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This misguided rave in the nave


LAST Friday and Saturday, Canterbury Cathedral hosted in its nave a ‘silent disco’ in which those attending listen to the same music on headphones rather than via amplifiers while disco lights pulse in the background. It was estimated 750 revellers attended each night.

At first glance this sounds like a good idea. The Church of England, which is haemorrhaging attendees at such a rate that it is prophesied it will have disappeared by 2060, needs to find ways of attracting people back to the pews. But is a silent disco inside one of England’s most sacred Christian sites an acceptable way to do it?

The Cathedral’s Dean, the Very Rev Dr David Monteith, thinks it is. According to Monteith, dancing has happened in the Cathedral for hundreds of years. He also believes that there are many different opinions about the secular and sacred and affirms that the disco will be respectful of the Cathedral. For Monteith, cathedrals have always been part of community life beyond their usual role as centres of Christian worship. By holding these discos, Canterbury is reaching out to the community in a way people understand. It is also making money from the ticket sales for the Cathedral’s upkeep.

Sadly, this is another futile attempt by the C of E to appear relevant to a very secular Britain. The problem Monteith has is that he does not understand the time in which he is living and that he does not have to sell out to modernity’s dance music and strobes. If he were to think carefully about who attended, he might see the great opportunity the C of E has if only it stayed faithful to its sacred calling.

The discos attracted a specific demographic: those known as Generation X and older millennials. These are not teenagers and twentysomethings, but people in their forties and fifties. No doubt they were attracted to the nineties pop nostalgia theme. It is also likely that they were drawn by the idea of partying in a cathedral because they are of the generations who enjoyed rebelling against the Christian rectitude of their elders. For them, when they were growing up, Christianity appeared puritanical, hypocritical and boring; dancing and singing to the Spice Girls and Britney Spears in an ancient site of devotion must have felt delightfully subversive.

This reaction against the religiosity of their forebears illustrates well the generational theory proposed by the sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe: a culture of religious devotion will be followed by younger generations who will reject it, be indifferent to religious matters and often adopt agnosticism and atheism. If any in these areligious and anti-religious generations hold to religion, they will embrace a liberal version and emphasise the need for modernisation. Monteith himself, born in 1968, is a perfect example of a Generation Xer who has retained a liberal form of Christianity. It is no surprise then that he is in favour of raves in the nave.

The story does not end there: generation theory predicts that once scepticism and liberal religion have become orthodoxies, the next generations will reject them and perform a religious and spiritual turn. This appears to be happening with Generation Z who were born after 1997. As these individuals were not raised religiously, they have no psycho-religious baggage and therefore no propensity to rebel against religion. As their mindset is one of inclusivity, the anti-religious rhetoric of the New Atheists which appealed to their parents is firmly rejected.

Statistics appear to evidence this. The think tank Theos found that 57 per cent of Generation Z believes that religion has a place in the modern world. The most recent World Values Survey also discovered that more young people than ever before believe in an afterlife. Whereas cavorting in a cathedral to Eminem is Generation X’s subversion of choice, for Generation Z it is to seek and honour the sacred.

Generation Z’s religious and spiritual sensibilities are not necessarily Christian which is no surprise since they were not brought up in a Christian way. Paganism, Wicca and pantheistic ecology are popular with them. However, their spiritual hunger means they are open to listening to what Christianity has to say and are more likely to be convinced by the Gospel message than their predecessors. Witness the growing ‘tradcath’ movement of young people who are converting away from away from secularism and turning to conservative Catholicism.   

The cynicism of Generation X and the millennials is passé. Many youngsters are on a pilgrimage to find the sacred and dwell within the communities that surround it. It is not in silent discos that they will find those things, nor in the bean bags and teddy bears of safe spaces. Instead, they will find them in cathedrals when those cathedrals remain faithful to their ancient role of being sacred places that whisper of the transcendent and where, by candlelight, worshippers still gather humbly for Love.   

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