Cathedral gimmicks illustrate spiritually blind Britain and mute Church

Aug 13, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

No doubt buoyed by the old cliche that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the Church of England continues to include in its own Daily Media Digest several reports and opinion pieces in a number of media outlets about the installation of a golf course and helter skelter in Rochester and Norwich cathedrals.

While some have defended the gimmicks as harmless ways of raising money and attracting to an experience of the sacred those who would never normally darken the doors, there have been criticisms (for example here and here) from those pointing out that this trivialises the Christian faith and is a sign of lack of confidence in the gospel. The LGBT lobby have joined in the debate  suggesting that the C of E’s priority should be demonstrations of inclusivity in the iconic buildings, such as same sex marriages.

My feeling is that using cathedrals for golf and fairground slides is a bit silly and probably won’t have a positive missional result, but it illustrates society’s secularism and the church’s loss of confidence in the gospel rather than being deliberately malevolent. Much more concerning is the use of cathedrals and churches for rituals of freemasonry, the practice of Islamic or Buddhist spirituality, fashion shows with an occultic elementerotic or blasphemous films, gay pride celebrations, and unsuitable artistic displays

I was recently at Truro Cathedral for a university graduation ceremony, where a brilliant acapella version of Bohemian Rhapsody was sung by a robed choir (not the cathedral choir, it turns out). For those not familiar with the song, it is about a young man in nihilistic despair after committing murder; it builds to a climax with the line “Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me”. The Dean then welcomed the audience with the hope that we would enjoy the ‘sacred space’.

There was something disturbingly incongruous in a song with this subject matter being performed in a building dedicated to God’s glory at a happy occasion of celebrating achievements of young people.  I wrote to the Dean suggesting that the choice of song was inappropriate and even offensive; I received a brief reply saying the programme was the responsibility of third party hirers of the venue (the University of Exeter). 

Of course if cathedrals are just about historical interest and architectural /musical aesthetics, if concepts of God and evil spiritual powers are just projections of the human psyche, if the 1970’s Queen hit is just part of the audio wallpaper of our lives and we’ve never stopped to think about its meaning, if Islamic chants and movie sex scenes are just in the category of arts and culture, then there’s nothing to worry about. Cathedrals can continue with their fundraising efforts, either providing the entertainment themselves or renting out the premises without any need for concern about the content of the programme being put on. My complaint can be filed along with others as the powerless disapproval of a traditionalist minority.

Romantic poet John Keats said “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. One could argue that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ tells the truth about a theme with urgent contemporary relevance – the nihilistic violent anguish in a young man’s soul, in a beautiful musical structure. For Keats, human emotion captured timelessly in a piece of art is the perfect combination of truth and beauty; reflecting on it is “all ye need to know”. This philosophy pervades our culture: thousands of songs tell of the unhappiness of  failed or lost love with no resolution or happy ending, yet we love to listen to them because they capture an aspect of reality in a format where often the voice and the music contribute together to the overall emotional effect. 

But for the Christian, Keats’ saying is inadequate and potentially dangerous if it doesn’t lead to the worship of God and to his solution for human sin and misery. Being struck by the beauty of nature or human art; gaining an insight into the reality of human emotions such as love and joy and sadness and fear – if these are ends in themselves it will only lead to the worship of idols, the celebration of our sinful selves as ‘authentic identity’,  and/or seeing popular entertainment and in-the-moment experiences as the high point of human existence. The Greeks, Romans and other cultures have done this down the ages. 

The Judaeo-Christian tradition says something very different. Not advocating a false asceticism, because God gave all good things for our enjoyment. Not creating a pious, inward-looking world, where we hide away from the realities of life for most people (because of this I’m in favour of Christians learning how to understand and appreciate all kinds of art, including the expression of the darker side of life in rock music). But always looking to see God as creator behind the beauty; human sin and the ‘prince of this world’ behind the ugliness, and the gospel of Christ as God’s plan for redemption and transformation.

The staff at Truro cathedral may argue that the performance of Bohemian Rhapsody raised the question about life’s meaning; the architectural setting pointed to the answer. But it doesn’t unless the gospel is explained. A cathedral without the gospel in an increasingly secular country is like Athens’ temple to the unknown god – a mysterious signpost which needs a guide to explain the true meaning of the journey, and the destination. Without this explanation, a secular tourist sliding down a helter skelter or playing golf in the nave is focussing on the trivial in the presence of something of ultimate importance which he is blind to, like a Roman soldier playing dice at the foot of the cross. The performance in a cathedral setting of Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps equivalent to a bleak scene from a Sophoclean tragedy sung by a chorus in the temple to the unknown god, followed by the apostle Paul encouraging the crowd to appreciate being in a sacred space.

The Church of England is the custodian of a magnificent heritage, but when it’s failing to explain the meaning of the buildings, switches the focus of visitors to light entertainment which detracts from the message, and then permits and defends active promotion of different messages with opposing spiritualities, it’s no longer promoting the beauty of God and his reality, but fun and artistic expression on a human-level only, together with spiritual confusion. The question will then be: when will it be time for those who worship in spirit and truth to move away from historic buildings so often now mute or even covering up the gospel, into community halls and homes?

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