Saturday, 4 March 2017

Guildford Cathedral

Nostalgia's a wonderful thing. The past becomes rosier, the Summers were always warmer and the Mars Bars bigger. But there must be such a thing as reverse-nostalgia too, when the past becomes infinitely darker. Neuralgia? Will that do? So let's get down to it.

Guildford Cathedral is facing a financial crisis. They can't find the several millions of pounds needed to fund essential repairs for some badly-built asbestos-concrete-widgits in the roof. Now, I'm sure that for some people, this is a bad thing. Perhaps they've spent many years looking after a place that's become their spiritual home, that has hosted hundreds of civic events for the great and the good and the worthy. However, there's one slight problem hindering anyone trying to save Guildford Cathedral- it's a truly horrible building. Mindbogglingly awful, in fact.
Have you seen it from the outside? A pile of bricks, thrown up on a hill like a giant's first attempt at making a sand castle on the beach- before quickly knocking it down and trying something infinitely more interesting. On top of the central tower there's a large golden angel, not a Cross. (I once fooled someone into thinking the place was a temple of another faith. It wasn't hard.) Inside, it feels like a turned-off refrigerator, not a house of prayer. 2000 years ago, Jesus might have invited the moneychangers and street-traders inside to make it more interesting (instead of chucking them out), just to give the place a bit of life and colour.

Film-trivia corner:
In 'The Omen', (a Satanic horror-flick of the 1970s), the young Damien is taken by his adoptive parents to a church service, but the child has a hysterical fit at the door, and refuses to be taken in. Guess where they filmed that scene. It wasn't holy sanctity that repelled the nascent Antichrist- it was the architecture.

Now, I must confess to having a personal grudge against the place. Many years ago, a whole bunch of us teenagers would regularly walk an annual Easter Monday youth pilgrimage to the cathedral from our church in Ashtead, Surrey. It was a genuinely fun thing to do. Get up early, join your friends for several hours of trudging through the Springtime across the Surrey hills, basking in the sunshine and generally feeling full of life and chatter. Hey, there was excellent cheesecake at the cafe along the route, with a big pancake party get-together at somebody's house when we got back. Perfect.

But there was always a downside, and that was what happened when we actually went inside the cathedral in the early afternoon. There were lots of other young people there, all brought by their volunteer leaders. Here we were, a whole next-generation of thrusting enthusiasts for this Christianity thing, ready to seek out new worlds of wonder. We were there to be counter-cultured, so come on then, we thought, when we arrived. Inspire us! And the funny thing is, they never did. We were always welcomed by a service of worship that never failed to provide us with uninspiring pap that never said anything significant about this Jesus-person or his totally-transformative Kingdom. On one occasion, we even sang a re-worked version of ABBA's 'I Have a Dream'. (In the 1970s, for teenagers? I ask you... ) Some of those twisted lyrics are still seared into my brain:

'When you hear the wonder, of the Christian tale,
You can face the future, even if you fail...'

So like most of the other kids there, we refused to sing it. The people leading the service up front looked puzzled. Was something wrong? Yes. Because they'd dropped the ball- again. They'd cocked up yet another opportunity to celebrate a Gospel of Hope and Challenge with a whole bunch of kids who could be carrying that message into the future. That awful song summed it all up. (Bjorn and Benny should have sued them for wrecking the original.)

So if that Cathedral has to be demolished...  it won't be a great loss. William Morris once said that we should never keep something in a house if it isn't beautiful or useful. Perhaps that applies to houses of worship too. History has a way of disposing with pointless institutions, and that Cathedral obviously hasn't built up a enough of a groundswell of love and positivity to make it worth saving... so please let it go. Whatever that building's meant to express nowadays, a food bank would probably say the same thing, only better.

1 comment:

  1. The church where I had my wedding reception in Hove, Sussex was is a half-scale model that the architect had built to prove he could do ecclesiastical buildings like this - Bishop Hannington, Hove - and it is equally soul-less.


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