Fun or folly? Another English cathedral installs a fairground attraction

LONDON (Reuters) - When Bishop Herbert started building a new cathedral in the English city of Norwich in 1096, it was unlikely he ever envisaged it would play host to a 50-foot helter skelter.

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But that is exactly what the cathedral in eastern England will be housing for 10 days this month, giving visitors a rare chance to get close-up views of its medieval roof, a fun experience and - those behind the idea hope - a chance to think differently about the building, life and God.

The helter skelter, part of the cathedral’s “Seeing It Differently” project, was the idea of Canon Andy Bryant who said it came to him while on a trip to the Sistine Chapel in Rome two years ago.

Being jostled by tourists there eager to see its famous roof made him wonder how people could get a better view of the ceiling of his home cathedral.

“Could the playful presence of a helter skelter help to open up conversations about the building, help open up conversations about God? Climbing to its top, the visitor will literally see the cathedral differently,” he wrote on the cathedral’s website.

For 2 pounds ($2.42), visitors can enjoy a unique view of the architectural splendor of the building before sliding down into the nave.

“The fun comes in the shape of a helter skelter,” Bryant said. “The serious comes in creating opportunities for reflective, God-shaped conversations. It is the cathedral doing what it has always done – encouraging conversations about God.”

The helter skelter is the latest attempt by a Church of England cathedral to attract new worshippers and follows the decision of Rochester - England’s second oldest - to house a mini-golf course in its nave.

However, not all are impressed. Theologian Gavin Ashenden, a former chaplain to Queen Elizabeth, said they detracted from the proper purpose of the buildings.

“We experience a saturation of stimulation and distraction in everyday life - it is almost as if the pace and pleasure of life set out to make reflection and prayer impossible,” he wrote on his website. “The one place one might be free of this could be, ought to be, a cathedral.”

Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison