Dear Deans

The last few weeks have led me to midweek services in various Cathedrals – Winchester, Durham, Canterbury, St Paul’s and for an RC flavour Westminster.

It leaves me asking a basic question. Do we have any interest in the conversion of England – or even the survival of faith within the CoE?


In all the services I have attended (bar a nearly deserted Durham) there have been  scores of onlookers and often scores of would be participants. Yet only in the Catholic cathedral did anyone make even the slightest attempt at a homily – let alone a succinct, compelling presentation of the Christian faith.

One might argue that the ambiance and worship might be sufficiently attractive in itself, but a) St Paul’s had all the atmosphere of being a hen in a petting zoo as tourists at the north, south , west and east ends of the sanctuary surrounding the hapless worship pets (literally) like children on a field trip; and b) the lectionary readings at Durham/Canterbury were so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer / chance visitor / faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming).

Given that a tourist couple would have spent £36 merely to look around you might well argue they had a right to roam, chat and frankly scream if they wanted to to test the acoustics.

Missionally, if there was some explanation of the extraordinary news of Jesus – even a brief reflection on the Gospel reading – then who could argue  that we should get as many as humanly possible to gather round and hear the good news! But the Church of England should not indefinitely spend the millions it does each year (£9.1million in 2013 on stipends / staffing) propping up Cathedral ministry partly on the basis of it’s alleged attendance statistics if no serious attempt is made to communicate the Christian faith when people attend public worship.

The apostle said ‘woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.’ Woe indeed. If the Deans really can’t find a preacher for a five minute gospel homily I’ll happily send one of our highly talented interns for what, at St Paul’s at least, would feel a lot like open air preaching with people milling round all about you – but just done under a glorious dome and inside.

Next post: The Gospel? Aghh don’t ask me to share that!
https://richardmoy.com/2015/06/04/the-gospel-aghh-dont-ask-me-to-share-that/
  

56 thoughts on “Dear Deans

  1. Hi Richard. A bit aggressive maybe, but I would agree, it’s a good point worth making.

    There is a decent argument that could be made though, which is that to the average tourist/bystander/unchurched person, a sermon would not mean anything more than the rest of the liturgy. As Christians in general, and clergy in particular, we are often guilty of thinking that we are communicating clearly when in fact we’re talking a foreign language. The fact that in the evangelical tradition we favour preaching doesn’t automatically make the best medium for communication.

    I wonder if it’s as much about the way the worship is presented: if I was to criticise Anglican worship generally (not just Cathedrals), it seems that a sense of the presence of God, of prayer, of let’s face it, worship, is often absent. Also there is often a lack of thought in the preparation and delivery of the service which is what makes it dry and incomprehensible.

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    1. Hi Charlie, I do agree about communication skills – I think I am favouring something that is a tempter/teaser into more thinking about God in those mid-week contexts – concise, well argued probably can be done in 3-5 mins with a ‘if you’d like to follow this up read this/watch this/come back to this/ chat to me afterwards conclusion. A message could even be a similar message most days given the total fluidity of the ‘congregation’, and frankly I’d rather have something prerecorded on mobile TVs than nothing at all if we really haven’t got any clear succinct preachers in return for our £9.1million investment! … but, as the good apostle succinctly argues:’How can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?’

      As for whether I am being too aggressive – that probably depends how important an issue it is… if it’s important enough I may be being too restrained.

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    2. I know of two Durham students (one churched, one un-churched) who attended a mid-week Choral Evensong, and heard a brutal reading from Joshua given, with no further explanation, and have not returned to a service there since. They would have appreciated a brief homily to put it into context, so in my view their experience validates your point.

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  2. Hi Richard,
    If you come to Lichfield Cathedral, you will hear a homily at the 12.30 Eucharist every day. Plus the Canon Missioner would give you lunch 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As another insight, it was St Francis I think who said “preach the gospel always. Use words if you must”

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      1. I said that too but reply hasn’t appeared! How can folk know about Jesus if we don’t say his name ?

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      2. It is nonsense first because St Francis didn’t say it. So as a claim is has as much authority as something you would find on Twitter.

        But it is also nonsense because there is not a single example in the NT of people coming to faith without someone explaining it to them. The more ‘other stuff’ there is going on, the more explanation there is.

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      3. ” So as a claim is has as much authority as something you would find on Twitter.” Twitter actually has great content on it, but as with all information, one needs to use ones critical faculties in deciding what’s worth following up, and what isn’t!

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    1. Thank you Rich for encouraging the announcement of the lordship of Jesus. It is unlikely St Francis did say this and if he did the New Testament would say he was wrong. Since gospel means announcement it is a noun and a verb. As one reads through Acts it is surely clear that gospel ministry is all about proclaiming/speaking the gospel.

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    1. When a cathedral is being operated as a tourist attraction, then I beg to differ. Having paid a substantial sum to enter a cathedral last summer to look at the architecture I was more than a little miffed when a member of clergy told everyone to stand still and listen whilst he prayed at us. I continued to wander around quietly and got a death stare from him as a result. I am perfectly happy to creep about quietly – or even to be refused entry – whilst services are going on, but I resent clergy using paying tourists as a captive mission opportunity.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. perhaps more readily available board with post it notes for people to write prayer requests – there is often something but not obvious- & a display board with pictoral type message & certainly info on where to find someone to speak to about any needs/queries

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting reflection. I like the suggestions of creative and engaging ways to present the gospel in these spaces where people may welcome something beyond heritage. Christian Aid has some really good resources to show faith in action and good news to the poor. We’d be up for supporting anyone who felt we had or could develop resources for these significant spaces.

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  6. I always offer a short word arising out of the Scripture readings when presiding at the 1.10 Eucharist on Tuesdays at Manchester Cathedral. It’s in an open chapel and visitors listen in.

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  7. Dear All

    Maybe we have been extrordinarily lucky at St. Mary’s, Portchester Castle: We have had encumbents with vision and amazing teaching skills. Revs Michael Cooper, Charlie Allen and now Ian Meredith have indeed been Heaven-sent. We have a thriving church (meaning, of course, the people) which manages to reach and cater for the needs of a very mixed congregation, both pastorally and spiritually. What a pity that, once clergy reach the higher echelons in the Church of England – and quite probably the Catholic church too, though I have no knowledge of that- the desire to reach the ordinary people goes out the window.

    I would strongly urge deans, bishops and the rest of cathedral clergy who, seemingly, go through the ritual of ‘celebrating’ Mass, Evensong, Compline, etc. to go back frequently to grass roots and see the wonderful things going on in many churches. I would especially urge them to come and hear our vicar, Rev. Dr. Ian Meredith preach at St. Mary’s Church, Portchester. I can guarantee you will be instantly inspired.

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  8. I agree that this is a harsh comment. In Durham Cathedral the lunchtime Eucharist includes the proclamation of the word of God, prayer for the world and the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. From experience the priests who celebrate acknowledge the diversity of the congregation and guide them through the liturgy. An off-the-cuff homily, which I have often heard in Westminster Cathedral, would not, I think, transform these celebrations into great opportunities for mission. I think the work of chaplains and celebrants as I have seen in Durham Cathedral provide a greater sense of pastoral mission than could be achieved by a few minutes reflection on the day’s Gospel.

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  9. On message. The cathedrals do seem to be reporting more attendance (whether tourists or their Sunday worshipping congregations) but few if any have any presentations/boards/podcasts on the essentials of the Christian faith and the attendance at mid-week services is extremely low. But take on the Deans at your peril!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The lowest attendances I have ever encountered at the weekday Evening Office in Salisbury, in winter holiday weeks when there is no choir and many are away, is in the mid teens, usually closer to thirty. On many summer evenings, attendance will be well over a hundred, not including choir and ministers. The morning congregation is also close to 30, I am led to believe (although I pray the Morning Office in St Thomas’ Church).

      I realise from travelling around that we are better attended than most, but it is too simplistic to say “attendance at mid-week services is extremely low”.

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  10. Question: who would the homily be for? If specifically for the congregation then the onlookers will largely be left puzzling and none the wiser. And congregations – particularly at lunchtime midweek services do not always want the distraction of ‘a few thoughts’ in what they have come to experience as precious quiet devotional time, especially if related to their desire to receive communion. If the sermon is ‘really’ aimed at the passer-by, then that turns the service from being primarily what it is to being a staged event with more than half an eye on the the chance of hooking in the odd potentially reachable passer-by.

    Ultimately, if the question is ‘why don’t more cathedrals engage more actively in mission with their visitors?’ then that needs proper consideration. And it does.

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  11. At Salisbury, there is prayer every hour, on the hour, during the day. The Visitors’ Chaplains are also present and visible throughout the day and regularly pray with people. Many of our visitors will only have had the most fleeting of experiences of prayer before. Charlie is right to point out for most people, a sermon is likely to mean little (especially when most don’t speak English as a first language!) Exposition is important for building up the faithful, but it rarely converts. Let’s go pack to our Bibles – the Aeropagus sermon in Acts 17 produced how many Christians?

    Across the country, Cathedrals are the fastest growing part of the Church and weekday attendance has tripled since 2000. I do not know any Cathedral where a sermon is preached at weekday Evensong. But that is where people are being drawn to. I blogged on this here: https://sammymorse.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/why-is-cathedral-evensong-growing-and-what-does-it-mean/

    Your article seems to privilege words spoken by believers over other forms of encountering God. Cathedrals speak volumes – in beauty, in light, in music, in the space and silence of the Daily Office, in being thin places where many centuries of prayer and celebration of the Eucharist have eroded the barrier between earth and heaven. They are sermons in stones themselves, and the mute confession of the building is often a more faithful witness to Christ than our rather flawed and sometimes alienating efforts.

    Here endeth the sermon!

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  12. I’m fascinated by this range of comments, and I think I am the first Dean to respond. All I would say is that in the vast majority of cathedrals you don’t pay a penny to come in, and the proclamation of the Word of God is at the heart of everything we do.

    Here at Chelmsford Cathedral, we are a worshipping community of 400 – 500 with vibrant preaching and worship. We’re obviously not a tourist centre so we’re pretty rooted in reality, and as Dean I am out every second Sunday leading worship and preaching in churches across the diocese from Newham to Clacton on Sea, as is one of the other canons – so we really do get what is going on in the life and communities of the diocese.

    And finally the Cathedral growth figures – 34% over a decade are certainly interesting and make us the fastest growing kind of churches around. We used to think that this was because people liked to be anonymous, but it turns out that a lot of it is because people want to be more involved, and there’s tons to be involved in (we are 5 clergy, 15 lay staff and 400 volunteers – and we are the second smallest cathedral).

    Our intention / claim is that in everything we do we are seeking to be a thriving, outward facing community seeking to serve the city, the diocese and the bishop’s ministry above in evangelism and teaching, as a powerful resource to the churches and networks of the region.

    Nicholas

    Nicholas Henshall
    Dean of Chelmsford
    serving Essex and East London

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    1. Dear Nicholas,
      Thank you so much for your encouraging and gracious response. To grow by a third over 10 years is certainly a very helpful start given the enormous gospel crisis we face. Hope to meet you sometime. Richard

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    2. Dear Nicholas ‘Our intention / claim is that in everything we do we are seeking to be a thriving, outward facing community seeking to serve the city, the diocese and the bishop’s ministry above in evangelism and teaching, as a powerful resource to the churches and networks of the region.’

      All I can say is: what a great vision. No wonder you are thriving. I am sure it would sound ungracious to others to say ‘If only they had a similar vision’ and, as Anna comments below, you are clearly not on your own. But my experience matches a little of Richard’s too: this is very far from universal, and where it is absent it does look like a very large missed opportunity.

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  13. As Chancellor / Missioner at Exeter Cathedral I have enjoyed reading this stream of comments. Mission shapes everything we do at Exeter and we use the vehicle of preaching and teaching alongside prayers boards, leaflets, lighting candles, chaplains, pastoral stewards, the music and liturgy and services specifically shaped around those on the fringe or curious. It seems somewhat arrogant of Richard make the assumptions that he does on the basis of a few trips to MP in a small selection of Cathedrals. I also find it amusing that an evangelical would describe any scripture reading as ‘so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer / chance visitor / faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming)’….. 2 Timothy 3:16 ? Luther would make you go and stand in the corner…

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    1. Dear Anna,

      Thank you for taking time to reply. I’m pretty sure Luther is with me on this one!! http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/luther/preoff.htm
      Or in summary https://calvinistinternational.com/2013/06/06/martin-luther-on-preaching/ if you don’t want to go to the source texts.
      As for arrogance – that is always possible – who can fully know ones own heart? But if a hundred people or more gather in a church and all is incomprehensible to them and Christ is not preached it should spark a reformation. It did in Luther’s time.

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    2. As to the comment about Scripture needing comment and explanation I would have thought that that is utterly self evident. The dear Eunuch who Philip was sent to was teaching the glorious gospel texts of Isaiah and yet still needed an evangelist to run to him before he could believe. How much more so if the lectionary at Evensong is dominated by accounts of war and battle? Are (post) modern ears going to make the hermeneutical jumps unaided. Great to hear about Exeter Cathedral. Please God many will come to faith under your ministry this year.

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  14. I spent the day in Canterbury Cathedral in late May. On the hour there were prayers from the pulpit with an invitation to join in the Lord’s Prayer in one’s own language. The cathedral was heaving with school trips-mainly French teenagers, who showed polite respect and joined in the prayers. The presiding minister invited people to speak with him privately if they wished. I felt, as a practising Anglican, but more so as a Christian, that the Mother Church was offering nurture and care to all present.

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  15. I normally go to an evening service but I take your point.

    I recently called in at Coventry cathedral and they tried to charge me an entrance fee. I explained that I was a practising Christian, active in a local church and paying my dues. To be frank, I feel that cathredals are my heritage and should be free to enter.
    They are usually beautiful buildings with a difficult to find spiritual side whereas the secular business plan often bites you as you enter.

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  17. I think this is a brilliant post, and quite unarguable.
    There are always exceptions, thank God.
    My wife and I recently attended the same service in St. Paul’s,
    and felt exactly as you describe, like animals in a petting zoo.
    I write as a retired cathedral dean, who is a frequent visitor to the UK and
    was trained for ordination in the C of E.

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  18. Hi Richard: as your friendly local dean, it’s interesting to read your comments and replies. We constantly engage with the issues you describe, in all kinds of ways, and it’s all a balancing act: but our core purpose is to enable all who come here to encounter the transforming presence of God in Jesus Christ, and that’s what we’re working on.

    I guess you’re speaking of visiting the lunchtime Eucharist, which is surrounded by visitors in headphones looking at the building, for most of whom English is indeed a foreign language – but worship isn’t. We decided to have this under the Dome rather than hidden in a side chapel in order to witness to the Cathedral’s being a place of living prayer and worship, when visitors might see us just as a museum – while recognising that for some worshippers being in such public worship conflicts with their desire for spiritual quiet; and we too have hourly welcome and prayer with an invitation to speak with a chaplain….

    Do come and see us at your Cathedral, and we can talk about what we can learn from your thoughts and experience – my contact email is on the Cathedral website.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear David, so delighted to hear from you. How very gracious of you to reply. To be honest my usual blog reach has been about 10-30 people. This one was a totally unpremeditated response to the cumulative disappointments of a midday Eucharist I been kindly invited to attend to hear the parish I pastor prayed for, and an evensong in Canterbury at the end of a 150mile pilgrimage from Winchester where I watched a number of bemused bystanders walking out / not engaging / not understanding the sung message.
      So far 3500 people have read it so it has struck some chords I imagine, as well as provoked some interesting counter arguments.
      When I finish my sabbatical rest I’d be delighted to come and learn from you and your team. One of my previous ordinands had a wonderful time seconded to the Cathedral in lent a couple of years ago and he spoke very highly of all the team.
      Big blessings. Richard

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  19. Rich

    Would be interested in how such a missional disaster has resulted in almost a decade of steadily increasing cathedral worship. I have some suspicions!

    Mouse

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think reading this more nuanced report on apparent cathedral growth is enlightening http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/Strand_3a_Cathedrals_Greater_Churches_draft_final_report_07_11_13.pdf
      Of course the command was always to make disciples rather than occasional appreciators of classical music / architecture which may also affect how you read the mid week stats – depending what is in fact going on during those occasions – and that’s acknowledged to be a varied feast according to informed contributors like Cathedral staff/deans on this thread.

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      1. I suspect that some of those “occasional appreciators of classical music / architecture” follow the WAY of Jesus a lot more faithfully than do many (most?) “Jesus is My Personal Saviour!” disciples.

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  20. Richard — finally my reply! It’s too lengthy for a comment, so I’ve posted it here: https://deardeans.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/a-response-to-richard-moys-dear-deans-challenge/ But I’m still a tad electronically challenged and a) I’m not absolutely confident that will take you to it and b) if it does, I’d be delighted if you or anyone else can help me to alter the appalling typeface the site has allocated as a title font. Blessings, Pete

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Pete,
      Thank you very much for this full and stimulating reply. The link does work and I’ll ponder your thoughts a little as well before responding. Cathedral ministry certainly has it’s rewards and your roles sound fascinating – thanks for the plug. I am in no danger of moving on at the moment though! I am happily called to a wonderful church called Christ Church W4 and delighted to be serving there in this season.
      Big blessings.
      Richard

      Liked by 1 person

  21. You have got a debate going, and that is good. I admit it: Cathedrals have a lot to learn about gospel mission and interpretation. There is huge potential and we wish we could realise it. But I don’t think you altogether understand cathedral ministry, and there are many aspects of it that you haven’t seen. I want to thank my colleague at Liverpool Cathedral, Pete Willcox, for an energetic response that sets out some examples.

    Here’s another response from the north that asks some questions about what you’ve written:

    http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk/

    Here’s how my blog ends. “Richard, you are a partner in that shared enterprise of proclamation and witness-bearing. Please don’t knock us!”

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    1. Thank you Michael,

      I am always struck by how well Durham Cathedral interacts with it’s history Missionally. I love the Lego cathedral too. I’ve posted a reply to Pete Wilcox now on richardmoy.com – hope that is a step in the direction of a full reply to your helpful challenges.

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    1. Thank you… I’ve not done any guest posts so far, but have considered it for a friend. If you had anything you wanted to contribute, post a 60 word summary in a reply to this and I’ll give it some thought. Thank you

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