Giles Fraser

Canon Dr Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Rector at the south London church of St Mary’s, Newington

August 1, 2019

First, the case for the defence. During the long summer holidays, many struggle to keep their children occupied with wholesome family-friendly entertainment. The idea that an otherwise under-used building, such as a cathedral, might offer a cheap day out for a bit of old-fashioned fun is hardly a bad thing. And if that means people stop seeing this ancient building, and the faith it exists to promote, as some distant and snooty throw-back, then all the better.

Setting up a crazy golf course in the nave of Rochester cathedral is all about inclusive access and generosity of welcome. And those who decry the idea are elitist snobs whose treasured sense of musty ecclesiastical silence certainly hasn’t proved to be box-office for ordinary people. After all, weren’t cathedrals originally also meeting places of market-place chaos and light-hearted ribaldry. A Christianity that takes seriously the incarnation has no need of protecting the sacred from the profane. Cathedrals should stop taking themselves so seriously. Throw open the doors. Give people a little of what they want.

I don’t buy it. And before I say why, perhaps I should make a small confession. I am golf obsessed. Perhaps this is a function of age, but whereas it might have once been true that I thought about sex two or three times a minute — or whatever that celebrated figure — I am now much more likely to imagine myself clipping a seven iron cleanly off the turf and watching it sail in my mind’s eye in a pleasing parabola towards the green.

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I hit a seven iron almost exactly 150 yards. And I have more than once sat in evensong at St Paul’s — a little bored — and imagined myself launching a ball from the great West doors, calculating distance, up the length of the nave, watching it soar up towards the whispering gallery before falling gently into the choir. Could I really catch the ball cleanly off that polished marble surface? Could I get away with doing it without breaking something, getting caught? I thought about this a lot. And yes, I know, I was supposed to be praying.

But that’s the thing about the imagination. It is often all about flights of fancy, as it were. The mind goes where it will, considering impossible possibilities, weighing the options of things that tend to be precluded as nonsense by the sort of drab utilitarian thinking that keeps our imagination dead.

And among the craziest of things: you can begin to imagine the possibility of God. Cathedrals are spaces where this crazy thought is possible. Where God can begin to come alive in the space created by stone and air, and bread and wine.

Human beings often hate emptiness, silence, boredom. In silence we are forced to do without multiple distractions that protect us from the knowledge of our own finitude, our own mortality. Just as hunger makes us aware of our need for food, silence makes us aware of our own existential dependence. And for many of us, this dependence comes to be translated as our need for God. Cathedrals must be places where we are invited to step out of our everyday distractions, where an imaginative portal is opened up for the dawn from on high to break upon us.

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There is a clear parallel here with the way too many parents want to fill up the ‘diaries’ of their children during the summer holidays, instead of letting them be bored, and through boredom squeezing out of them the sort of rich imaginative creativity that opens up far more exciting worlds and adventures.

Yes, I suppose you do detect a certain Swallows and Amazons nostalgia here. Because I do believe there is more excitement to be had with a stick and a ball, with building dens and dams, with day-dreaming and making up crazy games, than can be discovered in any of those pre-formatted simulacrums of the imagination as provided by the easy entertainment of the iPad and the X-box. And by the way, the imagination is free.

But we have developed this extraordinary sense that boredom is some sort of moral failing. The philosopher Lars Svendsen – author of a Philosophy of Boredom – makes the interesting argument that the idea of boredom being a moral failing is something that comes about with modernity. That in having replaced a belief in God with a belief in the self as the ultimate source of meaning, modern boredom is a bit like a loss of faith in the self’s ability to generate its own meaning. It is almost as if bored people have let themselves down. This is modernity’s equivalent to loss of faith.

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The church must insist upon an earlier understanding – the nobility of boredom, like the nobility of the monk’s boredom in his cell, his waiting on God. Because, just as radio is better than television because the pictures are better, so, too, a monk can inhabit more worlds from the privacy of his cell than the constantly managed mind ever can. The entertainment industry can be a spur to the imagination. It can also be its enemy, doing the imagining for us. Stunting our own. Thus dulling the revolutionary or religious thought that this world could be absolutely and completely different to the way it is.

Crazy golf in the nave is not, strictly speaking, a desecration of the holy. The holy has no need of our protection; still less the protection of pompous priests and bossy vergers. But a space for silence and the possibility of prayer does need careful ring-fencing. Where else in our noisy culture is one able deliberately to sit quietly and contemplate the meaning of our existence?

Silence and boredom have become the enemies of a culture corrupted by a version of economic organisation that seeks to conscript everything we do into a form of consumption and profit-focused entertainment. The church must stand against all this. Offer an alternative. In an age where even libraries have become learning centres full of computers and the low throb of one’s neighbour’s ear phones, in church we should continue to make silence and boredom our friends.

For here we can experience whole new worlds, alternative versions of reality, sometimes wildly, shockingly transgressive, much crazier than crazy golf, sometimes life changing in their seriousness. For, among other things, these are the spaces in which we might experience the possibility of God.

That wonderful priest and curmudgeon R S Thomas put it best:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God.