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Press: Ely Cathedral draws in Justin Bieber believers  

07 July 2023


IT WAS a bit of a shock to read in The Sunday Times about the silent disco in Ely Cathedral, a building that I can see from my workroom window, because I’d never heard anything about it. The participants wore headphones, but were free to sing along to the music in their ears with Chardonnay-fuelled abandon. A friend on the Chapter said that it was like hearing the noise of a distant football match. I imagine sudden surges of excitement marking the moments when Madonna scored.

Some of the quotes in the story showed up the enormous distance between the cathedral and the popular culture around it: “Steph, 35, lives in nearby Cambridge. She has done her hair and makeup immaculately for the occasion, going ‘out-out’ tonight with two of her girlfriends. It is her first time inside the cathedral. Does she go to church on a Sunday? Silence. ‘Doesn’t mean we’re not believers,’ says Steph. ‘Justin Beliebers!’”

Others connect the cathedral with grief: “Lyn Sheridan, 55, says this building has been a large part of her life. Both of her parents retired to Ely and spent a lot of their time at the cathedral. Since her father died, she comes to light a candle and sit quietly. It reminds her of him.

“One group of local care home nurses have all been here before, but only for the funerals of the people they looked after. ‘Now we’re drinking prosecco and celebrating,’ says Florentina Simion, 46.”

But there are other reasons than grief to attend a cathedral: it is a place for a kind of silent joy in the sad music that can surge inside you, for simple wonder at the beauty, and slightly more informed wonder at the history. It is a place to think about what you hear — all these things seem completely alien to the bopping masses with their headphones on. But, then again, a crowd of 800 is about 200 times the attendance at morning prayer on a weekday. Perhaps you need to be almost alone to feel some of the most important things about the building.

STILL, the cathedrals are not, for the moment, at risk of being rented out while they wait for a congregation to return. Kaya Burgess had a wonderful lead in The Times: “Churches lacking congregations large enough to keep them open for services should be rented out rather than sold off in the hope that divine intervention will bring back enough worshippers at some time in the future, the Church of England has said.”

The Church cannot have lobbed over such an inviting ball to a journalist since the happy day in the ’90s, when I went to a press conference to launch a report, We Believe in God, and was thus enabled to write a news story with this remarkable fact at the top.

The coverage of the redundant churches report was, on the whole, sympathetic, with plenty of space for the Revd Marcus Walker (or Rev Marcus as The Daily Telegraph had him). In The Times, he said that “people showed very clearly . . . how much they care about their church buildings, both listed and unlisted, and there was much support for retaining them in use wherever possible so they could fulfil their role in creating a sense of neighbourhood.”

This is true, but it’s worth noting the caveat in Gabriella Swerling’s Telegraph coverage: “It is expected that under the proposals congregants whose church building is lying fallow will have to travel to worship elsewhere.” In other words, the buildings will be closed as churches, whether or not this closure is eventually revealed as temporary. This seems to be the big difference between these proposals and the older plans around “festival churches”, which would function only at the major feasts.

The columnist Jane Shilling, in the Telegraph, quoted Larkin and Betjeman on people’s longing for the transcendent, but opened with a revealing little anecdote: “Soon after we moved into our house in the Kentish weald, an affable chap invited us to a fundraising garden party held by the Friends of the village church. The Friends were, he reassured us, ‘entirely secular’.

“We live next door to the church — a handsome building, ‘built in the second quarter of the C14’, according to Pevsner’s Buildings of England, which praises the ‘fine big Perp tower, better thought out than most’. That tower is held together by hope and wishes, according to a parishioner who regularly ascends it. And no amount of secular garden parties will raise enough money to restore it.”

If garden parties and even silent discos won’t work, what will? Part of the trouble is that the cheap thrills and pageantry are available in so many other “heritage buildings” nowadays. The lead in The Times deserves to be taken seriously: it is only the minority who want the expensive thrills of religious belief who can see what might make these churches worth an amount of money and labour comparable to what it took to build them in the first place.

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