Even just turning off Princes Street into the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s Parish Church is peaceful. There is an instantaneous hush from the traffic and one feels a sense of escape from the busy city rush. On enquiring from the man at the door for soulspace, I was directed to the church itself and then left to get on with praying, quiet contemplation or whatever the hell I wanted. This was reassuring: it would be awful if this event was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to proselytise. However, the fact that I was left so completely to my own devices showed that it was a genuine attempt to get more people using the space.
The softly lit area of the church lent itself to contemplation and would have made for a soothing place, had it not been for certain effects someone had seen fit to add. A powerpoint presentation of animals was being shown at the front of the church with the – no doubt worthy – message, ‘Celebrate life!’ It might just be me, but I find a rotating loop of pictures of hammerhead sharks and hummingbirds the antithesis of soothing and in fact, after a while, quite teeth-gnashingly frustrating. This frustration was only added to by the other special effects: the flickering flame machine reflected on the ceiling of the church, looking as though it was being consumed by the fires of hell; the soothing ipod mix of church-friendly music at one point shuffled on to a Westlife-style track and the recorded singing voices managed to distract in a way that live music wouldn’t have.
These additions to the church were unnecessary and rather disruptive to the atmosphere. It would have been far more pleasant had they let the silent and peaceful space speak for itself. I can see the reasoning behind these design choices: It is a good idea to provide a visual or aural stimulus for those unused to silent contemplation. However, seahorses are not the answer. If they really needed to add something to the church, it would have been far more moving and uplifting to have co-ordinated the open door times of the church with a rehearsal for many of the musical events that take place at the church. When St Cuthbert’s ten bells ring out during many evenings of the year (although not, I note, in August), their sound heartens even the most weary of shoppers; the regular bell-ringers would have provided the perfect musical accompaniment to soulspace.
Having said that, I left soulspace feeling far more refreshed and peaceful than I had expected to. In contrast to the hustle and the bustle of the festival, there was something soothing about just sitting quietly without dashing to the next venue or trying to get the next task done. Of course, quiet contemplation, particularly with a Christian backdrop, does not work for everyone. However, some people, religious or no, get great satisfaction or peace out of places like churches and, for this reason, this attempt to keep the doors of the church open should be applauded.