More beauty, less God?

In this piece from the Telegraph, Sir Simon Jenkins argues that cathedrals are more popular than parish churches because:

No one shakes you by the hand, no one says peace be upon you. I asked a canon once why cathedrals are doing so well, he said ‘unlike churches we don’t bang on about God’. Which is very odd but also I sense rather true.

In other words, cathedrals are “spiritual” but not “religious.” They give people space to hide behind a pillar and just be there, without requiring them to fit their spiritual longings into any particular form. Jenkins goes on to say:

Cathedrals don’t bang on about God in cathedrals but they bang on about beauty and that’s why I love them.

Clearly Jenkins is being something of a provocateur, but I do sometimes wonder if our churches don’t fail to make space for the tentative seeker after a vague “something more.” The liturgical reforms tended to downplay the aesthetic dimension of the liturgy and highlight the active participation of the assembly. But what of those who do not feel ready to participate fully, who just want to stay on the edge of things and absorb a little beauty that goes beyond what ordinary life offers? Do we welcome them?

Of course, one might reply, “If they want beauty they can go to a museum” (perhaps with the implication that this is what British cathedrals really have become). But how Christian is that?


  1. I think this praise of cathedrals-without-God is arrant nonsense, mainly because I never met a cathedral that wasn’t religious. Not about God? What planet are these people on? It’s all about God, from the iconographic programs of the art, glass, etc, to the vaulting and floors constructed with application of sacred geometry. Everything that makes a cathedral a cathedral is about God. It is only “not about God” if you are willfully blind to the very content and construction of the place. Go to a well-designed public building, office tower, or even a beautiful shopping mall if you want architecture without God. Don’t go to a church.

    What exactly the idiom to “bang on” means is, admittedly a little obscure to me as an American. If not “banging on” means that you have few face to face encounters with people who “want to sell you something” on their menu of beliefs or activities, I can sympathize with wanting to avoid said hard sell. I similarly do not enjoy being asked if I am saved by passing fundamentalist would-be evangelists. But isn’t the problem really that the canons of the mercantile surrounding culture have invaded the sanctuary? Or is it really that this person wants there to be no traces of a belief in God behind the Gothic arches, no hope fixed on the Savior on the crucifix, no Mother of God to inspire or console via the stained glass because this would be “banging on about God”? It makes no sense to me.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      This issue is not whether or not Cathedrals are ‘about God.’ Of course, Rita is right.

      To ‘bang on’ is a UK idiom for lengthy and opinionated speaking.

      I live near Winchester and I go to the Cathedral – often in the early morning just to be quiet. I often visit Saint Paul’s Cathedral when I am in in London (a much more humane place than St. Peter’s in Rome) etc, etc. And Jenkins is obviously in provocative mood.

      It’s the ‘bang on’ bit I think is important in what Jenkins says. Cathedrals speak, and sing (at least in the UK) beautifully and eloquently about God. It’s the speeches that are often the problem.

      Nor is it about ‘religious’ versus ‘spiritual.’ ‘Religious’is how’spiritual’ becomes visible, no more, no less. Many Christian believers I know would be among the people who most object to be verbally harrassed by people ‘banging on’ about God. So if it is hard for us who are hanging on to the Faith to be preached to/at, how much worse must it be for others, many of whom for perfectly good reasons have abandoned it.


  2. Well, Jenkins is a journalist and former chair of the National Trust who does have a recently published cathedral-oriented bookend (England’s Cathedrals) to his 2001 England’s Thousand Best Churches, so yes one may expect this was designed precisely to do what it did, as it were. It should be understood that his context is largely framed by England’s historic cathedrals and the people they attract. It doesn’t necessarily translate to other contexts as well. Here’s a lovely example without a great deal of flamboyant detail (Peterborough, a great abbey church that became a cathedral after the Dissolution of the monasteries; Katherine of Aragon’s tomb is there):

    I’ve a pungent memory of an emphatically contemporary parish in western New York (state) where hospitality greeters were something like the hounds of the Baskervilles, hunting me down in my seat if I managed to elude them in an entry. Perfectly earnest. But dreary. Very unwelcoming. A very light touch goes far. The relentless extroversion elevated in American popular culture is as tiresome a forbidding introversion (I speak fluent New England and New York and became passably familiar with Virginian in my years in the Old Dominion – it’s fun to code switch…).

    Yes to beauty and elevation – both attract and stimulate desire, in a good Ignatian and/or Oratorian way.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      PS: For something more flamboyant (but that is a sister of Peterborough in original Norman aqueduct-elevation nave), there’s Ely:

      So I will note here that I am less of a fan of illustrating these places *without* some faithful present. If I am in a notable cathedral or church outside of Mass, I prefer to take my photos including people in them. It serves to make them less like a museum.

      On a related tangent, I cannot be help prefer that great works of holy art be beheld in a place of worship rather than in a museum. For example, Fra Angelico’s supernal Death and Assumption of the Virgin hangs on an inconspicuous bit of wall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston that can easily be walked passed without being seen (you won’t see it when you enter the room); would that it were in a real chapel.

  3. Encountering works of art in inconspicuous places is what makes The Gardner such an enchanting experience.

    Mrs Gardner does have a lovely chapel in her museum where, I believe, a requiem is still celebrated once a year on her birthday either by the Cowley Fathers or clergy from The Advent.

    1. @Brian Duffy:
      I agree that is true of many works in the museum, but the placement of that particular masterpiece is an unusual fail for the museum. It fights the nature of the work.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Alas, The Holy Virgin has to stay where she always has. The problem is that Mrs G wanted to keep control of her house beyond the grave. If they change anything, rumor hath it, all must be sold and the proceeds given to Harvard.

        I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen. I’m still upset with the wretches involved in the abduction of the Vermeer amongst the other stolen works of art.

  4. Here’s another UK article, this time from an atheist writing about the 50th anniversary of the consecration of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

    A couple of snips
    “The cathedral is a place to go, in other words, when the rest of the world feels shouty and oversold. It asks nothing of you, other than that you match its quietness with your own. Since libraries became spaces for “social learning”, and the quiet zones on trains became just slightly less noisy zones, a cathedral is now one of the few public places where us deep introverts can inhale that scarce and precious drug: silence.”
    “Before I begin to sound like a full-time miserabilist, I should say that what really draws me to the cathedral, since I do not believe in God, is my faith – battered but basically intact – in other people. You don’t need to believe in an afterlife to find solace in Gibberd’s church-in-the-round. But you do need to believe in this life, and in the value of spaces that show an unspoken solicitude for others, that feel solid and anchoring, that allow us to mark time against them and give shape and form to our existence.”

    Its a building I know and love. I was a member of the choir for some years. And I still go there to recharge my musical/liturgical batteries when I can get away from Sunday parish duties. I don’t at all resent the fact that its ministry to the community happens in a variety of ways.

  5. Alan Griffiths is right. Too much overt proselytising just turns people off.

    But there are other things, too. Some cathedrals have a custom that, every hour, on the hour, a disembodied voice over the PA system will tell everyone to stop what they’re doing and will then utter a prayer or two — often the Our Father, etc, but also often the kind of moralising intercessory prayer that sends me (and I’m sure many others) running for cover. If I’m enjoying God’s beauty in the quiet of a wonderful building, I don’t take kindly to the implication that this isn’t good enough, that words are needed.

  6. I wonder how people feel about piped music in cathedrals. I love to here a cathedral “sing” and love it when cathedrals have soft music playing – most often found in France where plainsong is often played. It does seem to make visitors more “recollected” and less prone to loud chat.

    1. @Alan Johnson:

      This is just my personal opinion and I don’t insist anyone agree with me. I’d wish that churches not pipe in music to set a mood. My reason is that I lead a pretty noise-filled life. I live in a largish household and have a stressful work life that involves full (often over-full) days of intensive interaction with other people. At the parish, it’s often the same – lots of activity, lots of interaction, lots of noise. For me, moments of silence, not even filled by beautiful music, are precious.

      Professional, commercially produced music is ubiquitous these days – I actually think it’s so omnipresent that it’s a problem. I think a lot of people fear silence and look to fill any vacuum by popping the buds into their ears or turning on the stereo or some such. They leave the television on all day even when they aren’t attending to it.

      1. @Jim Pauwels:


        I take your point, but there is music and Muzak. What is proposed here is quiet music conducive to prayer and reflection. It could be plainsong or carefully chosen instrumental music or both. For me the ideal would be alternating music and silence, perhaps ten minutes of each.

  7. “No one shakes you by the hand, no one says peace be upon you.”

    A parish is, by definition, a community. The situation regarding cathedrals is a bit more ambiguous: they are meant to serve a much larger community (an entire diocese), although many of them also take on a 2nd identity as a local parish community.

    From Sir Simon’s comments in the news article to which Fritz linked, it’s not clear whether he gives a fig about the communal aspect of parish life. He seems to appreciate the architecture and artwork, and likes being in a church when others aren’t there, or, if people are there, he can be anonymous and left alone. Lots of us are with him – there is something about being in a vast and beautiful space while alone, in those moments when nothing “official” is going on, that can feed the spirit.

    But as wonderful as those moments can be, cf the primary purpose of the parish church – it is the place where the community gathers for communal worship. If that amounts to “banging on about God”, then I guess, so be it – banging on about God (and to God) is sort of the point of the communal exercise. Presumably people join and stick with the faith community because banging on about God is important to them.

    When I go to the cathedral, it’s nearly always for some diocesan-wide event, and I’m pretty much as anonymous as everyone else. But just speaking for myself, I wouldn’t want to be in a state of perpetual anonymity. I want to be part of a community, where people know me, I know them, and fellowship and love are both a possibility and a reality.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      “A parish is, by definition, a community.”

      Or, perhaps more accurately in many places, a group of co-existing communities that share the same space but typically at different times.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        “Or, perhaps more accurately in many places, a group of co-existing communities that share the same space but typically at different times.”

        Good point; that certainly characterizes my parish. As communities, parishes are complex and not always entirely well-functioning :-). And I suppose people seek and experience different sorts – and strengths – of connection to those co-existing communities. I’m sympathetic toward people who more or less want to be left alone or participate on their own terms. That sympathy lives in tension with a desire that people be drawn (voluntarily, and not via “banging on”-style harassment) more deeply into the communal life of the parish. As a general rule, I don’t think discipleship can be understood except communally.

      2. @Jim Pauwels:
        Understood. The reason I mention this (it’s something I bleat on periodically) is that parishes share this dynamic with cathedrals, just on a smaller level. If we aren’t aware of it or ignore it, we won’t notice it until there’s an existential crisis for that group of communities (such as: threat of closure, removal of a popular pastor, imposition of an unpopular pastor, scandal), at which point it will likely be too late.

        And I write this as someone who is very lightly tethered to his current parish of registration, after N experiences of communities that blew up in one way or another. The territorial parishes near me appear determined to stick to pleasing their barbell demographic (parents with children in the parochial school, and older retirees) which means banal liturgics/music and meh preaching, and the parish I drive to ~15 miles away on Sundays is not a place I can really do anything with in logistical terms other than on Sunday mornings. I miss being part of a community where I could be active and where there was a demographic of intentionality and decades of fine liturgics/music and preaching, but it’s gone with the wind, as it were, and I’ve spent too many times in community post-blowup clean-up crews to reprise that role again at this point in my life, where it seems I am called to a drier, starker stretch of the journey.

        Having been a very active member of lay governance and ministries for years, I would just note that The Staff & Regular Volunteers is its own sub-community within the group of communities that co-exist at a parish or oratory. Sometimes, it confuses itself with The Community. It’s not.

  8. This is a very British perspective, where cathedrals are ancient buildings but churches are not. I suspect though the real difference is size, with the size of the cathedral allowing space enough for those who don’t want to shake hands.

    Perhaps my view is peculiar to areas like northeastern Pa, where I am. The cathedral used to be a parish church, and some nearby cities have churches that can be made into cathedrals should the need arise. Distinguishing churches from cathedrals by aesthetic qualities doesn’t seem like a viable task.

    I wonder how the author would respond to the newer Cathedrals in California, flike the Crystal Cathedral or Oakland’s Christ the Light.

    1. @Jim McKay:
      Rest assured, it doesn’t take much to abandon a practice of handshaking even in the US. My territorial parish effectively abandoned the practice a few years ago during one of the pandemic scares (it had zero to do with any Reform of The Reform impulse; the then pastor had no liturgical ideological bones of any kind in his body) and never looked back, as it were. People wave. It’s weird (to me). I’ve seen this in some other places. Made me aware that many practices we may take for granted have shallower roots than we might imagine.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Re: the discontinuance of handshaking for health reasons: my observation of the reality of how people choose churches is that, if there are folks for whom personal contact is important, and handshakes and hugs no longer are on offer, at least some of those folks will go find another church (possibly but not certainly of the same denomination). And some will stay behind but have something (else) to be dissatisfied about.

      1. @Alan Johnson:
        I am not surprised, though my understanding is that he does include Catholic cathedrals which, by definition are of less ancient vintage, shall we say. Curious on his take on the two piles in Liverpool…. (I’ve just ordered the book; I have his churches book, about which I will say what was most frustrating in what was chosen – and not chosen – for illustration; that would be a work he should adapt to interactive online form….). Imagine trying to do this for the USA? Narrower timeframe, but vaster geographic scale. One work I can highly recommend in this genre that is more regionally specific is GE Kidder’s The Beacon Guide to New England Houses of Worship: An Architectural Companion (Beacon Press, Boston, 1989), a concise but delightful survey of well-chosen exemplars from the 17th into the later 20th centuries. New England is a bit larger than (Old) England in geographic area (though arguably more variable in terrain and certainly climate), though with a significantly smaller population.

    2. @Jim McKay:

      Cathedrals ancient and churches not ? There are thousands of churches in England and Wales (literally, thousands) that are ancient, they are the oldest working buildings in the UK, many older than our cathedrals.

      Saint Martin’s in Canterbury in part dates back to the fourth or fifth century CE. Brixworth Church in Northamptonshire (I think) is possibly from the eighth century CE. One could ‘bang on’ (I fear I often do) about this !

      On handshaking. I just asked people not to. It gives the wrong impression that the priest is some sort of chat show host. I suggested that we follow the practice of Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, where the presence of the Sovereign (whom one does not touch) saves them from the temptation of glad-handing.


  9. Regarding:”…but I do sometimes wonder if our churches don’t fail to make space for the tentative seeker after a vague “something more.” ”
    – Anecdotally, most parish churches, even those built before VCII reforms had an effect on church design, where not places in which to become lost, or, more to the point, anonymous.
    – Initially, the desire to be ‘lost’ in a worship space is contradictory, but even so, as the office of porter might indicate, the first worshiping communities recognized that the fringe around the worshiping community was made up of people not ready to be in full communion, or for some other cause needed to be near but not among the worshipers. The porter, in part, cared for these people so that they were both welcomed but not impressed with an obligation to be more than they could be.

  10. “Initially, the desire to be ‘lost’ in a worship space is contradictory, but even so, as the office of porter might indicate, the first worshiping communities recognized that the fringe around the worshiping community was made up of people not ready to be in full communion, or for some other cause needed to be near but not among the worshipers.”

    At least in our parish, this is a contemporary phenomenon. We have worshipers at virtually every mass who prefer to sit outside the doors of the worship space rather than join the assembly in the pews. To what extent we should accommodate them, e.g. by providing chairs for them in the narthex and corridors near doorways, is a topic of conversation among staff and worship commission.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      Jim, Touching on what you said, and this may be a topic for another conversation, what is a contemporary phenomenon is the degree of conformity within the worshiping community that is expected or required in the modern liturgy (ie. conformity of the entire congregation in postures, use/non-use of a program and or printed readings, etiquette at the reception of Holy Communion as some examples). This could be in part reactionary to the pre-VII experience at Mass where attention could have ranged from following along in a hand Missal, to praying the Rosary or other devotions, to sitting there doing nothing at all. Could these expectations be daunting for a first time visitor, to those who perhaps have issues with being in the main body of the church or in a crowd, the C/E visitor, or a very occasional attendee? To be really welcoming, in my opinion, is to take people where they are and be glad that they have even made the step to come to Mass and not create an environment of lock-step conformity or of marginalization for those who don’t or can’t conform.

      1. @John Kohanski:

        John – I’m largely sympathetic to what you say. I’d say that memories of pre-VII continue to wane as our congregations age, so I’m not certain to what extent actual memories drive the lockstep attitude you describe, but sometimes approaches can become habitual or even calcify if they’re not considered afresh from time to time.

        The folks who tend to be on the physical margins in our parish, from what I can tell, mostly are young or youngish.

  11. “But what of those who do not feel ready to participate fully, who just want to stay on the edge of things and absorb a little beauty that goes beyond what ordinary life offers? ”

    This strongly reminds me of an encounter over thirty years ago with Anthony Archer. He was at that time a Dominican priest, and was chaplain to a Catholic People’s Week (an adult education residential event) in southern England. He spoke about the “man behind the pillar”, that is, the person who is willing to attend Mass but does not feel able to engage in the way that has come to be almost expected of everyone who attends. He is no longer a Dominican, and may have died, but his book ‘The Two Catholic Churches: A Study in Oppression’ [London: SCM Press, 1986] is critical of the ’embourgeoisification’ of Catholicism — which, I have to admit, rings true to me.

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