What are cathedrals here for?

Some things - like the gospel - need explaining

Britain’s cathedrals have been praised for offering unbelievers a “powerful sense of the sacred” which they do not find anywhere else, according to a new report. But what should cathedrals do in response?

A religious think-tank, Theos, and a research foundation, the Grubb Institute, are the organisations behind the latest research. Entitled Spiritual Capital: The present and future of English cathedrals, it is based on surveys of more than 3,500 adults. The report follows on from figures released last year which suggested that attendance at cathedrals has risen by a massive 37% since the turn of the millennium.

Writing in the Church Times, Nick Spencer, director of research at Theos, argues in the light of the research that cathedrals should not try to explain too much to spiritual seekers. He writes: “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.”

He suggests that “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.” But he admits: “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.”

Much as I admire Nick Spencer – who generally does a fine job, it seems to me – I do wonder if he is right on this particular issue. It seems to me that God is constantly in the business of communicating, of clarifying, of interpreting. We might think, for example, of the fabric of the very universe itself (“the heavens declare the glory of God”), of the incarnation (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,”) and of the lengths God seems to go to with individuals in order to speak clearly to them (as with Philip and the Ethiopian, for example).

Furthermore, we might think of Jesus’ command to “make disciples” (rather than simply leave people feeling awe-inspired by some vague sense of the numinous) – or of Paul’s plain-speaking: “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” And, again, there is the Apostle John’s purpose in writing his gospel – yes, clarifying and interpreting – namely, so that people “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah”.

Of course, with so many visitors coming to cathedrals, and with numbers increasing, it is very tempting indeed to want not to put them off by being too clear, or too dogmatic, about Christian belief. And yet, as followers of Christ we follow in the footsteps of one who explained things in a way that people sometimes found so blunt that “because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6v66).

Of course, there is a place for mystery. But certainly the Apostle Paul’s aim, as stated in his letter to the Colossians, was that people might have “the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God – namely Christ.”

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