Hilda on to what you have
The humanists are coming to get us
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Almost thirty years after Matthew Arnold wrote his elegy to Britain’s faith in 1867, St Hilda’s College was being founded. At its foundation there was little Arnold would have found to confirm his thesis. Safely ‘conducted according to the principles of the Church of England, with liberty for the members of other religious denominations’, with a chapel and a chaplain, the extension of English higher education to women, could have been a sign that the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” had been stopped, perhaps even reversed.
No longer. The chapel is being abolished. Last week the College announced that, as of next year, the chapel would be replaced with an interfaith room. According to the Cherwell, Oxford’s main independent newspaper, ‘The new space will cater to a number of faiths by including ablution facilities, where those praying may wash themselves, and space to store religious objects.’
While the freedom to redesign the college’s religious provision is a product of the demolition and replacement of the building in which the old chapel had been located, up until this month the plan had always been to build a new chapel in the new building.
It is, frankly, the most culturally imperialistic thing a secularist can do
But plans have changed. “When it comes to decoration and iconography, a multi faith room inevitably tends to be lowest common denominator and therefore usually bland. Soulless you might say.” Says Canon Brian Mountford, the chaplain. And this, as anyone who has been to an airport or hospital multifaith room will know, is true. Soulless; bland; lowest common denominator.
This is problematic on three levels. The first is that it conflates all the world’s faiths into one amorphous grouping, Faith, as if there are not significant differences between them all. It is, frankly, the most culturally imperialistic thing a secularist can do: to refuse to acknowledge the vast differences of taste, style, cultural resonance, and purpose which betrays a refusal to respect the theological and cultural differences between these faiths.
The second problem is slightly home grown. The chaplain, in his statement, sold the pass somewhat – as, indeed, representatives of churches of all denominations have when discussing these bland, soulless, interfaith rooms. “Much as we enjoy the colour and numinous atmosphere of, say, Exeter College Chapel, Christians can worship or pray in any space.”
Well, yes. Sort of. I mean, God can be worshipped on a battlefield or in a concentration camp, but it were better he was not. There is a significant amount of theological, philosophical, and sociological study into how important beauty is for the worship of God and the transcendence of the moment for the worshipper. The market knows it too, and there’s a reason why so few couples want to get married in a brutalist 60s church if they have the option of a 12th century church instead (or, even, a 19th century hotel).
By ceding the ground of beauty, we accept the premise that these are merely functionalist prayer spaces with no transcendent, numinous value of their own.
The third is perhaps the most important. We are allowing secularists (and it was Humanists UK who trumpeted this news around the world) to use interfaith relations as a mechanism to drive the Established Church (specifically) and Christianity (in general) out of the public sphere. This does a huge disservice to other faiths, who both find themselves blamed for a diminished presence of religion in the public square, and that their distinctive religious colour and art is whitewashed in the battle against Christianity (give me the temples of Neasden or the Grand Mosque in Damascus any minute of any day over the interfaith room of Terminal Five).
The church should have no part in it. The darkness of a secular age may be coming – I hope not, and pray not, but Arnold may be right. If he is, then, fellow Christians, to borrow from another poem,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe