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Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Protestant Purification Vs. Christopher Wren: A Love Story of Irony

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

When Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 after he instated the Act of Supremacy he had no real intention of actually repudiating Catholic ideals (for more information go here).  He maintained the highly ornamented and ritualized structure of mass and design of churches and chapels.  However, after he died and Anglicanism came into its own under his son, Edward VI, churches were stripped of their decorations and a strict and Spartan design was adopted.  While throughout Anglican history the form of worship and the tenets evolved with the monarch, Protestantism has maintained a more austere stance on the level of decoration within a church.  Catholicism, on the other hand, is famous (or in some schools of thought, infamous) for its lavish decorations, rich priestly garbs, and overall sumptuous appearance.  The pinnacle of this over-the-top wealth is the site of the Holy See – the Vatican is a treasure trove literally overflowing with priceless paintings, sculptures, and breathtaking frescoes.  Just like the Vatican – the center of Catholicism – St. Paul’s Cathedral (a central symbol of Anglicanism) is overrun with artwork, statues, and mosaics dedicated to celebrating the life of Christ.

When I first walked into St. Paul’s I was struck with the irony that this great cathedral presented.  I had expected Westminster to be decorated past the usual point of Protestant sobriety, after all it did start out as a Catholic church, and the same went for the Abby at Bath; I did not expect this from St. Paul’s.  The current St. Paul’s Cathedral, built by Christopher Wren, was never a Catholic church and so does not have this excuse to pardon its grandeur.  Instead of adhering to the typical ideals of a Protestant church (a lack of idolatry and an overall more simple and modest atmosphere), St. Paul’s rivaled any Catholic church (with the exception of the Vatican).  I was surprised by the overall un-Protestant nature of the Cathedral.  Everywhere I looked, in every spare niche, nook, and cranny, was ornamentation of some sort.   This highly structured aesthetic was not contained in just the architecture – evensong was a series of highly ritualized acts.  From the initial procession in (scepters and all) through the singing to the end with the parade out, the structure of the ceremony was both beautiful and archaic.  While I was sitting there I reflected upon the fact that the service I was listening to was sung in the same manner it was 400 years ago (with the exception on the presence of female deaconesses).  It was both a humbling and confusing experience.

On the opposite side of the expectations spectrum, the Catholic mass I attended was performed in a modern and simplistic manner.  The chapel was just a little side room in the Newman House – a building that would have been easy to miss just walking down the street save for the flags put up to celebrate the upcoming arrival of the pope – and the actual chapel itself was noticeably bare.  There were small figures marking the Stations of the Cross, a small and ugly bust of Cardinal Newman, an alter, and one painting of the Madonna and Child.  This was a far cry from the reputation of ornamentation that the Catholic Church is saddled with as well as a telling foil for the overwhelming décor of St. Paul’s.

This comparison and its ironic implications got me thinking about what exactly the difference is between the Cathedrals and Abbeys of the Church of England I’ve visited and the Catholic service I attended mean.  It seems to me that Christopher Wren was not focusing on designing a building that was a place to worship God and to adhere to a particular brand of faith – he was more creating a symbol of England at its most lavish time (we learned all about the excesses of Restoration England on yesterday’s walking tour) that would call out to all who saw it how great, mighty, and powerful England was and still is today.  It is less a place of worship for God than a hall of worship for England.  I have not visited any Anglican churches that are used as community places of worship instead of as monuments and I am curious to see if the local churches in Norwich have the same level of ornamentation or whether they adhere to a simpler, more Protestant appearance.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Churches and Cathedrals

Children of the Enlightenment

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

So, like many other people, I have noticed the difference in educational programming at the Anglican churches that we’ve visited versus the other religious centers that we’ve seen. At Westminster Abbey I enjoyed the history and all of the famous people buried there (I looked down to discover that I was standing on David Lloyd George’s grave–sorry!), and at St. Paul’s Cathedral I admired Sir Christopher Wren’s gorgeous design and thought of the five hundred stairs that awaited me. So many people have commented on this lately, but I think that Mary Kate is right when she says that we have a valuable opportunity to look at and discuss Christianity in Britain in terms of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.

In the course of my research for our walking tour, I stumbled across an interesting opinion on the de-Christianization of the British, and it had nothing to do with immigration or the emergence of other religions. In the introduction to his book A Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald comments that the baby boomers were the last generation to attend church regularly, but that Christianity had been on the decline for much longer than that. MacDonald argued that science was to blame–as more and more scientific developments were made, especially in terms of medical discoveries and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it became more and more difficult for people to balance this new information with Christian beliefs, and scientific ideas began to take precedence.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense to me. As the imperial capital of the world for so many years, England was the place where so many new ideas and discoveries originated. This country, and especially London, has hosted radicals and revolutionaries in terms of politics, art, and science. If scientific ideas were going to take hold anywhere, it makes sense for it to be here. Based on what I’ve learned of the 1960s, I can also understand why the baby boomers really started moving away from religion. The Anglican Church was traditional and belonged to their parents’ generation, and the sixties were about youth making their own mark and breaking away from tradition. Religion may very well have been a partial victim of the sixties.

I’m not saying that Christianity is still a tired religion–in my experience, there has been a definite move to adapt the religion to changing times and to attract more followers. But it seems that this isn’t going so well in Europe, and one of the reasons may be the perceived gap between religious leaders and the public. To me, the fact that Cardinal Kasper called England a “Third World country” immediately  before the Pope’s arrival shows amazing insensitivity to the cosmopolitan make-up of Britain’s population and ignorance as to how to reach out to people. He certainly did not do the Pope any favors in this already contested visit.

This seems to speak to what our guide at the East London Mosque was saying about the need for different religious groups to understand each other. In this case, Christian leaders perhaps need to learn how to better relate to a widely secular public, especially by not distancing them with offensive remarks. In terms of wider, inter-religious understanding, I admired our guide’s willingness to admit that education is necessary on the part of both Muslims and non-Muslims. But I was puzzled that he seemed to resist the opportunity to engage us on that level. I felt that he stereotyped us as ignorant Americans, and that we missed the opportunity for a good dialogue on some very important issues.

The religions that we’ve engaged with during the past month are all tolerant religions, but it seems to be that people need to follow their own teachings a bit better, both in terms of learning about other religions and in terms of relating to people who supposedly belong to the Church of England.

Tags: 2010 Holly · Churches and Cathedrals

Protest the Pope?

September 19th, 2010 · 6 Comments

Thanks to so many of you for asking about my experience at Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer vigil in Hyde Park yesterday afternoon. It was profoundly renewing spiritually and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I don’t want to get boring, soap-box-y, or too personal, so I’ll leave it at that.

But I would like to start a discussion, if anyone’s willing, about the controversy surrounding the Pope’s visit. I think this was a bit of a missed opportunity in class – the past few days have been historic, marking the Holy See’s first-ever state visit to the UK, first visit of any kind in 28 years, and perhaps most importantly, the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, an Christian theologian from the Victorian Era and an important English figure, historically, intellectually, and religiously. (The beatification – or the penultimate step on the road to sainthood – of Cardinal Newman has taken a kind of backseat to the “state visit” thing. Actually, Newman is the main reason for the Pope’s visit. To learn more about the Cardinal – and why he’s so important to England and to the Church – read here: http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/Cardinal-Newman)

The visit’s official theme – “Heart Speaks Unto Heart” – comes from the writings of Cardinal Newman. Although Newman was a theologian and a professor at Oxford, he recognized the importance of faith deeply felt. He found in the Catholic Church what he considered to be a perfect union of intellect and spirit, mind and heart. You can probably guess why Benedict wanted to emphasize this aspect of Newman’s life to believers in England- we’ve spent plenty of time talking about how secular today’s England is. In his homily at Hyde Park, in front of an estimated 80,000 he encouraged Christians to join with Newman and “radiate” faith rather than just accepting it intellectually. He also recognized that believers in England fight a bit of an uphill battle as they try to live their faith in a nation that wants little to do with faith. The Guardian reported quite fairly, in my opinion, on the Hyde Park vigil here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/18/pope-benedict-hyde-park-speech

Waiting for Benedict in Hyde Park (personal photo)

What I’m driving at is that, in my experience, the Papal visit was tailored very carefully to fit the English character. The visit reflected a lot of what we’ve talked about in class, actually. He wanted to address secularism as well as a long history of religious strife – the altar at Hyde Park was set up, intentionally, very close to Tyburn, where Protestants and Catholics alike have been martyred. Benedict also, at other times during his visit, addressed the British tendency toward moderation – reminding them, essentially, to be moderate in moderation. He paid homage to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – pointing out that he was a child during the dark days of Nazi Germany, and expressing his gratitude for the sacrifices of British servicemen and women.

I mentioned the controversy surrounding the visit a little earlier, though. Although I’m sure most of us noticed the Scientologists protesting in their Guy Fawkes masks – a little paradoxically, considering that Guy Fawkes was Catholic, or maybe that’s the point – the main group protesting the visit is called Protest the Pope. Their official website contains a list of grievances against the state visit of Benedict XVI: http://www.protest-the-pope.org.uk/ Although they claim that 20,000 protesters came out to support their cause yesterday, the police can’t confirm that number and neither can I – really, I don’t know where all those people were hiding because we certainly didn’t notice them.

For me, at least, Protest the Pope’s arguments are flimsy. They’re essentially saying the Pope can’t have a state visit because he’s Catholic, as far as I can tell. And it seems to me that when 17.5% of your country accepts the moral authority of one person, the government has a vested interest in a good relationship with that person. Not to mention that the Holy See is an ally for the UK government on matters of worldwide poverty, healthcare, and education, of climate change and sustainability, of nuclear disarmament and peace.

There’s one last aspect to the religious controversy surrounding this visit: six Muslims were arrested in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate the Pope. Here’s some more information on that: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/the-pope/8010002/Pope-visit-sixth-man-arrested-over-alleged-assassination-plot.html. The men have been released without charges. But I can’t help but wonder how this will affect Britain’s religious climate as well. Until these arrests, the conflict was between Catholics and secularists. Now, there’s a whole new dimension. Will the Muslim community react with anger and outrage? Will some Catholics resort to discrimination and hate? Will the whole story be forgotten by tomorrow? It will be interesting to watch this unfold.

Sorry for the length of the post – I just wanted to give some background on the visit and see if anyone has thoughts to share. I think this would be a good space to have a respectful dialogue about the place of religion in the British government.

Tags: 2010 MaryKate