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  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

Gen Z doesn’t want disco cathedrals

Published in UnHerd.

The silent disco held in Canterbury Cathedral at the end of last week was, for many, a stark reminder of Britain’s declining faith. To see thousands of party-goers waving glow sticks around an ancient church represented, if not outright sacrilege, a perfect picture of modernity: a sacred space once used for communal worship now filled with headphone-wearing individuals absorbed in their own hedonistic bubbles. 

Could this be the future of the Church of England? Perhaps. One couldn’t help notice, though, that the event seemed to attract a specific demographic: Gen Xers and older millennials. Populating the controversial “rave in the nave” were crowds not of twenty-somethings, but instead mostly middle-aged women. While this might have been down to the event’s Nineties nostalgia theme, it also suggests that partying in a church is something which particularly appeals to a certain generation of secular Britons — a generation who might still see rebelling against Christianity as puckishly subversive.  

Taking after boomers, many in their forties and fifties have come to view religion as fusty and in need of modernisation. In the 2000s, some were drawn to the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins; others to the softer secularism of Humanists UK. Those who stayed within the Church of England, by and large, called for a more liberal theology and the need to “update” the church for contemporary culture (the disco being perhaps their latest attempt). All of these reactions against the traditional Christianity of their great-grandparents are typical of the generational theory put forward by the sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe: following a culture of religious conservatism, younger generations will tend to rebel by adopting liberal outlooks. 

But the logic of generational theory would also predict that, once these liberal attitudes have become mainstream — as they now undeniably have — the new young generations will undergo a “turning” in the opposite direction. This, fascinatingly, could be what we are starting to see with Generation Z. Unlike their parents and grandparents, most members of Gen Z have not been raised in a Christian culture and, as such, are not as inclined towards actively rebelling against it. This, along with their inclusive politics which tends to be critical of post-9/11 anti-religious rhetoric, makes them considerably more open to ideas of the sacred. 

While this tends to take idiosyncratic (and arguably just as individualistic) forms of alternative spirituality, such as WitchTok, it is significant that teenagers and young adults today seem to reject the secular materialism of their parents’ generation. The think tank Theos found that “Gen Z (57%) are more likely to think religion has a place in the modern world than any other generation.” Just as surprisingly, the latest World Values Survey survey found that more young people believe in the existence of the afterlife, and specifically hell, than before. It would seem, then, that Zoomers are moving beyond a boomerish cynicism and towards something like traditional religious beliefs.

It is far more subversive, as a member of Gen Z, to seek “re-enchantment” — something which entails treating sacred spaces with reverence — than raving in a nave. This is a generation intrigued by pagan sacred sites and spiritually-infused ecology, not the desacralisation of an ancient place of worship. 

Those who think this is — or should be — the future of the church ought to take this into account. As Louise Perry recently claimed, attempts to modernise religion do not actually tend to be successful in attracting young people, precisely because of this new appeal of returning to tradition. The emerging “tradcath” movement is perhaps the best example, in which young people are embracing conservative Catholicism in reaction to the dominant secular liberalism. 

Of course, they are still in a small minority. But they nonetheless point to a trend: the boomer rebellion against Christianity and attempts to modernise the church are themselves becoming outdated. It is now re-enchantment which holds subcultural value. Though this may take on questionable forms, it seems unlikely to entail holding silent discos in cathedrals. Young people have had enough of the profane; now, more and more are seeking the sacred.


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