church Adelaide has recently updated its strategic plan and clarified key directions. It is premised on the location as a church in the heart of the city, for the city. While the UCA doesn’t have cathedrals (no Bishops in the UCA!) Pilgrim is one of the churches in the city that may be considered cathedral-esque in its mission and ministry. So this article written by Revd Dr Jane Shaw (in the UK context and posted here on 16th July 2021) is most interesting and could be an interesting catalyst for discussion.

The central question posed is: why are church-plants seen as the only game in town when it comes to reversing decline?

Cathedral congregations and communities have been growing in the 21st century. According to official Church of England statistics, attendance at cathedral services grew by 13% in the decade from 2009 to 2019. That is just attendance at services. The statistics do not take account of all the ways in which cathedrals engage the spiritually curious and the wider society; nor do they tot up the tourists and pilgrims who go back home and explore their faith in other places.

This growth did not come out of a vacuum. Throughout the 20th century, cathedrals increasingly opened their doors to the broader community, were patrons of the arts, and enlarged their educational and civic engagement. (This is certainly true for Pilgrim as well).

So, why, when it comes to models for church growth, does there seem to be only one game in town: church-plants?

It was reported recently that the Archbishops had supported a proposal for 10,000 new lay-led churches — effectively church-plants in people’s houses – doing away with “key limiting factors” such as competent clergy and much-loved church buildings (News, 2 July). Many people have expressed their surprise, shock, and hurt at both the proposal and the language in which it was conveyed. Others have run the numbers to show that the model is simply not viable.

So, here is a proposal: let’s use cathedrals as another model for church growth. It seems so obvious. Cathedrals appeal to people who would probably never go near a church-plant. Cathedrals evoke awe as we enter them, helping us to appreciate the beauty of holiness and the glory of God.

They cater to “passengers”, and, let’s face it, many people need that at times. When someone taking the first steps towards faith, or tentatively coming back to church after a period away, quiet anonymity can be essential. When we are tired and worn out, we just need to be in a sacred place without people badgering us to be on the coffee roster or to go on an Alpha course. Cathedrals are full of pillars that people can safely hide behind, until they want to emerge and start to participate. Furthermore, cathedral music is good, the preaching usually thoughtful, and the liturgy well done.

Cathedrals also present a different and, in my experience, successful model of mission: one that’s about throwing open the doors and welcoming everyone into a wide range of activities. They enable people to enter by many different pathways: the arts, pilgrimages, talks on pressing issues, and outreach, service, and social-justice programmes. These activities develop the broader cathedral community, and, from them, a person’s curiosity about “church” can grow, leading to deeper engagement.

I am puzzled about why the Church of England keeps coming back to just one model: church-plants and discipleship. The church-growth report From Anecdote to Evidence (2014) stated “there is no single recipe for growth.” So let’s try a range of models.

Resourcing parishes is vital, too. Sometimes, there is a tension between cathedrals and parishes, but there doesn’t need to be. The parochial system’s vast network of churches and clergy is extraordinary and irreplaceable. Properly resourced, parishes could offer some of the same pathways to faith as cathedrals offer.

The parish church is a great asset: a building that local people find beautiful and would be sad to see closed, but for which they don’t usually feel any responsibility. So, might parish churches increasingly become hubs for the whole village or community, with concerts and talks, clubs for the elderly, pop-up meals for the whole village, and a home for the local post office or library when those vital institutions face closure?

In this way, the congregation can show the love of God to the wider community, and, at the same time, encourage that community to use, enjoy, and take ownership of a building that is often costly to keep up. As with cathedrals, participation in other activities may well lead to tentative, and then not so tentative, steps towards church and faith.

Cathedrals and parishes both exercise a ministry of presence, serving the whole community. Growth is not just for the sake of growth: it is intimately tied to pastoral care, service, love, and social justice. In the face of the one model of church growth that is currently on offer, it is imperative that cathedrals and parishes work together to offer alternative ways to reach the spiritual seekers, the “nones”, and those on the margins.

And the next time that the Church of England wants an expert on mission and church growth, I hope that they will call on one of those many clergy who have been quietly but surely growing cathedrals for years.

The Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Principal of Harris Manchester College, Professor of the History of Religion, and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. She was formerly Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

Some Facebook responses in an Australian context
Rev Josephine Inkpin (Pitt St UC, Sydney): Healthy mission strategy needs to be diverse and multi-dimensional. Sadly many Anglicans across the globe have also written off very small congregations which can also come alive where context and intentionality is clear (eg my recent experience in Milton in Brisbane). Much ‘church planting’/‘’discipleship’ approaches are also very narrow theologically and relationally, so where a Church – such as the UCA – goes over headlong for that, it is actually narrowing itself ideologically (the very opposite of ‘cathedral’ or smaller ‘base community’ philosophies and relationships). Pitt St UC is a striking example of a church which was seen as ‘redundant’ by UCA bodies but, thanks to creative divine nonconformity, whose USP and intentionality has enriched a better ecclesial and theological ecology and continues to ask questions about whether church mission strategists are really open to divine surprise and the value of holiness of place, hope-bearing particularity and healthy pluralism.

Glen Spencer (Uniting Mission and Education, NSW): Some really good insights. Certainly wanting to cheer on a diversity of ways in which the church seeks to join in the mission of God…including Cathedrals. What I don’t quite understand is the need to be critical of a plan that seeks to energise lay leadership to start small churches that are trying to love & serve the community around them.
Let’s cheer on Cathedral church.
Let’s cheer on small lay led churches.
Let’s cheer on larger, regional churches…and parish missions and neighbourhood churches…and university chaplaincy…and…and…
All in mutual encouragement, support and love.

Glenn Powell
As I understand it, the growth in attendance at C of E churches in England has been in BOTH cathedrals AND fresh expressions/church plants. What is languishing is average suburban congregations. I think that this is paralleled in the UCA, and I believe for two reasons:
1. In most things in life (eg business enterprises, farms, country towns, educational institutions, as well as churches) there is a “disappearing middle”. Growth is happening at the large and small scale, with the middle not knowing where to go. As I crunch the numbers in the UCA, most members attend churches with fewer than 50 or more than 150 at worship. If in-between, congregations go one way or the other. (Without an intention, there is only one way that they DO go.)
2. What distinguishes BOTH cathedrals AND fresh expressions/church plants is a clear sense of identity and purpose. They know who they are called to be, and what they are sent to do. The average suburban church cannot survive just being the X-suburb Y-denomination church, thinking that when new Y-denomination members move into X-suburb they’ll join. If suburban congregations are to do more than hope to survive, but to thrive, they have to discover a unique calling and sending. In language more familiar to Catholics, a charism and an apostolate.
The article states:
“The parochial system’s vast network of churches and clergy is extraordinary and irreplaceable. Properly resourced, parishes could offer some of the same pathways to faith as cathedrals offer.”
That resourcing can’t be to either bleed the cathedrals or thwart the new. It has to be about helping congregations/parishes to figure out why they even exist.

Peter Hobson
I am excited about the idea of the C of E focussing on mission – and I think there is much we can learn from their efforts.. but I do have a concern when this comes at the expense of discipleship rather than as a result of discipleship. And church growth initiatives, however well intentioned, can come at the expense of discipleship when they look for some sort of easy answer. Discipleship is hard. When we try to sugar coat it – it becomes something else. I spent twelve months at a theological college that tried to ‘blue sky’ it’s educational and formational imperatives. It was – and still is – an absolute disaster. The aim was to increase student numbers – and the numbers were prioritised over the learning. The college forgot what it was for… I’ve heard all the rhetoric about every number is a person. But show me a person who wants to be thought of as a number? Every disciple is a person. And making disciples is our mission. Let’s use Cathedrals and car washes – home churches and parishes… but when we set the goal as ‘numbers’ we will build strategies for ‘numbers’ – and there is no guarantee whatsoever that discipleship will follow. From my experience – it is the exact opposite. Church growth should come organically as a result of discipleship growth – not because of the latest marketing idea.