Cathedral Thinking in a Prefab World

25-06-2019 13:06


“The concept of Cathedral Thinking stretches back through the centuries to medieval times, when architects, stonemasons and artisans laid plans and began construction of the soaring, cavernous structures that served as places of worship, community gathering spaces and safe havens.”

All instances of cathedral thinking require the same foundations: a far-reaching vision, a well thought-out blueprint, and a shared commitment to long-term implementation. In a world, particularly a corporate world, obsessed with change and speed – and with facilities and tools that speed you up, not slow you down – this is fundamentally counter-cultural.

This concept of ‘cathedral thinking’ seems to have a natural resonance across multiple industries. It has been mentioned in relation to marketing and brand strategy, corporate social responsibility and purpose-drive economies – where it is often envisaged as a form of competitive advantage, corporate culture, and more. It is often discussed in relation to the need for corporates to respond to consumers’ increasing awareness of the impact of their choices – from plastic in the ocean to sweat shops in Bangladesh. A recent (2019) article[1] says that “research indicates that ethical attributes influence brand choice.”  Cathedral thinking and ethical choices are often linked, recently (April 2019) most notably by Greta Thunberg as a response to climate change.


Clearly those discussing cathedral thinking are not usually literally considering cathedrals – although these do make good illustrations for the plethora of articles about the subject. Images of the Sagrada Familia seem particularly prevalent, possibly because it is still very much in the process of being built – it was begun in 1882 and current predictions say it should be complete by around 2032, a 150 year build period – and so gives us a ‘real-life’ glimpse of the concept in practice.

How is the concept of cathedral thinking lived out in England’s churches and cathedrals?

Cathedrals and churches are hugely evocative and recognisable in western culture. They are images of solidity and continuity. Working with England’s churches and cathedrals has taught me so many things: the importance of taking risks, the ways that the most unexpected people relate to spiritual places, the value of authenticity and a proper, full sort of sustainability under the ‘three pillars’ definition: society, ecology, economy, or ‘people, planet, profits’. A balancing act.

The twin cathedrals at Coventry[2] are made up of ruins created by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and an undeniably 20th century response in the new cathedral. They speak powerfully because they are preserved and yet alive.


The new cathedral is the fastest built in England: the foundation stone was laid in 1956 and the building consecrated in 1962. Compared to Portsmouth Cathedral – which began being built in 1188 and, through various delays, changes of plan and expansions, wasn’t completed until 1991, 803 years later, this is incredibly quick. But in modern building terms a six-year stretch is still considered long. Expectations of what can be achieved in what sort of time are often a point of conflict within organisational planning. Whether it is creating places or changing it, buildings may come and go but culture tends to endure unless dramatically shaken.

Winston Churchill was leading the restoration of the chamber of the House of Commons after it was damaged by bombing in WWI. He made the statement: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” What he was reflecting on was the way in which the form of the place affects the out-workings of the organisation that uses it. He was using this as an argument for restoration of the chamber exactly as it had been, but it can also be used to make the opposite argument; that if we want to change our organisations we must change our buildings. Almost all cathedral buildings have been changed over the years; the most typical contemporary manifestations are the removal of fixed pews to created flexible space (actually this is more of a reversion to original type) and the building of visitor or education centres. What is the context within which today’s changes are being made?

Cathedrals have been successful in a very long-term way and by a very particular long-term definition. They endure. They also have fallow periods, which can be easily forgotten. During the 18th century many of our greatest cathedrals were very much neglected – some had still not been repaired since the Civil War. The medieval parish church in Derby – on the site of today’s Cathedral – was in such a parlous state that it was demolished entirely apart from its west tower. Nearly all the west front statues at Lichfield are Victorian replacements. Yet the institutions endured through times of trouble, and today they are very much shop windows for the Church of England. The clear narrative in capitalism is that success equals continuous growth. Is this – and should this – be true for cathedrals? It can feel like it.

Those of us working at national level have put no little time and effort into defining the quantifiable modern contribution of cathedrals – £220m a year to the national economy, employing over 3000 people, 14,000 volunteers, over 10 million visitors a year, a year-on-year rise in worshipping congregations, etc etc. But these statistics aren’t nearly as important to those who visit cathedrals as something much less tangible; the nature of stories.

“[Cathedrals are] a safe place to do risky things in Christ’s service.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Cathedrals can take risks in a way churches may not feel able to – a matter of resources, clergy numbers, staffing, and other practical matters. This should not be taken to imply that churches never take risks, or are less creative or dedicated than cathedrals. Whoever is taking the risk, the big question is what risks are right to take, and which risks you can control. It is the key difference between acquired and desired narratives; the stories you want versus the stories you have to work with.

In Bristol Cathedral there is a stained glass window dedicated to Edward Colston. Colston was a slave trader, part of an international industry that shaped several key UK cities through the commodification of human misery and untold suffering. A suggestion that Bristol Cathedral might remove this window resulted in such a variety of responses that it was impossible to determine any clear single voice: the window was part of history and that shouldn’t be changed; the window should stay because modern-day people were pathetic snowflakes and the cathedral shouldn’t pander to their ridiculous ideologies of trying to correct the past; the window should stay as a reminder of the evils of the past; the window should go and be replaced with a memorial to the victims of slavery; the window should be ritually destroyed as a symbol of overcoming this past. The competing narratives quickly became overwhelming and threatened to turn into campaigns. This is the definition of an acquired narrative; unwanted, but absolutely impossible – or at least incredibly unwise – to ignore. They cannot be reasonably dealt with unless the past is looked at without nostalgia and with a completely clear eye, and recognition that we bear responsibility for it.

So what did the Chapter at Bristol do? They apologised for past ‘careless and sometimes offensive’ use of language, removed all references to Colston’s name from their annual services, but made it clear that they would not consider removing the window. They engaged, with this statement:

“Transatlantic slavery was an evil trade that inflicted terrible suffering and injustice. It has left a stain on this city. Because Bristol’s history has been built into the fabric of the Cathedral we are reminded daily of our past and must address serious issues about what we remember and how. We do not do this in isolation; through a lively debate we are learning all the time. The Cathedral should be, and will be, a place that acknowledges our sinfulness, speaks truthfully of our failings and our successes, and articulates our hope. We will work with different communities within the city as we try to tell the story better, include the experience of those who were enslaved, and acknowledge the legacy of transatlantic slavery in our city.”

You cannot ignore the past, or imply that the present does not need to recognise it.

In the cathedral thinking model, one of the things our church buildings demonstrate in a physical and undeniable way is that with long-term thinking comes the chance to marry in haste, repent at leisure. How do we deal with past mistakes and events? Our cathedral buildings carry within them the history of their stories. A building that has evolved and developed, sometimes over several centuries, will have built into its fabrics the events, errors, decisions and dilemmas of the past. They key is not the fact that this has happened, but how the present and future respond to it.

At Wells Cathedral there are, high up in the roof, two changes in carpentry styles as we progress from east to west end, following the medieval builders. These represent two events which were very much not part of the plan, but which now form part of the present: from 1209-1213 England, or more specifically King John, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. During this period no cathedral building could took place, so work on the part-finished Wells was put on hold. But the carpenters involved were not idle; they worked on houses, castles, bridges, and continued to refine and develop their craft. When they were allowed back up into the roof at Wells they brought these changes with them. Cathedral thinking means being able to incorporate the unexpected, to learn from what is happening outside at any particular time, and to bring in improvements whenever possible.

The second break in work on the roof at Wells was more devastating. From 1346-8 the Black Death was at its peak in England. In total between 1346-53 across Europe an estimated 60% of the total population died – a scale of loss unequalled before or since. Entire villages were abandoned and never repopulated. Lineages were decimated, inheritances re-routed. This event changed the face of Europe forever. At Wells work had to stop because, we gather from records, the craftspeople died. Skills and knowledge were lost almost overnight. It must have been terrifying. When work resumed, the new carpenters show a marked lack of skill compared to those who went before them – they did not have access to the training or history. Slowly they re-learned, in part copying the complex joints and styles already in place. Cathedral thinking is not immune to crisis, but its ability to look back as well as forward, to learn from and build on what went before, gives the whole a better chance of surviving.

In other cathedrals we see the flipside of this. True cathedral thinking means living with your mistakes, and committing future generations to either do the same, or radically re-think.

A crooked arch at York Minster

In the north nave aisle at York Minster we have an arch that was apparently built for a different building, requiring the roof and walls to be decidedly less than symmetrical. In the west wall of the triforium in the north-east transept of Canterbury Cathedral there is an arch so crookedly mis-sprung that it looks drunk. We don’t know if the medieval builders didn’t have time to fix it, or didn’t quite know how, but either way we are still squinting up at it today. There are multiple examples of this all over England.[3] Crucially, the ones that survive today are the mistakes that are survivable – that is, not structurally significant. There were mistakes made in building the central spire at Lincoln Cathedral and it collapsed not once, but twice, first in 1237 and then the re-built one, put up between 1307-1311, collapsed in 1549. When the second spire was completed, Lincoln Cathedral (all unbeknownst to it) became the tallest building in the world, taking the crown from the Great Pyramid at Giza, which had held it for some 3000 years. Yet despite the distinction it conferred, the spire has never been re-built. Sometimes a good idea doesn’t work; sometimes going for glory will kick you in the teeth. Because of these collapses the roofline of Lincoln running east to west is not straight; there is a kink where the two parts were reconnected after the spire fell through the roof. Cathedral thinking means making your mistakes good, or learning to live with them, and accepting that something conceived over such time will always incorporate evidence of past difficulties. This is its nature, and should not be disguised, even if it could be. Mistakes are how we learn.

Notre Dame was another acquired narrative. When Paris’s cathedral burned in April 2019 the world watched, and was horrified. But this wasn’t the first time that cathedral had suffered a major fire; what was different (to us) was that it had happened, as it were, on our watch. We now had to take responsibility for decisions of what happened next; someone might have to take the blame. The world collectively felt as is this shouldn’t have happened because we had no frame of reference for processing it. Here was a need for an immediate and modern response to something we had thought was eternal and unchanging; politicians weighed in – it will be rebuilt in five years! Those wishing to be seen as charitable opened their pocket books – it will be funded by those who love France, and history! (As an aside it is worth noting that at the moment only 10% of the promised €850m has actually come in). But those who knew it intimately, who cared for it and its sisters around the world, knew that this was only a temporary pause in the lineage, a comma, not a full stop. Their cathedral thinking allowed them to resist the sensationalism (although they did, good planners that they are, accept the money) and to proceed with dignity and confidence. This is cathedral thinking in action.

What about desired narratives? How do you focus on the stories you want to tell?

Robert Louis Stevenson said “I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.” [SLIDE] It seems the public agrees with him; 85% of English people go to a church at least once a year; 55% of tourists visit churches. A lot of this interest comes from history and architecture, but that doesn’t mean that this is where all stories must be focused. Many people coming in today will not have any background in Christianity. We cannot rely on awareness of religious stories, or on fond childhood memories of attending Sunday School. You cannot tell the history of England without its churches and cathedral.

Rochester Cathedral lit up next to ruined Rochester Castle

Continuity is key to their interest. Look at Rochester Cathedral, lit up and alive, next door to poor old ruined Rochester Castle. Cathedrals and churches help to care for the history of the country, good and bad, easy and difficult. But the buildings also speak inherently of faith. Some of you will have come across a concept developed by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture in York: adjacency. You don’t have to be in Evensong to hear it happening from a quiet seat in the nave. You can be aware of people who are praying, even if you yourself are there because of a love of history. I am not suggesting that there needs to be an ‘active’ religious element to every visit to a cathedral, but being consciously aware of the possibilities of encounter is something I would like to see more of. Cathedrals can, with our help, tell a complete story.

We must also be aware of who isn’t coming in. A Visit Britain survey in 2017 showed that, at 18%, Places of Worship had by far the lowest proportion of family visits – significantly less than the next lowest (Historic Houses and Castles, at 28%). For those managing churhces and cathedrals that are open to visitors outside of worship times, this is a challenge, and a lot of it is to do with welcome. How many signs are there in your church that say ‘please don’t sit here’, ‘please don’t enter the sanctuary’ ‘no entry’? How many ropes and barriers are there? Are they explained, or are they just there? If a child were to run around, would your staff or volunteers be cheerful about it, or tell the parents off or (worse) tut disapprovingly? Is there training available on welcoming families? Many cathedrals and churches already do this brilliantly, but clearly there is more to do. At heart this is about communication within the space – after all, a brilliant digital presence and social media coverage will count for nothing if the welcome on the ground is less than stellar. It is about opening up possibilities rather than shutting them down. If a space is off limits because it is sacred then there’s the chance to say why. In a world where pretty much everything is for sale, to have something that is defined by an entirely different set of values makes a striking statement.

What defines cathedral thinking? It is, at heart, a matter of how we make judgements on everything from where people can and cannot go on a visit, to how we respond to the political winds of the day: what Aristotle called ‘practical wisdom’. Aristotle is clear that what he calls phronesis is a skill that requires a lifelong commitment to develop:

“Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.”

Cathedral thinking cannot happen in the abstract; it is something that must be practised and played out in real situations, as it is only through an accumulation of practical wisdom that it comes into its fullest potential.

Geoffrey Vickers describes judgement as “an elusive quality, easier to recognize than to define, easier to define than to teach.”[4] What is seen as ‘good’ judgement in the immediate term may, as with the use of exciting new modern concrete materials in building Coventry Cathedral, be seen as a very poor choice by future generations, as they are already failing, possibly irrevocably. We shall have to try something new, all over again, or go back to older techniques.

Perhaps one of the clearest conclusions to draw from this is that when we are trying to consider cathedral thinking we have to recognise our own limitations, and our inability to do more than sustain and pass on to the best of our abilities. Even with deliberate suppression of ego, a decision-maker cannot be seen as separate from the situation in which they are making the decision. What cathedral thinking asks of us as decision-makers and planners now is to deliberately and carefully combine our contemporary perceptions with discernment “when the agent brings herself fully to the situation to feel its contours and its landscape of possibilities.” Cathedral thinking does not mean always playing it safe, or only making small changes. Sometimes having a long-term view allows you to take risks that would be far too much for somewhere focused on shorter-term outcomes.

In this context the concept of the ‘common good’ comes to the fore as the main point of reference for judgement. Cathedrals are the common ground because they serve the common good. Cathedral thinking is the ultimate act of self-effacement; you/we/us are not the focus or the intended beneficiaries of decisions. What makes this really hard to do is that contributions to the common good across decades or centuries cannot often be judged only by outcomes – and especially not by outcomes visible within the sort of short-term reporting cycles often demanded by the modern world. For Aristotle the intent behind a decision is key to whether or not it is virtuous: “The end of all action, individual or collective, is the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” In cathedral terms, this means making decisions that will positively provide for those not yet born, those who have no idea they will ever need such a place, and those who would actively deride such an approach for being uneconomic, inefficient, ‘not a good business model’.

There is an inherent tension in trying to bring new ideas in to an old institution: for every person frustrated that their brilliant ideas are not being picked up there will be someone hating the fact that things are changing, unsure if the judgements being made are the right ones, wanting to take more time to consider. It is only by recognising that cathedrals exist in the ‘then’, the ‘now’ and the ‘henceforth’ all at once that good decisions can be made. This is future-proofing by building in flexibility, both physically and in the mental processes underlying today’s choices.

Business analysts Ford and Ford define change as “A phenomenon of time” involving two elements: identity and the process of transformation. In other words, who are you, and where do you want to be? So here’s the challenge. What do we want our churches and cathedrals to be in the future? We need to talk about the history, the magnificence, the significance, in the context of what that means for our society today, and in a way that recognises the issues faced by those on less long-term schedules. Churches should always pay a living wage and be exemplary employers, can consciously reach out to, work with and welcome the marginalised, open their doors when other doors are being slammed shut. They can tell the difficult stories, be places for hard debate in a safe (although not neutral) space. Diversifying use of church buildings and spaces in order to enhance welcome is a key part of this, and keeping churches and cathedrals open for worship at the same time is not contradictory or problematic. It is bold, right, and with a strong historical precedent.

George Orwell, writing diaries in 1942, was his usual prescient self when he said:

“When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends… everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.”

Cathedrals and churches continue to hold sway in the modern world precisely because they have not bent to all prevailing winds, but judged things against a different set of criteria. Defining success as endurance rather than growth is deeply counter-cultural. Using this definition can be used as a reason to stifle change, and goodness knows the Church does not always get it right; but properly understood it is precisely this approach which allows the risk-taking. Cathedrals and churches can use their strong bedrock to avoid the sort of short-term political expediency that Orwell so deplores. God’s time is not our time, and God’s measures are not our measures. Christians are clearly directed to be identifiable in the world – by their fruits you shall know them, as the Gospel of Matthew has it. The long perspective of churches and cathedrals gives the lie to the idea that the fruit has to be available on demand, immediately, and in the flavour preferred that day. The fruit of these works blooms and ripens in its own time, not ours.

The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance (known as the Burra Charter) says that

“Cultural significance means aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations. Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, setting, use, associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects. Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.”[6]

The context of a place incorporates co-existence with other elements of significance: a cathedral does not have to choose to be either a heritage building or a living church, it is by its nature both, and more. Cathedral thinking is not a straight road through a known valley. It is an iterative approach which draws on the past, acknowledges and learns from mistakes, and makes decisions based on an ever-shifting multi-valent set of contexts and criteria. So far as is practically possible cathedral thinking minimises the individual in preference in favour of the whole – this being particularly important for those actually making decisions.

Cathedral thinking in a prefab world will show your qualities and your robustness. It doesn’t mean doing nothing, it means doing everything well and with a different set of priorities than other contexts may ask for or understand. It means dealing with both acquired and desired narratives, telling difficult stories unblinkingly and openly, confident of where you’ve come from and where you’re going to. As cathedrals speak primarily of the glory of God rather than the cleverness of humans, so cathedral thinking ignores ego and individual legacy in favour of the glorification of careful caretaking, well-stewarded inheritance and, above all, persistence.

[1] Schamp, C., Heitmann, M. & Katzenstein, R. J. of the Acad. Mark. Sci. (2019) 47: 328.

[2] there is a third cathedral in Coventry: St Mary’s Priory almost 1000 years old and cathedral until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. The site, if not the structures, has endured

[3] A fantastic blog by Dr James Cameron on this subject is worth a read if you need a laugh:

[4] Vickers, G. (1984), ‘Judgment’ in Vickers, G. The Open Systems Group (eds.) The Vickers Papers, London: Harper and Row, pp. 230-45

[5] Shotter, J. and Tsoukas, H. (2014), ‘Performing Phronesis: On the Way to Engaged Judgment’, Management Learning, 45, 4, pp. 377-96