Spiritual Capital? 17 February 2013
Did you know that more people in the UK go to Cathedrals than to football matches? It sounds implausible but it is true. Over a quarter of the population visited one of England’s 42 Anglican Cathedrals last year alone, and even though one in five visitors describes themselves as ‘not religious’, nine out of ten agree that Cathedrals are places to get in touch with the ‘spiritual and the sacred’. Even in modern Cathedral’s like Derby, every day sees a constant stream of visitors-cum-pilgrims. Many come ostensibly as tourists, and yet when they get in, they often don’t act like it. This is certainly not your average museum or gallery.
Visitors do things here. They use the place, like it were their own in some way. They light candles and then sit quietly in front of them. They sit with a priest in a stall, or find a place to be alone. They find nooks and crannies which they make their own. They wander slowly through quiet cloisters, or stand heads up staring at the light coming through ancient windows. They stop before altars and keep still. They write prayers and all manner of requests on little slips of paper and post them through little letter boxes to be read out in the ongoing cycle of prayer that takes place in this strange place.
Out on the street none of this would be considered ‘normal’ behaviour of course, but in their Cathedral they can do what they want. These are the ordinary people of the city. They come here expecting the place to be open and free. What on earth are they doing?
Well there are certainly two things they are not doing. The first thing they are probably not doing is being ‘secular’. These people are praying- or something very like it. They are, as Grace Davie, has famously put it, ‘being spiritual but not religious’. And yet they still come to the ‘religious’ place for ‘spiritual’ nourishment.
The second thing they are not doing is being ‘individualistic’. They are thinking of others, and they are doing it in a public space shared with others. There is the story of the Derby taxi driver, a Sikh, who said to me, “we are proud of our Cathedral”. ‘Our Cathedral’? And so there is something distinctly post-modern about their behaviour, or perhaps that is supposing too much. Maybe it is just spiritual consumerism. The newly constructed individual, spiritual and community-minded, as they might be is still subject to this, the greatest of life-shaping pressures of our society.
One thing Cathedrals do that resists this corrosive marketising pressure, is to provide public space for groups to gather and celebrate their common life. These are often traditional groups, uniformed organisations, parties with links to the establishment or those with Christian furniture in their past. But more and more there are those who gather out of a common interest, or a shared experience. Cathedrals offer them an already-traditioned space; rituals in which to situate themselves and out of which to constitute their identity in a different way to what is offered on the high street or on the television.
Cathedrals also provide public space for debate and controversy. We think not only of the Occupy protesters, but of the Hillsborough Inquiry hearings at Liverpool, and the wide-ranging reconciliation work at Coventry Cathedral. What is interesting in all of this too, is that the space is not some imaginary ‘public square’, where people leave their religious baggage at the door. It is deliberately traditioned space. It is highly ritualised space. It is certainly not secular. It is religious space.
Indeed, it is arguably precisely because of these traditions and the form of common life that they engender, that such new communal endeavours may fruitfully and unthreateningly flourish under the dreaming spires. Though sometimes this is achieved not without difficulty, (again we might think of the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral recently), most often it comes naturally, openly, and is hosted with a generous hospitality that is simply not available on the secular market.
The Grubb Institute and Theos recently published a report on Cathedrals in England that concluded that they are uniquely able to reach beyond boundaries. They seem to be able to renew and sustain a range of connections within society, including between people and the traditions from which modern life cuts them off, and between the diverse organisations and communities that share the same social and physical space and infrastructure yet rarely meet.
In the new report this connectedness is called social capital. It is more than this of course, (we might wisely beware borrowing yet more metaphors from economics), but that term is not a bad start for what Cathedrals, and indeed what other similar faith-based institutions, can do at all levels of society. There are interesting changes afoot in how British people practice religion, but from the individuals own thoughts, to the countries great occasions our religious institutions continue to be able to build the social capital that keeps Britain great. They carry tensions for others. They hold ambiguity. They simultaneously celebrate and challenge, and most importantly they continue to engender the creation of new things, new meanings and new hope.