oh the ironies! Darwin, Freud, Marx in church refurbs – but church planting is still key


The 3 amigos as I like to call them: 3 venerable DWEMs (i.e. – Dead White European Males – of course, I’m all too aware that I fit 3 out of 4 of those epithets, but refuse to say which). If they but knew it, they would be spinning in their graves somewhere (look out for unusual subterranean activity in the vicinity of Highgate Cemetery). Not with despair but glee, mind. Why? Darwin (1809-1882), Freud (1856-1939) and Marx (1818-1883) were the intellectual titans of the 19th Century and in some ways became the 3 key foundations for 20th-21st century secularism (who together made God redundant in explaining zoology, psychology and sociology/history). And while experts find many things to quibble with them on details of their thought (perhaps Freud most of all), most today assume they have won convincingly in that wider project. You just have to look at what has happened to a number of buildings to see what i mean.

If you caught a bit of the first programme in David Dimbleby’s new series How We Built Britain, then you won’t need any persuading that buildings have huge symbolic significance. It was no accident that one of the greatest achievements of post-Norman invasion architecture was Ely Cathedral – a breathtaking mediaeval skyscraper built in the heartland of the remnants of opposition to the conquest – the Fens. It was saying, ‘we’re here now, we’ve won, so deal with it’. Of course, religious fervour had something to do with it but it wasn’t the whole story – politics always had a part to play in mediaeval church-buildings (despite the cathedral’s website appearing to ignore the fact!). Public buildings are all too often designed to overwhelm, humiliate, subdue, inspire, impress. Everyone plays the same game. Consider the impact of the imposing courts of the Foreign Office here in London on a trembling ambassador from a miscreant client state. Or take the space, scale and classical grandeur of Washington DC? Or even the proposal of some London Muslim groups to build a mega-mosque near the 2012 Olympics site? They are all designed to communicate messages of longevity, power and authority. So what’s this all got to do with the 3 amigos?


Darwin’s Shrine

Well last week was the children’s half term, so we went to stay with my folks in Norfolk. Had a lovely time, in case you’re interested. But at a loss to know what to do with the kids on a number of rainy days, we took them to Norwich’s answer to London’s Science Museum: the Inspire Discovery Centre. It was all quite fun – with more buttons to press and things that go zing than you could ever dream of. It was small and compact, and yet such fun in fact that we were forced by pester power to go TWICE. The thing is – it had taken over a disused church (St Michael’s, Oak St). Which is fun – i really don’t have a problem with that. There’s no point these ancient buildings sitting derelict, unused and unloved. Far better this, than getting pulled down. But i couldn’t help but smile about the ironies. For at the sharp end (where there is usually a table or altar – depending on your theological sensibilities), there was an exhibit about dinosaur bones and – yes, you guessed it – EVOLUTION!!! This is not the place to get into all that today – perhaps a topic for the future (which will of course be great fun and make everyone on every side jolly and happy). But I’m sure the Darwins and Dawkins of this world must relish the irony. In a church of all buildings! They’ve won. You can’t believe in God – we’ve done away with him. Just visit mediaeval Norwich to see how.

But Darwin’s not the only one. Freud and Marx have also pulled it off from beyond the grave.


Marx’s Shrine

Soviet Russia was heralded to be the great communist paradise that Marx dreamed of. The victory it seemed was absolute. As well as the removal of capitalism with all the temptations and oppressions that capital brings, religion had to go. For religion in general, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular, was one of the worst culprits and tools of oppression.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

So it was no doubt with considerable glee that the architects of the new era set about commandeering all the Churches and Cathedrals within their grasp. Many were magnificent buildings – and even the communists appreciated great architecture enough to preserve the better examples (this was particularly noticeable on a visit to Prague some years back where no new buildings were allowed in the city centre – the result is that the centre is gloriously evocative of the past but now completely ringed by concrete towers and neo-brutalist architecture). They would now serve a new purpose – as MUSEUMS! To the glories of the cause. One of the most striking is St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. This had been the primary cathedral of Peter I’s great imperial city – and so to claim it for the revolutionary cause was a high priority. And unlike with London’s Millennium Dome, the Bolsheviks knew exactly what they wanted their showcase to contain – a museum of atheism! Some of the symbolism had to go of course. The dove was replaced by a Foucault’s Pendulum, that arch-testimony to human ingenuity and scientific progress (it proves the rotation of the earth). Even today in the supposedly more Orthodox-tolerant era of Putin’s Russia, the museum remains (although it is now an Art Museum), with Christian services occurring only in a side chapel. That’s quite revealing in itself – public improvement and culture marginalising religion instead of oppressing it (which is much more of a 20th Century western approach). How Marx would have enjoyed it all. Which just leaves the old shrink…


Freud’s Shrine

It’s a bit more tenuous this one, i know. But from uni days, i well remember Freud’s cafe bar down in trendy old Jericho, Oxford. OK, so it’s not exactly presenting his worldview at one level, (but perhaps prizes for contriving the most convincing link! – just add your comments!) but it too has taken over on old church building. Quite an interesting building in fact which was making its own statement at the time – it was built in the form of a Greek Temple dedicated exclusively to the Christian God (see, a not so subtle gauntlet laid down there). Well, things have gone full circle, since it is now by implication dedicated to Dionysus. The mini-chain that owns it is called Freud’s Cafe bars – no idea why – probably just the name of the owner. But they no doubt revel in the fact that the table/altar is now the bar from which all manner of beverages are served. People get quite a kick out sipping cocktails in these ‘spiritual’ surroundings. And perhaps that is the perfect setting, after just a few glasses, to start spilling the beans about your childhood experiences of your mother and turning to psychobabble for help, instead of the narcotic fantasies and wishful-thinking of religion.


Of course these three are not the only ones. I know of church buildings that have been converted into offices, flats, concert-halls, shops. There’s one that sells rather rubbish carpets of all things. And in Norwich, there is of course the Norwich Puppet Theatre (whose patron divinity is also presumably Dionysus, since his portfolio actually also included responsibility for the theatrical stage and not just the crush bars ). This is not to mention the churches that are now mosques (e.g. Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sofia), gurdwaras, synagogues and temples.



I remember friends in Uganda being alarmed by the thought of Christian buildings being taken over by Muslims – at which point i would tell them about Freud’s cafe, which would just about finish the teetotallers amongst them off. But i can’t help being relatively unfazed by it all. That’s not to say that some of the plans that the more aggressively radical Muslims have for Britain leave me unconcerned – far from it in fact. But not the buildings. There are a number of reasons for this.

After all this burbling spurred on by a visit to the Norwich science place, let me close with the thought that occurred to me as we went to the car. I noticed that we’d parked outside another church building (there were 3 different ones on this street alone – case in point), but it wasn’t mediaeval. Built in 1886, its grim exterior said it all. Zoar Strict & Particular Baptist revealed the ancient notice. Now – who knows – the members of this church may well be lovely people who are full of warmth and openness to outsiders. But their building certainly isn’t. Perhaps we’ve deserved to lose our buildings if we behave like this.

I don’t want the last word though. No idea who he is but these are wise words from one John Havlik:

The Church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold, but always a flock; never a building, but always an assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray.