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Norwich Helter-Skelter


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Norwich Helter-Skelter
Norwich Cathedral Helter-Skelter (image source)

More than most people, I revel in humour connected with faith. More than most people, I tend to see the humour (sorry, ‘humor’!) in a lot of Jesus’ sayings and stories. Jesus the Jester is a model at least as good as many others. But where are the edges between mystery and mocking? And, in a world so full of bait-and-switch, where is the line when we do this with faith? These are not rhetorical questions.

For those who need reminding, bait-and-switch is “the ploy of offering a person something desirable to gain favour then thwarting expectations with something less desirable.”

Norwich Cathedral put a Helter-Skelter into its nave. Some of the discussions had a bait-and-switch element: they will come for the fun and stay for God… And is the cathedral’s claim that the helter-skelter allowed people to stand close to its medieval roof bosses also a sort of bait-and-switch?

Before this, the nave of Rochester Cathedral was converted (did you see what I did there) into a nine-hole mini golf course.

A lot of Christianity appears to me as bait-and-switch: “God loves you as you are, BUT…” “Accept the free gift of grace… and now tithe/go on the flower roster/…”…

Is some of what Jesus is doing in gathering people bait-and-switch? [Is it bait-and-switch if it is from less desirable to more desirable: come for the story/meal/etc, stay for God?]


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5 thoughts on “Bait-and-Switch?”

  1. Ruth Hendry-Rennie

    If you start for god, I pray for what I need, and give, in what I see/hear is the social law of the times. Quote ; Mark (CEO) of Facebook, Do you want Facebook public of private? It appears the community wants it private so he announced that Facebook would go private. I choose public. blessings Ruth

  2. Thanks for these great questions, Bosco!

    At a service some years ago, the priest made an announcement about an upcoming service of Jazz Vespers. He ended it with these words: “So if you like jazz, come along to Jazz Vespers.” I barely suppressed an urge to shout out, “What if you just like Vespers?” I related this to a friend, who quipped, “Come for the jazz, stay for the Vespers!”

    Your reflections put me in mind of how the Puritans criticized the (1559) Book of Common Prayer for including too many petitions for temporal blessings. Surely, they argued, we ought to pray instead for spiritual blessings!

    Richard Hooker answered the critique by saying that such prayers are quite literally “bait”:

    “The greatest part of the world are they which be farthest from perfection. Such being better able by sense to discern the wants of this present life, than by spiritual capacity to apprehend things above sense, which tend to their happiness in the world to come, are in that respect the more apt to apply their minds even with hearty affection and zeal at the least unto those branches of public prayer, wherein their own particular is moved.

    “And by this means there stealeth upon them a double benefit: first because that good affection, which things of smaller account have once set on work, is by so much the more easily raised higher; and secondly in that the very custom of seeking so particular aid and relief at the hands of God, doth by a secret contradiction withdraw them from endeavouring to help themselves by those wicked shifts which they know can never have his allowance, whose assistance their prayer seeketh.

    “These multiplied petitions of worldly things in prayer have therefore, besides their direct use, a service, whereby the Church underhand, through a kind of heavenly fraud, taketh therewith the souls of men as with certain baits.” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5.35.2)

    I’m not sure that Hooker would have approved of extending this reasoning to a helter skelter or a mini golf course! But it’s fascinating that he sees the Church meeting people “where they are” (willing at least to approach God in prayer for their temporal needs), and then moving them from there to the next stage of spiritual progress (trusting God with temporal needs and concentrating instead on growth in spirituality). And he argues that we see the same pattern in scripture: God begins by making temporal promises to his people.

    The Church faces a real difficulty now, though, in meeting people “where they are,” because even the idea of approaching God in prayer for temporal needs seems far fetched to so many! And I fear that sometimes meeting people “where they are” can leave the Church stuck in that place too (e.g. as political/environmental pressure group).

    On the other hand, Hooker is a good example for us of how to avoid a “God loves you, BUT…” model. His point is not to promise what people want in order to get something out of them, but to start with, and indeed affirm, what they deeply feel is needful, and then lead them from there to what is truly needful.

  3. These two events have caused something of a storm in England, though (speaking as a recently priested Curate) I think that there isn’t that much difference between the Helter Skelter and a whole host of other church/community activities like Church Fêtes or flower festivals or Christmas Tree festivals, or the such, so I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. (I’m sure that those who complained, have attended many a fête and not got angry). Incidentally, I heard from people in Norwich that Evensong which overfilled the chancel and spilled into the Nave, which is a pretty rare event.

    Theologically, I think there is something to be said about the importance of joy. Joy is, after all, an important part of our humanity, and Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, warts and all, which includes hope and love and joy and fun.

    Theologically, is there anything wrong with bait-and-switch? Perhaps if it is dishonest and if the real purpose is obfusacted, but if it is undertaken honestly and with a heartfelt desire to be show love to others and the local community, surely that is a good thing and something we are all called to do and be?

    1. Thanks, Stephen. I think your point is quite right in relation to the Helter-Skelter sitting within the approach of Church Fêtes, flower festivals, Christmas Tree festivals, and so forth. I think Jesse’s framing in the previous comment very helpful. I highlight the danger he mentions that meeting people where they are can end up with staying where they are. I also underscore my own point that bait & switch is offering a person something desirable to gain favour and then thwarting expectations with something less desirable. In the case of church, by definition, we may be using means to bait but in order to switch to the One who is most desirable. Blessings.

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