Traditionally cathedrals are known as the Mother church of their diocese, emphasising the link between parish and cathedral, diocese and cathedral. The cathedral is the home of the seat of the bishop (the cathedra) and here clergy and people gather with their bishop for acts of celebration and of learning. The cathedral also prays daily for the bishop and the parishes in the bishop’s care.
Cathedrals also seek to be Mother church in the way they offer support for clergy, encouraging them to come and spend a quiet day in the cathedral, for reading or reflection, away from the pressures of the parish, or even to come and stay for longer with the cathedral becoming a place for retreat and refreshment. Cathedral clergy also make themselves available to offer support and guidance to parish clergy as spiritual director or other resource. In these and other ways cathedrals offer themselves as a place of nurture.
Increasingly there is an expectation that cathedrals will be engaged with the diocesan mission plan and central Church initiatives. Some wish to see cathedrals more directly under the control of their bishop and more responsive to the needs and wishes of the diocese and more “on message”.
Intended or not many see in the Church of England’s present Renewal and Reform programme a centralising tendency but there is a danger that this could damage the very mission they are seeking to promote. Although seen as rooted in history and tradition, for many who discover cathedrals and their worship, cathedrals are a fresh expression of Church, even a refreshing expression of Church. It is not a claim to be better but a desire to be different and difference can be enriching.
Part of the very success of cathedrals – and cathedrals have been one of the signs of growth for the Church – is that they are independent, that they do sit at times more on the edge of the Church. The very significant numbers visiting cathedrals, their engagement with the wider community through civic events, exhibitions, concerts, conferences and a wide variety of other activities means they meet and engage with a range of people who otherwise the Church might not otherwise be in contact with. They are seen as places which are acceptable to people of all faiths and of no faiths, often acting as a bridge between Church and Community. Being different, being independent, is part of their mission.
Too close an association with either diocese or national church could stifle the very success of cathedrals. As far as possible cathedrals need to be free from imposing others’ agendas on those who cross their thresholds – to do so would be to undermine the sense of cathedrals being safe places, where all are welcome and difficult conversations can be had, where anonymity is acceptable, places large enough to hide in, big enough to point beyond themselves and hint at something other.
Inevitably there can be tensions between independent minded cathedrals and diocese and national Church but tension in and of itself need not be a bad thing. As long as the reason for the independence is clearly articulated and it is shaped by a genuine desire to reach out and be that bride between Church and Community, then the wider Church can only benefit from independent minded cathedrals.
At times rightly and properly cathedrals will play their part in being “mother church” in all the positive connotations of that phrase, but at time, please also let the cathedrals be a distant aunt, allowing them to be at times slightly eccentric, “off message”. But hopefully through their social and community engagement, by their welcome and cherishing of their visitors also a beloved, if distant, aunt. We all need relatives who are different, even slightly mysterious or intriguing. They enrich our sense of being a family and family life is richer and stronger for their presence.
So, long may diocese and national Church resist the temptation to meddle in the life of our cathedrals. Rather let them be given the freedom to do the things they do best, in their own distinctive way, and allow them, at times, to be less mother and more aunt – if distant at times hopefully still beloved.