In 2019, the satire of the Babylon Bee will take on flesh as England’s Norwich Cathedral sets up a carnival slide right in the center of the sanctuary. The holy site will transform into a kind of amusement park from August 7-18 in a project called “Seeing It Differently.” A “helter skelter” carnival slide will form the centerpiece of this transformation.
“A cathedral may not be the natural home of a helter skelter but that is precisely part of the draw,” the Rev. Canon Andy Bryant, canon for mission and pastoral care, said in a statement. “We will be doing what cathedrals have always done: helping people see things differently and make connections with the things of God.”
The cathedral’s website, promoting the event, breathlessly reported that “it is believed to be the first time in the Cathedral’s history that a fairground ride has been installed inside the building.” There might be a good reason for that.
For most of Christian history, cathedrals have been associated with solemnity, awe, and an experience of the majesty of God.
Yet Norwich Cathedral argues that this carnival slide will enhance visitors’ experience of God’s majesty, rather than detracting from it. “The hope is this rather unusual addition will give people the chance to experience the centuries-old space in a new way and open up conversations about faith.”
The carnival slide will treat visitors to “unique views of the Cathedral — including a closer look at its famous medieval roof bosses that depict stories from the Bible — and they will quite literally see things differently,” the website explains.
It honestly makes a great deal of sense for a cathedral to erect a temporary exhibit to allow people to see the magnificent artistry of the vaulted ceiling, stained-glass windows, medieval roof bosses, and other features of the cathedral up close. Perhaps temporary scaffolding, a tall platform, or a video presentation could give this kind of close-up experience, without turning the cathedral into an amusement park.
While the carnival slide seems to be the main attraction — Norwich Cathedral tweeted out a picture of it — the “Seeing It Differently” project will also include other questionable elements.
We were very excited to announce our #SeeingItDifferently project today! Thanks @BBCNorfolk @EDP24 @EveningNews @networknorfolk for helping to spread the word! More details here: https://t.co/Uk6wrO4SbR pic.twitter.com/pllTYi1cyp
— Norwich Cathedral (@Nrw_Cathedral) December 14, 2018
“Lie Down Look Up, in the east end of the Nave, will give people the chance to engage with the sheer scale of the building by lying down on yoga mats and looking up at the Cathedral’s ceiling,” the site explains. Surely no one will fall asleep on the yoga mats…
“A canvas labyrinth in the North Transept will offer people a space to walk, reflect, pray and consider things differently in their lives,” the site adds. Do visitors need a “canvas labyrinth” in order to pray and meditate on scripture? Doesn’t the awesome setting of a cathedral already provide this opportunity?
Other exhibits really seem intended to turn the holy space into an amusement park. “A Blind Trail in the Cloister Garth will challenge people to trust their senses other than sight as they don a blindfold and navigate a special route designed to help them experience the world in a different way.”
The final two aspects of the project may actually help connect people to God and to the cathedral’s history. “Special tours will give people the chance to find out more about the Nave and the Cathedral’s amazing collection of more than 1,000 medieval roof bosses that depict stories from the Bible and adorn the Nave and the Cloisters.”
Finally, the cathedral will erect a “Bible Box” to “invite people to literally sit inside the Bible and read it in a new way.” The box — 8 feet by 8 feet by 12 feet — seems like a cool idea, but it would be more at home in a museum like Washington, D.C.’s Museum of the Bible, rather than in a cathedral where visitors are already surrounded by Bible-inspired art.
“Seeing It Differently” is not the only questionable gimmick Norwich Cathedral has decided to employ to attract visitors to the House of God, however. Between July and October 2020, “Dippy the Diplodicus,” a massive dinosaur skeleton on loan from London’s Natural History Museum, will stand tall in the cathedral.
While dinosaurs have been one of God’s most fascinating creations, a cathedral hardly seems a fitting place to house one of these magnificent beasts. Like the helter skelter, it is likely to become a distraction, rather than an aid, in the congregation’s worship of the awesome Creator of the universe.
As for “Seeing It Differently,” the very term “helter skelter” may have negative connotations. While the term originally referred to a carnival slide, the Beatles made a song about it, and then murderer and cult leader Charles Manson used the term to refer to an apocalyptic race war, which he intended to start with an infamous series of murders in 1969.
Even without the Manson connection, the carnival slide will likely attract the wrong kind of merrymaking in Norwich Cathedral. More people may come to the church, especially children — although why go to a church trying to be an amusement park when you could go to a real amusement park? Shorter lines?
The Church of England has indeed lost hundreds of thousands of worshippers in recent decades, but making church into an amusement park is only likely to drive more people away. The church has rushed to embrace secular cultural trends like the LGBT movement, rather than presenting the unique good of a church — the culture transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. If churches become mere cultural centers or amusement parks, people will have even less incentive to attend.
Even if people do go to “Seeing It Differently,” they’re more likely to see a fun slide, a blind adventure, and some yoga mats to take a nap on.
The project intends to open people’s eyes to the glory of God and the cathedral in a new light. But rather than seeing “it” differently, any newcomers likely won’t be seeing “it” at all.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.