Rochester Cathedral

Even before I became a Christian, I was a cathedral junkie and was for a while living in England, which had a plentiful supply. I shan’t say the cathedrals brought me to Jesus. Rather, they were pit stops along the way.

I considered them great works of art, as I considered the Bible to be among the great works of literature. Neither point was deniable. I did not then, however, “believe in God.”

Too, I loved medieval parish churches, though I had to be careful. A “service” might happen at any moment; one risked being pounced upon by a friendly “greeter.” My fine privacy might be disturbed; my focus upon architecture and artifacts might be deflected.

Once I was trapped and had to sit politely through an interminable homily by a reverend gentleman, who struck me as a jackass. In big cities, however, I could be accepted as an anonymous tourist; at worst, a potential customer to be siphoned through the gift shop. Today, I gather, there may be an admission charge.

This I heard in a delightful anecdote from a correspondent the other day. It was of a certain Catholic priest, touring St Alban’s. He breezed his way past the ticket sellers, saying, “I don’t pay to enter stolen property.”

Having walked a Greek girlfriend past the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum once, I’m a veteran of such contretemps. This one was forty-four years ago. My impassioned friend accused a museum guard of having stolen her national treasure. The guard smiled: “No, ma’am, it was Lord Elgin who took ’em. I’m just guarding his loot.”

Some day, I imagine the glorious West Portal of Chartres will be detached, then housed “permanently” in a faraway museum – together with long sections of frieze and pilasters.

And let us imagine some person who calls himself a Catholic – in the political thaw of the 38th century – berating a museum guard. And the guard makes a joke, in the same way.

Rochester Cathedral was among my favorites. I called by in 1977, on my pedestrian way to Canterbury: a noble edifice, with a glorious history, dating back centuries before the Normans; the second English church after Augustine’s at Canterbury.

The nave remains much as Gundulf designed in the 11th century. His tower, considerably shortened I think, but still visible from a distance, was repaired by the Freemasons in the 1920s.


Anyone visiting this summer will find that the nave is now filled with a mini-golf course. It is a shrieking obscenity, which I will not further describe. To call it a sacrilege seems almost an understatement; and a waste of breath – for sacrilege, once a very grave charge, is to most of our contemporaries a form of light humor.

Similar abominations have been mounted in other English cathedrals. For instance, the funfair helter-skelter erected in the nave at Norwich. Many are planned through the coming years.

At Derby last year, a slight rise was got out of parishioners by showing films with full female nudity and fornication, a pagan sacrifice, and a “satire” on the Life of Christ. How edgy and progressive! If criticized, the sponsors of such shows declare themselves to be victims – counting on the general public to be as maliciously stupid as they are.

The various Anglican public relations spokespersons – such as the priestess who dresses up as “Canon for Mission and Growth” at Rochester, beam happy-face gestures about the latest desecrations while smearing anyone who objects. They are scandalized, only by objections.

Saint John Fisher was Bishop of Rochester for more than three decades. He was, as gentle reader should already know from his missal, the only English bishop who refused to recognize the coup of Henry Tudor against the Catholic Church in England. Fisher, alone in that collegium, was willing to stake his life on upholding the Catholic sacrament of marriage, as well as the doctrine of papal supremacy.

Dutifully, he went to his martyrdom, sentenced by a kangaroo court to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. At the last moment, in a hurry to get him executed before the Vigil of Saint John Baptist, King Henry “commuted” this sentence, and had him sent up Tower Hill, to be beheaded instead. This was intended to avoid “bad optics.”

It backfired marvelously, for it completed the parallel to Fisher’s patronal namesake. For John the Baptist was also beheaded, at the order of Herod Antipas, for having challenged the validity of the marriage of the divorced Herod to that ancient tart, Herodias – perfect forerunner to that modern tart, Anne Boleyn. In that Catholic age, this “irony” was fully understood – throughout educated Europe, and across England. Henry Tudor was the new Herod Antipas.

I have noticed many such “ironies” myself, in my little life and through history. God has ways to make an extraordinary and consequential evil, absolutely unambiguous to those with ears or eyes. He leaves those who have also the brains to discern, with no excuse for their failure to act. The best they can argue is abject cowardice, but ego prevents them from confessing even that.

“Yes, I deserted the Church in her hour of need.” This would be the beginning of a reasonable confession. “And yes, I sought to profit from the evil.”

For note: every attempt at justification will be false, and can be shown to be false. The road to Hell has been clearly chosen.

What to do about acts of sacrilege? Jesus himself gave us an example in the Cleansing of the Temple at Jerusalem, where He confronts the merchants on sacred ground, overturning their tables and scattering their wares.

Lest there be any quibble, let me mention there are accounts in all four Gospels: “And making a whip of cords, He drove them all out.”

Within a week of that bold transaction, Christ himself was dead.

But note: He is Risen, and has the keys of Hell and of Death.


*Image: Portrait of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester “after” Hans Holbein the Younger [St. John’s College, Cambridge]


The off-course course

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: