Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Has the Vatican abandoned beauty?

[Getty Images]

The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the Cambridge-shire market town of Ely is one of the supreme achievements of European Gothic architecture. Its octagonal tower lifts the eye to a sumptuously restored wooden lantern from which Christ looks down in majesty.

Who on Earth thinks faith can be awakened by seeing a crucifix floating in urine?

On the last Friday in June, his gaze fell on a congregation worshipping him at Evensong. Two hours later, as the Times reported, the cathedral was filled with ‘a very different crowd: 800 people [wearing headphones] attending a 1990s-themed silent disco. They wore diamanté strappy heels and leather trousers, carried glow sticks, drank chardonnay, yelled the words to Robbie Williams hits and twerked in the nave to Beyoncé. Three DJs stood at the altar’. The Dean, the Very Revd Mark Bonney, said he hoped some ravers would return as worshippers.

Bless! Where would the Church of England be without the risible naivety of its cathedral chapters? In 2019, Norwich Cathedral installed a helter-skelter in the nave as part of its ‘mission to share the story of the Bible’. In the same year, Rochester converted its central aisle into a crazy golf course to help visitors ‘learn about faith’.

Please don’t think I’m engaging in papist point-scoring. Although the ‘rave in the nave’, helter-skelter and crazy golf course were hideous misjudgments, the gullible cathedral authorities meant well. I wouldn’t say the same about the Vatican’s recent engagement with popular culture.

In 1987, the American photographer Andres Serrano produced his most famous work. Its title is ‘Piss Christ’. The photograph shows a crucifix plunged into a glass tank of the artist’s own urine. Christie’s, no less, describes it as a ‘legendary photograph’ exploited by ‘right-wing conservative Christians to justify restrictions on government funding of subversive art’.

But not all Catholics find it offensive.

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