If you will welcome tourists into the church, you can’t complain when they behave like tourists

A tiny opinion piece in the Guardian notes a bit of a whinge by the priests at Oxford’s University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Apparently, they have complained that too many tourists are busy taking selfies. Surely, if you will open up your university chapel as a tourist attraction, it’s rather what you’ve got to expect isn’t it?

I was reminded of my own visit to the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges. I wrote a review on Trip Advisor which speaks to this issue.

We climbed the staircase to enter the basilica and were promptly directed to take a seat in front of a raised platform. Upon taking our seat, we were greeted by a grumpy and officious woman stridently shushing and ostentatiously gesturing towards anyone daring to make a sound. She would periodically march up to some with purpose to gesticulate wildly at them, presumably so the rest of us could witness their shame, or else would tut and sigh at tourists acting like tourists at what has manifestly been billed as a tourist attraction. The irony of such boorish tutting, shushing and gesticulation toward those who, presumably out of respect, whispered to their neighbour came across as more than a little disrespectful.

Having sat down, a female priestess (something I understood as entirely disallowed by the Catholic Church) ascended the stairs to the raised platform, lifted a small vial aloft and then locked it inside a perspex box. We were then invited to come forward and offer a prayer on/over/to/via (it was entirely unclear) the relic. Upon closer inspection, one could see little more than some brown staining smeared on the inside of a glass tube. Spending all of 10 seconds looking at the artefact, we walked back down the stairs as a procession of people followed suit.

It was particularly interesting to note that the priestess only offered prayers and blessings to those who put money into the donations box (which was mentioned apropos of nothing several times before we were invited forward). This made the crass shushing of visitors all the more regrettable as it served only to accentuate the rather obvious sound of coins hitting coffers. If the vial really did contain the blood of Christ, and those conducting the service really do believe that spiritual (or physical) benefits are obtained by touching it, it seems unkind at best, callous and cruel at worst, to only mediate the blessings on offer to those who pay their dues. It was a visible reminder that the spirit of Johann Tetzel is still alive and well in the Catholic Church.

I found the whole experience thoroughly depressing and a visible manifestation of the nature of the machinations of Catholicism. We were treated with minimal respect simply because an authoritarian and officious person said so. We were only blessed and prayed for if we stumped up the seemingly required cash to receive it. The money, so we are told, was to be used to maintain the unnecessarily ostentatious building we found ourselves in (not for any perceived benefit to communicants of the Catholic Church). The overt sale of indulgences may have ended but the same principle seems to drive endeavours such as this.

Jesus spent much time speaking about the love and pursuit of money. Quite apart from the general vulgarity of seeking financial reward for prayers and blessings, there is something especially blasphemous about charging to see the very blood of Christ which the Bible repeatedly states he offered freely for the forgiveness sins.

Imagine my surprise, then, that a university church – clearly opened up to the public for fairly similar reasons – is touchy that the very tourists they welcomed into the church are behaving like tourists and they don’t like it.

Whilst entry to the church itself is free, there is a charge for climbing the tower, suggesting that tourism is encouraged. It seems worth pointing out that if you are precious about your church as a ‘sacred space’, then opening up the church specifically so tourists have the privilege of entering to gawp does rather undermine the suggestion.

It also seems worth saying that a faulty theology of ‘sacred spaces’ is also at play. I am reminded of the comment by Daphne’s mother in Frasier when she insists on a church wedding for her daughter. Frasier suggests that it shouldn’t matter on the grounds that ‘Isn’t God everywhere?’ to which Mrs Moon replies, ‘No. He lives at the church’.

As I have previously commented here, God does not ‘live at the church’. Isaiah recgonises the point well enough when he said:

Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the LORD. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:1)

Solomon, when he eventually built the temple, made a similar point (cf. 1 Kings 8:27).

The fact is that God is, indeed, everywhere. However, scripture is clear that God’s covenant presence was in the Old Testament tabernacle/temple. It is also widely agreed that, in the body of Jesus Christ, God’s presence uniquely dwelt. Jesus himself became the true temple. Following Jesus’ glorification on the cross and the coming of the Spirit, all true believers now have God’s special covenant presence dwelling in their heart by the Holy Spirit. As Paul comments, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ Christian people are now the temple of God.

As I previously commented here:

All of that is to say the building is of naught. There is nothing especially sacred about the space in which we meet. God does not “live at the church”. In fact, five minutes in any church that meets in rented accommodation quickly bursts any illusion that the pulpit stands on holy ground or the meeting hall represents hallowed ground (unless, of course, you think the school assemblies [and lunches] that happen there the rest of the week are sacred too).

God dwells among his people by virtue of the Spirit he has put into their hearts. He does not specially imbue the building with his presence but rather is present with his people by the Spirit dwelling in their hearts.

Taken together, it is difficult to understand the problem. If you invite tourists qua tourists into your church – and there is no reason to consider your church building any more sacred than any other building – why on earth would you be bothered about the taking of selfies?

I would be bemused if tourists decided to wander around our 1970s building. However, imagining that somewhere there is a group of 70s architectural enthusiasts, what would we make of them coming in? Certainly tourists are welcome in our church. However, we would not be welcoming them as tourists per se but as people wandering into a church. Do I think there is anything inherently problematic about them photographing the architecture for its own sense? Not really. Do I think it wrong to take photos in the church? We have photos on our website of the service and plenty of people take photos of the notices slide; it’s no problem.

So where is the disrespect? If it isn’t interrupting the worship of God for the believer, where is the problem? If it brings the unbeliever into the church to hear the word of God proclaimed, what precisely is the issue? It seems more hypocritical of the church to set itself up as a tourist trap and then decry the tourists it enticed for being tourists. Either don’t welcome them as tourists at all or praise God that some who would not hear the gospel have engaged at the expense of taking a selfie.

Whatever your view, let’s not claim it’s because the space is sacred. It isn’t.

3 comments

  1. I suspect that as well as the sacred space trap, the other theological mistake is the belief that they are being the national church and that you can provide for worship without the Gospel -so just as a church down the road can think it is doing the work of the kingdom by handing out food and clothes (and to avoid too much bias -some people will tick off the decision cards) -you can fool yourself into thinking that by counting the people passing through your doors equates to worshippers and you are doing a fantastic job. The result – they convince themselves that these are not in fact tourists -despite that being exactly what they are

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    1. On the other hand – I think our rude culture assumes that if you are invited in some where you can behave as you will. Just because I’m a tourist somewhere doesn’t man I am free to do as I please

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