England’s religious identities are many. The influx of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus over the past century has turned the nation into a melting pot of both cultures and faiths. With the complexity of the social makeup of the city, it’s hard to pin down a “religious identity” for the whole of London. That being said, I think that one place of worship certainly has to be regarded as the national symbol for faith and strength- St. Paul’s Cathedral. While the religious denotations of the church are ever present, I don’t think the fact that it is a place of Christian worship is necessarily what gives it its majesty or its importance to Londoners across the metropolis. It is, above all, a symbol of a culture; strong and resilient, huge and complex, beautiful in its intricacies. There are two major times in London’s history during which the citizens of the city- Christian or not- have needed St. Paul’s.
Rebuilding after the Great Fire-
The Great Fire of 1666 ravaged the city whole. It gutted the mostly wood-lined streets and left a smoldering heap in its wake. The old St. Paul’s Cathedral (on whose ashes Wren’s St. Paul’s is built) was utterly destroyed. Wren sought to bring a new, majestic design to the table- he wanted a Renaissance-style dome to crown his masterwork and to be visible for miles around. While the design was initially scoffed at, his beautiful dome was completed and stood as the tallest structure in the city for three centuries. The cathedral is a symbol of Christianity, to be sure. But it is also, almost more importantly, a symbol of London’s rebirth from the depths of the catastrophe of 1666. The visible and towering symbol of Britain’s strength most certainly gave Londoners hope that their city was not only being restored, but taken to new heights.
In terms of pure physical damage to the city, the only event that comes close to the devastation of the Great Fire is the Blitz. Nazi bombers annihilated much of the city in waves of attacks, night after night. Much of the history of the city was lost in the bombing raids, but the most important symbol of London’s strength miraculously remained. The iconic photograph of St. Paul’s, seemingly engulfed in flames but standing tall and true, is the embodiment of the church’s significance. Wren built the cathedral from the ashes of one fire with the intention that it would be a symbol of the strength of God and the strength of the city. The fact that the symbol itself resisted a second fire, an even greater test of resolve, is testament to its stature as the guiding light of London’s people. Christian or Muslim or Sikh, it’s impossible for Londoners not to stand in reverence (or, at least, in awe) of this building.