Crazy cathedrals and stately street preachers

12 August 2019

Christian Concern Communications Manager, Paul Huxley, comments on Norwich Cathedral’s recent decision to install a helter skelter ride in its nave.

What’s wrong with putting crazy golf courses and helter skelters in cathedrals?

The decision of Norwich Cathedral to install a helter skelter in its nave has ignited debate about the role of cathedrals in our society and exactly how much fun you should be allowed to have in church buildings.

From reactions to the story, some seem to believe that cathedrals are sacred spaces where God lives and that only sober, humourless, ‘pure’ activities should be permitted. On the other extreme, some think that cathedrals are little more than posh-looking community centres that can be used for anything within the bounds of cultural acceptability; iftars, horror films featuring nudity and Islamic prayers.

Only a gimmick?

The Very Rev. Jane Hedges, Dean of Norwich Cathedral told the BBC that the helter skelter was “not a gimmick…it’s fun but is about serious, really serious matters in trying to get people to think about the meaning of life, to think about their place in the world. There are a lot of people who won’t come in to a cathedral because they think it is too posh, it’s not for me. We hope that people will see that actually the cathedral is here for everyone.”

‘Gimmick’ normally means an attention-grabbing device or idea with little value or purpose. It’s clear that those involved didn’t intend it as such, even though it looks a lot like one from the outside. Rev. Canon Andy Bryant, who came up with the idea, explained some of the reasoning:

“The helter-skelter is an opportunity for some holiday fun but we also hope it will help our visitors get closer to our wonderful medieval roof bosses, which are one of the true gems of the Cathedral and our fine city. …

We hope that climbing 40ft above the Nave’s floor on the helter skelter will help people gain a new perspective on this ancient building and also appreciate the importance of seeing things differently; this building, ourselves and our faith.”

The ride, though clearly attention-grabbing, does serve some further purpose in this case: allowing visitors to see the roof bosses more clearly, and in doing so be reminded of episodes from the Bible.

But this comes at a price – and not just the £2 ride fee.

An act of desperation

Gavin Ashenden, Missionary Bishop in the Christian Episcopal Church, explained the stunt as a ‘miscalculation’:

“The idea that just by getting people into a sacred space initiates a spiritual journey and a spiritual rebirth is simply a mistake…My fear is that it’s a mistake born out of desperation. The Church is always going to be faced with a dilemma. It either converts people to what it stands for, or it gets converted to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. This looks to me as though the Church of England is too fragile in its convictions.”

Whatever the intent, a great number of people will perceive the helter skelter – and similar stunts – as pure desperation. It really looks like a gimmick.

The cathedral’s stated aim is that the helter skelter will show that Christians are fun, that the cathedral is open to everyone and that the roof’s artwork will provoke deep reflection about spirituality. That may then lead to someone turning up to a service or two, reading the Bible or going to a small group. We can pray that it does, but it comes across as like a relic of the past begging for attention.

Preaching the gospel with good intent

Good intent is insufficient. If a composer about a bumblebee but it consists of long, drawn-out notes on tubas, not many people are going to understand it. If an artist paints a portrait of the queen that looks more like Charlie Chaplin, it’s not going to be viewed favourably. Execution matters.

This is something street preachers are all too familiar with. Christians often look down on those who preach in public believing their evangelism, for all its good intentions, is ineffective or even counter-productive.

Undoubtedly some street preachers are more persuasive or engaging than others. And in 21st century Britain, it’s rare that members of the public hear the message, are instantly converted and become lifelong Christians. But some do. And others certainly are provoked to think about matters of faith, or prompted to engage with Christianity in other ways.

That’s Ian Sleeper’s hope and prayer. Asked about his motivation, he told me that street preachers are “a beacon and a sign-post for the lost to be found. They may be the clown to some, but to everyone they are a seed sower whose scattering may either be lost in the wind or germinate in someone’s mind sometime somewhere”.

It seems to me that public preaching, amongst other activities, is a far more fitting vehicle for the Christian message than crazy golf or whatever passing carnival attraction could conceivably draw attention to the fifteenth-century Christian architecture.

As the Apostle Paul memorably said:

“I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV)

Have confidence in Christ

There’s something simple, beautiful and profound about a Christian going somewhere public, where anyone could hear, and proclaiming Christ. It shows a bold confidence in the God who saves and the power of the Holy Spirit to draw all kinds of people to Jesus. It’s faith-full: the word ‘confidence’ comes from the Latin ‘to have full trust’.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see that kind of confidence from Norwich Cathedral?

In fact, I have an idea for them, to help them with outreach. The cathedral could invite bold preachers to herald the gospel and all of its implications to visitors throughout the summer. The preachers would be sure to preach the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ but would also touch upon some of the points that are more hotly contested in today’s society. They would talk about the need to repent from killing 200,000 unborn babies every year in the UK through abortion. Or the need to find salvation in Christ alone – not through Islam, materialistic hedonism or environmentalism. Or maybe they would uphold biblical standards for godliness – like reserving all sexual activity for married, heterosexual couples.

With my plan, I guarantee the cathedral would get plenty of media interest. And one or two visitors might actually engage with the true Christian message.

Either way, this summer and beyond, there will be street preachers all around the country declaring the good news. They will be as resolute in preaching the word as the cathedrals are in standing against their cities’ skylines.

In his interview, Gavin Ashenden was keen to stress that helter skelters in churches are not sinful, which is exactly right. But neither are they wise, sending the message that the church is a social club desperately searching for new members, rather than a new humanity, united in Christ, participating in God’s great plan of redemption.

Gavin said, “God is not limited by our bad judgements and mistakes.”

That’s as true for street preachers as it is for cathedrals.

Image credit: BBC
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