By John Martin

English cathedrals would be in fine shape if the sole measure were the numbers of people worshiping within them. Half of them, however, face acute financial challenges, and Archbishop Justin Welby has warned against believing they are too big to fail.

Cathedral deans are meeting in London in the last week of April amid talk of cash crises and out-of-control costs. A cathedral “could get into a situation so desperate that there is no obvious solution,” said the Rt. Rev. Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney and former Dean of Rochester, in The Guardian.

Newman, who leads a new national working group to investigate the running and financing of cathedrals, said his “finger-in-the-wind estimate” is that nearly half of cathedrals face stern financial challenges.

A new cloud on the horizon is an expectation of greatly reduced government funding for cathedral maintenance through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In recent months, stories have emerged of individual cathedrals in trouble. Guilford Cathedral’s plans for a massive house-building project on its grounds suffered a death blow when the Guildford Borough Council vetoed the plan.

The Bishops of Exeter and Peterborough recently intervened because their respective cathedrals were in a parlous financial state. Peterborough had a severe cash flow crisis leading to job redundancies. Intervention by the Bishop of Exeter led to the early retirement of its dean.

There is no national process for funding cathedrals or national rules for running them. Core congregations are often quite small, and those cathedrals that charge entry fees to non-worshiping visitors are generally better off than those that request contributions. But only nine of the 44 charge entrance fees.

Westminster Abbey charges tourist visitors £20. Durham, a historic 900-year-old building, asks £7.50 for the chance to visit a permanent exhibition. Its annual deficit is currently £500,000. The average visitor contributes 35 pence against daily average running costs of £3,500.

“There has never been a time over the past 25 to 30 years when we’ve had so little public money going into cathedrals,” Newman said. “And I think that does need looking at afresh.”

His working group is due to report in December.

Image: Guildford Cathedral

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