I was reading yesterday about the inquiry at Westminster City Hall, looking into the future of the Grade-I listed St Mark's Church in Mayfair. Developer George Hammer, who owns The Sanctuary spa is appealing against the council's decision last December to throw out his plans to turn the church into a "Wellness Centre". Campaigners called have called the plan "sacrilegious", but the decaying church has been on English Heritage's "at risk" register since 1988.
The heart of the matter, of course, is the dwindling congregation at St Mark's. If a church has an active community, gathering regularly to worship, it would not fall into decay. But it has. And church membership generally is declining, not just at St Mark's. No longer do people report for duty in their droves on a Sunday morning. So where do they go instead?
Quite often, to a spa. I was first struck by this on a visit to Seaham Hall, last year, where, on a Sunday morning, worshippers were flocking to the Serenity Spa. The spa is in a separate building to the hotel, self-contained, with a peaked roof rising like a church spire above the immaculate gardens. The air of this place being a temple is nicely accentuated by the columns in the gardens, which lend a hint of ancient ceremonies.
You can also reach the spa via an underground tunnel, where a life-size statue of an elephant greets you, perhaps to remind you to re-connect with your inner Buddhist.
And once you're inside a spa, almost any spa, fragments of religious vocabulary abound. Why pop in for a pamper day when you can have an "absolute spa ritual" instead? (Even if the ritual may contain the same ingredients of a facial and a body massage that any secular pamper day may offer.) Why settle for a few days away when you can have "a spa retreat" perhaps in "a sanctuary"? Does conducting a smudging ceremony to banish evil sprits before your treatment, or ringing a little chime bell when it's over elevate your massage to a spiritual experience? And let's not forget all those flickering candles and incense in the treatment rooms, familiar accompaniments to any church service.
What are we all worshipping here? Is it our own bodies, pampering and preening them now that we have decided we have no immortal soul to fret over? Do all these bells, smells, rituals and retreats simply provide a touch of spirituality that we miss elsewhere in our lives? Or have spas cleverly tapped in to some latent desire to go on pilgrimages by offering us "spa journeys" instead?
Final thought: The Wellness Centre, which is proposed for St Mark's, would offer spa treatments and therapies with a discount for Mayfair residents. It's nice to see the owners are committed to continuing the church's charitable aims of helping the needy.