Make Cathedrals a Centre of Mission, Not a Tourist Centre!

by | Jul 5, 2023

Brothers and sisters, if you agree with this strategy, then please do share it with a Bishop that you think needs to hear it. I want to address in this article how our beautiful cathedrals are being used by their custodians; the Bishops, and Arch – Deacons, and others in control of their use; in a way that accepts the faith is not relevant to society (a suggestion I am sure they will reject). I want to start by claiming; that every Cathedral belongs to the whole body of Christ; and so we should both have a concern for and a say in how they are used; they do not belong to society at large; and so those outside of the faith; have no right to say how they should be used.

Let me start with a story. I recently visited Cologne Cathedral; a vast Gothic structure with vaulting ceilings, tall stained glass windows, and darkened stonework. Its building work started as far back as AD 1248 and has never really finished when one includes repairs and refurbishments. Its towers reach dizzying heights of 157 meters, and its high altar is of a single black slab of limestone. It is rightly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sight – because it is an awesome sight to behold. I fell in love with the Cathedral at first sight; my usual response to encountering such buildings. The Cathedral is right next to the train station, and between the two is a vast square populated by hundreds of people every single day. The Krishna was busy ‘evangelising’ inside this space; there was no visible Christian presence apart from the dominating Cathedral itself. Once you step into this holy edifice, you are immediately humbled by this skeleton of stone; feeling tiny in the vast complex some 86 meters wide and 145 meters long. Upon entering the Cathedral I was filled with both awe at its structure and frustration at the wandering tourists, oblivious to the decorum in dress or conduct appropriate to a house of prayer. It was a tourist attraction. A small army clothed in red and black robes, employed by the Church, mingled with the crowd only to be witness to unbecoming behaviour and provide the lowest possible level of security and governance. They would walk around the place answering questions if asked, and perhaps, one imagines, try to stop you if you did something really bad like climb on the altar. Truthfully, the phrase ‘neither use nor ornament’ is the correct description of their presence. To see this place where 12 Arch Bishops are buried, the Gero Crucifix (a tenth-century piece of art) is stored, where the shrine of the Magi, reliquaries, and relics of saints are stored, was fantastically disappointing! This was precisely because no work of the Kingdom was being done; you could not pray amid the noise and there was no attempt to evangelise anyone.

This experience far from being rare; is repeated ad nauseam in countless Cathedrals across the Christian world; a truly sorry state. The custodians of such places; are content to see the Cathedrals be used as little more than a national mausoleum; a cultural centre for the arts; and a tourist attraction; far from what they should be; which is a centre of mission and evangelism; a place of building up the people of GOD; a centre of good works; and above all a house of prayer. I want to suggest an alternative vision to their custodians; that would be a radical re-adjustment; an alternative way to use the Cathedral Churches of Christendom; one I hope you will agree has more punch to it; and is more godly compared my suggestion – to that which you encounter in the next Cathedral you visit.

I want to first give a critique of the current ‘tourist cultural centre’ strategy we see being followed almost universally across our cathedrals. We saw dramatically the failure of turning these Cathedrals into tourist attractions, rather than places of worship; when during the lockdowns from the coronavirus pandemic – places like St Paul’s Cathedral suddenly found themselves struggling financially; and having to appeal for government finance to keep its self open; because for years, rather, than spending its vast wealth on building a huge religious congregation; it was content to spend its vast wealth on running the business of being one of London’s chief tourist attractions. Once the tourists left; it was crippled financially; had it spent the decades continuously building up its congregation; the absence of tourists would have been a financial hit, but not a disaster; this shows a great lack of foresight on behalf of its leadership. The advantage of the Cologne Cathedral is that the Church there is supported by a voluntary Church tax; so financially its arrangements are different. Many Cathedrals in France are decrepit; precisely because they have no congregation or financial support. Southwark Cathedral in central London is a place that seems consumed by the desire to be a liberal arts centre rather than a place of worship. One cannot find a quiet place to pray amidst the many who enter to just walk around; something the Church should stop. This seeking to be relevant through hosting the Liberal arts; decries an admission by those in charge, that Christianity, is not relevant to your lives; but the building can still be good for society; even its true purpose is dead in the grave; this defeatist attitude should be rejected out of hand; but if that is how you choose to be relevant; then you admit, you have nothing Christian that is appealing.

So what then I hear you ask is this great idea; this novel way of using our Cathedrals; that is different from the tourist / cultural centre model; being adopted by the Cathedral custodians; who have settled for a vision of a successful tourist and cultural business; rather than one that is GOD; Kingdom and Church focussed.

I intend only to provide a sketch; a skeleton; and a vision; as the meat of the idea would have to be worked out by each congregation connected to their circumstances, a rural Cathedral is different from a City Cathedral; and in all fairness, this strategy is imagining a city cathedral.

Firstly; close the Cathedral to tourists! Yep, that is right! Shut the doors, Mormon Temple style, to tourists and restrict the Cathedral to being a place of prayer, worship, evangelism, and training. Why? It communicates that this is a sacred space, which needs to be treated as such, and that Christianity is something serious; rather than a relic of the past; to which its cathedrals are just museum pieces; which is how the tourist is treating it and the message we are communicating to thousands of people. A small concession could be given after each act of worship that those who attend; would be given an hour to roam and pray around the Cathedral; as a way of blessing the people of GOD who worship there. People should only be allowed in to worship and pray or for the work of evangelism or training going on there.

This brings me to my next point; entry to the Cathedral must be conditional on proper conduct and decorum; including – no cameras, no short skirts, cropped tops; no hats for laity, and head coverings for women; instructions to bow at appropriate places should be marked; and initiation instructions for proper decorum be given in simple and direct terms. Those who break this rule should be removed by the more imposing staff (including the Christian bouncer you employ). Why; again, because it communicates, that Christianity is something serious; and to be taken seriously; it communicates, that entry to the faith; is not a free-for-all; and that Christians stand for something.

This would cause a furor in the local media of course, and perhaps nationwide, but you should use such opportunity to do the following: i) critique the religion of humanity, assuming you are not following it yourself; ii) lay out the plan outlined to a wider public appealing to Christians for whom it is relevant to get in touch; iii) proclaim the Christian community as something distinct and something to be joined; iv) condemn the abuses of cathedrals as tourist centres, and liberal art centres as being unapostolic.

The Cathedrals need to lay off all of the staff that currently work for them (unless they sign up to be a part of this new strategy and have the skills to make it work); and then recruit dedicated evangelists, whose job it would be to run initiatives; to bring people to a place of conversion and commitment to Christ; and then to then turn these disciples into Christian communities that use the Cathedral as their hub; these small groups would use the Cathedral throughout the week; including Sundays. The evangelists along with the clergy based at the Cathedral; would form worshipful congregations or a congregation; who would support the cathedral and are missionary in nature. The space around the Cathedral would be used by the evangelists to reach out to non – non-Christians through various initiatives; limited only by their imagination, cathedral resources, and their energy. The Cathedral should be on constant mission – 365 days a year; seeking to make disciples of people; not providing a photo opportunity; or the backdrop for a liberal arts experience; preaching a humanist message. The Cathedral should be a centre of mission seeking the salvation of souls actively and purposefully; its evangelists should be building experiences that they can then share with other fellowships. They would seek to sweep up the Christians who are unchurched; and the floating Christians who are between congregations; as well as making new converts; seeking to fill the pews each day; not the aisles; needless to say finding and employing effective evangelists is key.

The current custodians may say but how do we pay for these things; very easily; by allowing other Christian congregations – who do not have a building to worship in themselves – to rent the spaces of the Cathedral for their activities. I will hint at other sources of income throughout this article, but the economics are not the main point of the article; you would have to work it out, but a better strategy is surely to build your congregations; is that not obvious? This idea is a far better use of the Cathedral space, than allowing gormless tourists to tramp around the place, in all manner of irreverence, disturbing those who wish to pay. It also conveys to all that the Cathedral is a bustling place of Christian worship and helps present the Christian community, as being more united.

Additionally, the Cathedral can run explicit and deeply rooted Christian cultural events, filled with Christian content; such as music recitals, choir concerts; displays of Christian art; Christian theatre productions, and a host of other Christian cultural events of every kind; that can be viewed only by those that pay; with a very clear attempt to expose and express to the world around us that Christianity has a culture; and point to the Christian contribution to civilisation. Encouraging people to identify with their Christian heritage, or to discover the heritage of the Church; if it is not theirs; after each of these events, those that attend; could then be allowed an hour to roam and pray in the Cathedral.

Stronger relationships with satellite churches should be cultivated; the Cathedrals should be spaces, used by the many satellite Churches of the Diocese; with the satellite churches also making use of the Cathedral space for regular events. I would suggest monthly meetings in which all the congregations of the Diocese gather in the Cathedral for worship and fellowship. So that Christians can draw strength from one another knowing they belong to a bigger group. Congregations who are struggling to keep their building open; should be encouraged to sell their building in their parishes; meet in one another’s homes; and use the Cathedral as and when they need a bigger space for a particular purpose; or if practical; move in; en todo; and use the Cathedral Church as their building whilst being their congregation; helping in its upkeep.

The Cathedral should be the central hub for which staff training occurs; with a full schedule of training arranged; for which people/congregations can pay; aimed at building up the capacity of the congregations of the satellite Churches; as well as clergy throughout the diocese. Skill gaps should be identified and regular training should be provided; so that the Cathedral becomes a place that equips; volunteers, staff and clergy; for the work of the Church and the Kingdom.

I’ve argued in other places in this blog that Christian youth in a diocese and area should be consolidated into a single group; again to give them a sense of strength and mutual support; the Cathedral could be that place; where all the youth of the Diocese; along with the parish workers, are bussed in every week for worship; and work; including voluntary care of the Cathedral; and learning about the faith; helping them to develop amongst other things; cooperate responsibility for Christian heritage sights.

Cathedrals’ secular spaces such as their side rooms or halls can be rented out to other organizations or businesses for business meetings etc., so long as they do not contradict basic Christian teachings or values. Christian businesses should be encouraged to settle into any space appropriate for that purpose as a permanent tenant.

This basic strategy would result in a Cathedral house being used for prayer and evangelism; and a place in which the greater Body of Christ is supported and built up. It should be a place in which faith is communicated and people are drawn to the culture it produces. I’ve not attempted to express these ideas in detail, as how it would look for one Cathedral would be nuanced compared to another. The basic current strategy governing the use, or rather abuse, of our Cathedrals is entirely wrong-sighted; aiming at making the building relevant to society’s needs, and not seeking to make society Christian. I am proposing this basic change of the focus of such buildings.

I am – as with all my blogs – trying to start the kinds of conversations within the Body of Christ that I believe we need to have in response to the failings of the Western Church. Should you be a Bishop reading this, or anyone responsible for the management of a Cathedral, please do not allow yourselves the fantastical thought that, because the pews are full for a secular music concert or you have hundreds of visitors to see an art exhibition pushing godless messages, you are in any way helping to build up the Church. I strongly suggest to you that you are far from making the Cathedral relevant to modern society, but are instead accepting that the Church, and its glorious message, is NOT relevant to the lives of people. I pray that you return to the work of the Kingdom and use the treasure with which you are custodians for that purpose.

I want to be blunt; if the only way a Cathedral can stay relevant to wider society is to sell its soul to the liberal arts, to become a tourist business, and to lose its sanctity, then frankly, it deserves to be closed down; even if that means closing an architectural wonder like Cologne Cathedral or Saint Pauls. We need to choose as Christians as to what our buildings are for. The problem with many in the institutional Churches is that many orientate their lives around their buildings rather than orientate their buildings around the goal for the expansion of the kingdom; paying it lip service only. I say again, keeping a building open for its own sake is pointless and aims at entirely the wrong thing. I love these buildings! I loved Cologne Cathedra,l Southwark Cathedral, and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, but I love them only in so far as they are a tool to build a worshipful community of disciples of Christ. They have no other purpose or reason to exist!