In a not-too-distant future, the House of God has moved with the times to embrace the re-cast creeds of fashionable devotions, from nude mimes to the Trinity’s expansion with the addition of the Rainbow Serpent. A fantasy, true, but only just
Although intended as fantasy, this story deals with some of the difficulties that will arise if and when, as Philip Larkin puts it:
… churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show …
There weren’t many worshippers coming out of the Cathedral that Easter morning, even though it had been an important service. Several grouped themselves under umbrellas on the wet stone steps, waiting for the courage to dash across the street to the tram stop and the station opposite. High above them the three crocketed spires soared heavenwards until the tips were lost in the drizzle. The rumble of an organ recessional competed with the traffic.
“It’s like the end of a way of life,” said one elderly lady. “Where on earth will I go now?”
“Home, I should think, if we don’t drown first,” said an umbrellaless lady, holding a service sheet inadequately across her home-perm.
“I meant on Sundays,” said the first.
The sound of the organ was stifled as someone from inside began to shut the Great West Doors. There was a series of creaks from the decorative hinges that stretched across their surface in a pattern of coiling tendrils, a final thump and the Cathedral was closed.
The gentleman choristers were in the vestry taking off their surplices. “What shall we do with these?” asked one, reaching for its wire coathanger. “And the music books? There doesn’t seem much point in leaving them here.”
“Easter’s about resurrection,” observed another, platitudinously. “Perhaps there’s somewhere they can be re-used. There are churches out in the eastern suburbs I’ve heard are going strong.”
This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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“If they are,” said the third (there were only three choristers), “they won’t be the sort of place that wants surplices and Merbecke. Just put them away. Isn’t there going to be some sort of sale?”
There used to be boy choristers as well, until the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse intervened. Still going strong after more than two decades with a second and third generation of inquisitors, the commission, like the dragon in alchemic mythology that eats its own tail, was now investigating the “counsellors” who in earlier decades, with considerable profit to themselves, had assisted its proceedings by flocking at public expense to comfort the “survivors” of abuse and help them “remember” their stories. With the fount of ecclesiastical compensation having run dry, some of the surviving survivors were now eyeing the bank balances of their former comforters and accusing the latter of having been a little too attentive in their ministration of solace. The improbability of the accusations, not least on account of the aesthetic effects on the accusers of advancing decrepitude, had not deterred the commission from its duty of investigation, and the halls in which it conducted its peripatetic star chambers were cluttered with wheelchairs, walking frames and stretchers.
The prohibition of choirboys had been enacted some years earlier, the result of a recommendation by the then commissioner that the attendance of persons under eighteen at “faith assemblies”, by which was meant Christian church services, be forbidden as a protection against “clerical predators”. The Green and Labor coalition then in power had rushed the legislation through, with much approval from the media, though the exclusion from the prohibition of “authorised multicultural community religions” had been the subject of dispute. The New Conservative Party had taken the line that the legislation should apply to everyone or no one. When it was outvoted on the latter, the party had sought to have the exceptions removed completely, but had given up its attempt after objections from the more militant of the multicultural community religions had been expressed in the form of the burning of the party’s offices and a partial beheading.
The service had been important not only because it was Easter Day but because it was the last the Cathedral would hold. The vast building had become too costly to maintain for its tiny congregation. They had hoped to keep it going until at least the 150th anniversary of its consecration but that was still five years away. The trust that paid for Cathedral maintenance could no longer afford to do so, the munificence of donations and bequests was a thing of the past, and offerings in the plate amounted to next to nothing since there was hardly anyone to give anything. Fewer people than ever professed the Christian religion and those who did were elderly or old. To people of middle age and under, Christianity was something associated with the bad old days before post-birth abortion and family-authorised euthanasia for doddery grandparents who would otherwise have to be put into expensive nursing homes. The under-thirties showed no interested in religion at all since most of them knew nothing about it. State-mandated courses in atheism, conducted by the Safe Schools movement and imposed, as a condition of “funding”, even in schools which had once been owned by or connected with the Church, had for some years now protected the young from “sectarian contamination”.
In the last census just 1.75 per cent of respondents had described themselves as Anglican and of them hardly any still went to church. When the Cathedral was built and in its flourishing years a quarter of the population had considered itself “Church of England” in name if not always in practice. But those days, as the hymn put it, were one with Nineveh and Tyre.
For reasons rooted in colonial history an Act of the state parliament had been required to dissolve the diocese. Few MPs attended the proceedings and fewer had the faintest idea what a diocese was, but they passed the dissolution bill with a unanimous show of hands in an interval between the first and second readings of the Legalisation of Multiple Marriage (Polyamory) Bill. The diocese had existed for 189 years but would henceforth have the status of a parochial district, with, instead of an archbishop, a missionary vicar under the metropolitan jurisdiction of Sydney, as in the earliest days. Sydney, with its considerable assets in property and investments, still had a diocesan structure in place, a pale ghost of its former self, but functioning.
The Archbishop had presided at the service and preached. When she was installed in 2020 the Cathedral had had a dean too. That office had subsequently lapsed, combined with the archbishopric as a “cost-cutting measure”. From now on there would be no archbishop either, but it didn’t really matter as the responsibilities were not great, with only a dozen or so churches still open for services in the former diocesan territory.
The Most Reverend Archbishop Judy, as she liked to be known, was the first female archbishop of the diocese. She had been due to retire even before the abolition of her office but had agreed to carry on for a time as missionary vicar, augmenting her exiguous stipend by embarking on a part-time career as a funeral celebrant. Archbishop Judy had been an outspoken advocate of “marriage equality” before that came in eighteen years ago and had subsequently made the solemnisation of same-sex unions a prominent part of the Cathedral’s “outreach”, so that, with the beauty of the great building as an attraction, quite a number of ardent couples, sometimes with both bride or groom in natty suits, sometimes in tulle and shantung, had celebrated their nuptials in the Cathedral with a service in which God was or was not mentioned, according to taste. The Archbishop herself had been a bride there on the proud day when she and Ellie, a champion full-forward, had plighted their troth. These ceremonies had been a shot in the arm for the Cathedral’s finances, until the vogue for “gender-irrelevant” weddings, as they were officially designated, had dissolved in a welter of acrimonious divorces and expensive legal wrangles over houses, children and other possessions (Ellie had managed to get custody of Brianna but now lived alone in Hepburn Springs where she coached the under-15 girls). A suggestion that the Cathedral offer a ceremony for the blessing of a divorce had been dismissed on account of the difficulty of getting the participants together and the likelihood of unseemly spats in front of the altar. With polygamy now legal there was the possibility of multiple marriage ceremonies as a source of income, and the Cathedral’s accountants advised that if the building could be kept open until these became the norm, solvency might be restored. But there was no money to keep going, and anyway, with the sea of faith all but ebbed into history, a few more weddings wouldn’t have made much difference in the long run.
In her final sermon, for which she leant on the end of a pew instead of addressing a near-empty nave from the pulpit, Archbishop Judy took as her biblical text verse eight of St Luke’s chapter eighteen (Revised Australian Inclusive Version): “However, when the Child of Humankind comes back, will they find any faith left on planet earth?” The closure of the Cathedral, she said, was not, as people might be tempted to think, “a setback to the witness of Christianity in this country”. It was “a wonderful opportunity”. She did not elaborate on what it was an opportunity for. This was the sort of thing you always had to say when a church closed, rather than acknowledge the closure as the evidence of decline it was, and she had had to say it many times in recent years. Whatever she once believed about “new growth” out of “outmoded structures”, she was now beginning to suspect that it wasn’t an opportunity for anything. Perhaps it was, as custom required her to add, “a challenge”—“a challenge to our complacency”. (If any of the few practising Anglicans in the diocese had been complacent about the state of their Church in the last half-century they must have been singularly unobservant.) God, she concluded, was “calling us out of our comfort zone”, though it was up to us to “discern” exactly where.
“We go forth from here,” said the Archbishop, the stylised fish in lurex appliqué on her home-made mitre glinting like tinsel, “a leaner and less encumbered Church, a Church that can travel lighter, now renewed for the journey”. She paused, and looked round as though daring anyone to contradict her. “And if I may add a personal note, it is this: that as a Christian feminist I believe the greatest blessing we have ever received was the rediscovery last century of women’s ministry. The Church has been immeasurably enriched by it in the years since, and whatever the future of this Cathedral, that will not be lost.”
Whatever the future of the Cathedral: but what future could it have? There were so many unwanted churches. The suburbs and country towns were full of them, large and small, good, bad and ugly architecturally, old and new. Some went no further back that the 1980s, some had been the centre of their communities for generations since their towers and spires rose above fields or market gardens and isolated villas in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Many were now in a pitiful condition, with slates sliding from the roof and loose stonework. “Dangerous Structure. Keep Out” said notices on barricades of wire mesh. Vandals had interpreted this as an invitation and had climbed the fences to break into the locked churches and desecrate the fittings or pull the wire screens from the windows to smash the stained glass. The older churches with their elaborate interiors offered the greatest incentive to destruction, so that intricate stencilled ornament on sanctuary walls was disfigured with spray-painted obscenities and daubs, broken bottles and mounds of excrement lay everywhere, and plasterwork and memorial plaques were chipped or streaked with droppings from the pigeons that flew in through the glassless windows. In a few churches tragic figures, demented or drug-numbed, had made their way in as well and lay or squatted on makeshift beds of embroidered hassocks that were once the pride of the Ladies’ Guild needleworkers but were now stained and stinking.
Some redundant churches had been sold and, still in use, were kept in better repair, although those among them adjudged by permit-issuing councils as of lesser importance within the “built environment” were now defaced by loud neon signs or bright paintwork that advertised their present use as “Heavenly Pizzas” or kickboxing academies. The worst treated were the churches that had been “creatively” adapted as apartments or offices. From these tortured relics, spiky roof planes and disproportionate expanses of glass in pointy-topped apertures thrust themselves impertinently through and above bluestone parapets. These superimpositions, invariably described as “award-winning”, were said in modish architectural circles to “complement” and “reimagine” the Neo-Gothic of the original building. If they did, it was only in the minds of the committees of designers who handed out the awards to each other and of council planners obsessed with “sustainable conservation”. Anyone with genuine aesthetic sense could see that the additions and alterations were crude and jejune by comparison with the mutilated original structure.
Of churches still functioning as churches, the Roman Catholics retained the greatest number, though with congregations of almost exclusively Asian origin, just as a century earlier they had been Irish. About a third of Catholic parish churches had been disposed of and most of those still in use had reverted to the older form of Mass. The Latin and the silence seemed to appeal to the Catholic component of the diminishing band of eccentrics in the community who persisted in caring about God.
The Uniting Church, the present participle in its name expressing an aspiration to pan-ecclesiastical reunion that would never now be realised, had held a synod in which it was resolved that the “Christian character” that had hitherto formed “an integral element of our worshipping communities’ core identity” should become “optional”. The name would be changed to Australians Uniting for Wellness. Of Uniting churches not yet abandoned, those on the most valuable sites would be sold and the remainder turned into “neighbourhood inspirational centres” where people could go for “holistic refreshment”.
Among other varieties of Christianity only the revivalist churches in the far-out suburbs still drew large attendances. They had names such as SpiritSong and Joy Church. A few of these congregations were technically Anglican, but the chorister at the Cathedral was correct in thinking that they would have no use for surplices or Merbecke. It was hard to detect anything in their thumping strobe-lit liturgies or in the attire of their T-shirted “worship leaders” that was peculiarly Anglican or that differed from a revivalist meeting with its cries of swooning ecstasy from the redeemed.
At one point someone had proposed that a revivalist congregation migrate to the central city and install itself in the Cathedral. There had been all sorts of reasons from the revivalists themselves why this couldn’t happen: the city was too dangerous, with gangs roaming with machetes and baseball bats; it was too hard to get to from their comfortable suburban homes—too distant, too much traffic, and you wouldn’t take a train unless you wanted to be raped or worse. There was nowhere to park the electric SUV; the Cathedral was “too churchy” for contemporary worship and, with all its stone and marble and tiles, too difficult to adapt to the high-tech paraphernalia that had taken the place of altars and choir stalls in revivalist ecclesiology. The idea was dropped.
The extent to which the Cathedral as a building was undervalued in its own city was astonishing. It was a masterpiece, an edifice that ought to have been regarded as a principal ornament of the metropolis. Tourist guidebooks, obsessed with restaurants and “historic sites” associated with supposed events in Aboriginal history, never noted this, but the Cathedral was one of the finest Gothic Revival structures in the world. Its architect, of unequalled eminence in his time, had put his all into the design of this principal church for what was intended to become the finest Victorian city in the British Empire: his homeland was full of cathedrals; there was no opportunity for him in Britain to build anything on the same scale. True, his disinclination to travel and to put up with those he took to be fools led to his falling out with the committee of citizens in charge of building the Cathedral, but that had not prevented the great church being completed to his design, its interior especially a testament to his originality. The bands of light and dark stone that alternated along the walls and the use of encaustic tile and rich colours were evidence of an ability to interpret Gothic and employ its idiom in a new way rather than, as lesser architects had done, copy medieval models. Almost certainly he would not have approved of the three spires added to the Cathedral after his death in place of the unbuilt ones he had designed. They were much more grandiose than his, but no one could deny that they were imposing. The central spire, more than three hundred feet above the street at its tip, was supported by a lofty tower. Sculpted figures of St Peter, St Paul and St John gazed down from their corner plinths at the base of the tower, with on a fourth plinth the Bishop in whose episcopate the Cathedral had been built. He was holding his crozier but, in a typically Low Church way, not wearing a mitre. In the era in which the Cathedral arose that traditional item of episcopal regalia was reserved for episcopal thrones rather than episcopal heads.
Once it became known that the Cathedral was no longer to be a Christian church, suggestions for alternative uses began to flow in. Concert halls headed the list, but the city was replete with concert halls from other church conversions in addition to those with which successive arts-worshipping governments had provided it. An indoor market or a “shopping mall” were popular proposals, except with the stallholders of the city’s existing market and the owners of the shopping hall in the erstwhile central post office, who swiftly lodged objections. As happens with every vacated public building there was a flurry of applications to adapt the Cathedral “sympathetically” as apartments, but this, surprisingly, proved unacceptable to the state’s “heritage” arbiters, who were generally quite elastic in their approval of unsuitable conversions (a former synagogue in a main boulevard had recently been transformed with their blessing into a swimming pool and ladies’ “fitness centre”). Bell-ringers applied for a tenancy in one of the spires to continue their craft. The Humanist Society thought that to turn the Cathedral into a museum of atheism on the Stalinist model would be the most appropriate use.
A veteran lawyer who had built her whole career, from counsel’s assistant to interrogator-in-chief, denouncing child abuse in the Royal Commission, proposed that the Cathedral be unroofed to symbolise the successful “uncovering” of plots by ecclesiastical authorities over the years to keep cases of abuse “hidden”. (She was told that there were prospects of a more “appropriate” cathedral eventually becoming available for this estimable purpose.) Accommodation for the city’s homeless seemed to many a not unreasonable use, but no one wanted to pay for the necessary dormitories and bathrooms, least of all the city council that for years had been conducting a campaign against rough sleepers, who, it alleged, were “a blot” on the appearance of the city and reduced its appeal to tourists. A proposal to convert the Cathedral to “a world-class Gothic terminus” for the new interstate high-speed train in emulation of St Pancras in London and Eurostar, was dismissed on the grounds that unlike St Pancras, which had been built as a station, the Cathedral would have to lose much of its main façade to allow the rail lines to run inside to the platforms along the nave.
Not far from the Cathedral was a college bursting with aspiring youthful talent in the various fields that constitute contemporary endeavour in “the arts”, which may be summarised as everything but the conventional forms of art practised since the beginning of civilisation. With ability as traditionally understood no longer a requirement, the college received more applications than it had space to accept, and a large empty building designed for public assemblies was just what it needed until a new college could be “purpose-built”. And so it came about that six months to the day after the last service the Premier of the state presided at the ceremony in which the Cathedral, leased from its trustees, was reopened for its temporary new function as the college’s “creativity space”. The heavy blackwood pulpit, bishop’s cathedra, once gleaming but now tarnished brass lectern, choir stalls and all the pews had with considerable inconvenience, sweat and cursing been carried down into the crypt, pending a decision on whether to auction them off when the more portable contents such as candlesticks, flower vases, embroidery and other “collectables” were put on sale. Thus disencumbered, the nave and chancel could be given over to dramatic rehearsals and expressive dance without any restriction on artistic freedom of movement. The organ had been retained in situ for the music students, though it was scarcely an ideal instrument for the kind of music they liked.
Guests at the opening were able to admire selected examples of student achievement in the visual arts executed in garish acrylics and replete with shard-shaped compositional forms and unconvincing figures and faces. These filled the Gothic panels of the reredos, in which an ascending sequence of nineteenth-century Venetian glass mosaics was one of the glories of the Cathedral. The mosaics were now hidden behind canvas covers hung there ostensibly for “conservation” but more importantly to avoid any offence the iconography might cause to the various mullahs and imams who from time to time were conducted through the Cathedral by estate agents. Their visits were in furtherance of a “strategy” devised by the state’s Ministry for the Arts to persuade the trustees, once the college had moved to its new premises, to sell the Cathedral to the philoprogenitively-multiplying Islamic “community” as the city’s own Hagia Sophia (albeit with three minarets only compared with that former church’s four; if necessary, explained the agents, an extra one could be added somewhere).
The most solemn part of the reopening was a smoking ceremony to eject any lingering “unfriendly spirits” and cleanse the Cathedral of its “past impurities”. Sparks flashed and spat from the sprigs of burning melaleuca and eucalyptus waved around by the officiating Aboriginal elders (several of whom, as it happened—a Tasmanian “climate activist”, an Irish backpacker and an American Peace Corps volunteer—were not ancestrally “indigenous” but “identified” as such). Ex-Archbishop Judy had graciously accepted an invitation to take part in the ceremony as an honorary “aunty” of the Tomandjeri people (on whose land the Cathedral stood, according to a plaque in the narthex) and instead of her lurex mitre now donned the cloak of possum fur distinctive to that office. The smell of bushfire filled the lofty edifice in a way that the aroma of incense had never been allowed to, the Cathedral having always been at the lower end of the Anglican scale of ritual procedure. Above the gyrations and incantations the purifying smoke ascended towards the roof, its blue-grey billows criss-crossed with rays of tinted light from the clerestory stained glass. Thicker and thicker rose the haze till it obscured the bands of stone and the barrel-vaulted ceiling of kauri pine, beneath which naked mime and dance students (“liberated from the artificial barrier that clothing interposes between body structure and movement”) would tomorrow give an inaugural display of their artistry in the form of a “spontaneous performance presentation” illustrating the irrelevance of binary concepts of personhood.
That night the fire could be seen for fifty miles. The clouds were orange with fearful flickering as in a medieval illustrator’s vision of Hell. The glass walls of office buildings reflected and intensified the brightness till it seemed that the whole city was being consumed. Tongues of fire from the Cathedral’s mullioned windows licked upward in the acrid air, scorching and calcining the sandstone above. When the burning rafters of the nave gave way and the vaults fell in, the crash was heard several districts away. The central tower, its bell openings incandescent, blazed like a beacon. If the big ships out on the bay had been sleek quinqueremes and triremes instead of container carriers it might have been the distant Pharos of Alexandria guiding them towards their haven at the end of a crossing from Ostia or Byzantium.
Yet like the dome of St Paul’s above the smoke of the blitz on London, the tower and spire held firm, kept in place by the steel frame that the architect, with typical Victorian inventiveness of construction, had embedded deep in the stonework. The same structure built in original Gothic manner on clustered columns would have fallen as soon as the stone of the columns, desiccated by the heat, turned to powder beneath its weight. This one was still there in the morning, black-streaked but stable, though Peter and Paul had fallen off, John was tottering and the Bishop had lost the top of his crozier.
Christopher Akehurst is a regular contributor.