Norwich Cathedral has been close to my heart ever since I attended school there in the 1980’s. Built by Herbert de Losinga, a friend of St. Anselm take note, it is one of the finest Cathedrals in England with ceiling bosses and a cloister second to none. If you visit during a quiet moment the sacred beauty soon transports the soul to God in prayer. It is an architectural gem built to the glory of God, for the celebration of the sacraments, in days when our nation was a robustly Catholic realm.
But this summer moments for reflection, moments that lift the soul to God, will be few and far between in Norwich because the Church of England, in a move as naff as it is inappropriate, has placed a helter-skelter within. It is one of those embarrassing gimmicks, dreamt up by an ailing ecclesial institution, in the vain hope of appearing trendy and relevant to the world. And like all cringeworthy gimmicks it falls flat.
I can’t help but call to mind that passage in scripture where Jesus turns over the tables in the temple and chastises the cathedral chapter of his day for turning the house of God into a worldly den. Have the Cathedral chapter of today not pondered his point? Why do they again turn space for the sacred into space for housing the profane?
They are not alone. Rochester Cathedral has got in on the act by turning the entire nave into a crazy golf course! The justification is that it may attract new people. Yes but to what end? How does inane chatter over a ‘hole in one’ help people understand the purpose of these buildings? How does it facilitate reverence? How does it encourage encounter with the divine?
Those with poor spiritual formation will doubtless applaud, from the cynical atheist to the person whose notion of worship is all guitars and noise, but only because they themselves don’t appreciate sacred space. Meanwhile those who do appreciate silent devotion are rightly appalled. How tragic that the prayer soaked walls of these ancient and venerable buildings are now housing such blatant tomfoolery.
Not least when the attractions, which are not bad things in and of themselves, could easily be placed without. There is open space in front of Norwich Cathedral which would make a brilliant home for a slide. Similarly the grounds of Rochester Cathedral would make a good venue for crazy golf. The cathedrals would then have enticed new comers without spoiling the sacred space. So why didn’t they take this option? Do they also struggle to see the point of churches and Cathedrals in the first place?
Maybe the root cause is loss of faith and the real problem cognitive dissonance. For many clergy today, especially those of a liberal/modernist persuasion, have lost faith in scripture and the sacraments. And being more persuaded by the secular culture we inhabit, than the ancient faith that inspired the Cathedrals, they eke out an existence as Christian ministers, enjoying the status and stipend, but with waning personal faith. Today you find them everywhere embroiled in earthly not heavenly matters; speaking out passionately on immigration and plastic straws but utterly silent on divine judgment and the salvation of souls.
The growing absence of God in their lives has consequences. One of which is that they lose their faith in the God who is rumoured to inhabit sacred spaces. They no longer believe in the power of sacraments and no longer behave in church as though the veil between earth and heaven is thin here. And that, in truth, is what leads to slides and golf courses. For when you no longer trust that God himself calls people to him, you can only turn to your own efforts and ideas to bring the people in and fill up the coffers. Labyrinths, golf courses, slides and gimmicks are the inevitable end result. And that is perhaps the saddest aspect of this summer of stunts we witness in the ailing C of E.
People have historically been drawn to church by true faith and authentic holiness. But I guess, if the cupboard is getting very bare in that regard, all you have left to offer is golf and a display promoting your favoured causes.