Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Tonight: Miles Davis @ St. Martin-in-the-Fields

September 15, 2009 · 2 Comments

I have lost count of the number of churches in London. Yet, I would not be surprised if there were double (or triple) the number of churches I have seen in the city. Though numerous, I have not yet found a church packed with a local (or visiting) congregation. Sundays, according to tradition, mark the closing of many stores, leaving most streets barren and still. Though Sunday marks a day of rest in the United States as well, one essential difference remains – massive crowds can be seen going to pray at their respective place of worship. (I will mention here that Sunday is not the most important day of the week for many other religions. For the purpose of this post, I will remain largely within the Christian faith, which marks Sunday as a holy day or, at the very least, a day of worship.)

So, the expression “Put on your Sunday best” may not directly apply to my encounters with British Christians. I cannot speak at length to the prevalence of secularism in the country, but from my reading (see the BBC’s site on Athiesm here; see the National Secular Society homepage here) I can note its prevalence in the country. Even our tour guide noted at one point in his presentation of Westminster Abbey that the British are much less religious than Americans.

Regardless, I have come face-to-face with churches and cathedrals – sprawling and small, centuries-old and recently renovated. I have about 40 pictures of churches taken from the same angle looking upwards at the columns or Gothic style or high steeples that sweep the façade of these buildings. One that grasps my general impression of churches in Britain (thus far) could be St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Though the primary reason for visiting the church was to see the E.L.F. Trio, I was immediately impressed by the simple yet elegant design of the building. This was before our visit to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s, mind you, so my impression of London’s churches was limited. I remained thoroughly impressed with the church until we went into the crypt. What some consider a modernization of the crypt, I immediately saw as a cheapening injustice to the integrity of that part of the building. As a person of another faith, I was shocked. As a History major, I was appalled. As a tourist who had been in London less than a week, I could not have been more surprised.

I saw tomb markers dating from the 18th century, faded and worn down to bare stone. Well, I should say this carefully, for I did not see all of the tomb markers, for steel chairs and tables prevented me to see many of them fully. The church has recently converted the crypt into a Café in the Crypt – a restaurant that provides a true British dining experience among the dead buried throughout the building’s history. (For music connoisseurs, try out the British jazz scene at the church’s “Jazz Night” in the Café in the Crypt.)

Something about seeing this crypt transformed into a tourist attraction bothered me, but I am not sure if I really have a legitimate reason. (I am a history major, so I would rather see these stones preserved, for instance.) By the same token, I understand that the church has undergone a massive renovation project (which continues to this day) in order to bring new life to the building. It remains a symbol of charity, community, and worship to many people – religious or otherwise. I understand this…yet I would still rather see a commemoration of the people who were buried in the crypt rather than an art display or a jazz musician.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s thoughts on churches in the city in London: The Biography brings some better understanding to the subject. He describes, in part, neighboring Westminster Abbey as a “city of the dead” (39) and as a monument. The nature of Christianity has changed in London, he argues, and is not as fervent as it was at other points in the city’s history. It is not “lost,” however, for though holy sites across London have been transformed, destroyed, or renovated, they can never really lose their history as holy places (40-43).

I may never get used to the notion of flinging an identifying feature of a place of worship (e.g. a crypt) into the 21st century. Of greater relevance, I do not think I can quickly agree that, as Ackroyd argues, only the face of these sites changes, leaving the heart of the holy site intact. Since visiting the church, I can begin to appreciate their efforts to provide for the surrounding community some other outlet besides worship – such as music and art venues. St Martin-in-the-Fields does plenty of good for the surrounding community, and I would be interested to see how this project succeeds in continuing this tradition.


Categories: Brandon
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2 responses so far ↓

  •   aidanoshea // Sep 15th 2009 at 11:20

    I really liked St. Martin’s as well. That was really the only church we visited that I’d like to back to to get a real sense of a typical Anglican service in London (I think I already have a sense: short, unenthusiastic, with an average age of 72. But I could be wrong).

    I also had a visceral reaction when I saw the crypt. I wonder if it has to do with a puritanical reflex on my part as an American, since I do understand that what’s on top of a 200 year old grave doesn’t really matter. Part of me also thinks that it is at least a beautiful space people should be allowed to explore quietly, not a place one buys a 3 Pound espresso in.

    I wonder if we’re glimpsing a bit of our own future as our country becomes less religious (statistically). I can see America becoming a place where societal deference is given to religious holidays but regular church attendance is very low (this would have to be the very distant future, I understand).

    Or perhaps England’s violent and troubled history with religion is the reason that the English are so willing to transform sacred spaces into something purely historical. If this is the case, I don’t see the same pattern in America, given our distinct religious history.

  •   » Tonight: Miles Davis @ St. Martin-in-the-Fields Norwich … | crypts // Sep 15th 2009 at 15:23

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