The great British church divide – what are these buildings actually for?


Simon Lace, the cathedral’s chapter clerk, remains unrepentant. ‘You can’t deliver the mission of the Church to people who are not there, and you can’t do it in a building that is falling to pieces,’ he says.

Lace insists the primary aim of novel events is ‘to bring people to Jesus’, and in that respect the cathedral has had notable success. 

The golf course helped pull in more than 30,000 visitors in the 36 days it was open, almost double the number in the same period the previous year, while Luke Jones’s Museum of the Moon, a seven-metre-diameter scale model of the moon that has been touring the country, brought in 120,000 people in the 22 days it was displayed in Rochester Cathedral at the start of 2020. 

More importantly, before the pandemic the cathedral saw a 16 per cent increase in attendance at Advent and Christmas services, suggesting secular events are not mere gimmicks and, as Lace would argue, the means are justified by the ends.

Lace does not deny, however, that getting more people in through the door is also about raising money. Rochester Cathedral has annual running costs of £1.3 million, or £4.85 for every minute the building is open. It needs to replace its heating system, which will cost at least £500,000, and is gradually replacing its antiquated lighting system.

The moon installation brought in an extra £35,000 in donations, an annual light show another £15,000, and a limited-edition run of ‘604’ gin (named after the year of the cathedral’s foundation) has been developed with a local distillery. 

Selling at £39.99 a bottle, it will raise an estimated £4,500 for the cathedral, which is not the first to add gin to its cocktail of fundraising initiatives. Blackburn, Bristol, Portsmouth and Ripon cathedrals have all done the same.

‘These are useful sums for us,’ says Lace. ‘It’s always a struggle financially; we don’t want to charge for admission like some cathedrals do. But it’s all really about trying to buck the trend of dwindling admissions. We said at the outset that this wouldn’t be for everyone, and we understand if people didn’t like it, but we wanted to try something new.’

Dr Michael Nazir-Ali was the 106th Bishop of Rochester, from 1994 until 2009, and does not approve of the cathedral he once stewarded being used as a mini golf course. 

‘There is a proper secular use of churches and cathedrals, for concerts of an appropriate kind, for example, or for art exhibitions,’ he says. ‘But in the end churches and cathedrals are places for reverence, for worship and for prayer, and people want them to remain that way.

‘If you use them for irreverent and frivolous things like golf courses and helter-skelters then people can’t use them to be quiet, to reflect, meditate, pray and feel God’s presence.’


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

7 + 3 =