IN his poem Church Going, Philip Larkin wanders around a church and wonders ‘When Churches fall completely out of use, /What shall we turn them into?’ Larkin’s question, posed in the religiously transitional 20th century, is being answered in the post-Christian 21st. Flockless churches across Britain and the West have been turned into everything from night clubs to carpet megastores. David Mitchell’s recent Guardian piece broadly defends Newcastle Cathedral’s decision to host comedy events in the nave.
Comedy nights come as no surprise and follow a de-sacralising compulsion which appears to have its origins in Henry VIII’s mercenary vandalism of monasteries, stripping them of their material and spiritual assets and leaving their ‘bare ruin’d quires’ to the Lethe of time and neglect, as Mitchell notes. The new iconoclasts contend that the church should strive to be as relevant as possible and mirror people’s quotidian lives. Revivalist impulses like this have dominated the western Christian matrix for at least 50 years or so, and Newcastle’s decision is simply another fruition of this project.
Mitchell’s article concludes that comedy events help to attract people to the church and make sacred spaces more approachable. While I value comedy and recognise its place in the arts, the problem with Newcastle’s latest innovation is that it is premised on the idea that what matters is the quantity of people through the west door rather than the quality of the faith communicated inside. ‘Bums on seats, laddie’, as the theatrical adage goes; however, if said posteriors do come through the cathedral doors, what will they encounter inside? If all that greets them is a poor imitation of secular culture then, admire as they might the cathedral’s architecture, stained glass, liturgical rites etc, or even browsing the bookshop and enjoying an over-priced coffee, their hearts will go untouched by God because He is no longer the end to which cathedrals are oriented. Churches are made for God and if they cease to glorify Him and lead humanity to participate in the Divine Life, they fail to serve their purpose. As Dr Gavin Ashenden said in response to the Newcastle move, churches are typically constructed in the shape of a Cross, and this Cruciform Image declares in stone life’s triumph over death and God’s restoration of humanity by His Son’s Passion and Resurrection.
As an Orthodox Christian ordinand, I have seen a huge increase in church attendance in my parish in recent times; this is anecdotal, of course, but I believe it has at least something to do with our insistence on retaining a sense of the beyond in our worship and offering something that is God-centred and thus in essence unchanging. The retort here may be that the church needs to engage an increasingly unchurched and unbelieving society, and that questions such as the salvation of the world are no longer central concerns for modern people. I understand this logic: ‘make the churches like the prevailing culture and more people will come.’ However, with all due respect to the chapter of Newcastle who approved these comedy nights, I think they have the formula reversed. The pro-cathedral comedy camp argues that the church needs to get with the times and do as the world does, but in fact only traditional churches which teach the Christian Faith without alteration (especially Orthodox Christian, traditional Roman Catholic and some conservative protestant parishes) are experiencing any growth, whereas liberal, zeitgeist-appeasing churches are in a demographic nosedive. A sizeable minority of people are seeking something other than the humdrum hedonism of 21st-century life and desire to be anchored in eternity. The Christian Faith proclaims the Holy Trinity, ‘the same yesterday today and forever’ (Heb.13.8) and it is this proclamation to which a cathedral church is eternally consecrated.
We remain homo adorans (the worshipping man) and a divinely planted celestial spark ignites the ubiquitous need to experience that which is infinitely beyond us and yet unfathomably interior to us. Secularism hasn’t changed this but has merely channelled it in different ways. What I would say to David Mitchell is that everybody needs spaces which are transportive, and perhaps it is the 21st century’s stifling of our spiritual faculties which has contributed to much of the existential angst we experience today. In a world of relative comfort and ease we have become bored and drained by our own security. Everyone needs places where they can be edified, places to flourish in time and in eternity. To replace the witness of the Incarnation with crude jokes about bodily functions is a cheap, heartbreaking blasphemy. The vision of plastic beer glasses rolling down chancel steps where once sacred vessels bore the Body and Blood of Christ heralds the whimpering implosion of a dying civilisation.