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Let the visitors simply ponder

19 October 2012

Cathedrals should not try to explain too much to spiritual seekers, argues Nick Spencer

Open to interpretation: Lichfield Cathedral, which was studied in new research

Open to interpretation: Lichfield Cathedral, which was studied in new research

THAT cathedrals have been one of the Church of England's success stories over the past ten years is well known. Research commissioned in 2004 reported that there were about 8.8 million visitors to Anglican cathedrals in England each year. New research, conducted by ComRes and published this week, suggests that this figure is now 11 million.

Visitors are not necessarily worshippers, however. Yet Spiritual Capital, a new project that explores the future of English cathedrals, conducted by the think tank Theos and the research foundation the Grubb Institute, also suggests that the boundary between the two categories is more permeable than we might think. Of course, there are people who are tourists, but they are not so numerous. Only a quarter of those polled, for example, say that they would go to a cathedral "only for a cultural event". The rest are not, of course, committed believers, but rather occupy a growing space in which, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, people are forever surprising a hunger in themselves to be more serious.

This became clear in the project through a series of six case studies, in which about 2000 people were asked for their views about a named cathedral. The majority of this sample reported some sense of the spiritual, irrespective of their personal beliefs or the nature of their connection with the cathedral.

Nearly a third of this "local" sample said that they came "to appreciate the history and architecture of the cathedral, not for any religious/sacred experience". Nevertheless, even among this non-religious group, 84 per cent said that they got a sense of the sacred from the cathedral building, 79 per cent from the cathedral music, and 56 per cent said that they experienced God through the quiet of the space. Tourists might not set out as spiritual seekers, but that does not mean that they won't end up as them.

DISTINCT as these two categories are, they may, in fact, feed off one another. In his recent book Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Faber, 2012), Francis Spufford writes perceptively of how, in contemporary culture, "each moment is supposed to be the solvent of the one before" (Features, 7 September).

His point is that the freedom of unrestrained self-formation, ends up dissolving rather than affirming our humanity. The tourist, like the consumer, is peripatetic, never putting down roots, never establishing commitments that might threaten his or her freedom. This is the extremity of a liberal society, where authority and narrative is located in the individual.

Cathedrals are as far from this as possible: massive, permanent assertions of an authority that is not even human, let alone individualistic. They are narratives in stone, whose compass extends far beyond our immediate concerns. In theory, this should alienate more than it attracts today. But the research conducted for Spiritual Capital suggests otherwise.

THIS tension was well-expressed by one interviewee, who, while not seeing himself as religious, was a fan of his cathedral. "What is important", he said, "is the ability the cathedral has to make people slow down for a minute and ponder. . . It allows you to think about others, to think about yourself, about things like guilt and the welfare of others - all of which come back to having faith in something.

"It's about faith, not religion - it doesn't force you to believe in God or believe in the Bible. . . It instils faith in people - allowing people to make up their own minds."

His sentiments capture, uneasily, the worshipper ("slow down . . . instil faith") and the consumer ("think about yourself . . . make up [your] own mind"). They also capture the challenge that this lays before cathedrals.

The off-the-shelf response to such sentiments is to help the individual to explain this sense of the sacred, and to help him decode the cathedral's provocation. But to do this risks killing the thing itself.

We live in an age of liminal spirituality, which is simultaneously encouraging and frustrating. The encouragement comes from the fact that years of consumption and the sneers of cultured despisers have not turned us secular as a nation, but rather witnessed a transformation of spirituality. Today, many of us are reasonably happy to admit belief in things such as God, the soul, providence, ghosts, or angels, so long as these are part of our individual make-up rather than a body of organised confessional thought.

In contrast, the frustration comes from the fact that spiritual yearning can be "consumerised", channelled into selfish and shallow ends, just like anything else. Spirituality need not, but can, be vacuous. The temptation for Christians is to seize on the encouraging signs, and then to settle people's sense of the sacred: to describe, clarify, and harness people's persistent spirituality.

PEOPLE, however, do not always come to cathedrals and experience what they do there in order for it to be easily explained. As a result, the evangelistic course or explanatory booklet are liable to be less effective there than in other circumstances. To quote T. S. Eliot, who, unlike Larkin, followed where his sacred hunger led, there is "only a limited value In the knowledge derived from experience", as such knowledge "imposes a pattern, and falsifies".

In place of words or explanation, perhaps we need a renewed appreciation of the object - the palm-sized cross, the icon, the triptych - the image that remains uninterpreted, unsettled, and unsettling. Liminal artefacts in themselves - part consumer trinket, part relic - perhaps best connect with the emergent spiritualities that are carrying people into cathedrals in their millions.

This will not be comfortable. It is not just dogmatists who fear that living with contradictions can invite laissez-faire spirituality, turning Christ's challenging annunciation of the Kingdom of God into an anodyne exchange of personalised spiritual truths. The uninterpreted icon, scriptural engraving, or prayer is a risk, but, in the right place, it is surely one worth taking.

Nick Spencer is director of research at Theos. Spiritual Capital: The present and future of English cathedral is available free at www.theosthinktank.co.uk.

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