Picture credit: Bristol Airport

The meaning of the multi-faith area

Ugly as it is, it could be used for something beautiful

Artillery Row

Bristol Airport’s “multi-faith area”, unveiled on 23 November, is a rather draughty-looking structure in the airport carpark. It resembles something like a cross between a bus shelter and public toilets, and it is safe to say it has not been met with universal acclaim.

For the airport, I suspect that the inclusion of a “multi-faith area” was more of a box-ticking exercise than an effort to advance any kind of agenda. Most larger airports have some sort of “multi-faith room” — “chapel” being too controversial a term in most cases. In these larger airports the multi-faith room is indoors, evidently a luxury beyond the means of Bristol. Bristol Airport is a small regional airport trying hard to compete with its larger peers, however, rather like a plucky suburban guesthouse aspiring to mimic the trappings of a five-star hotel.

People of no faith do often appreciate spaces deemed sacred by others

Bristol’s multi-faith area may be a particularly aesthetically unappealing iteration of the institutional multi-faith room (especially on a cold, rainy day on the Severn Estuary), but it is undeniably fascinating to the sociologist of religion. The sacral shed crystallises a tricky paradox for institutions like airports and hospitals that, by their very nature, have to deal with human beings troubled by uncertainty, grief and thoughts of mortality. Humans being humans, and life being life, spaces must be created at the heart of these complex institutions that somehow manage that human need to reach beyond the material in times of extreme stress. They used to be (and in some cases still are) chapels: sacred spaces specifically consecrated to Christian prayer. It used to be accepted that people of other faiths might seek refuge in these sacred spaces, too. The idea of one faith tradition being given primary control of a space rarely passes muster these days; instead of a chapel, a room needs to be set aside for anyone, of any faith tradition, to pray in whatever way seems best to them.

The difficulty with the shift from chapels to “multi-faith rooms” is that chapels belonged to a long tradition of humans setting aside sacred spaces for the worship of the divine through their architecture, decoration and use. They therefore served a double function — not just a place where people prayed, but also a space designed (however ineptly, in some cases) for contemplation of the divine. A significant proportion of people who used such spaces did not pray in them; their faith was hardly that strong. They still felt the need to be in a place where, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “prayer has been valid”. The point of multi-faith rooms, by contrast, is to be empty and nondescript, for believers to bring along whatever paraphernalia they need for whatever they want to do there. Paradoxically, the multi-faith room is potentially a less inclusive place than the old airport or hospital chapel. Contrary to the imaginings of some secularists, people of no faith do often appreciate the existence and availability of spaces deemed sacred by others. It is difficult to imagine many people without faith wanting to spend time in a space deliberately desacralised so that it is suitable for any and all believers.

However, the temporary structure chosen as a multi-faith area by Bristol Airport may be more spiritually resonant than it first appears. The nomadic nature of the journey of faith is a recurring theme of the Hebrew Bible, still marked by Jews today at Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles. The Ark of the Covenant was originally kept in a tent, and the idea that God might bring back this sense of the temporary and provisional is ever present, as if to remind us of the impossibility of pinning God down in any comfortable way. In the words of the Prophet Hosea, “And I that am the Lord thy God from the land of Egypt will yet make thee to dwell in tabernacles” (Hosea 12:9).

Viewed in one way, Bristol Airport’s multi-faith area is an insult and an outrage, the latest stage in the erosion of public respect for religious convictions in modern Britain. I would instead argue we should be grateful to the airport authorities for creating a deeply disquieting structure that, more than any gruesome bleeding crucifix, confronts us with the impermanence and contingency of anything we think we know about God. Pushed into the carpark to dwell in a temporary shelter like that other category of social pariahs, smokers, people of faith visiting Bristol Airport might be forcefully reminded of the words of 1 Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.”

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