Elephant in the cathedral: Why are so many Anglican holy places empty and, thus, low on funds?

Anyone who has followed religion news from England knows that church attendance has been a huge story for some time now and the sobering headlines are only going to increase as the side effects -- demographics is destiny, and all of that -- become more obvious.

Yes, the statistical rise of Islam is part of this story, but only one part of complex drama. As in America, the rise of "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- is a trend that is changing how the English view their nation. That's part of the urban vs. rural divide at the heart of Brexit. It's kind of like America's red vs. blue zip-code battle.

Then there is another obvious question: Is the Church of England still the church of England? Note this headline from last year, care of The Guardian: "Church of England weekly attendance falls below 1m for first time." Here are some of the details:

The number of people attending Church of England services each week has for the first time dropped below 1 million -- accounting for less than 2% of the population -- with Sunday attendances falling to 760,000.
The statistics ... reflect the C of E’s steady decline over recent decades in the face of growing secularism and religious diversity, and the ageing profile of its worshippers. Numbers attending church services have fallen by 12% in the past decade, to less than half the levels of the 1960s.

The story included two other numbers that would catch the eye of careful reporters: "The church conducted 130,000 baptisms in the year, down 12% since 2004; 50,000 marriages, down 19%. ..."

I bring this up because of a sad, but interesting, Religion News Service piece about another side effect of these numbers. There is no way that this rather dull headline captures the emotions many Brits will feel about this topic: "Endangered Anglican cathedrals prompt Church of England review."

The bottom line: How does one keep the doors of cathedrals open (even for tourists) when the faithful rarely kneel at the altars or bring children into the pews?

Think of the implications. Does the government keep many of these buildings open as architectural exhibits? Should some be sold to Roman Catholic congregations? Could some become mosques? Here is a key chunk of the RNS report:

 LONDON (RNS) The future of England’s cathedrals -- often described as the crown jewel of the nation’s architectural heritage -- will be examined by a special Church of England working group following a series of disastrous financial crises for the churches. ...
Most of the 42 Anglican cathedrals were built in the Middle Ages as Catholic churches, and were taken over by the fledgling Church of England following the English Reformation when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of monasteries. It is the maintenance and repair of these ancient buildings that is causing much of the cathedrals’ financial problems today.
The review group was created following a recent report on the financial crisis at Peterborough Cathedral, a 12th-century former Benedictine abbey in the Midlands that houses the tomb of Queen Katherine of Aragon. Recently, the dean of the cathedral resigned and 12 other staffers were laid off.

This story is full of details about the plight of individual cathedrals and this new effort to manage them. That's fine, since that's the heart of the story.

However, I did find it strange that there was zero information about the current health of the congregations that worship in these sacred spaces. Cathedrals are buildings, but they are also churches.

To be blunt, how have these individual cathedrals been affected by the Anglican church attendance trends? Might the lack of bodies in these pews have something to do with the struggles they are having, in terms of keeping the roofs patched and the doors open? A cathedral with no worshippers is like a body with no heart and lungs. For example:

Another distinguished cathedral in financial difficulty is Durham, founded in the 11th century in northeast England and the location of the shrine of St. Cuthbert. It has an annual deficit of 500,000 pounds (or $621,000), and its annual report states it is not raising money fast enough to cover running costs.

Raising money? What is the current membership of the cathedral congregation? What was that total. oh, a generation ago? And:

At Exeter, a cathedral in southwest England with the longest vaulted ceiling in the world, there is a predicted deficit of 175,000 pounds (or $217,000), after a failed and costly plan to restore the Roman baths on the site. There has also been talk of staff reductions and the dean is expected to retire.

Once again, what about the church inside the building?

Here is the religion-beat question that I am asking: What are the religious issues -- the faith implications -- in this important story? It's rather strange to read a story on such a crucial religion-news topic that is haunted by, as we say here at GetReligion, a religion ghost.

The following information is perfectly valid:

Despite these problems England’s cathedrals still attract large crowds and millions of tourists a year. Around 55,000 people are expected to attend Easter Sunday services.
Nine of the cathedrals have turned to entrance fees to help finance their buildings, on top of grants from the main Church of England funding body and other fundraising grants and events. The rest are averse to charging tourists and are looking to alternatives, such as more visitor attractions and museum displays.

Uh, wait a minute. Are these the only options, when it comes to keeping a great cathedral alive? What is the topic that is missing from these discussions and, thus, this news report?

As the video at the top of this post demonstrates, there are conservative, traditional Anglicans who are more than willing to talk about the elephant in this cathedral crisis.

FIRST IMAGE: Peterborough Cathedral.

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