In each of the gospel narratives, there appears an account of how Jesus unceremoniously drove out the cattle and the moneychangers from the temple. The account is invariably cited as justification for the notion of 'righteous anger'. In John [2:15-17] we read:
"And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and the oxen, pay out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons: "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade."
This scriptural reminder of the need to honour and respect the sacred as something 'set apart' (i.e. the sanctuary) now appears to be regarded as 'old hat'. Drawing upon the vocabulary of one prominent UK politician, one might say the very notion is: 'balderdash' and 'piffle'.
The basis for this proposition is to be found, not within the writings or pronouncements of those marshalling a secular agenda. Nor is it to be located in the opinions of humanists, or, atheists, who are so outwardly hostile to the very accommodation of faith related perspectives. No. Surprisingly, it is to be found among the clergy of the Church of England. For those entertaining incredulity, the evidence is as cogent, as it is surprising.
First came the unapologetic announcement by the Ven. Canon for 'Mission and Growth' at Rochester Cathedral. She proudly announced the installation of a crazy golf course within the medieval nave. A spokesman for Rochester is reported as stating:
"Cathedrals are very confident at the moment to innovate and have events like this and to tell people about our faith in Jesus which is what we're all about.
"The Archbishop of Canterbury said to us that if you don't know how to have fun in cathedrals then you're not doing your job properly."
A cursory examination of the Cathedral website reveals the following statement:
"A place of Christian worship since AD604"
Informed readers will immediately associate the See of Rochester with St John Fisher, Cardinal and Martyr. That is, one who, for the good of the Christian faith, remained steadfast against the sustained encroachments of his former pupil, Henry VIII. He was, to use a phrase, the last man standing amongst the episcopate. In the words of the great hymn: "in spite of dungeon, fire and sword." Unlike many modern clergy, there is no suggestion that he was himself a proponent of the earlier forms of golf.
However, the happenings at the See of Rochester are not unique. In December 2018, it was reported that Norwich Cathedral would, in due course, become home to a 'helter skelter'. At the time of writing, the 40ft structure is understood to be undergoing installation in the nave. A spokesman for the Cathedral commented that, whilst not a conventional venue for such a structure, it was hoped that it might entice people to "a religious experience". Within the same report, it is stated:
"The cathedral is planning other events including a visit by Dippy, the Natural History Museum's iconic diplodocus dinosaur skeleton, from July to October 2020."
The west front of Norwich Cathedral houses a statue of Dame Julian of Norwich. Famed for her faith, Julian shunned the trappings and attractions of the world to dedicate herself as an anchoress. Her writings - now so widely known and acknowledged as spiritual classics- were published anonymously. Since 2013, the City of Norwich has held an annual event known as the "Julian Week". Her influence has also been recorded by the University of East Anglia through its dedication of a Study Centre to her name. At present, there are no indications that she should be similarly honoured in any fairgrounds (permanent or temporary).
Readers seasoned with many years of pastoral experience may recognise these developments as the culmination of practices which have witnessed the hire of ecclesial buildings, church halls and parish rooms for many and varied pursuits; many of which are contrary to the faith the Church professes and its teaching on important moral issues. Others may echo the sentiments of Fr Ted: "That would be an ecumenical matter." But removed from the shores of Craggy Island, these same practices (and the reasons used to promote them) demand closer scrutiny. One is entitled to ask- regardless of whatever possessed those making these decisions to conclude as they have- what does this say about, not only the building, but also the institution's perception of them?
In the world of commerce, crazy golf and fairground attractions are doubtless, for some, a source of entertainment. Save for committed participants in the leisure and entertainment industry, few would rely upon them as their principal commodity or unit of trade. Indeed, the image of the fairground is seldom entirely wholesome. For many, their childhood experience will have been of bright lights, incessant noise, prizes almost won in grab machine games, the evaporation of limited resources, fast-food and the slow return journey. All in all, an excursion which in our infancy or juvenile years appeared to promise so much and yielded little. Such experiences were commonplace, whether the fairground of choice was 'Somewhere-on-Sea" or of the itinerant variety; no sooner erected as they were being dismantled and moving on.
Given these experiences, it is surprising that those tasked with "Growth" and "Mission" or, to use the management speak, "increasing footfall" have chosen to adopt measures such as these as their primary means by which to ply their wares. Against this, it will no doubt be said that the structures are temporary nature and can do 'no harm'. However, the itinerant fairground is also as temporary; as is its allure. Furthermore, harm is an altogether different matter. It comes in many forms. The decision of Rochester and Norwich are likely to generate a justifiable sense of grievance and injury to many who seek to uphold Christ's teachings. The use of the sacred precincts of these two cathedrals may also be perceived as harmful to the labours (practical and spiritual) of those who not only participated in the physical construction of the edifice, but made vast and long-lasting investment in The Christian heritage which sustained the faith community in that place for many centuries. These matters could not have been overlooked by those devising ventures of this kind. This being so, perhaps these decisions may be viewed as founded upon the belief that the Cathedral is devoid of any quality of attraction of its own?
It may be assumed that the decisions in Norwich and Rochester are the product of a marketing strategy. Marketing is by its nature, concerned with arousing interest through the vehicle of enticement. However, no marketing campaign will enjoy any prospect of successful outcome, unless it clearly and effectively communicates the product or service on offer, and its value. One might be forgiven for thinking that the product or service on offer from any faith community is the belief system to which it subscribes. Likewise, that the benefit and value of such belief embraces not just the here and now, but the eternal. In marketing parlance: 'a lifetime guarantee'. It follows that within the Christian Tradition, any strategy should first and foremost be concerned with the transmission of the faith.
In contrast, these decisions of Norwich and Rochester are likely be received by some as having less to do with principles of faith, and more to do with pandering to a secular mentality; in which the established Church of England becomes a venue for social activity. There may be some support for such a conclusion. The introduction of the 'knife angel' and 'Dippy' to Rochester and Norwich respectively might suggest that the former has become an annex to the Tate and the latter now enjoys the character of the regional museum. This is difficult to reconcile with the character of the Cathedral as a place in which to encounter the Lord of Life.
In the words of the famous scripture scholar, D A Carson:
"Instead of solemn dignity and the murmur of prayer, there is the bellowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep. Instead of brokenness and contrition, holy adoration and prolonged petition, there is noisy commerce."
These matters evidence a direction of travel which is determined by a desire to appease. Those within the Catholic Church (clergy and lay) must be vigilant to ensure that this same mindset does not take root. Obedience to Christ's teaching demands it; as does fidelity to the witness of those who sacrificed all to ensure the freedom to exercise that faith today. What to do about reaching the young and the disaffected? One could always adopt the tried and tested method of beginning and ending with prayer. Prayer which is founded upon confidence in His goodness and mercy; not the marketing mantras of the age. It is only by holding fast to this reality that the Church can fulfil its role as Populo Dei; alternatively, given the feast for day: a society of and for Jesus.
Our Lady, seat of wisdom- pray for us.