The Biggest Cathedral In The World?

biggest cathedral in the world
Date: 27/11/2012

There’s nothing a tourist likes better than to tick off a Guinness World Record in every port. But, while we like to claim many things in this city, we didn’t realise our mighty cathedral was a world leader. Liverpool Underlined is enjoying a pint in the splendidly ornate surroundings of the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, when we meet an excitable gaggle of American retirees, fresh off their round-Britain cruise. They’re excited because they’ve just visited the ‘biggest Cathedral in the world’.

Have they? Really?

We have a peek at their improvised guidebooks: floral Martha Stewart folders stuffed with printed out pages gleaned from the internet, a paper-clipped together itinerary of must sees, and friends’ recommendations. The glorious Princes road synagogue, the Cavern, of course…

And sure enough, there it is – a photo of the sturdy central tower of Liverpool Cathedral, all 331 feet of it, soaring heavenwards. Beneath, in the slightly over-scented prose of the US travel writer, is the caption ‘The glorious silhouette of Liverpool, England’s Cathedral of Christ – the world’s largest Anglican Cathedral – ranks as a must visit on any itinerary for vacations in the city which bestowed the Beatles upon the world.’

Carol’s clipping, gleaned from an internet-based religious travel site, is unequivocal. It makes us think she might be onto something we’ve missed.

Only, not everything is as clear cut as it seems. There is division in the ranks. Not all our visiting friends are singing from the same guidebook.

Josie is from New Jersey. And she shows us another travel publication – this one by Frommers, a reputable US guide-book brand. Within its Liverpool section, our cathedral is described as ‘the fifth largest in the world, and the second largest Anglican Cathedral’.

And Josie’s not for budging. She believes she’s visited the world’s real largest Anglican house of God – St John the Divine, squeezed rather unceremoniously in the lower streets of Manhattan, just to the top left of Central Park (it’s on Amsterdam Avenue, should you seek out the address of the Lord on Google Streetview).

Liverpool and New York share a special bond. We were almost twin cities until, post 9/11, NYC decided best not to bestow particular favour on any particular city. So a dispute over who’s got the biggest Cathedral, well, it just seems so wrong.

So a dispute over who’s got the biggest Cathedral, well, it just seems so wrong. Surely it’s Liverpool Underlined duty to solve this unholy confusion.

Working on the theory that if, indeed, the Internet is God, surely Wikipedia is Saint Peter – spreading the world, penning the gospel, and generally bigging up the brand to the rest of us.

And it is in Wikipedia that we learn, of Liverpool Cathedral:

“It is the largest cathedral in Britain and the fifth largest in the world which ultimately makes it the largest Protestant cathedral in the world, although this title is disputed with the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York.”

Here’s what Liverpool Underlined knows for sure:

Liverpool Cathedral was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, then only 23, and took 74 years to complete. What’s not in dispute are its heaviest and highest peel of bells, its tallest and widest Gothic arches, and its largest fully operational pipe organ.

Little wonder that, in a possibly pre-emptive strike, Cathedral-employed PR gurus recently re-branded this monumental building ‘The Great Space’. There’s no denying, it really is great, in all senses of the word – no-one who visits can leave without a suitable sense of shock and awe.

And Liverpool Cathedral is great enough for Visit Northwest, our region’s official Government-funded tourist body, to declare it ‘the largest Anglican Cathedral in the world’. A view shared by the Rt Revd N S McCulloch (we call him Nigel), Bishop of Manchester, on the Manchester Anglican Diocese website recently.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Two-Nil to us then? It’s looking good. Throw in a reference in the official Anglican Church Music website to our number one status and it’s beginning to look like it’s game over, Josie.

Time for some more facts? Liverpool Cathedral’s official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool. It occupies a total area of 9,600 square metres and was built mainly of sandstone quarried from the Liverpool suburb of Woolton. The cathedral’s bell tower is the largest in the world. Its refectory serves the best chicken and mushroom pie in the country.

Josie’s not having any of it. She recalls a piece on the Sacred Destinations website claiming St John The Divine is the largest cathedral in the world (St Peter’s doesn’t count. It’s a Basilica) and knows for a fact that its Nave is the largest in the world. It says so on the NYC Architecture site. She shows us. It does.

Liverpool Underlined digs around a little more, and we find Sacred Destinations to be an exhaustive, globe spanning celebration of a site – detailing the world’s most impressive religious buildings in all their heft, depth and breadth.

It’s looking grim. Sacred Destinations gives the title of biggest cathedral in the world to St John. And a letter from a Cathedral guide in the New York Times adds weight to their claim.

And yet, tantalisingly, Sacred Destinations also includes a reference to the Guinness Book of World Records, which states, under ‘Largest Cathedral in the world’.

The largest church that is a cathedral is either the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York or Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in England (the title is disputed).

It is the largest cathedral in Britain and the fifth largest in the world which ultimately makes it the largest Protestant cathedral in the world, although this title is disputed with the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York…

So we’re no nearer a definitive answer. Which is as much to do with the internet’s endlessly frustrating streams of conflicting information as it is to do with quite how get your arms around something quite so knotty and complex as the size and shape of a cathedral.

Longest nave? Tallest ceilings? Biggest volume? Greatest ground space? Just what is the biggest cathedral in the world?

Doubly confused, we speak to Holly Hayes, editor of the Sacred Destinations website.

“My largest sites page is based on Wikipedia information,” Hayes tells Liverpool Underlined. “I generally try to avoid using Wikipedia as a source, and this has been a good reminder of why that’s a good idea!

“The first paragraph of their article on St. John the Divine says that its claim to be the biggest cathedral in the world is disputed by Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, as mentioned in a reference book on the New York site, but I’ve not been able to track that book down.

“And similarly, the paragraph in their article on Liverpool Cathedral’s claim links to a footnote to the Catholic, Metropolitan Cathedral, so there’s obviously some confusion.”

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Hayes points to another section of Wikipedia, which attempts to offer a more scientific approach – ranking churches by more-or-less objective criteria – cubic volume.

But this is just plain depressing. According to new calculations, Seville Cathedral is now considered the largest church in the world – having pushed in front of Saint Paul’s in London.

On the verge of giving up, we decide there’s only one way to settle this dispute once and for all. Go straight to the top.

Well, not the very top. But as close as we can and still be able to upload a feature afterwards.

‘Is Liverpool home to the biggest cathedral in the world?’, we asked the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby…

Liverpool Underlined spoke to the ex-Dean of Liverpool, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby.

So, settle this dispute for us, if you can, we pleaded. Is Liverpool home to the biggest cathedral in the world, we asked?

“Liverpool Cathedral ranks as the largest Cathedral in the UK and the fifth largest in the world,” Welby told us. “And as an Anglican Cathedral it is the second largest by most definitions.”

“Liverpool Cathedral is a great space that is testament to a vision of an awesome God,” he adds, and, before our lips start to tremble, he’s quick to add.

“But what’s really important to us in the Cathedral is that the visitor gets a chance to encounter God.”

See. If ever there was a lesson in the sin of pride, we reckon Liverpool Underlined has just learned it.

• Interior image by Michael D Beckwith
• Cathedral as viewed from St. James Mount and Gardens by John Hickey-Fry