Saturday, 23 March 2024 04:23

Celebration or desecration? England’s cathedrals open doors to silent discos

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It was a night of old favourites and modern anthems. More than 400 people paid about £25 a head to dance beneath Winchester Cathedral’s magnificent medieval arches on Saturday evening. Drinks were served at a bar; music was fed through individual headphones.

“If you had told me this time last year that I would be in the cathedral, with a beer in my hand while belting out the chorus of Rolling in the Deep by Adele, then I would have thought you were mad,” wrote Matt Rooks-Taylor, a local reporter. “Everywhere I looked, there were happy faces.”

But not everyone is pleased at the growing trend for England’s glorious cathedrals to host silent discos. As the number signing up to host such events in the coming months reached at least 14, a petition opposing the “desecration of our historic holy places” amassed more than 2,400 signatures. In Canterbury, a prayer vigil was held outside the ancient cathedral during a silent disco earlier this month.

At the heart of the controversy is how the eye-watering cost of running and maintaining cathedrals is met. In England, 39 out of 42 Anglican cathedrals are Grade I-listed, and three – Durham, Canterbury and Westminster Abbey – are also world heritage sites.

None get government funding, and the Church of England contributes a fraction of costs. The vast majority of income has to be raised from grants, donations, events and in some cases entrance fees.

At Canterbury, the running costs are £7.3m a year, or £20,000 a day. At Winchester, it is £5.1m, or £14,000 a day. At Hereford, the annual bill is £2.5m; Guildford Cathedral – built in the 1940s, making it relatively modern – costs £1m a year to run.

At Guildford, 1,000 people attended a silent disco in two sessions on Saturday evening, ending at midnight. At 7.30am, worshippers arrived for the first service of the day.

“On Saturday, people came to enjoy a space that would be otherwise dark and quiet,” said Matt O’Grady, the cathedral’s chief operating officer. “By generating an income in this way, we can keep the cathedral open. We simply wouldn’t be able to provide a sacred space without our commercial activities, including markets and music events in the cathedral.”

Another silent disco will be held at Guildford Cathedral next Saturday, with two more scheduled for August and another two in February 2025.

At Hereford Cathedral, a sold-out silent disco on Saturday may be repeated later in the year. The Very Revd Sarah Brown, the cathedral’s dean, said: “Hereford Cathedral is first and foremost a place of prayer, worship and ministry. But as we face mounting costs with no public sector funding we must look to different ways to supplement our income to help keep this sacred place available for all.

“It will not be to everyone’s taste, but if attending an event such as this helps to change public perception of the place, and assists with knocking down some of the barriers which prevent people from walking through the doors, then it has served a purpose.”

Critics of the “raves in the naves” argue that cathedrals were built as sacred spaces for the worship of God. The discos were “profane and sacrilegious,” said Cajetan Skowronski, a doctor from East Sussex, who organised the petition and prayer vigil at Canterbury.

“Discos are fine in their proper place, which is a nightclub, but not inside the body of a cathedral. The best way to raise money would be to make the building work as a cathedral in terms of drawing in worshippers, people who make regular donations. Once it ceases to function as a cathedral and becomes simply an events space, why not sell it?”

It would be hard to imagine any other great world religion treating its sacred places in such a way, said Skowronski. “The bars, the strobe lighting – essentially they’re recreating the nightclub experience within the cathedral. I’m not against clubbing, dancing, drinking, celebrating, but in the right place.”

John Blake, the commercial director of Winchester Cathedral, said the critics should come and see for themselves. Saturday night’s silent disco was a “great success” and a “joyous occasion”, he said.

He added: “There was nothing anti-religious about it. It was a wonderful, uplifting experience bringing in people who wouldn’t normally come to a cathedral, and everything was back in place for the first service on Sunday morning.”

The Very Revd Jo Kelly-Moore, chair of the Association of English Cathedrals and dean of St Albans, said: “Our cathedrals hold so much of the social, religious and political history of our country while always being open and free for worship, solace, prayer and hope.

“Some of us manage to do this without charging, but we all have to build an economy around us to be sustainable.

“Here in St Albans, it costs £6,000 a day to run and any revenue is ploughed back into the cathedral to fund worship and mission, care and restoration of the fabric, visitor operations, outreach and the staff needed to run the building.”


The Guardian, UK

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