JULIE BURCHILL: Turning churches into nightclubs is sacrilege

JULIE BURCHILL: Turning churches into vape shops and nightclubs is sacrilege (and I should know, I once took cocaine in one)

  • In Spain, churches have become skate-parks, in Belgium hotels, in Germany kindergartens and in South River, Ohio, a winery 
  • READ MORE: Unique 173-year-old Grade II-listed church in Berkshire hits the market as £2.2million eight-bedroom modern home with luxurious trappings

The first time I entered a deconsecrated church was in London back in the 1980s, for a dinner party thrown by a feted fashion maven who had created an elegant home in one.

Though I wasn’t religious at the time, I remember feeling odd about taking cocaine in a location that had until recently been a place of worship.

It wasn’t a good evening. The guests fought like cats and dogs and at least one relationship fell apart. 

Our hostess went on to have a miserable life, eventually committing suicide.

Over the years, churches have become flats, nightclubs — even ‘vape shops’ in the case of St Anne’s in Shaftesbury Avenue.

In at the deep end: Repton Park Pool in Woodford Green, East London, is in a converted cathedral

As a Christian, Julie Burchill considers the destruction of churches as an unhealthy hollowing-out of our nation’s spiritual life

If a poll of almost 1,200 active Church of England clergy released at the weekend is to be believed, we can expect this trend to gather pace, and dramatically so.

It found that about 70 per cent of vicars believed churches should look to diversify their uses, an approach that would appear to have the backing of the church’s hierarchy.

Before the pandemic, the C of E announced a £35 million drive to attract young professionals by offering ‘hot-desking’ facilities, bicycle-hire schemes and on-site gyms.

This creeping secularisation of our holy places is an international phenomenon. 

In Spain, churches have become skate-parks, in Belgium hotels, in Germany kindergartens and in South River, Ohio, a winery.

A deconsecrated church in my own city has just opened as a luxury spa — Natural Fit St Agnes Brighton & Hove — and boasts, somewhat insensitively, ‘Your Fitness — Our Passion’.

With classes in everything from boxing to Latin dancing (and an admittedly gorgeous swimming pool), the venue’s cheapest membership starts at £120 a month and cruises up to fiscally-stratospheric heights guaranteed to keep out the riff-raff.

The Bible warns us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

When she attended a dinner party in a deconsecrated church in London in the 1980s, Julie felt odd about taking cocaine in a location that had until recently been a place of worship

When it comes to gaining access to St Agnes in its new incarnation, the rich man has a much better chance of achieving his ambition than the camel.

Even though I’m always on the lookout for a nearby swimming pool, I won’t be going to this one.

I’m a Christian now, albeit an imperfect one, and the destruction of churches in such a way strikes me as a very literal and unhealthy hollowing-out of our nation’s spiritual life.

I’m aware many churches are far from full on a Sunday and that they must fill their pews in other ways.

Indeed, the church I irregularly attend boasts a community centre in ‘the award-winning conversion’ (sin of pride) in its nave, which hosts an astrology circle (false prophets), bridge (gambling) and kung fu (violence).

But even when churches are dabbling in dubious practices, they provide assistance to communities by giving shelter to the homeless in winter, providing food banks and acting as volunteering hubs.

I don’t see gyms — however much they boast, as Natural Fit does, that ‘We’re here for you every day of the week’ — doing anything half as altruistic.

And there does seem something particularly perverse about turning a place that concerns itself with the salvation of souls into a factory for the perfecting of bodies.

In Oviedo in Spain, a skater hones his skills in a skate park inside the Santa Barbara church 

As the Bible says (Mark 8, verses 35 and 36): ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’

For ‘whole world’, read a low BMI and tight abs. I’ve always favoured a ‘muscular Christianity’, but there are limits.

I mentioned this trend to one of the cleverest Christians of my acquaintance, the social commentator and former chaplain to the late Queen, Gavin Ashenden, who said: 

‘If churches are repurposed for the sake of art or beautiful music, that’s probably the least bad form of despoliation.

‘Turning them into bars and nightclubs is a form of blasphemy. To have them turned into climbing centres where people clamber over the altar, where the sacrifice of Christ takes place, introduces a level of disrespect which is profoundly hurtful and problematic to a faithful Christian.

‘No one can be demeaned or insulted or marginalised today — except for Christians.’

He’s right. Some conversions are positively sacrilegious.

Torture Garden, a fetish club, has resided at St Matthew’s Church in Brixton since 1990 — which, considering the manner of the death of Christ, is tasteless to say the least.

A runner pounds the treadmill at a gym in an old, disused chapel in Caen in northwestern France

Nevertheless, there are occasional stories of hope, such as the 11th-century church St Mary’s near Swaffham in Norfolk, which was abandoned in 1937 and subsequently used by devil-worshippers until a man called Bob Davey made it his business to restore it, right up to his death two years ago.

The spiteful Satanists didn’t give up easily, threatening Mr Davey with death and smearing blood on the church walls. 

Thankfully, local Territorial Army soldiers joined him in guarding the church on significant dates in the Satanist calendar — such as full moons and solstices — and eventually the cheerleaders for Goaty McGoatface backed off.

My point is that though we are not as Christian a country as we were (many ceasing to identify as such due to the wetness and wokeness of the British clergy), we should be careful about letting go of the religious culture that shaped us.

There’s little chance of the actual church buildings disappearing naturally, as — despite arson attacks on no fewer than 150 churches in the past five years — they are so well-built and sturdy.

Nevertheless, for more than a decade, I have rarely walked past one without thinking: ‘What will come after the churches have gone?’

I am sceptical that a million millennials mouthing the tired old line ‘I’m not religious, but I am spiritual’ will ever produce one cultural artefact of any worth, especially compared to the multitude Christianity has given us.

But it is telling that minority faiths, such as Islam, are enjoying steady growth.

The Church Brew Works is a brewpub in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, set in the confines of a restored Roman Catholic church

How interesting that the increasing number of Muslims in this country has seen some secular buildings become sacred, with places of entertainment being turned into mosques. 

The most high-profile example of this is probably the recently council-approved planned conversion of part of London’s famous Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus into a mosque and community centre.

It’s ironic that as the West becomes more in thrall to the idea of the perfect body, it also becomes less robust, more anxious, less willing to put that body to use defending Western values such as freedom of thought, speech and expression. 

That churches, which once celebrated communal belief and actions, are being turned into temples of atomisation is even more poignant.

Who knows if, one day, not just local churches but the great national churches may go this way. 

The ever-prescient Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World, had Henry and Lenina out on a date, stopping off — after dinner and a bit of drug-taking — at the ‘Westminster Abbey Cabaret’ to dance to ‘Calvin Stopes and his Sixteen Sexophonists’.

As I’ve said, I am an irregular churchgoer, partly because I am intensely irked by the Anglican refusal to stand by the church in the developing world.

As Gavin Ashenden implies, Christianity is now the most persecuted religion on Earth. 

A 19th century neo-gothic monastery in Mechelen in Belgium has been transformed into a luxury hotel

Some estimates claim that a Christian is killed every five minutes somewhere in the world.

And yet we are all too often slow to offer solidarity. I attended one Easter Sunday service at which there was no mention of the previous day’s church massacre by Islamists in Sri Lanka in 2019.

But I’ll keep going back, because the churches will go from us if we don’t go to them — and what replaces them will definitely not be better.

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