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Gen Z doesn’t want disco cathedrals

Canterbury Cathedral's congagretation. Credit: Getty

February 12, 2024 - 11:55am

The silent disco held in Canterbury Cathedral at the end of last week was, for many, a stark reminder of Britain’s declining faith. To see thousands of party-goers waving glow sticks around an ancient church represented, if not outright sacrilege, a perfect picture of modernity: a sacred space once used for communal worship now filled with headphone-wearing individuals absorbed in their own hedonistic bubbles. 

Could this be the future of the Church of England? Perhaps. One couldn’t help notice, though, that the event seemed to attract a specific demographic: Gen Xers and older millennials. Populating the controversial “rave in the nave” were crowds not of twenty-somethings, but instead mostly middle-aged women. While this might have been down to the event’s Nineties nostalgia theme, it also suggests that partying in a church is something which particularly appeals to a certain generation of secular Britons — a generation who might still see rebelling against Christianity as puckishly subversive.  

Taking after boomers, many in their forties and fifties have come to view religion as fusty and in need of modernisation. In the 2000s, some were drawn to the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins; others to the softer secularism of Humanists UK. Those who stayed within the Church of England, by and large, called for a more liberal theology and the need to “update” the church for contemporary culture (the disco being perhaps their latest attempt). All of these reactions against the traditional Christianity of their great-grandparents are typical of the generational theory put forward by the sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe: following a culture of religious conservatism, younger generations will tend to rebel by adopting liberal outlooks. 

But the logic of generational theory would also predict that, once these liberal attitudes have become mainstream — as they now undeniably have — the new young generations will undergo a “turning” in the opposite direction. This, fascinatingly, could be what we are starting to see with Generation Z. Unlike their parents and grandparents, most members of Gen Z have not been raised in a Christian culture and, as such, are not as inclined towards actively rebelling against it. This, along with their inclusive politics which tends to be critical of post-9/11 anti-religious rhetoric, makes them considerably more open to ideas of the sacred. 

While this tends to take idiosyncratic (and arguably just as individualistic) forms of alternative spirituality, such as WitchTok, it is significant that teenagers and young adults today seem to reject the secular materialism of their parents’ generation. The think tank Theos found that “Gen Z (57%) are more likely to think religion has a place in the modern world than any other generation.” Just as surprisingly, the latest World Values Survey survey found that more young people believe in the existence of the afterlife, and specifically hell, than before. It would seem, then, that Zoomers are moving beyond a boomerish cynicism and towards something like traditional religious beliefs.

It is far more subversive, as a member of Gen Z, to seek “re-enchantment” — something which entails treating sacred spaces with reverence — than raving in a nave. This is a generation intrigued by pagan sacred sites and spiritually-infused ecology, not the desacralisation of an ancient place of worship. 

Those who think this is — or should be — the future of the church ought to take this into account. As Louise Perry recently claimed, attempts to modernise religion do not actually tend to be successful in attracting young people, precisely because of this new appeal of returning to tradition. The emerging “tradcath” movement is perhaps the best example, in which young people are embracing conservative Catholicism in reaction to the dominant secular liberalism. 

Of course, they are still in a small minority. But they nonetheless point to a trend: the boomer rebellion against Christianity and attempts to modernise the church are themselves becoming outdated. It is now re-enchantment which holds subcultural value. Though this may take on questionable forms, it seems unlikely to entail holding silent discos in cathedrals. Young people have had enough of the profane; now, more and more are seeking the sacred.


Esmé Partridge is an MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge who works at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.

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William Cameron
William Cameron
5 months ago

Discos in Cathedrals are very popular with asylum seekers.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago

OMG – the title is enough. NT Wright what on earth is going on with your Church? Anglicans come back to Rome, bring your beautiful Cathedrals and Churches and let’s start re-creating a Christianity rooted in natural law, the good, the true and the beautiful. Hymns, candles, prayer and a real attempt to raise ourselves up rather than false kindness and indulgence of all our manifest failures and sins.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago

This Canterbury disco is the embarrassing end to what King Hank began 500 years ago.
It’s time to listen to what England’s greatest theologian, St Thomas More, never tired of saying – end this hedonistic nonsense and return to the One True Church.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

There are those such as myself who aren’t interested in hedonistic nonsense or a return to the failed religious paradigm. It’s wrong to think those are the only two alternatives.
The “One True Church” was (and remains, where it can) a form of coercive control, based on the false threat of the heaven/hell afterlife. Most other religions do the same. It comes as no surprise that a younger generation brought up not to think for themselves as much as accept coercive paradigms might begin to believe in such things again.
Religionists can downvote as much as they like, since – as with other forms of dogmatism – they can’t abide anyone being outside their worldview. Well, some of us are managing to live without fear or favour, and i know it rankles but i’m happier being neither religious or materialistic. I am, however, filled with the spiritual joy of being alive and conscious.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

There is no such thing as secular or atheism. You will be swayed by religion one way or another. Progressive leftism is clearly a religion – a terrible one. Utopian ‘solutionism’….the belief that humanity can itself solve its problems and be perfected…was the animus that ran through Paris in 1789, Russia in 1917, the cultural revolution, Pol Pot…..and now woke CRT/gender theory. They always end up with gulags. And if you think you can hold the line as a liberal…..you will automatically simply play the [‘NPC’] role of someone’s useful idiot.
Unlike Marxism or humanism, Catholicism/Christianity is rooted in the reality of imperfection and original sin. That the Church goes off the rails is not news or surprising…..The Old Testament is a long litany of such human failures….
But without that long journey over hundreds of generations…..humanity would never have come to appreciate the sacral quality of the individual as a reflection of the triune monotheist ‘I am’ revealed to Moses….and without that none of your laudable liberal individualism would even have been thinkable.
Christ offers as a vision of self-realization through sacrifice, through giving …through self constraint. It was this idea that make the emergence of the modern self possible. But abandoning this convenantal vision rooted in natural law, modern and now post-modern secularists have adopted a narcissistic self-directed transactional/contractual idea of the self…. And the only place that leads is individual despair and societal madness. Nietzsche knew this very well. You’re I am sure, well meaning and humanistic/liberal. And Ive seen you rail against the excesses of woke. But in a post-Christian world, their excesses are yours.
The only plausible and reasonable future is both Christian and post-liberal – the latter in the sense that the sacral individual and the priority we accord to human agency and self-actualization must be re-embedded and re-enchanted in a covenantal tissue of mutual obligation to each other, to the natural world and most of all to God. Without a shared, ritualized and dramaturgical /liturgical experience of the Devine ….we are and can be nothing, and the gulags will come back

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago

This exactly. Without a God to rein us in we become slaves to our worst excesses.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

So you choose a false belief in the mistaken hope it’ll “rein us in”?

It didn’t work; it may have made things worse in fact, as we’ve evaded doing the hard yards to move beyond that paradigm by using it as a comfort blanket.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Or, as that other great English thinker (Chesterton) put it: The problem with atheism isn’t that people believe in nothing. It’s that they believe in everything.

David Morley
David Morley
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Just a bit of good taste would help!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago

“You will be swayed by religion one way or another”.

I’ve worked through all that decades ago, and you’re mistaken. I know it’s possible that some just can’t see outside that particular mindtrap.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

‘You’ are not the metric…. There are always ‘free thinkers’ who live in some cerebral sphere notionally outside the experience of every day life. But this is parasitic on the values and mores that were embedded into our society by Judeo-Christianity….and if enough people start to think like you, we I’ll get…what? Child mutilation/sacrifice, government sponsored killing of depressed teens (Canada), authoritarian impulses to re-educate intellectual dissidents and demands for total compliance with woke orthodoxy (Trudeau, Scotland, Ireland…frozen bank accounts, ‘hate speech’ laws – arresting and jailing people for social media posts….)…CCP style microregulation.
And by the way, the idea that your moral code didn’t originate at Sinai – and wasn’t embedded by Christendom….is just wrong. There are many definitive accounts – but Tom HOlland’s Dominion is the most recent and most well written. What would you say to Holland? He’s an atheist liberal like you

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Well said.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Steve, if God had meant for us to be atheists, He would have created us with a much greater capacity for rational thought.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Graham… our capacity for thought is a product of our evolution. You know that. The rise of consciousness and language, dependent upon our senses and capacity for speech have got as little to do with a “creator” as the changing of the seasons as the Earth travels around the sun on its axis.
Quoting that hoary old chestnut of Chesterton’s again (in a previous comment) is yet another comforting thought-process to fall back on; it’s indicative of Chesterton’s own limitations, rather than anything that could be seen as illuminating.
I fully understand the difficulty many people have with this, having lived a life under an illusion of having been “created” rather than being a product of an entirely random sequence of events stretching back billions of years.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The propensity towards religion is also an inescapable fact of human evolution.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

Hopefully it is something we can evolve beyond.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I am sure you are happy, you often tell us you are and I believe you. But I don’t get what is spiritual about being alive and conscious if being alive and conscious is a purely material experience. I genuinely don’t,
I don’t say it’s not possible or you aren’t feeling it, that would be a silly thing. But when I ask atheists who say they are spiritual what that means it seems to mean little more than liking nice music or enjoying being out in the countryside.
I’m a Christian, I’m happy some of the time and I get irritable at other times sometimes, just for the record.
Incidentally, I don’t think you’re going to Hell unless you want to and even if that’s your choice I don’t think you’ll be there for ever, the gates are locked on the inside. I believe God is eternal and whole and complete and He can’t be any of those without you, can He?

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Steve – listen to Tom Holland and tell me what you make of his argument (which is basically that you are a Christian) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDa4vpkNKeQ

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

The “One True Church”? Is that the one with all the paedo Priests?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

No, they were homosexuals pederasts. Contrary to popular belief teenage boys were often their targets rather than little boys.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Oh, well that’s ok then….

Pip G
Pip G
5 months ago

It is no surprise that young people seek ‘spirituality’. The Church should be there for all, while showing the tenets of Christianity. Social Justice theology will appeal to many, while the spiritual Acts of Mercy apply: “Instruct the ignorant” meaning say what Christianity involves – the centrality of Christ; and ‘Comfort the Doubtful’ meaning treat them with love and discuss their concerns.
As a generalization, the Church has an appalling image. Liberal theology wrongly seeks to meet secular culture on the letter’s terms and seems patronizing and ridiculous. Some extreme Conservatives seek to go back to pre-Vatican II. Time to spread ‘the Good News’.
Sidebar: Shrunken G mentions NT Wright: an intellectual but his central message is correct. On the RC side Bishop Robert Barron at Word on Fire is spreading the true message.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago
Reply to  Pip G
Kevin Mahoney
Kevin Mahoney
5 months ago

An excellent article. I recently visited Rotherham Minster, an ancient and beautiful place of worship, hoping to say a quiet prayer for a sick relative. This proved to be impossible as the church was simultaneously hosting a CAB advice session, a new age style mindfulness workshop and a noisy coffee morning. I don’t mind these kinds of events being held on church premises, but not in the consecrated worship space. I wonder if the CofE has give up on the idea that people will use their buildings for spiritual purposes?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Mahoney

Maybe the CoE in Rotherham is moving towards providing space for “Muslim spiritual purposes”

David Morley
David Morley
5 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Mahoney

I’m not religious, but I still appreciate having spaces which are spiritually different (no other word really captures it). I just don’t want these spaces to be colonised by shallow disco/shopping/narcissistic mall culture. There is tons of this already. We still need places for quietness, contemplation, even awe. Not everywhere, but just somewhere.

Kevin Mahoney
Kevin Mahoney
5 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I couldn’t agree more. I no longer attend public worship as I feel I am too confused about what I believe to be an honest participant. However, I sometimes feel an overwhelming need to go somewhere ‘special’ to pray and contemplate when I have serious matters on my mind.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago

What’s the evidence behind “young people are more and more seeking the sacred” ?

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

The rise in their use of psychedelic substances?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

That’s been happening for decades, which I can happily attest to. I think the young today are more straight laced than previous generations to be honest

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes, I can see why you say that.

Kat L
Kat L
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It would be nice to think so but I see a lot of MGTOW commentary because this generation of young women generally have shockingly high body counts. Gen Z is 20 something range right?

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago

I can’t help but think that the writer is reading slightly too much into the fact a 90’s nostalgia event was largely populated by people who came of age during the 90’s

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
5 months ago

Saul Bellow nailed this mentality long ago: “In thought, Mr. Sammler was testy with White Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret way to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs. Beating swords into plowshares? No, rather converting dog collars into gee strings. But this was neither here nor there.”

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
5 months ago

Reenchantment is not specifically and perhaps not even necessarily Christian. Some would argue (Peter Berger for instance) that Protestantism only accelerated the disenchantment of the cosmos begun in Israel (e.g., Nathan the prophet calling out King David: “thou art the man”). (If so then Thomas More is of a piece with “King Hank.”) Besides any reweaving of the rainbow or repopulating the gnomed mine would still take place within the framework of a decidedly secular society.

Lewis Betty
Lewis Betty
5 months ago

It was interesting to see that Gen Zers find the afterlife to their liking. Is this just a matter of rebellion against the secular worldview of their parents? I doubt it. There is a great deal of research-based literature afoot these days that secular materialists refuse to look at. Popular titles like A Lawyer Presents the Evidence for the Afterlife and The Afterlife Unveiled are not based on religious teaching but on contemporary consciousness research. I suspect they find a single life followed by extinction troubling. If there is something better out there, something not even based on religious teaching, our kids are likely to sniff it out. Having done so, they might then take a look at religion.

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
5 months ago

Even non-believers need a church to celebrate.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

To see thousands of party-goers waving glow sticks around an ancient church represented, if not outright sacrilege, a perfect picture of modernity: a sacred space once used for communal worship now filled with headphone-wearing individuals absorbed in their own hedonistic bubbles. 
Or in other words, a large number of people worshipping in their own way.
Didn’t Maxi Jazz of Faithless say “This is my Church. This is where I heal my hurt” in “God is a DJ”?

David Morley
David Morley
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Are they the ones who gave us couplets like:

Of makin’ mad love to my girl on the heath
Tearin’ off tights with my teeth

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

They? I didn’t realise Faithless were non binary!
Some cracking tunes though

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

“They” is reflective of the fact that Faithless is comprised of more than one person.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

That was Shakespeare, wasn’t it?

David Morley
David Morley
5 months ago

I’m a non-believer – but I still can’t help but see this as a symbol of the sheer trashiness of modern Britain.

David Morley
David Morley
5 months ago

Populating the controversial “rave in the nave” were crowds not of twenty-somethings, but instead mostly middle-aged women

I think the author is overthinking this. It was obvious who the participants would be. Apologies for generalising, but I’m afraid the current generation of middle age women are not rebelling against religion – or doing anything else with a whiff of seriousness – they are simply trashy people who have failed to grow up. Their minds, quite frankly are pop cultural junkyards. Perhaps apologies are unnecessary – those amongst this generation who do not fit this picture will be even more aware of the cultural, emotional and spiritual bankruptcy of their peers than I am.

David Morley
David Morley
5 months ago

Populating the controversial “rave in the nave” were crowds not of twenty-somethings, but instead mostly middle-aged women.

Sounds more like a Danse Macabre than a silent disco!

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
5 months ago

I have no idea as to the author’s inclinations but the reference to conservative Catholicism and “tradcaths” indicate an over-reliance on digital spaces if not support for the movement. The data is simply not there for a catholic revival among the young. All points to freefall in attendance, identification and literacy. Unfortunately the churches that are growing are low, charismatic and evangelical. That is the future of christianity amongst the young no matter how many “good news stories” are pumped out accross traditionalist media. The numbers of people joining religious orders is abysmal and gives lie to the talk of the same sources who champion tradiitionalism – it is easier to talk about than actually commit to. This is what i think of a lot of RC commentators, they don’t put their money where their mouth is.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
5 months ago

C S Lewis quipped that anything that wasn’t eternal was eternally out of date.
If it is admitted that there is an expression of Christianity that is out of date, a relic, it is like Mrs May describing the Conservative Party as The Nasty Party. It is to give ground to the opponents of Christianity.
The bulk of Christianity isn’t expressed in feeling the numinous in sacred spaces. Something that can be taken up or put down as feeling takes us. As the Apostle Paul delineated, Christianity is expressed in the ‘walk of life’. In attending to the next thing and the next. Patience in the sick room. Duty in the workplace. Careful in speech. Cheerfulness in giving alms.
If there is a desire for re-enchantment in cathedrals, it has a seductive rival. The belief that there is a ‘right side of history’ makes history into an entity that can judge, like God.
The trust in The Settled Science makes science omniscient like God. This deity has its clergy who use it to sway the true believers and, at the same time, rage like Saul of Tarsus at the heretics.
The frequency that petitions are addressed to government, revealing the expectation that the state can do anything for the supplicant, makes the state like God who is petitioned every Sunday.
The state doesn’t exist apart from its actions. Acting through its partners and agencies the state becomes a pantheism of force; in a certain way imitative of the Holy Spirit.
A counterfeit of the triune God.
But as C S Lewis wrote for one of his characters, all find what they truly seek.
However, most importantly, the Apostle Paul urged that the Christian must not be a theorist but an ambassador. In his relations to alien thought he is to keep to the spirit of his Master and Friend.
The Christian is not to make a virtue of ignorance or a merit of unintelligence. In understanding his own limitations, he is to sympathise with perplexity.
Above all else, he is not to be a ‘fighter’. He is not to be a mere disputant. He is not to love a mere mental duel in debate for the sake of it, or worse, loving his own way and will in the world of thought for his own sake.
He is to bring to bear on strange and non-believing theories that influence often sublimely alien to them, the chastened, humbled patience of one who forgets himself in his Lord and in his neighbour.
He is to recollect that there must be a moral element somewhere in the rejection of eternal love and redemption, so it be truly presented, that man’s mysterious adversary has something to do with the rejection. And that element of difficulty will never be rightly handled in a crude and combative spirit; a spirit that will only call out a blinder prejudice.
Did all those who attended the electronic light show in Canterbury Cathedral expect to be called to be and do all that? The invitation is there.

Bruno J. De Cordier
Bruno J. De Cordier
5 months ago

“The atheist devotes himself less to proving that God does not exist than to forbidding Him to exist.” NicolĂĄs GĂłmez DĂĄvila