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Think carefully before disco lights come on    

23 February 2024

Letting a church or cathedral for secular events requires clarity about theology and reputational risk, writes Ruth Dowson

THE row over a silent disco held in Canterbury Cathedral touches on an issue that affects most churches, of all denominations and traditions: the part played by events in church culture and society in the era of the “experience economy”.

Events dominate every aspect of our personal and communal life today. Academics refer to “eventisation”. Events have become a vital way to draw connections between the Church and the public. The response to Canterbury Cathedral suggests that churches need to develop policies and formalise their approach in this area.

Is Canterbury Cathedral different from any other church or cathedral in this regard? The answer is yes, and no. Why have silent-disco events held in 11 other cathedrals not resulted in significant complaint? This is more than just an issue about event content, which includes the sale and consumption of alcohol.

EARLY Christianity defined the church as the people, meeting together in homes to participate in worship and to share in each other’s lives. It was only later that the concept of sacred space began to arise for Christian communities. Christian places of worship adopted the concept of temples as sacred gates of heaven, enabling access to the divine.

The concept of sacred space has been explored by sociologists, ethnographers, and religious historians. They have found that, for some, the difference between sacred and profane is profound, denying that a place, person, or object could be both sacred and profane at the same time. In this view, churches are intrinsically sacred, owing to God’s presence within them.

Another perspective, however, present within a range of religions, including parts of the Christian Church, is that the divine presence is metaphorical. Its association with material objects and places is tangential, functional, and temporary.

These key differences in attitude affect definitions of sacred space and how they are applied. There is a fine line between them, which tends to mirror the debate between real and metaphorical presence at the eucharist.

Broadly speaking, Catholics believe in and experience divine presence in consecrated bread and wine, and tend to see church buildings as sacred spaces. Protestants, on the other hand, are likely to view the sacredness of churches as more metaphorical than actual. To them, the people as a community of worshippers manifest the sacred as they meet.

None the less, the power of association is strong. For many in both groups, since a church building is a place to connect with God, a feeling can exist that anything that comes into contact with the sacred is made holy by that contact.

HOW, then, is it possible to permit churches to be used for non-religious activities? In the past, a distinction was made between the chancel and the nave, the rood screen providing both a tangible and representational obstacle between the sacred space, containing the altar, and the profane. Where it exists, such a partition is now little understood, and time has modified the interpretation of its purpose and meaning. Yet its impact on potential event space is significant.

We have also witnessed a diminishing distance in understanding between what is considered sacred and what is profane, which, again, has an impact on the increasing use of churches for events. Issues of taste and fashion can have too much prominence here.

As churches and cathedrals acknowledge events as a means of engaging with their local communities, it is important to acknowledge the significance of these different theologies of sacred space. Section 35 of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018 clearly requires that users “must have due regard to the role of a church as a local centre of worship and mission”.

As a theologian, I have discovered how important it is for each church to reflect on and agree a policy on what is an appropriate use for their building, not only in the light of their perspective of sacred space, but also taking into account the reputation of their church — and the wider Church — if inappropriate activities take place.

As a professional event manager and academic researcher, I hope that churches begin to take a more strategic approach to events programmes and the use of their premises, particularly when it comes to setting out conditions for external hire.

There is a need to build a better understanding of the practicalities of event and venue management, and how it fits with a zeal to communicate the gospel. My research has created a strategic process that all churches can use, enabling them to consider guidance where it exists, providing a planned approach to eventisation in churches.

The Revd Ruth Dowson is a priest in Leeds diocese, an event consultant, and a researcher at the
School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Leeds Beckett University. Her book, Event Planning and Management, is published by Kogan Page.

Read a letter about the silent disco in Canterbury Cathedral here

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