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The sacred and the profane

Allowing a “Rave in the Nave” in Canterbury Cathedral was a regrettable error of judgement

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At 9.20pm they walked across the street to the newly-opened Westminster Abbey Cabaret. It was a night almost without clouds, moonless and starry; but of this depressing fact Lenina and Henry were fortunately unaware. The electric sky-signs effectively shut off the outer darkness. “CALVIN STOPES AND HIS SIXTEEN SEXOPHONISTS,” from the façade of the new Abbey the giant letters invitingly glared. “LONDON’S FINEST SCENT AND COLOUR ORGAN. ALL THE LATEST SYNTHETIC MUSIC.”

They entered. The Sixteen Sexophonists were playing an old favourite: “There Ain’t No Bottle in All the World Like That Dear Little Bottle of Mine.” Four hundred couples were five-stepping round the polished floor. Lenina and Henry were soon the four hundred and first.

Don’t worry, Westminster Abbey hasn’t fallen. This comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where Christianity lies humiliated; its cathedrals and abbeys turned into giant dancehalls, led by a resident of Lambeth Palace called the Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury. The scene is set in 2540 AD (or 632 After Ford).

Huxley was far too optimistic. We didn’t need to wait 632 years from the creation of the Model T for this scene to come to pass. A mere 116 years later finds the Arch-Community-Songster’s own cathedral in Canterbury opened up in 2024 for a series of silent discos trading under the name “Rave in the Nave”.

In some ways, Huxley was hopelessly optimistic. Where the Sixteen Sexophonists warbled about a “dear little bottle of mine”, the Rave in the Nave saw revellers tunelessly chanting the lyrics, “I’m Horny; Horny, Horny, Horny”.

Why do some recoil from the sight of hundreds jiving in the nave while others cannot understand these “pearl- clutchers”?

Footage emerged, tweeted out by the Cathedral club night DJ — triggering outrage. This in turn triggered outrage against the outraged. Many senior figures in the church, bishops included, rallied around a Dean and Chapter engulfed in the storm.

Why do some recoil from the sight of hundreds of people jiving away in the nave of a cathedral whilst others simply cannot understand those they christen “pearl-clutchers”? It seems as though the defence falls into two parts. The first basically says, “Yes, it’s not our taste but” and then scrabbles for an excuse: either that it’s good for mission or essential to bring in funds to keep the roof on. The second actually thinks the event was good and challenges the opponents to explain why “I’m Horny; Horny, Horny, Horny” isn’t appropriate for a cathedral.

The first point I’ve got some sympathy for; I just think they’ve made the wrong call. All of us who have ancient buildings to look after have to make compromises, often in our case allowing film companies to rent the church.

You have to make a judgement call as to whether the money offered is worth closing the church for a number of days, and what the script will involve. In recent years we said yes to being a street market in Lahore (it’s quite amazing what they can do), but no to being a prison in which a future Empress of France would get raped. At some point everyone will get the judgement wrong; hindsight is wonderful.

But we also have to be honest. When we use these transcendent buildings (in which the gap between heaven and earth is at its thinnest) for things that point elsewhere, it’s a fool’s hope that people will see the invitation to worship God and not the signpost saying “look elsewhere”.

Which brings us to the other argument: the idea that there is no compromise here, that this is a positively good use of the space. For this argument I have no sympathy. It comes, I regret, from that blind spot amongst the Left-leaning WEIRDs — the Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic folk whose moral compass differs both in nature and substance from their fellow humans at home and abroad.

Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent study on politics and ethics called The Righteous Mind shows how the WEIRD elite cannot see this as sacrilege because their moral code doesn’t provide for that reading of events. Which is fine were the Dean and Chapter looking after their own home. But many do see a cathedral as sacred. It simply isn’t a situation where everyone can live and let live, because what happens in the presence of the Sacrament, and often a place of martyrdom, where people will be coming in to pray, matters to us, even when we’re not there.

Normally our WEIRD brethren have at the core of their moral code a hatred of any abuse of power by those in positions of privilege. May I suggest to them that they have the privilege of protecting places of enormous sanctity to people without very much power — those less likely to be educated, or rich, or (for that matter) Western.

Even if they can’t see why these places are sacred, perhaps they could see themselves as looking after them for those who do, and to check their privilege (as they would say) when they consider allowing those places to be disrespected in the eyes of millions beyond their cloisters. That way, all of our moral codes might be satisfied.

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