A mini-golf course has been installed inside Britain’s Rochester Cathedral. It is intended to teach young people about engineering and also has spiritual overtones.
I have come to London, a reverse commute of sorts, to play with my English co-religionists the game of Miniature Golf, the last, best hope of old-line WASP Christianity to end its decades-long slide into statistical irrelevance. And what better way to combat irrelevance than mini-golf, a/k/a “putt-putt”?
High church Protestantism is on life support in both the U.S. and the U.K. Dwindling congregations, loss of mission, yellow waxy build-up, heartbreak of psoriasis–you name the problem, the UUs and UCCs and other non-evangelical sects have it. For years they’ve been wandering in the desert while Baptists and Catholics picked off their members, crushing their top-line revenue like a kid with an overbite chewing a communion wafer. Finally, finally!–someone hit upon mini-golf, the inexpensive, fun, family-oriented pastime as the tool by which to rebuild the withering offshoots of Henry VIII’s nasty divorce.
I’ve come here the hard way, making the cut for the Indoor British Miniature Establishment Religious Open not through an exemption but by a hard slog through qualifying tournaments. I’ve putted through windmill holes, hippo holes, alligator mouths, you name it. All winter long I practiced on my home indoor glow-in-the-dark mini-golf course, on Linden Street in Wellesley, Mass. I hired a trainer to get me in tip-bottom shape, shrinking my upper torso and arms to keep my drives from flying past the chutes-and-ladder hole.
But mini-golf, as Yogi Berra might say, is 90% physical and the other half is mental. I’ve also done daily readings in the Book of Common Prayer, terra incognita to me since I was raised a Catholic. It hasn’t been easy, what with all the “thee’s” and “thou’s” drying out my tongue, but I’m finally here, on the threshold of my first “major” mini-golf triumph–if that’s not an oxymoron.
I make my way into the vestibule, where I’m greeted by the Rev. Wystan Huber, the church’s Canon for Outreach and Cheesy Amusements. He has an anguished look on his face, perhaps because the cathedral has come under fire from spoilsports such as the religious commentator for the Daily Telegraph, who called the indoor course “an act of desecration.”
“Hullo,” I say, extending a friendly hand–my right one, the left one is a sullen introvert.
“You’re not from the press, are you?” Huber says, his forehead wrinkled with parallel lines that make it look like a well-plowed field.
“No, I’m a player,” I say, then, realizing that makes me sound like some sort of swag-bedizened rapper, decide to edit my remark and say “I’m a golfer.”
“Whew, good to hear,” the benefice says. “We’re getting a lot of flack, people saying mixing religion and miniature golf is harmful.”
I digest this for a moment; it’s a serious charge that I take seriously, and I can see the pain it’s causing the beadle. After due consideration, I try to reassure him. “I don’t think that’s true.”
“No, I think mini-golf will survive an association with religion, its dignity intact.”
Relieved, he escorts me to the starter’s hut, where I pay my registration fee and take in the beauty, the majesty of the eighteen holes of artificial grass. “How do you keep it looking so lush?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“We don’t use natural fertilizer,” Huber says, shielding his eyes from the bright fluorescent bulbs overhead. “Nothing but pure, unadulterated green spray paint.”
“I love the smell of that stuff when it comes out of the can–don’t you?”
“Makes you glad to be alive on God’s great earth,” he says, waxing rhapsodic. When’s he’s finished with the waxer, his eyes narrow to little slits, like mail slots in a college dorm. “We built this to give our kids a sense of spirituality they don’t get looking at their phones and Instagram all day.”
“And how’s it going?”
“I’m not sure.” He points towards one of the nine holes designed like a bridge. “We want them to reflect on the bridges they need to build in their lives and in the world today, but I think they’re missing the message.”
“Look over there,” he says, and he points to two boys who are hitting balls under the bridges, apparently oblivious to the intended symbolism of the structures.
“Well,” I say philosophically, as only a former philosophy major can, “you have to help them along a bit.”
“You should try what they do at my home course.”
“Golf on the Village Green, in my new home town of Natick, Mass.”
“What do they do there?”
“It’s a Revolutionary War-themed course. They have loudspeakers on each hole that broadcast a recitation of an Article of the U.S. Constitution.”
He looks at me with a wild surmise, like Cortez’s men after they viewed the Pacific Ocean as described by John Keats in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” “That’s a great idea.”
“You better believe it. Drop a couple of Biblical verse tracks on a playlist, and you’ll have those kids feeling the force of the sacred before you can say ‘St. Teresa of Avila.’”
He gives me a puzzled look, like the dog in the old RCA Victor ads who hears his master’s voice on the phonograph. “Why,” he says with perfect Protestant obtuseness, “would I say that?”
“You’re getting mocked for building a miniature golf course in a church, she’s the patron saint of those who are ridiculed for their piety.”
“That’s a rather obscure connection,” he says, and I can see his point.
“I understand, but for some reason, there’s no patron saint of mini-golf.”