Churches are for everyone, not just Christians. The first promise that would-be priests make to the Church of England is “to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people”. No wiggle room there.
And, as unlikely as it seems, that rubric has extended to the world of fashion, with places of worship commonly becoming venues for shows. In most instances, it is hard to see how anyone could be offended by what is on display. Reports on Gucci’s eccentric and colourful pre-spring/summer cruise collection at Westminster Abbey and Alexa Chung’s quiet, minimal show at the Danish Church of St Katharine in Regent’s Park last summer saw them as suitable venues. Most recently, French label Jacquemus used the Church of Saint-Merri, which openly supports gay marriage, a choice that makes perfect sense. Places of worship are no longer novel venues, but rather good fits for the creative narratives of some fashion shows.
The reception has not always been positive, though. Last month at London fashion week, some of the hardcore faithful had their skirts blown up by an apparently “blasphemous” collection by rising star, Dilara Findikoglu, which took place at St Andrew Holborn, London, with reports “that models dressed as devils and vampires sashayed in front of the altar”. Among those unhappy with Findikoglu’s show was the theologian Dr Adrian Hilton, who wrote on his blog: “How is it possible that a sacred space can be used for what can only be described as Lucifer lauding? How does hosting a Satanic Fashion Show glorify God?”
At this stage, we could make some theological points: doesn’t the doctrine of the atonement (Jesus’s death on the cross) mean that devil-worship is defeated once and for all? So can’t we just laugh and point at it like a piece of Commedia Dell’Arte? And how does all this outrage over a fashion show sit with a Jesus who, according to the texts, hung out with harlots and people in rags?
There are plenty of us who believe that the church should try to emulate the medieval model and act as a secular, as well as a sacred, space during the week. True, this would have been an easier call in the days when community outreach amounted to keeping new-born lambs warm or ladling soup (though there’s precious few of us meeting even that threshold today). But what to do when we want to share our lovely churches with all sorts, including fashion designers wanting to show off their wares?
I’ve hosted debates and conferences in churches on secular subjects – though for me, there is no secular subject that isn’t religious – ranging from the death penalty to City regulation. And one thing I do find quite pleasing is how these events can draw in a new type of demographic: people who wouldn’t normally come to churches. And now that demographic includes some of the fashion industry.
At this stage, I concede soup kitchens are a very different beast to fashion shows. And I do have a problem with churches being used solely as commercial venues. When I took an idea for a series of plays to Canon Lucy Winkett, at London’s St James’s Church, Piccadilly, I was struck by her observation that it’s important to “have a conversation” with the place that you’re staging an event at. Again, yes, all subject matter is within the remit of the church, but it’s important to ask whether the show and the venue in question are suitably matched architecturally, culturally and aesthetically. A church or an abbey isn’t just anywhere – even, I’d suggest, to most of the irreligious.
But this edict should be applied universally. I’ve bridled at wedding couples who have asked to be married at our church because it’s handy for the reception, which seems to signal that this conversation with the place hasn’t occurred. But the question that sparks that conversation – “Why do we want to be married in church?” – seems to me to be no more potent a question than: “Why do we want to hold a fashion show there?” We’re talking about a difference between a venue and a place, steeped in human history, its joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, accumulated for telling our common story.
Eight years ago, I criticised the fashion industry in another newspaper during a shock-rev period that I now regret. It is something I would like to retract today, not least because of the po-faced and sanctimonious responses to recent fashion events in churches from some of my fellow clergy. It is unfair to say the fashion industry is solely commercial and venal. Clothing is part of our identity as human beings. It shows us who we are. It shows us who other people are. It may not be its intention, but it distinguishes the poor, who are always with us. And it is also art.
• This article was amended on 6 October 2017. A Gucci show took place in Westminster Abbey, not Westminster Cathedral as an earlier version said.
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