Helter Skelter

By Michael Heidt

Keen-eyed observers of the religious scene might be forgiven for thinking that dangerous saboteurs had put something in the water supply of several English cathedrals. Once known for the magnificence of their soaring architecture and stately worship, the Sceptered Isle’s cathedrals appear to be turning into something else again. Not for them the straitjacket of hallowed custom and hushed reverence. No, it seems a new day has dawned. 

At least it has for Rochester Cathedral, founded in 604 A.D. and consecrated by Augustine of Canterbury. This church, once home to the saintly bishop and martyr John Fisher, installed a crazy golf course in its nave over the summer. That’s right, a putt-putt course, complete with astroturf, bridges and goofy obstacles filled the space where faithful Christians have lifted up their hearts to God for centuries.

Not to be outdone, Norwich Cathedral, founded in the eleventh century and dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, set up a fifty-five-foot-high fairground attraction in its nave in August. You may have seen something like it, a towering slide called a helter skelter, immortalized by the Beatles’ White Album and, terrifyingly enough, Charles Manson.

Winchester Cathedral had to get in the action too and placed a Giant Bee sculpture above the imposing gothic entrance of its West Front. It’s there, hovering, an enormous hollow bee made of wicker and festooned with flowers, until October’s Green Harvest Festival. Cathedral staff are pleased with the huge bee, not least because it’s made by local artist Lisa Burn-Hunter out of recycled materials.

All well and good, but why? The crazy golf’s about “bridge building” and mission, apparently. The Rev. Rachel Phillips, Rochester Cathedral’s Canon for Mission and Growth explains:

So while people are here, having fun and playing crazy golf, they will take the opportunity to reflect on that wider theme of building bridges (and) might find that they would like to pray, light a candle. Maybe talk to somebody.

Maybe talk to somebody. About what, their handicap? Norwich Cathedral’s amusement park ride is about mission too. Rev. Andy Bryant, Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care describes its intent and purpose:

The fun comes in the shape of a helter skelter, the serious comes in creating opportunities for reflective, God-shaped conversations. It is playful in its intent but also profoundly missional.

Profoundly missional. What an opportunity you’ll have for a God-shaped conversation, as you playfully hurtle down the slide whistling the  White Album, all the while reflecting upon the tragic end of Sharon Tate. Remarkable. Then there’s the Giant Bee. 

The large bee isn’t so much missional as a statement of concern for the environment, it’s a green bee. The Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester enthuses

The bee is a great symbol of the beauty and intricate connection of creation. Humanity relies on bees and other small insects for pollination. This giant bee is one way to remind ourselves of the great significance of small things and the need to look after God’s creation.

According to a cathedral press release, the bee’s also about recycling and very much against the “ugliness of plastic waste:”

The Giant Bee also symbolises the importance of recycling, incorporating materials that have been thrown away or donated. By displaying the Giant Bee on the West Front, Winchester Cathedral hopes to highlight how single-use plastic can be re-used and how human creativity can overcome the ugliness of plastic waste.

Winchester Cathedral’s clearly jousting with Gospel imperatives, and historically minded readers will remember there’s an unsettling precedent for hollow wicker sculpture in Britain’s storied past. 

Wicker Men aside, there you have it. A bee, a slide, and crazy golf, three bold initiatives designed to give British Christianity a much-needed missional shot in the arm or in the case of the bee, to raise green consciousness. Because, you know, nothing says God “so loved the world” so much as an enormous wicker bee.

Unsurprisingly, critics weren’t slow to weigh in, blasting Rochester and Norwich cathedrals for “blasphemy,” “sacrilege,” “desecration,” and turning their naves into “spectacles.” Here’s Gavin Ashenden, a former Queen’s Chaplain, in the Daily Telegraph:

The cathedrals represent a long line of belief - much of which is martyred belief - people have paid with their lives to believe in Christ and the cathedral is a corporeal embodiment of Christ.
To turn this into entertainment is blasphemous to Christ and the people who died for Christ. It suggests cathedrals have lost their responsibility to Christ because they are preoccupied with the demands of society.

Comments on social media were no less harsh. “At what point,” wrote Edward Peters on Twitter, “does an act of sacrilege become so palpably stupid that the act itself is proof against adequate reason being possessed by the agent so as to excuse from moral a/o criminal liability? I ask because I think Rochester Cathedral authorities might have found that point.”

A blasphemous sacrilege? You can imagine John Fisher, who died for the Faith in 16th century England, agreeing with the sentiment. The business of religion, of Christianity, was deadly serious for him, quite literally a matter of life and death, and “adventure golf” in the nave wasn’t in it. Still, while giant amusement park rides and similar spectacles may mock the Altars it’s surely the case that they’re not intended to.

The tremendous bee is supposed to remind us of God’s loving concern for creation, the helter skelter is an “opportunity” for a “God-shaped conversation” and crazy golf is all about “building bridges” between the Church and the world, getting the missional message out there, as it were. And in fairness, something has to.

It’s no secret that Christianity in the UK is in decline. According to a British Social Attitudes (BSA) poll, only 38 percent of Britons described themselves as Christian in 2018, down from 50 percent in 2008, and 66 percent in 1983. More specifically, Church of England attendance is at an all-time low, with the number of people identifying with the state religion falling from 31% in 2002 to 14% in 2018. With the fall-off in church attendance and affiliation, anti-Christian sentiment and behavior has risen. 

For example, 56 year-old UK doctor David Mackereth was fired from his job last year at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Why? For refusing to use pronouns other than those appropriate to a patient’s biological gender. Mackereth sued the DWP for unfair dismissal, citing his religious belief. “I believe gender,” stated the doctor, “is defined by biology and genetics. And that, as a Christian, the Bible teaches us that God made humans male or female.” (Genesis 1:27) But Mackereth lost his case with the judge ruling: 

Belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others, specifically here, transgender individuals.

Let that sink in. For this judge, orthodox Biblical anthropology is incompatible with “human dignity” and the “fundamental rights of others.” “Male and female he created them” becomes, in effect, a hate crime and you’d better not commit it if you want to keep your job.

Here in America we’re no stranger to this kind of lawfare being waged against Christians, ask the Little Sisters of the Poor who are being sued by abortion activists for refusing to provide contraception and abortifacient coverage to employees. Their case is before the US Supreme Court, again.

The same people attacking the nuns are presumably applauding Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit against David Daleiden and the undercover journalists who disclosed the abortion giant’s trafficking in fetal remains. Some of these, we’ve learned from the ongoing trial, are “harvested” while living because they’re more valuable to biotech firms and can be sold at a greater profit. All this to say nothing of state legislatures cheering on the passage of laws allowing abortion up to the point of birth.

In sum, the Faith in the West is under increasingly aggressive attack from a culture that’s fast losing its Christian moorings, and what a loss it’s been. Who would have imagined, even a decade ago, that people would lose their jobs for daring to say men and women are just that, men and women, born that way, created by God. Or that it would somehow be acceptable for a taxpayer subsidized company masquerading as a healthcare provider to sell the remains of the babies it’s killed. 

We are clearly facing a vehemently anti-Christian, hostile power, an enemy of Christ. In the face of this, golf, slides and giant bees aren’t going to cut it. Note well, the Giant Bee is hollow, an apt symbol for a brand of Christianity that’s been emptied of substance as it exchanges the Gospel for secular fad and spectacle. 

What’s needed, instead, is a return to the Faith, the Faith that is whole, complete and entire, that is catholic, given to us by God himself for our salvation. Against this the gates of Hell will not prevail.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.