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Making movies in the house of God 

NorwichCathedralWith another blockbuster movie just finished filming inside Norwich Cathedral, Mark Sims examines the arguments for and against using churches for other purposes as well as worship.

 
When I found out that scenes for a new film, Tulip Fever, were to be shot at Norwich Cathedral, I was intrigued, not least because the director was Justin Chadwick, who directed films such as The Other Boleyn Girl and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. Tulip Fever stars Dame Judi Dench and Christoph Waltz (Water For Elephants, Django Unchained). So, as a film graduate and aficionado, as well as a Cathedral staff member, it was exciting to witness a large-scale film shoot. Scenes for Jack The Giant Slayer were also filmed there around 2010.
 
I was in two minds about the Tulip Fever shoot. On one hand, there was the buzz of being close to a major film shoot but I could not help wondering what God’s view of it was?
 
One Cathedral Canon remarked that, ‘I’m sure God takes it all in His stride’. Maybe and Tulip Fever is not a controversial story like The Da Vinci Code which, in its film incarnation, was refused the use of Westminster Abbey as a location due to the its blasphemous nature. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever novel at least contains religious elements, even if it does involve an extramarital affair. To my knowledge, this was not filmed in the Cathedral!
 
For all its appeal to tourists and film productions, the Cathedral is, primarily, a place of worship. To my knowledge, no services were cancelled or even disrupted by the filming. There may have been the sound of power tools and burly workmen mixing with the singing but otherwise, God’s praises were sung as normal and people could still light candles and pray. However, one middle-aged visitor complained after the filming about it taking place in the Cathedral, which has always been a place of great personal importance to herself and her family.
 
Whatever payment and publicity the Cathedral receives for the filming is no doubt good for its upkeep and reputation. However, is the filming a case of Jesus in the temple in Matthew 21? To quote the Amplified Bible, ‘…Jesus went into the temple (whole temple enclosure) and drove out all who bought and sold in the sacred place, and He turned over the four-footed tables of the money changers and the chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, The Scripture says, My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers.’
 
To challenge a church organisation for allowing access to film shoots as being biblically questionable, one might as well challenge every aspect of Norwich and any other of the Cathedral’s commercial efforts. If having a shop, donations desk, Refectory, Hostry (including function rooms), peregrine falcons and a Friends scheme is unbiblical, then so are most other cathedrals and churches the world over. What church does not have at least a little bookshop, postcards or a donations box at the back?
 
If the Cathedral did not have a commercial side, then it would not make the £4,000 a day it needs to run. If it failed in this, it might eventually close or be taken over by another organisation and cease to become a house of prayer. This has happened to plenty of churches, such as St Peter Parmentergate on King’s Street becoming Norwich Academy of Martial Arts. Conversely, churches take over buildings once used by secular businesses, eg the old Lads’ Club, opposite NAMA, becoming King’s Community Church.
 
It saddens me to see church buildings, created with worship and prayer in mind, losing their purpose. It is a different matter if an actual church building like Norwich Cathedral, or a building repurposed as a church like King’s, hires itself out to secular companies, as many church buildings – repurposed or otherwise – have to in order to stay afloat as well as honouring the Christian ideal of serving the community. The King’s Centre website proclaims that ‘100% of our net profit from our conference centre… goes towards empowering people to walk free from poverty.’ Perhaps it’s not a matter of the holiness of the building but that of those in charge and what they do with their money?
 
My response to visitor criticisms of Norwich Cathedral, based on Matthew 21, is that the organisation does not change money, although it does obviously buy and sell; yet the shop only sells dove-based inanimate objects (other creatures are available) rather than actual doves for sacrificial purposes. Trite, perhaps but, if I understand the meaning of verses 12-13 correctly, then ‘those that bought and sold’ were secular market traders taking advantage of potential trade from temple worshippers and visitors, who would have paid a stall fee to the temple but did not sell goods on its behalf.
 
So then, if a film crew sets up in God’s house and contributes a fee for the privilege, is it any different? Now the filming is over, no doubt the Cathedral will use the filming to draw in punters and who knows how God will use that?  If said filming attracts visitors who become interested in Christianity as a by-product of visiting, then that is some progress.
 
In fairness, the Tulip Fever production went out of its way to make sure disruption to everyday Cathedral life was kept to a minimum; some shooting took place at night, for example. For a production of this size, however, some upheaval was inevitable. For JTGS, the entire Cathedral was shut down for weeks, whereas, with Tulip Fever, only public areas such as the Cloisters and South Aisle were out of bounds for certain periods during filming days and not always all day.
 
The disruption was mainly to the commercial side – tours were cancelled and the shop was shut for one day. Staff and visitors alike also had to make longer trips from the main Cathedral to the Refectory, which was more problematic for disabled folk.  A minor inconvenience for people and a marginal profit loss, for sure but one surely made up by interest and money generated by the filming.
 
Any church building is just a pile of bricks built to house the ‘Body of Christ’ – His followers - who could pray and worship anywhere, not strictly in a particular building. As Romans 12:5 says, ‘So we, numerous as we are, are one body in Christ and individually we are parts one of another [mutually dependent on one another]’. Revelation 21:22-25 tells us that, in the end, buildings will not even be necessary, ‘I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.’
 
A church building may as well be used for filming or any other outside hire, so long as this does not disrupt the place’s intended purpose, or even bring visitors to faith through coming into contact with Christianity. 

MarkSims231Mark Sims is a regular contributor and reviewer on Network Norfolk. 

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