Christianity through tourist eyes: a curious, colourful, unintelligible, but photogenic relic of post-Christendom Europe

On our way home from Germany last month we camped in Paris and had our first-ever look at the city. We wandered down the Seine and came to Notre Dame.

Crowds thronged the square outside the Cathedral, queueing to get inside, so we joined the human chain (see picture).

Inside a service was going on. Of course, it was a Sunday! Those listening and participating were seated in the centre of the nave. Meanwhile hoards of tourists circled the worshippers as they entered in the right hand front door, flowing one-way around the long narrow horseshoe of the building, up behind the priest leading the mass and down the other side of the nave and out the left front door again.

The tourists were snapping pictures of anything and everything inside – of the great window (see my shot of it) side-chapels, portraits, the priest, the singers, the congregation, each-other: moving or not moving it was at the receiving end of a lens.

At the end of the service, the priest led a procession around the whole interior of the Cathedral, walking in front with a gold cross held high. At the back of the procession another man walked holding the Bible up high, venerating the Word of God.

To enable the procession to make their journey, ushers had to go ahead clearing a path through the heaving mass of tourists, all with cameras at the ready to catch whatever this was that was going on.

Never has it been so visually made clear to me how Christianity in secularising Europe has, for most, become a spectator game.  It’s interesting only in terms of its cultural and iconic status. Its symbols and practices are, for most, pretty well completely detached from the narrative and meaning of faith. Decontextualised they become so ‘thin’ as to be of little or no importance – just good images for a photo.

Being in Notre Dame that Sunday morning was to see religion through tourist eyes – unintelligible, curious, colourful, strange, serious and unusual but at the same time photogenic, historic, and mildly diverting (for a few minutes).

As with everyone else, in good post-modern fashion we saw it and moved on to the next experience – which in our case was to climb the tower and get this (I think rather cool!) shot of the city.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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