I’m an atheist, but I can’t wait to get back to church

Emma Beddington
·2-min read

Before England’s second lockdown, my priority was a trip to my local cathedral, York Minster. Remember that woman who married the Eiffel Tower? That is me and the minster. I am obsessed with the place: my phone is stuffed with a catalogue of creepshots of my gothic beloved from all angles. Pre-Covid, my resident’s pass let me drop in whenever I fancied to stroke the age-smoothed stone or sit in the side chapel with the stained-glass birds. Sometimes, I just used the loo.

I am an atheist, but I don’t feel bad about using the minster in this way. Cathedrals were never meant only for worship: they are meeting places and community centres. You can see it in sacred art. In Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments, painted as the minster was nearing completion, church rituals take place amid groups milling around in their Sunday best, gossiping; there are even several dogs.

That goes for other religious spaces. It has been especially evident this year, as mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras fed the vulnerable and NHS workers. Communal worship may be out (a decision faith leaders contested), but faith spaces still serve, and exert a pull on, communities far beyond the faithful.

My minster obsession is not spiritual, exactly, but I feel connected to and comforted by the generations of people the space represents. The stained-glass wren poised to peck a spider feels as fresh as the wren that sometimes appears when I walk my dog in the morning; that a 15th-century glazier captured it in a jewel-bright square of beauty feels deeply touching.

I squeezed in a timed-entry trip the day before lockdown; I can’t wait to wander in on a whim again. In the meantime, I often walk past, observing people drinking coffee on the steps, kids hanging off the railings, bikes propped against blocks carved by long-dead stonemasons, ornithologists looking for the resident peregrines. I like that: the space is still being appropriated by a whole city and that is exactly how it is supposed to be.