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Controversial Attractions Boost Visits to English Cathedrals

Defenders call them “serious missionary imperatives.”  Critics deride them as “treating God like a tourist attraction.” But they certainly are bringing in the visitors. Twenty-one English cathedrals, mostly in smaller cities, have launched special attractions this summer, united under the hashtag #WishYouWereHere. Among the highly publicized offerings are a minigolf course in Rochester Cathedral, a  six-storey “helter skelter” carnival slide in Norwich, a lunar landscape in Litchfield and a gin festival in Peterborough.

Twice as many visitors as last year, 13,000 of them, came to Rochester Cathedral during the first sixteen days of its bridge-themed “crazy golf” installation, according to a BBC report. The nine-hole partnership with a local charity filled most of the church’s 126-foot nave. The Very Rev. Philip Hesketh, dean of the cathedral, described the public response as “extraordinary,” and noted with delight that the golfers paused reverently during the church’s twice-daily pause for prayer. Votive candle purchases were also up during the same period by 22% percent, and there has even been an uptick in the usually sparse crowds for Sunday evensong.

Norwich Cathedral reported that 10,000 people slid down the helter-skelter placed in the middle of its twelfth century nave for eleven days this month. But “it’s never been about visitor numbers,” said the Rev. Canon Andy Bryant, who dreamed up and organized the event. “It was always about engagement with visitors,” he told Museums and Heritage Advisor. “It has been about helping visitors engage with the building differently, and particularly to engage with our medieval roof bosses. They’re one of the finest collections of roof bosses in Northern Europe.”

Visitors are certainly granted an up-close view of the 10,000 carved pendants, a display Bryant has compared to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Crowds queued out the door to pay their £2 to climb to the slide’s 40 foot viewing platform before gliding down the spiral path to the floor. The Rt. Rev. Jonathan Meyrick, the Bishop of Lynn, even obtained the dean’s permission to preach his Sunday sermon from the helter-skelter’s platform on August 18, according to the Eastern Daily Press. After finishing, the Norwich diocese area bishop slid his way back to the congregation, presumably without paying the admission fee.

Bryant pointed out to Museums and Heritage Advisor that the cathedral attractions mirror the more lighthearted approach taken by other cultural institutions. “It’s very much like the change in museums,” he explained. “People used to think museums were all about being quiet, with everything kept behind a glass case. Museums are increasingly doing more to interest and engage visitors; that’s what’s made museums and galleries come alive. We’re part of that movement.”

Litchfield Cathedral’s tribute to this summer’s 50th anniversary of the moonwalk teamed a transformation of the nave floor into a lunar landscape by artist-in-residence Peter Walker with a sound-and-light show and a space-oriented film festival. Cathedral dean Adrian Dorber noted that the installation (with its invitation to “Come and take a once-in-a-lifetime selfie on the moon’s surface”) was supplemented with lectures on science and faith, and services whose music and texts delved into the common theme of spiritual journeying.

Dorber said to The Guardian, “To journey as a metaphor is very rich, and we want to unpack it in all its dimensions, from the actual journeys people make, the pilgrimage they choose, the way they plan, the way they prepare, what they take with them, and what they use to navigate their journey through this life.”

“When you look up at the moon, it is untouchable, but we want to bring the moon to the public and invite them to take their own small step across it. We just want to encourage people to explore possibilities, to reach for the moon and be in that space, and to reflect on what that means for them and for all mankind.”

Dean Dorber hailed the broader #WishYouWereHere campaign as an evangelistically serious approach, as Christians seek creative ways to engage with an increasingly secular society. “These are not cheap marketing tricks, these decisions are made out of serious pastoral concerns, he told BBC Radio Three Counties earlier this month.

“We are faced with a missionary situation of trying to connect people with the transcendent when we know from British social attitudes, people have given up on it. I think the raid we can make on people’s consciousness and help people into some kind of relationship with a sacred building or sacred space should be applauded and not condemned.”

The campaign has, however, come under serious criticism by some church leaders.  The Rt. Rev. Gavin Ashenden, a former Church of England clergyman who now serves as a missionary bishop in a continuing Anglican Church, lambasted the attractions in a blog post.  Ashenden described them as a capitulation to “a culture addicted to distraction and pleasure seeking,” and a betrayal of the transcendent spiritual purpose of the sacred buildings.

He also sees the summertime stunts as a powerful symbol of the Church of England’s inability to proclaim an authentic Gospel that would call the nation to turn to Christ. “Faced with the challenge to convert or be converted, the Church of England appears to be willing to surrender to the preoccupations and preferences of the lost people it was sent to save,” Ashenden writes. “But since it may no longer believe in heaven and hell, salvation and judgement, it may have downgraded itself to be a distracting, source of spirituality, offering distraction and entertainment  rather than healing to sick souls.”

Fr. David Palmer, an English ordinariate priest, tweeted in response to Rochester Cathedral’s mini-golf installation,  “I was “ordained” as an Anglican in this Cathedral. What an embarrassing shambles.”  The Rev. James Mather, rector of Downham Market in West Norfolk, complained: “I imagine some small part of this venerable sacred building will be reserved for anyone who might wish to, er, say their prayers”

The cathedral deans, though, could not be more pleased with the summer’s crowd-pleasing projects. “English cathedrals are in very confident mode at the moment,” Norwich’s Canon Bryant told Museums and Heritage Advisor. “Membership numbers and visitor numbers are growing. Cathedrals have invested heavily in new facilities; book shops, cafes, visitor centres. It’s all bubbling away. They are being innovative, creative, imaginative in the things they’re doing.”

Dorber confirmed, “Our visitor and worshipping numbers are growing year on year, so we know there is a cathedral shaped space out there and we hope we are occupying it in bold, fresh and exciting ways.”


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