Cool! Soggy Rice Krispies on the beach

Even in these secular times, holidays can be holy days. Paul Handley is impressed by evidence that holidaymakers have an unusual openness to spiritual influences.

The Day Off was never a problem. "And on the seventh day God rested." But there's nothing in the Bible about what happened in the summer when God ought to have gone to the coast. But God doesn't go away on holiday. This might explain why so many people find God while they're away on theirs.

There are certainly plenty who go looking. Figures released on Monday by the English Tourist Board show that nearly 22 million people visited the top 124 cathedrals and churches in England in 1996. Two and a half million people visited Westminster Abbey; two and a quarter million visited York Minster; St Paul's and Canterbury Cathedrals each attracted about two million - that's about the same number of visitors that Mecca gets during the Haj. Even discounting the bored French school parties, these are vast numbers of spiritual tourists, many of them cramming their visits into the few short weeks of the summer holidays.

I ought to have been aware of holiday religion sooner. After all, the paper I edit, the Church Times, carries a page of adverts each week from churches inviting holidaymakers to worship with them. There are reassuring details - "coffee in church hall after service", "vin d'amitie in parish hall" (this on the French Riviera), "easy parking", "WC". And there are phrases designed to attract the yearning pilgrim: "St Luke's is plain, yet withal beautiful, in its calm severity"; " `There is not a finer situation outside the Alps or among them more beautiful than this' (Wordsworth)". Instead of frowning at newcomers who sit in the wrong pew and can't find their places in the service books, these churches recognise the strong needs which people turn up with.

Holiday religion is a strange phenomenon. The clergy who work in resorts tell me that holidaymakers are much more open to spiritual influences than are ordinary churchgoers. As people's lives - and indeed, holidays - become more frenetic, the longing for rest and peace is increasingly unsatisfied. Partly because it is different, a visit to a church by the sea or a chapel in Tuscany can jolt people out of their spiritual (or unspiritual) rut.

Sometimes it is very different. My older children have been attending a Scripture Union beach mission for the past fortnight. In one service I went to, one team member was fed ketchup-coated fish by somebody in a blindfold, and another had soggy Rice Krispies and toast crumbs poured over them. ("Cool! That was the best bit!") Try that in your local church, and the letters of complaint will be on the bishop's desk by first thing Monday morning.

Perhaps this is something the central church authorities ought to wake up to. Not the tomato ketchup on the chancel carpet, necessarily, but the existence of a parallel pattern of worship (for want of a better word). The weight of the Church's teaching is placed on the need for regularity, doing your duty "Sunday by Sunday", to use the vogue phrase. The Roman Catholic catechism states: "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass." Where I first went to church, those of us who went to church only once on a Sunday had a question mark placed in our "commitment" tickbox.

But most people in this country don't manage this sort of regular attendance, and who is to say that they should? Does it make you better (though this, admittedly, is not the only purpose of church worship) if you get to church once a week rather than once a fortnight? And is once a fortnight really any better than once in a while? The steady drip of regular, dutiful attendance sounds good; but there is a case to be made for splurge spirituality (there's that ketchup again), especially when so many people already practise it. What you lose in familiarity you can gain in intensity.

This is the answer to those who equate holiday religion with holiday romance - the critics who say that once you've kissed your holiday host goodbye (and I'm sure that's all Diana, Princess of Wales was doing) and helicoptered back to real life, you quickly lose the benefit of any insights gained and feel, perhaps, just a little silly.

That's just not true. I heard this week about a businessman who kept a postcard of a Suffolk church by his desk: he said the memento of his visit helped to sustain him through the rest of the year. I heard, too, about a magazine editor whose betrothed went to immense trouble to arrange their wedding in a Lake District church which had been fixed in his mind since a childhood visit. The influence of these intense moments can be long-lasting. Even in these secular times, it seems, holidays can still be holy days.

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