​I’m fairly sure I’m not supposed to write anything about Liverpool Cathedral. Twice now I have lost entire blog records for no apparent reason. Given that I am currently at a retreat on Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne) I am resisting the temptation to be frustrated.

So, Liverpool. When I arrived I was staggered by the sheer size of the place. I’m pretty sure it is the largest Cathedral in the UK and is certainly classified as 5th largest in the world. It’s a reminder that throughout human history, ‘size matters’, and the 20th century did little to change that. Oh, and the Organ has 10,000+ pipes. We won’t think about how it was built with slave money. That’s another conversation.

Let me start by say, I loved being there, though not for the reasons Cathedral lovers might appreciate. Much of my time in the UK has shown that English Cathedrals are Museums. I can say that because they fit the definition almost perfectly: 
A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

No doubt everyone will have varying responses to that comparison, but the simple fact is, they fit all the criteria. Does that make them bad places? No. Does it make them incarnational in any religious sense? The jury is out on that one. And it’s this last question that underpins my enjoyment of Liverpool.A couple of years back the Church of England released its massive ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ report. The title says everything. Why is it declining? Where is it declining? What demographics are growing? What sort of priests grow churches and who shrinks them? No stone was left unturned. However one statistic stood out, and that was growth in Cathedral life generally. This had me interested. Was it true, or is there a statistical rat in the woodwork?

There is not doubt that Cathedrals have leveraged their buildings, and their visitor numbers have shot through the roof. Also, there is evidence that Cathedrals are engaging with visitors more than before through decent staffing. But what this also mean is that their apparent numbers at worship have increased too. However, there are no instruments used to measure whether increase in worship is little more that voyeuristic tourism. That sounds harsh, but in all the Cathedrals I visited the attendance stats were much the same:

  • Sundays:
  • 8am Said service: 10-15 people
  • Main mid-morning Eucharist: 100-180 people
  • Choral Evensong: 10-30 people (excluding the choir)

These are not encouraging figures, especially when you consider that up to 1/3 of attenders at the main worship service may well be visitors in any given week. Also, and perhaps more tellingly, is observation that, apart from Southwark Cathedral, none have any functioning children or young persons mission or ministry. To top it off, there are plenty of parish churches with vastly better figures which are a lot cheaper to run.

The common excuse is that this of of little consequence as Cathedrals do not wish to take people away from local parishes. Quite frankly, that’s a naive excuse for avoiding reality. So far as I see, the old parish model is as defunct here as it is in NZ. Most churches in the local area attract people well outside their parishes anyhow.

So is there any hope? Well, welcome to Liverpool. 

The Cathedral is situated on the edge of the city centre. Liverpool has a population of half a million people, so it’s a wonder that they built such a massive building. It’s also perched at the end of Hope Street, which has the Catholic Cathedral staring from the other end. Both are enormous buildings and both have a significant presence in the city, but for different reasons.
Back in the days when Justin Welby was the Dean of the Cathedral, they instituted a moto that prevails to this day, “A safe place to do risky things in the service of Christ”. That moto has led them to try many things that were financially risky, liturgically risky and push them outside the bounds of traditional Anglican models.

Things that stood out were:

1. Their engagement with students. A few years back they were given land that needed to be developed. It was turned into very large student accommodation as way of being in the midst of young people while remaining financially viable. 

2. Their alternative cafe service running simultaneously with the main Eucharist. It’s full of families and children and young adults. It has 50-60 people as it rebuilds itself after and false start at duplication (see the moto)

3. Their Iranian service called Sepas, in the afternoon. This was a real highlight for me. About 100 Farsi speakers, mostly refugees and asylum seekers gathered in worship. Many were Christian before they came, others have converted over time and it is the fastest growing ministry they have. It is not independent from the Cathedral. The Priest in charge was an Iranian refugee and has a significant ministry to that part of the population in Liverpool. It was the best service I have been to in a while.

4. It’s international ministry internship done in conjunction with the diocese. I staying with two Americans and a Canadian in their guest accommodation. All come for a year to work and serve in the community and the Cathedral.

5. Though tourism is huge for the Cathedral, there is a very observable mission to visitors in advertising, communications and help from the volunteer.

But, and there is a but. All the main services of the Cathedral are poorly attended. And it’s a theme around the country. The staff know this and have a plan over the next 8 years to change that because there is nothing contemporary about these main services at all, they are aged and declining, The general attitude from attenders is, ‘the other services are novel, but these traditional services are really what the Cathedral is about’. The truth however, is quite the opposite.

What was useful is the Cathedrals long terms goals (these are summary and not the whole complex plan):

  • Heighten (revamp) worship
  • Multiply Congregations (double attendance figures of those living in the area)
  • Promote Justice and fairness
  • Deepen discipleship
  • Extend wellbeing
  • Widen enterprise

It was helpful because it’s the first cathedral I’ve been to that is waking, like a sleeping giant, to it’s role as a geographic voice for the Gospel in the ordinary community, and it has a plan about how that might happen.

Lady Chapel

There is resistance of course. The museum brigade, who want it kept as it should be, will fight tooth and nail. However it looks like this Cathedral will go into the future with one eye on its past, but it feet firmly heading in the other direction. I don’t know what it is with this strong desire to keep everything as it is? And I apply that to every Christian community, not just Anglicans. I have a theory.

In most of Western history, there have been wars and social upheaval that have force adaptation, creativity and the forming of different ministry paths. When Coventry was bombed it changed everything, forever. When the cathedral was destroyed, a new thing took it’s place, including ministry style. But westerners have had relative peace since WW2. Sure there have been skirmishes and wars in other part of the world in which we have participated, but not within our borders. Even terrorist attacks have been localised, so nothing of any consequence has forced our hand in social change and behaviour. In most cased we get to choose how we live and worship. Perhaps that’s why the Iranian congregation was so inspirational; people outside their culture, grasping a new and unfamiliar way and flourishing because of it. Perhaps that’s the lesson. The unknown path is not a threat, it’s the way to new life.


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