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COMMENT: Is coffee a religion?

Last Sunday, I noticed that there are Church pews in cafes. I was in a long queue of like-minded parents nervously awaiting a flat white as my kids clustered around my wife outside. We had taken them to Highgate Woods for a change of scenery, and like all good middle-class parents, we paid our dues to the gods of coffee while appeasing the snivelling children with promises of muffins, or whatever. And I saw the pews. I had seen them before, but hadn't really seen them.

They'd been there for ages, adorning the walls of Highgate woods cafe, along with several other cafes I can now picture around London. The sober engravings flanking the oak sides, the little hymn book boxes jutting out the back (what are those called? They must have a fusty, churchey Saxon name Philip Larkin has used for a rhyme). Just the right balance of aesthetics and discomfort to make seekers of caffeine-based solace feel welcome but not too cosy that they won't leave. Alert but at ease. Aware of the comforts and joy they are receiving. That's the true experience of coffee lovers who crave the smell and frothy top of a cappuccino as I do.

And then it hit me. Pews don't adorn cafes because they are like churches. Cafes now have pews because they are churches.

In his Ted talk, Salman Khan Proposes that the British Empire developed its education system because it was effectively a computer, using civil servants to measure, document and calculate its resources and power. To run its vast wealth and manage its dominions, the Empire required information processors to, well, process its information. But surely this must also be true of the Catholic Church. Its territories, its relics, properties, accounts etc must have required pre-formatted priests (Jesuits?) to gather and organise all its data.

Like the Mother Church or the East India Company, cafes are information centres today, multinational and transcultural, attracting knowledge and resources. Starbucks, Costa, Nero. Parent groups, for hire boards, book clubs, matchmaking... so many hubs of information and exchange from the erstwhile churches, are all Cafe based now. Who meets at the church today? Who seeks spiritual guidance from a priest? Life coaches, yoga instructors, school tutors... they are the caliphs of the coffeehouse.

And the coffee. Oh sweet nectar to revive our bodies and our spirits. Weary pilgrims we come to witness as Arabica manifests itself in ways so wondrous and mysterious. Nutmeg chai lattes. Pumpkin spice. Or good old Puritan espresso, bitter and clean on the pallet. A smell to wake the dead. Heavenly.

Gender roles are immediately comforting, typified and clear in a cafe. Don't worry, I've got these - says the male. The father figure, sidling up to the counter to pay. He returns with a tray of plenty. What's your order? A mochachoccachaicino? He winces in mock jest. Women studiously sit more charmingly, browse their phones while brushing back stray locks of hair, snugly fitting into the multiple conversations crossing the room.

The pews are just the start of it. The bums-on-seats needed to form a congregation to share kindness and sorrows, grief groups and schemes for hen-do's. As churches themselves are emptying fast, changing the hard, sculpted benches for the cushioned chairs to best accommodate their audience - the aged - cafes are brimming with life, bustling with noise and money, like Victor Hugo's cour des miracles. 

Hugo believed cathedrals were the novels of the medieval age, where stonemasons captured popular history in devotional statues. History could be read on the walls of Notre Dame better than in its books. 

Our children may yet visit dusty old cafes with noisy tour guides one day to understand our beliefs and mores. And wonder what those funny wooden seats were doing there.


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