Place, Spirituality and Mission

By Canon Andy Bryant - 16 July 2018
A picture of visitors to Norwich Cathedral
Traditionally at our churches, which are also heritage attractions, we have been taught to think that our mission is to turn tourists into pilgrims. But what if we regarded all visitors as already pilgrims, how might this change our approach? 

The York University Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture has just undertaken a major research project of visitor experience at four English Cathedrals.  Their research suggests all visitors to cathedrals are on a continuum between tourist and pilgrim. It is a false view to see this as an either/or. Some sense of the spiritual or “the other” is a key part of the motivation for visiting a cathedral. This may not be expressed in traditional or approved ways and we must learn to value behaviour as spiritual even if to us it is not what we would do.

Perhaps part of good hospitality is taking the spirituality of our visitors seriously.

Much as history and heritage are valued, it is the ability to connect with the spirituality of the space that is the highlight of the visit. This might include lighting a candle, writing a prayer, observing worship, picking up a leaflet or prayer card or an item chosen from the shop – the humble fridge magnet of the cathedral can take on the significance of the medieval pilgrim badge. The taking of a selfie is also a form of spiritual expression, choosing to show oneself in a religious environment and to share this with friends via social media. 

The places of spiritual encounter may not be spaces we might expect such as a chapel or at an altar. They are more likely to be in more informal spaces such as an aisle, the cloisters or even the shop. They are seeking places where they can make connections that make a link with their own story, faith, history, city, etc. This might be realised by lighting a candle or leaving a prayer, or a connection they make with someone associated with the cathedral including their guide or a chaplain. 

Part of this relationality can also be experiencing the cathedral “in action” – hearing the organ playing or a choir rehearsing, the hourly call to prayer or seeing a service take place. Catching a glimpse of a bride is also a special memory – all brides are warned they will instantly become part of the visitor attraction!

Linked to this visitors also like seeing a service taking place. This has been termed adjacency. The visitor may not want to directly sit in the congregation or join in the service, but they do value being able to be on the edge. This avoids any confusion about how to join in whilst enabling them to take something away from the service.  

There is much for us to continue to reflect on from this research but above all it is a timely reminder to us all that spirituality remains at the heart of the visitor experience and it is our role to help enhance, not distract from, this. We are thus drawn back to the primary purpose for which our buildings exists – to speak of the things of God.

This blog also features as an article in the July/August 2018 edition of The Magazine. To read more or to order your free copy please visit the Diocese of Norwich website.

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