I’ve been watching a few episodes of a documentary about Canterbury Cathedral and it leaves me with mixed feelings, perhaps more so because this is the time when the christians celebrate the resurrection of their saviour.
The people featuring in the documentary; the archbishop, canons, both men and women, volunteers, stonemasons working on the actual building, are all charming, and obviously sincere in their motivations. It is easy to sneer about the many shortcomings of the various cults, but I could not really detect any hypocrisy in any of their words or actions. Well, outside of the ritual ones spoke during services, which are open to a hell of a lot of criticism. The closest shave was an anecdote and comment by the archbishop while addressing volunteers at one of the food banks run by the cathedral: “A man told me, that when he goes to the food bank, he doesn’t just receive a parcel of food, he also receives dignity and the feeling he counts as a human being because of the way the people of the food bank treat him.” That is of course very nice, and probably true, but then the archbishop ruins it, by claiming the christian foundation of the food bank and the people working there is responsible for that display of human kindness. No it is not, archbishop, that is common, human decency. Your particular cult cannot claim ownership of human kindness. On the other hand, the same archbishop is genuinely pleased when the gathering of anglican high priests votes for the inclusion of women in the higher ranks of their hierarchy and does not come across as a curmudgeon at all. Just like normal people, those priests are…
But on the whole the programme excellently shows the central place the cathedral has in the social and spiritual life of the English, not necessarily solely from a religious point of view. It’s an important ritual hub, an architectural and archaeological landmark and one of the central pillars of English history. It also shows the struggle of the people working there to maintain it and stop it from falling over. I was moved by a young apprentice stonemason who was very pleased that some of the mullions he made are going to be part of the restored, central window of the cathedral for the next 500 years or so. That’s pride in craftmanship, and pride in being part of something greater than yourself: a building, built to withstand the ages.
I get irritated when they show parts of the services, where the same, charming people recant the same hollow lines priests have been muttering for centuries to little avail, and I find myself smiling when they are jumping for joy upon hearing they were awarded 12 million pounds for restoration work, or when the female canon is drinking pink champagne to celebrate the victory I mentioned above. I am moved to tears by the hymns, simply because they are extremely beautiful and I am annoyed by the smoke-and-mirror theatricals announced by the archbishop for the Maundy Thursday service, to hammer home the message of Jesus’ sacrifice, and I was disgusted by him summoning the ‘Lord of Hosts’ to commemorate the fallen of the Great War. Lord of Hosts? Religion of peace much?
I am clearly in two minds about the whole thing, something which is probably a recurring thing for apostates: you may be convinced that there are no gods, but perhaps you (subconsciously) miss the comfort of belonging, which went the way of the dodo, along with your faith. And then one of the choral singers of the church says something which puts things into place for me (I paraphrase): “I’m not even sure whether it is faith or the place. You don’t get evangelised by coming to Canterbury. It is the building, the community, tradition, rituals, belonging, which made me stay.” And that is the central point for me, not intended to diminish anything anybody experiences at Canterbury, but isn’t it the place, with its centuries of social history, which makes Canterbury (and all those other focal places) special?
As the late great Douglas Adams put it: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful, without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”