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The Jungle

Disco! at the Cathedral

On a rave in Canterbury Cathedral.


On the train to Canterbury I am buttonholed by a tall, dreadlocked man.

“Are you Josh?” he asks. “No,” I say apologetically. “You’re not deejaying at the silent disco? I’m one of the D.J.s and I thought you might be one of the others on the WhatsApp group.”

“No, I’m going but luckily for the people attending—”

“You’re not deejaying.”

He gives me a broad grin and I return a sheepish one. Only the pleas of THE LAMP’s editors could ever have sent me to Canterbury Cathedral’s so-called Rave in the Nave, Britain’s ecclesiastical controversy of the moment. In total about twenty Anglican cathedrals have hosted, or are planning to host, these events in collaboration with the event organizer Silent Discos in Incredible Places. A group of protesters led by Cajetan Skowronski, a doctor from Sussex, has described the enterprise as sacrilegious; but the dean of the cathedral, who emphatically disowns the term “Rave in the Nave,” rejects such complaints. “Our 90s-themed silent disco will be appropriate to and respectful of the cathedral,” the dean has promised in a statement, adding that “cathedrals have always been part of community life.”

As the train enters the town, we pass a sign reading “St Dunstan’s Level Crossing,” and I remember again that the story of Canterbury is the story of English Christianity. That story begins, conventionally, in 597 with the arrival here in Kent of the monk Saint Augustine and his band of missionaries. But there were Catholics in these parts already: King Ethelbert’s wife, the Frankish Queen Bertha, worshiped in a little chapel which is still standing. The building is itself made of stone dating back to Roman times, so you can believe if you like that it was a chapel during those lost centuries when the Gospel first reached these shores.

In any case, it was Augustine who began the grand institutionalization of Catholicism. He founded a monastery, was installed as archbishop in the first version of the cathedral, set up a school, and appears to have helped re-establish Roman law in the land. He also founded a distinguished line of archbishops. In the seventh century, there was the cultured administrator Saint Theodore of Tarsus—under whose reforms, Bede tells us, “Never had there been such happy times since the English first came to Britain.” In the tenth, there was Saint Dunstan—abbot, scholar, mystic, and de facto prime minister, who once defied a pope’s attempt to compromise the indissolubility of marriage; who excelled at music, manuscript illumination, bell-casting, and metalwork; and who was a shoo-in, if you ask me, for the title of greatest Englishman. After the Norman Conquest, there was Saint Anselm, who combined in his supremely gentle soul the roles of miracle-worker and Doctor of the Church. Nineteen saints sat on the archbishop’s throne here, in the premier see of England.

At evensong, we are told to exit by a different route than usual, due to “an event in the nave.” Everybody knows what it is. “Are you going to the disco, David?” one elderly parishioner asks the dean on his way out, with an illustrative swivel of the hips. My D.J. from the train attends the service, slipping out early to go and set up. The Gospel reading echoes around the quire: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Observing rather than participating, and noting the empty altar where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass no longer takes place, I think of the “outlandish papists”—foreign Catholics—whose presence was noted in the 1640s when they came to pray before the carving of Christ on the South Gate.

Outside it’s cold, dark, and pouring with rain, and the queue is already forming for the first silent disco session. So is a prayer vigil organized by Skowronski as an act of spiritual reparation. “Our beef is very much with the custodians,” he says, as opposed to with the partygoers. “I think most people are so detached from the sacred that it’s just a cool thing to do, a novel thing to do.” Afterwards he tells me that people kept joining the vigil by mistake. “They thought we must be going to the disco because most of us were in our twenties. We had to tell them, no, the queue is the middle-aged people over there.”

It is indeed a somewhat older crowd. “I’m here because I’m a Nineties girl!” one woman announces to me, displaying a brilliant-white pair of platform trainers. Two quiet forty-something ladies, who would not be out of place at a parish cake sale, remark afterwards that they admired how “respectful” the whole thing was and how many security guards were in attendance. Among the partygoers, consensus holds that the protesters have a point. “Serving alcohol is a bit much,” says one. A group of teenagers conceded that the cathedral is a “historic site.” But there is, they argue, another side to local identity: “Canterbury is a party city. It’s a student city.”

The cathedral precentor, the Reverend Wendy Dalrymple, comes out to debate the point. “She was kind of joining in the prayers, then going off to argue with some of us,” Skowronski says. “The Anglican guy couldn’t join in with a lot of the prayers because they were intercessory, so that gave him the opportunity to have a chat with her.”

What does Skowronski think about, say, classical concerts in cathedrals? “There is a gray area, isn’t there?” the doctor replies. But a lot of the classical tradition, he observes, is “fundamentally edifying.” He quotes from the Church of England’s own canons: “When any church or chapel is to be used for a play, concert, or exhibition of films or pictures, the minister shall take care that the words, music, and pictures are such as befit the House of God, are consonant with sound doctrine, and make for the edifying of the people.”

Back in my room above a fifteenth-century pub, between the first session and the second, I open A History of Canterbury Cathedral, edited by Collinson, Ramsay and Sparks: “It might well be surmised, although it cannot be proved, that there were few late medieval Englishmen (and even Englishwomen) who did not harbour at some time or other of their lives the desire to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury.” The reason, of course, was the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket in 1170, though there is a puzzle here: why should the death of an archbishop, in a quarrel with a king over some technical questions of canon versus civil law, bring up to a hundred thousand pilgrims, from all over Europe, through the doors of the cathedral every year to venerate the site of the assassination? There were, moreover, eighty churches devoted to Becket in England, more than any other English saint. Canterbury celebrated not only his feast but the feast of his translation—the day when his body was solemnly moved from the crypt to the spectacular new shrine in Trinity Chapel on July 7, 1220.

And when Henry VIII began to exert pressure on the Church in the 1530s, it was Becket’s example that loomed over the debate. The archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, composed a daring apologia for his non-co-operation, in which he claimed to be defending “one of the articles that Saint Thomas of Canterbury died for, and for his so doing . . . was rewarded of God with the great honour of martyrdom, which is the best death that can be.” Warham died before he got the chance to be executed and was replaced with the more accommodating Thomas Cranmer. Saint Thomas More also had Becket on his mind. The two Londoners were born just twenty yards apart; both rose to become the chancellor and the friend of a King Henry, before falling out with him on a very similar principle. As More wrote in prison, if he were to be killed on July 6, the eve of the translation—which he was—“it were a day very meet and convenient for me.”

Becket had given, four centuries before, a curious warning. A lot of people thought he was fomenting disunity for no good reason; his response was that if you allowed the civil authorities to start confiscating the functions of the Church, there was no telling where it would stop. Let King Henry have his way, Becket predicted, and let the process unfold, and eventually “there will be few or none in the future who will not follow the princes’ will entirely, who will keep faith with the Roman Church . . . who will not spurn the law of God as a fable, empty words without truth or meaning.” He didn’t just fear persecution: he feared that one day the whole edifice of religion would seem completely irrelevant.

Later, I queue for the second session next to some Kent locals. What brings them here?

“It’s a Thursday night and there’s nothing better to do and we have boring lives.”

You have a boring life,” her friend objects.

Do they have any sympathy with the protesters’ case against the disco?

“It’s to raise money for the cathedral, so it’s for a good cause. And the archbishop has said it’s all right, so if it’s okay with him . . .”

Actually, the archbishop hasn’t commented, but of course this is one of those occasions when saying nothing is saying something. And it is true that they need the money: the official estimate is about eleven million pounds a year to keep the place running.

As we enter the nave, flashing our wristbands, we are directed to one table of headphones and another of glow sticks. Already the D.J.s have begun their sets, and it turns out that a silent disco is also a sort of competition. There’s a D.J. in a blue shirt—my friend from the train—another in a green T-shirt, and a third in a red hoodie. Our headphones have three corresponding channels, blue, green, and red, which you can switch between at any time. You’re listening to the blue channel, until you see a bunch of people getting excited about the green channel, or your friends gesturing at the little red light on their headphones, and you switch over. So the D.J.s are always hustling for listeners. “Canterbury—you still with me?” asks Mr. Red at one point. “Green channel, I need to hear you tonight!” we are exhorted by Mr. Green. “Some people are switching off,” Mr. Blue observes during the ponderous intro to one track. “More fool them. They’ll be back.”

It is a novel experience for anyone who thinks of a musical event as a collective pursuit. At one moment a quarter of the crowd are singing along to Blur’s “Parklife” on blue, while another third sing “Barbie Girl” on green, and a fifth are dancing to the red channel, which seems to play only club music, while the remainder shuffle around in a world of their own. Take off your headphones and you hear an echoey, swelling and falling hubbub reminiscent of nothing so much as an indoor swimming pool on a busy afternoon. The dancing, meanwhile, is distinctly low-key—most people are just bouncing, not throwing shapes—and the queue for the bar is shorter than the one for the water cooler. A brief attempt at wild abandon is instantly thwarted: “Green channel—if you’re on anyone’s shoulders right now can you please get down. We don’t want anyone kicking you out.”

You are free, at a silent disco, to listen to what you like, to do what you want, to be who you want to be. Nobody is going to judge you. But of course, the options offered by the market are rather limited, and the overall result is a kind of torpid anarchy, in which people are walled off from one another, and any genuinely communal enterprise or shared story is unthinkable. Or so I silently pontificate, as I walk round to the back and watch the glow sticks waving while the light display changes at a leisurely pace from green to red.

In flashes, behind the D.J.s, you can see the pulpitum, the intricately carved fifteenth-century stone screen depicting six English kings. At its center is a little dark doorway, which leads to the older part of the cathedral, rebuilt after the fire of 1174 that destroyed much of the building. (Divine judgement, some said, on the killing of the archbishop four years earlier.) For the citizens of Canterbury, as the chronicler Gervase described, it was a barely conceivable trauma: “The people were astonished that the Almighty should suffer such things, and maddened with excess of grief and perplexity, they tore their hair and beat the walls and pavement of the church with their heads and hands, blaspheming the Lord and His saints, the patrons of the church; and many, both of laity and monks, would rather have laid down their lives than that the church should have so miserably perished.” The monks set up a temporary altar “where they might wail and howl, rather than sing, the diurnal and nocturnal services.”

The French architect they eventually hired, William of Sens, realized that a lot more would have to be pulled down before the rebuilding could start; tactfully, he didn’t tell the monks straight away, “lest the truth should kill them in their present state of pusillanimity.” But eventually he began to raise up that astonishing structure, with its rib vault, huge windows, and contrast between dark and light limestone, which brought Gothic architecture to England. At its center, eventually, would be the destination for all those millions of pilgrims: the shrine of Saint Thomas, a painted wooden canopy around a gold-plated, jewel-encrusted tomb, on a mosaic pavement donated by the Pope. In 1498, when the two-hundred-fifty-foot Bell Harry Tower was completed, it confirmed the cathedral as one of the wonders of Catholic civilization.

“When the Church possesses all the marks of external power and success,” Christopher Dawson once wrote, “then is its hour of danger.” (And, he added, “when it seems that no human power can save it, the time of its deliverance is at hand.”) In 1538, Henry VIII correctly identified Becket as his implacable enemy; the shrine was dismantled, packed into chests almost too heavy to lift, and sent away in twenty-six cartloads. For the next century, the question was how much of the past could or should be ripped out. Cathedrals themselves might have been dissolved like the monasteries were: the fourth Protestant archbishop, John Whitgift, complained in the 1580s about the widespread view that they should be closed down and the proceeds diverted to military expenditure. And in the 1640s, with Cromwellian hostility to “idolatry” at its height, drunken soldiers, Puritan fanatics, and local idiots wreaked havoc—smashing the stained glass, lassoing and pulling down statues, and actually firing cannons at the sculpture of Christ on the South Gate.

At tonight’s event you exit through that gate to walk to the toilets. It’s a foul evening, with a freezing wind. Men in T-shirts and women in short sparkly dresses come sprinting past, yelling in distress as they run back to the church for refuge. The gray cathedral stands there impassively, an ocean liner in a small storm.

By now Mr. Blue is losing listeners to Mr. Green, who has discovered that people want to hear the old crowd-pleasing ballads: songs of love, suffering, and eternity, in a 1990s key which today can only be enjoyed with a little grace note of irony. And I will always love you. . . . Do you believe in life after love? . . . You’re here in my heart, and my heart will go on. . . . Love is all that I need / And I found it here in your heart / It isn’t too hard to see / We’re in heaven . . .

Love and suffering, life and death. In the Middle Ages they thought the answer to those conundrums was the Cross; they thought they could get to the Cross through the Church, since the Church had the Mass and the Mass was where the Cross was made present every day. Presumably that was why so many pilgrims made the long journey to a cruciform cathedral where an archbishop had given himself up to his murderers: because all of us, psychoanalytically speaking, live by archetypes, and where are you going to find a better archetype than that?

“You’ve been amazing, Canterbury!” the D.J.s tell us, before switching off their decks and leading an a cappella singalong of “Wonderwall.” Over by the font, which has its own security guard, half a dozen people are bobbing up and down. Cos maybeeee / You’re gonna be the one that saves meeee . . .

That font, built in 1639, only narrowly survived the Puritan depredations: seen as disturbingly sacramental, it was smashed up by the invading soldiers in 1642. It’s only still there thanks to the local antiquary William Somner, who picked up the pieces and hid them away until, two decades later, it could be safely restored behind a set of rails. People like Somner are not the heroes of history, but they have their place in it: the men and women who rescue what can be rescued and cherish it, and trust that better times will come.

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.

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