St Hilda’s College is the first college of the University of Oxford to have demolished its chapel. First of all they were going to replace it. But having knocked down the old one they have now decided they want a multi-faith space instead. The humanists are crowing that this represents a triumph for the forces of secularism – and they are, of course, perfectly correct.
The ghastly multi-faith space is democratic and open to all in the same way that death is: to say that it’s a space where we all are equal is not to say that it is somewhere that anyone wants to go. For if you have ever – bored and waiting for a flight – had the misfortune of poking your nose into the airport multi-faith prayer room then you will know that these are places of crushing banality with all the spiritual charisma of the dentists waiting room. And if you were unfortunate enough to be drawn there to seek comfort I would bet a pound to a penny that you would leave feeling ten times worse. These spaces are not signposts to heaven; if anything, they gesture in the direction of the other place.
There is a serious point here about universalism. Religion has never been tempted by anything approaching Esperanto because the generalised form of religion evacuates it of any meaning. In all serious religious traditions, the universal is rooted within the specific. Yes, there are still those who think the multi faith space is all about wanting the world to sing in perfect harmony, all religions together, brother and sisters in arms. But in reality these people are the useful idiots of the bursar and the property committee, all pressing to maximise profitable space.
This has nothing to do with an Anglican desire to maintain some sort of theological dominance within the University. If St Hilda’s decided it was going to have a mosque or a synagogue instead, I for one could entirely see the point and much prefer it. Such a space would have a particular religious character and be so better for that. Indeed, there are dozens of college chapels. So why not a bit of re-balancing? But of course they wont do that, too afraid of the Daily Mail, too afraid of being labeled as the college with the mosque.
Instead they do this cowardly move of eliminating religion by stealth. What ‘multi-faith space’ does is to provide the College authorities just about enough deniability – of course they are not seeking to eradicate religion in the name of mammon. And the humanist society looks on, smirking.