by Maksymilian Adach
Mr Warn’s amusingly written article, dated 6th March 2015, has made a significant splash on the College social media networks. It is a shame that such a flawed, self-defeating argument has won such substantial support amongst an audience that contains the intellectual crème-de-la-crème of our generation.
The first issue with Warn’s article is found in the exordium. It would have had the makings of an interesting article, has he persevered in arguing the, and I must say rather convincing, point that malls and churches are similar. The statement that suggests that malls are our churches and temples is precisely where Warn begins to stray into dangerous ground, particularly when he dismisses the need to discuss the religiosity of capitalism in our day and age. How can he possibly leave the claim that malls ‘are our churches and temples’ unsubstantiated? Admittedly, Warn does state that he simply wishes to fill out the comparison which was correctly dismissed as ‘imperfect’ by Mr Gent. However, he does not really achieve that.
There is little debate as to the fact that temples and churches were associated with places of commerce. This was particularly the case with the Western Church in the middle ages. It is the reason why a great deal of medieval, English churches contain a chancel screen with a gate. The purpose of this was to preserve the dignity of the sanctuary. They were a Western analogue of the Iconostasis found in the Orthodox Churches that marked out the chancel as the ‘holiest’ place in the building. Similarly, there are many records that state that the nave of the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral was used as a market and meeting place (see ‘Paul’s Walk’).
I would never dare to suggest that a shopping mall is, by any stretch, the centre of civic life. To do so demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the role of the Church as an institution in 21st century Britain. As Warn concedes, the church’s role in rural communities remains as a focal point of local life. It provides myriad benefits, both spiritual and practical, to the local community.
“This mind-set is one of comfortable, middle-class opulence, where one feels no want. Who needs God when you have everything you could possibly want?”
Within an urban context, the role of church is more difficult to pin down. The former Bishop of Liverpool, David Shepherd, wrote that today’s towns and cities are places of intense oppression. He argues that the moving of the impoverished from tenements to high-density flats in the 1970s created an oppressive urban jungle without any centre whatsoever. He goes on that the benefits of living in a city (i.e. shopping, eating, drinking, entertainment) can only be enjoyed by those with enough wealth. The poor in the estates of South London, Manchester and Liverpool felt a sense of helplessness and ultimately anger towards this system – this culminated in the Lozells, Broadwater Farm and Toxteth riots. I am not going to try and suggest that the church has responded swiftly and well to the urban expansion of the 70s – it simply hasn’t. In estates such as these, it is a Community Centre (occasionally church-run) built at its heart that provides Warn’s ‘centre of civic life’ and not a Cathedral-esque branch of ASDA.
To suggest that a shopping mall is a centre of civic life, is to betray a middle-class mind-set that is centred around wealth and consumerism, ignoring the needs and plight of the poor 21st century Britain. Warn’s point referring to a new ‘Trinity’ of Home, Work and the Shopping Centre betrays a similar mind-set. This mind-set is one of comfortable, middle-class opulence, where one feels no want. Who needs God when you have everything you could possibly want?
The ‘apocalypse’ point is the start of a general trend in Warn’s argument that suggests that in our age, we are beset by consumerism. There is certainly a ‘now-culture’ centred on temporal satisfaction. We order music/films off Amazon so we can get them instantly. Similarly, one does not even have to leave the comfort of their car at a fast-food restaurant. We do not think that we should ‘wait’ for anything: indeed we have a right to have what we want and have it instantaneously. Warn’s point about people gathering about a shopping mall in times of crisis in fiction is indicative of this.
“The one thing that will remain of us is our relationship with God – in my mind this really is the only investment we should be making.”
Many ask what the point of the Church is. In a consumer-orientated society, there does not seem to be one. On the face of it, one gets invisible, intangible brownie-points that please an invisible and absent God. Why bother? The Church provides something different and suggests a different outlook on life in our society: all that we have, all that we have bought and accumulated, all our friendships and lives’ achievements will one day be irrelevant. No one will know who I was in 150 years’ time – I will be name on a crumbling gravestone in an Oxfordshire churchyard, noted by the occasional ramblers because ‘Maksymilian’ is an ‘unusual’ spelling. The one thing that will remain of us is our relationship with God – in my mind this really is the only investment we should be making.
In conclusion, while it is certainly true that shopping centres resemble on many levels temples and churches, I do not believe that we are living in some sort of post-Christian age where churches have been superseded. An huge percentage of the population simply cannot afford the middle-class consumer-driven atheism that Warn seems to think is prevalent in our supposedly shopping-centre dominated society. It is certainly true that one cannot be a slave to two masters, but I do not think that Mammon has won this particular fight just yet.
This is a response to Mr Warn’s article Shopping at Temples – ‘Cathedrals of Commerce’, posted on 6th March 2015. It can be found here.