Is a helter-skelter in a cathedral a mistake? Well, perhaps you’re too taken aback by that question to answer, but according to the Queen’s former chaplain, it very much is.
The Right Reverend Dr Gavin Ashenden has criticised the installation of a 55 ft helter-skelter in the nave of Norwich Cathedral, calling the cathedral staff ‘unprofessional’ and dismissing the fairground ride as a ‘naff’ attempt to attract tourists.
Norwich Cathedral is famous in its own right for its carved medieval roof bosses or decorations, which are believed to form the largest display of such a kind in the world. They are actually the reason behind why the helter-skelter was installed in the first place. The Reverend Canon Andy Bryant was visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome when the idea came to him. Feeling strongly that Norwich Cathedral’s roof was just as fine as Michelangelo’s masterpiece, he believed that there needed to be a way for people to appreciate it. The roof of Norwich Cathedral is 69 ft high, and the bosses can often seem too far away to be properly inspected. And so the idea of the helter-skelter was formulated. The ride has a viewing platform at 40ft, and the idea is that visitors to the cathedral will be able to get a closer look at the roof and the story of the Bible which is engraved upon it.
But this is nothing short of desecration in Ashenden’s eyes. According to him, the helter-skelter ‘poisons the very medicine’ the cathedral can offer the human soul.
The fairground ride is of course bound to seem a surprising innovation to onlookers. As someone who is not a Christian, cathedrals are usually places I associate with solemnity, worship and quietude. A helter-skelter, bringing with it the exhilaration of the fairground, is perhaps the last thing I would expect of a religious setting.
But that is why, in my opinion, it should be embraced. Maybe some Christians will feel that I do not have the right to weigh-in on such a debate, but as an outside observer, I cannot help but feel delighted at this new installation.
I do believe in a God, but I have often found myself struggling with traditional forms of religion. I have struggled with the Church of England’s continued refusal to allow its ministers to marry gay couples. I have struggled with the idea that the Church invests money into tax-dodging corporations. I have struggled with the prevalence of corruption in its upper echelons.
Most of all, it is difficult to feel that the Church of England is representative. I went to a school with a Christian ethos. As much as I never minded having to sing hymns and pray in morning assembly, I did mind being made to feel that if you whispered to your friend about your maths homework during ‘All things bright and beautiful’, you had done something much more grave than talking when you shouldn’t have been. I minded being told, as a six year old, that saying ‘oh my god!’ was taking the Lord’s name in vain, and that God wouldn’t like it.
I minded all this because I did (and continue to) believe in a God. But I hated being made to feel afraid of this God. I hated being made to feel that there was only room for seriousness and solemnity as part of religion. While criticising a helter-skelter is not the same as advocating for fear in a religious setting, it is linked to that tradition of holding a very narrow definition of what a religious space or reference should look like.
Because although Ashenden holds religious office, who is he to legislate on what can and cannot ‘provide medicine to the human soul’? Church of England membership has been in severe decline for years, especially amongst the young. People of all age groups have deserted the Church; between 2002 and 2018, membership of the Church almost halved to just 14% of the British population. The number who regularly attend services today is even lower.
The ‘medicine’ that Ashenden insists traditional churches offer is clearly not working anymore. While a helter-skelter does not by any means solve all ills, it is a welcome quirkiness which shows that churches are willing to be flexible with what they offer congregations.
The Church of England has a lot of work to do. It needs to find its place in a society where religious belief is falling out of fashion. It needs to find a way to internally reconcile debates about how inclusive it should be. It needs to sort out corruption within its ranks.
And although it may seem to be gimmicky, or something of a PR stunt, I don’t think a helter-skelter is a bad place to start. Because while its deeper problems rumble on, this innovation is symbolic of change within the Anglican Church. It indicates a religion which is open to different ideas of what worship can look like, and a church that wants to reach out and bring people in, not with fear but with fun.