Sometimes people say that the Christian Faith is in trouble. Numbers of people attending church are down. Many ecclesial institutions have trouble staying open. A recent post has analyzed this decrease in religious practice that is common throughout the West. This isn’t an exclusively Catholic phenomenon but can be found across denomination lines.
A number of PrayTell posts (e.g. here and here) have looked at various initiatives from the Anglican Communion and their willingness to try something new. However, I think that at times the Church of England can go too far. I did a post in 2019 on the helter-skelter that was set up in Norwich Cathedral and the miniature golf course in Rochester Cathedral. Now there is another news story in many outlets that again features Norwich Cathedral.
Dippy the Dinosaur has recently gone on display in Norwich Cathedral. The massive 85 foot replica of a diplodocus is a plaster cast copy of the fossilized bones of a dinosaur that was unearthed by railway workers in Wyoming in 1898. The original is in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA. This plaster cast copy has been in London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. I still remember the impression it made on me when I visited the museum as a child. It was a massive display that took up the main hall of the NHM in London. Since 2018 the replica dinosaur has being doing a tour of Great Britain and the North of Ireland and the Cathedral is the eighth and final stop on its tour. So far 1.7 million people have seen Dippy on this tour.
Dippy is set up in the nave of the cathedral giving his back to the altar. The Cathedral’s website assures parishioners that “worship at the Cathedral will continue as usual.” Although with the dinosaur is taking up the top 85 feet of the nave, I am not sure how regular worship can take place.
I can see that there is a value in attracting people to visit our churches and historic buildings. I will even admit that certain concerts might not be the worst thing in the world. However, a dinosaur is a step too far. It is bad enough that some think that Faith belongs to a more primitive world and has been totally superseded by our modern world that has all the answers. But Dino in a cathedral just begs for some wag to claim that people of faith are dinosaurs!
N.B. the photo accompanying this post is of Dippy at the Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery on the Glasgow leg of the tour. There are no photos yet of Dino at the Cathedral in a Google image search with a Creative Commons licenses. But if you follow the links above you can see Dino in the nave of Norwich Cathedral.
For context for folks unfamiliar with Norwich Cathedral, which may be likened to a Romanesque body with a Perpendicular Gothic hat:
PanoSphere of the nave, looking east: https://tinyurl.com/fetfuanm
PanoSphere of the choir and presbytery, looking east: https://tinyurl.com/7xse3xmr
I don’t think that people (US critics?) fully understand the dire straits that English Cathedrals and greater churches are in at the moment, exacerbated by the Pandemic. They rely on donations from visitors, and sometimes, unwillingly, have to charge entrance fees. Visitor and tourist income has all but dried up.
Apart from grants for specific works, funded by the National Lottery and occasional Government support, cathedrals receive no ongoing funding from the State, despite the Church of England being ‘established.’ Routine maintenance of these historic buildings is a 24/7 operation requiring skilled crafspeople, and inevitably is costly.
Also, cathedral deans and chapters (the priests who work in the buildings maintaining their liturgy and pastoral care) are very conscious of their importance and the need to keep these buildings open for their primary purpose which is worship and prayer, something which they maintain with great fidelity and to a high standard. This too is costly.
It’s easy to criticise our Cathedral authorities, particularly for the erection of helter-skelters and Dippy The (repro) Diplodocus. Not all deans and chapters feel the same about such attempts to draw in the public. But they are desperate.
Our Cathedrals, their buildings, archives and treasures, span more than a thousand years of our Nation’s history. Their structures contain work done in the 11th century, sometimes even before that. They are a real soul-refreshment for many people regardless of faith. So while I would not be entirely comfortable with a westward-oriented Dippy, I entirely sympathise with the Dean and Chapter of Norwich.
Norwich appears to have moved its liturgical functions into the Quire, which is perfectly adequate for the purpose.
The photograph shows it in another church. I suspect churches are uniquely capable of such display because of their lofty height. While I cringed at amusement park incursions into a worship space, this seems more sober because it is natural history and therefore educational in nature. We’ve seen secular art exhibits in churches… where does one draw the line?
On the negative side it certainly would dominate the space. And, intended or not, the replica is “saying” something within its setting. I hope it is not suggesting that the church is on its way to extinction!
Those who remember Dippy’s original location in the Natural History Museum in London might not find Norwich Cathedral Nave too alien an environment for her/him. The 19th century part of the Museum is a masterpiece of Victorian neo-lombardic-romanesque architecture, and has been likened by critics to a cathedral.