Worshippers crowd back to cathedrals

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The Independent Online

Declining church attendance figures are masking a boom in cathedral and abbey congregations as believers abandon their parishes for up-market music and liturgy. Figures published last week showed that only 7.5 per cent of the population are worshippers compared with 12 per cent 20 years ago.

Declining church attendance figures are masking a boom in cathedral and abbey congregations as believers abandon their parishes for up-market music and liturgy. Figures published last week showed that only 7.5 per cent of the population are worshippers compared with 12 per cent 20 years ago.

But a survey of England's 42 cathedrals by the Independent on Sunday shows a very different picture, with nearly two- thirds welcoming ever more people through their doors.

It is a country-wide phenomenon. Cathedrals with rising congregations include, Wells, Birmingham, Blackburn, Chelmsford, Chester, Chichester, Derby and Westminster Abbey. At Wells, 31,000 attended services over Christmas leading the clergy to fear the cathedral could lose its prayerful atmosphere.

Many parish churches, meanwhile, are struggling. The Reverend Peter Seal works in three council estates on the edge of Winchester and in the shadow of the cathedral. He believes people are "shopping around" for the worship they like best.

"A cathedral does take people who would be great assets to parish churches," he said. "There's no doubt about that. Here, we are very short of professional people because they will go to the cathedral.

"They are drawn to the cultured environment of the cathedral and to the standard of music there. If you can bask in that wonderful experience you will think twice about going to your local church which has an okay choir that does its best."

But cathedrals are also drawing a new type of worshipper, attracted by commemorative events and special services.

Paul Denby, the Canon Precentor of Manchester Cathedral, believes the death of the Princess of Wales has made a major contribution to cathedrals' new-found popularity. Hundreds of thousands of people converged on cathedrals to sign books of condolence, light candles and to pray. "People needed a focal point," he said. "It was a response to the community's need which was always been there, but had been ignored."

In Manchester people who first came to mark the princess's death now return for services that previously they would never have attended. The cathedral's popularity has spread throughout the community and even Manchester United held a service to mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich plane crash.

Cathedrals may be gaining popularity for the anonymity they offer. "People know that they won't be pounced on to run the Brownies," said Canon Noel Vincent of Liverpool.

But it is the music and liturgy, including performances by world class choirs, that are the big draws, he said: "A lot of parishes have gone more and more down the line of involvement in informal worship, but some people prefer more traditional worship."

In some areas this has led to the establishment of big concert seasons. Exeter cathedral, for example, reported that 470,000 people attended concerts at the cathedral last year.

Family services are also popular. At Southwell, Nottinghamshire, 10,000 children attended this year's evangelistic event in the minster, called Time Travel. Rochester cathedral is now on the map for local schools, which visit as part of their national curriculum studies.

In Chelmsford, according to spokesman Tony Allen, more children are coming to Sunday services. "More young children come every week. We have a junior church [Sunday School] at the cathedral. The image of cathedrals used to be stuffy, but we are anything but that. School children are involved in events here in May. We are at the heart of the community. We are a parish church."

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