Is God a “Tourist Attraction”?

I imagine that many readers are already familiar with the photographs of some of England’s ancient cathedrals that have recently been retrofitted with more “relevant” contemporary attractions. Our forebearers went to these Cathedrals to visit the relics displayed there and they formed an important part of the social fabric of the day, but today the number of people visiting these ancient religious monuments has decreased dramatically and many of them, for all their beauty and history, are in danger of closing for lack of interest and lack of funds.

It is true that some cathedrals still draw crowds, cathedrals places like Rome or New York are regularly filled with pilgrims and worshippers. It is also true that certain contemporary shrines like Guadalupe, Medjugorje, San Giovanni Rotondo and Bari are much more visited than the cathedrals of their respective dioceses.  

Then certain churches still draw visitors who come for their historical and folkloric relevance. I am thinking in particular of the Basilica of Santiago de Compostella, where all sorts of people visit on pilgrimage, even though many of them are not doing so out of traditional Catholic piety (and arguably Santiago’s botafumeiro is a forefunner of the contemporary installations in the Anglican cathedrals). 

Yet the question must be asked, what is the limit to what we can do to keep our churches and cathedrals relevant (and economically viable) in a changing society. There is an outcry when a diocese suggests closing a cathedral, pointing out that not enough people are attending or economically supporting it to allow it to remain open. Such was the recent case of the St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Utrecht, Holland.

Also, as Christians, we are bound by St. Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians, when he reminds us that “to all people I became all things, so that by all means I might save some.” But do we run the risk of making our cathedrals so relevant to the contemporary “nones” that they cease to be Christian in any meaningful sense? The New York Timesrecently published an article with the title New in England’s Medieval Cathedrals: Mini Golf and a Giant Slide. To be honest, while I appreciate the desire to reach out to the “nones” and simply the very practical desire to be able to keep the lights on, I feel that they have gone too far. Rochester’s Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary has been a place of Christian worship since AD 604. In July a miniature golf course was installed in the Cathedral. Each hole in the golf course includes a model of a bridge and a representative of the Cathedral explained its meaning: “We hope that, while playing adventure golf, visitors will reflect on the bridges that need to be built in their own lives and in our world today.” Fortunately, the golf course is temporary, but personally I think it is a bridge too far.

Another Anglican Cathedral that is in the news this week is Norwich Cathedral.  A 55 foot-tall helter-skelter was temporarily installed in the cathedral. The Rev. Canon Andy Bryant, Norwich Cathedral’s canon for mission, too The NY Times that the installation “is a deliberate attempt to help people engage with our cathedral … There is this idea that the helter skelter makes it all brash and noisy, but people are going on to see the cathedral in all of its glory.” Again, according to the Times, Canon Bryant “was inspired to install the carnival slide after visiting the Sistine Chapel two years ago and admiring Michelangelo’s handiwork on the ceiling. It made him think of Norwich Cathedral’s own ceiling, adorned with medieval carvings called bosses that depict scenes from the Bible, and lament the fact that visitors could not see them close up.”

Last Sunday the Rt. Revd. Johnathan Meyrick, the Church of England’s Bishop of Lynn (who is a Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Norwich) preached his homily from the top of the helter-skelter. In his homily, before sliding down the giant slide, the Rt. Revd. Meyrick preached on how “God is a tourist attraction” and would be “revelling” in his joy at so many visitors to the cathedral (over 20,000 people visited the cathedral to see the helter-skelter).  However, not everyone appreciated the bishop’s sentiments.  As an interesting counterpoint, Pope Francis preached in last week’s Wednesday Audience against “spiritual tourism” practiced by those who live“a life based only on profiting and taking advantage of situations to the detriment of others inevitably causes inner death.” The pope warned against so many people who “say they are close to the Church, friends of priests and bishops yet only seek their own interests. These are the hypocrisies that destroy the Church.”

I am sure that Pope Francis was not reacting to Bishop Meyrick’s homily the Sunday before, and admittedly he was not dealing with the same topic in his Audience. But the Anglican cathedral experience is one that should lead us to question what we should plan to do in the future. Many forecast further drops in church attendance.  This leaves us with the serious question of how to evangelize those who do not believe in Christ, and the further question of how best to use our heritage and 2,000 year experience in this evangelization (along with the lesser problem of what exactly to do with our real estate and how to judge if the time has come to close a much loved church or cathedral).

6 comments

  1. One idea I have for former churches (at least those of whose architecture would be an attraction) would be to donate/sell it to Catholic Charities or a similar organization and have them run a non-profit restaurant (there are several models that could apply). Many churches have already been converted to for-profit establishments like the “Church Brew Works” in Pittsburgh. Why not make such an establishment a non-profit business instead?

  2. There is no ‘Diocese of Lynn’ in the Church of England. The Bishop of Lynn, The Right Revd Jonathan Meyrick, is actually a Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Norwich.

  3. I am so glad you wrote about this. I found the strategy at work in these carnival makeovers embarrassing on many levels. This is outreach? No. It’s like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. People may come to gawk, but it’s hardly going to turn them into art lovers. Contrast this with the beautiful son et lumiere displays you see on the facades of many French cathedrals. People flock to see them, they are historical, educational, and inspire pride in the patrimony that the historic churches represent. Even if they do not convert the public to faith, at least they don’t mock the building.

    1. I want to say first off that I’m not a traddy. That said, I think that great cathedrals in peril because of the cost of upkeep should renew themselves by returning to their roots. We know a lot about the buildings and how they were used. In the apse, behind the door screen, the chapter of the cathedral would celebrate the various liturgies. In the rest of the cathedral, there would be meetings secular and sacred, debates, speeches, etc. The cathedral was the house of God, but also the common property of the citizens, which they used as they needed. Part of the problem today is that not many people pray, and so they don’t know what to do in a Church. But as a father of three children, I value churches as places where I can go with my kids to explore, look at art, touch the piano or organ, and ask questions. People talk more in libraries now than they do churches. But in the past, the only restriction seems to have been to keep stray dogs from pissing everywhere. We need to reclaim cathedrals as common space, if not public property per se.
      I also think that these cathedrals should consider sharing identities and costs with like minded churches. Why shouldn’t a great Cathedral be shared between, say, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a Lutheran congregation? They are all in communion with each other. Even without communion, a Catholic cathedral could be shared with an Orthodox congregation. This happens all the time when a new community is laying down roots, but why shouldn’t it be a goal in itself? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre works like this, albeit with territorial fussiness.
      Also, why not embrace the tourist nature of big cathedrals as a plus? They are already supposed to be showcases for liturgical splendor and great choirs, so why not take the approach that groups like the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest take? Go all in with splendid vestments, many ministers, altar servers, processional torches, and the like? Embrace spectacle. It’s in the Bible, after all, in descriptions of worship.

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