Alf McCreary: Plans to tee-up a younger congregation should be declared out of bounds
The opening of a crazy golf course in Rochester Cathedral sparked outrage. Religion correspondent Alf McCreary says ecclesiastical buildings should be wells of comfort and hope, not gimmicks
The decision to set up a nine-hole crazy golf course along the nave of the ancient Rochester Cathedral is regarded by many Christians and non-Christians alike as yet another depressing example of crazy theology, as the dwindling Church of England tries desperately to bring in new members in an age of increasing secularism.
The Rochester Bridge Trust developed and funded the cathedral's crazy golf course, which includes models of a Roman bridge in Rochester and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in nearby Dartford.
Andrew Freeman, a member of the trust, said: "The idea behind the course is to try and encourage young people and families to come into such a beautiful place to learn about the structures of different buildings."
The Rev Rachel Phillips, canon for mission and growth at Rochester Cathedral, added: "We hope that while playing adventure golf visitors will reflect on the bridges that need to be built in their own lives and in our world today."
No doubt this is a lofty motive but, as the world knows only too well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Even the normally sensible Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Justin Welby told local clergy: "If you don't know how to have fun in cathedrals, you are not doing your job properly."
The archbishop is missing the point or, in golfing terms, has driven badly into the theological rough. Cathedrals are about joy, meditation, comfort and the healing silence and space of the centuries, not about children and adults playing crazy golf along the nave.
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Lest we begin to believe that the entire membership of the Church of England has lost its marbles, not to mention crazy golf balls, an Anglican bishop, the Rt Rev Dr Gavin Ashenden, injected some rare common sense into the debate.
He said: "This is a really serious mistake, perhaps born of desperation.
"The idea that people are so trivial that they can be almost tricked into a search for God by entertaining them with a golf course is a serious category error."
The radical Anglican minister the Rev Giles Fraser tweeted: "What people want from the Church is the sort of moral and spiritual seriousness they can't get elsewhere. Not this."
Libby Purves, a columnist with The Times, asked: "Does the cathedral in Milan have a crazy golf course with plastic turf and comedy obstacles?
"How far have the Notre Dame restoration team got with a dodgem track and waterslide? And will the pilgrim journey on the Camino de Santiago now include a Crayzee Cakewalk Hall of Mirrors in the cathedral?"
Cathedrals and churches are meant for anyone who feels a need to worship inside them, but the motive for entering should be an inner compulsion to find some quiet, reflective space, not to enter a kind of fairground, where a game of crazy golf is taking place.
Thankfully, there is no news yet - and one hopes that there never will be - of our local cathedrals and churches opening their doors to people who want to play crazy golf or indulge in any other gimmick rather than to sit silently and perhaps try to find the inner words for a prayer.
Just think how we would feel if St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast announced a mini-dodgem competition to try to bring people in, or if our two great cathedrals in Armagh decided to stage It's A Knockout in their hallowed interiors.
Both Armagh buildings, however, host a large number of events, as well as worship services. The Church of Ireland cathedral stages annually the Charles Wood Summer School and, later this month, the Catholic cathedral will host the Ulster Orchestra for a programme of words and music in association with BBC Radio 3.
St Anne's Cathedral has also shown how to open its doors to wider events while retaining its place at the heart of the community.
Earlier this year it hosted a Cathedral Quarter Bazaar as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, with a mixture of live music, vintage clothes, antiques and arts and crafts.
St Anne's hosted fashion shows in recent times and a large range of music events, including a very successful joint concert featuring the Ulster Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in a stunning performance of Britten's War Requiem.
St Anne's will also host the Ulster Orchestra in a special evening on September 20 to mark Belfast Culture Night.
To further demonstrate the wideness of its open doors, St Anne's welcomed the Dalai Lama some years ago and he spoke to a jam-packed cathedral.
The building was so full that eventually the front doors had to be locked to prevent more people from coming it.
Cathedrals and ancient churches have learned to adapt to many different roles, as well as remaining steadfastly the places during many decades of worship where people came to worship, to solemnise the beauty of marriage and the marriage vows, to baptise their young, to bury their dead and to seek inner strength and comfort for their daily lives.
These places are more than buildings - they are repositories not only of precious individual and family memories, but they are also custodians of the living Gospel. They are accessible to people of all religions and of none, but most of all they are hallowed.
The late Dr William Barclay, Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University and regarded as one of the very best preachers of the 20th century, once confessed to becoming nervous every time he walked up to a pulpit to speak because he felt that he was treading, literally, on holy ground.
Cathedrals and churches are places where the past speaks to the present in a way that no other buildings can.
On a holiday visit last week to beautiful Kinsale I visited, not for the first time, the ancient St Multose Anglican Church, which has been refurbished since my previous visits. Last week, however, I was struck for the first time by some of the stories I seemed to have missed previously.
There was a brass plaque to a grandfather who had lost two grandsons, aged 23 and 20, within months of each other during the Great War.
On the opposite side there was a beautiful stained-glass window dedicated to a young officer from a southern Irish regiment who had died at Gallipoli.
In the adjoining cemetery there were the graves of three victims who had died, along with another 1,200 souls, when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Kinsale coast on May 7, 1915.
Thus, during a few brief moments in and around St Multose Church, I was made very much aware of the immense suffering encapsulated in memorials dating from 1915 to 1916.
Somehow, the memories of these human beings, who had died so tragically, had a greater significance in a church setting.
So, the way to bring people to church is not through gimmicks like crazy golf, but to remind them that these places speak to us of human joy and tragedy and of the God who has brought hope and comfort to countless people in their hour of need - and still does today.
That is what cathedrals and churches are all about. They are not about crazy golf.