Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Religion? What Religion?

September 20, 2010 · 1 Comment

London is a very funny (not comedic, but more ironic) place in many ways.  One of the most obvious examples of this is how it deals with religion.  Londoners are surrounded on all sides by beautiful churches and cathedrals that were built from sometime after the Great Fire of 1666 (and maybe before… Any MEMS majors that want to correct me are more than welcome to) to the present day.  Seemingly increasing this effect is the fact that the UK government (technically the Queen) basically runs religion in the country.  As we’ve learned on our tours of various religious sites, there is not only a nationally-run church (The Church of England) but also a nationally-run synagogue (the United Synagogue).  Just to clarify, by “church” and “synagogue,” I mean an organization of churches and an organization of synagogues, not single buildings.  It would make sense, at least to most Americans used to a separation of church and state, that the close ties between religion and government would result in higher amounts of English citizens being religious.  However, that is not the case.  Focusing on the Christian faith, simply because it is the largest in England by a wide margin, and has seen the largest decline in believers (though not members, a phenomenon that I’ll get into soon), the Christian sites that we visited were generally much more “touristy” than they were religious.  Westminster Abbey is basically just a museum at this point, used by tourists to see the burial places of famous people like Mary Queen of Scots, Clement Attlee, Neville Chamberlain, Charles Darwin, and Geoffrey Chaucer (and the list goes on), rather than being used as a church (which is what it was built for).  Of course, it’s also used for coronations, remembrance ceremonies (like the one for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain ceremony yesterday), etc., which are really religious ceremonies.  Interestingly, at the Abbey, a prayer is read over an intercom every hour, which might be meant to try to hold on to a bit of the religious feeling of the place that it has lost over the years.

Personal Photo of Westminster Abbey

St. Paul’s Cathedral is much the same as the Abbey in many ways.  It too serves more as a tourist destination than a religious destination.  I completely understand this, as it’s a beautiful building (in my opinion), and it’s even more fantastic when you climb to the top of the dome and see the whole city below you.

Personal Photo from top of St. Paul's

It too has a problem with being religious, which it tries to remedy by having token religious ceremonies.  I went to Evensong there one night rather early on in our program, and it was fantastic.  You just can’t beat seeing a church service (almost entirely sung) in a building so beautiful, both aesthetically and acoustically.  However, it feels that this service (which I believe happens every night) is done just so the people running it feel like they’re still running a church, and not a museum.

The third church that I’d like to discuss is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, located near Trafalgar Square.  This church is a bit different from the rest, because they actually have regular church services (in English and Chinese, interestingly enough).  However, they also host a lot of concerts, including regular jazz nights.  For example, when we went, there was a woodwind trio playing classical music, which was fabulous.  I find it interesting, tying this into my theme, that even a church that has a thriving congregation still feels the need to provide secular events to the general public.

So what does this all mean?  Why are all of London’s churches trying to appeal to secular people?  The answer is simple: the Church is dying.  Over the past few decades, England has become radically more secular, and only a small percentage (compared to most of the rest of the world) go to church regularly.  This doesn’t stop over 77% of the English from saying that they’re Christian (according to the CIA World Factbook, because I don’t have Watching the English with me at the British Library, and really needed that stat), of course.  The interesting part about government-controlled religion is that it is exactly that, as opposed religion-controlled government.  Americans typically believe that the separation of church and state prevents crazy religious fanatics from taking over the government (which it obviously doesn’t, seeing as how the entire US government is run by crazy religious fanatics, which is only a slight exaggeration), when instead it just prevents government from controlling religion.  In the UK, the government has somehow squeezed the life out of religion, so that it is possible to be an Anglican and completely non-religious at the same time.  Because religion has lost its meaning to many of the English, churches have started to become tourist destinations or something approximating community centers, just to stay alive.  I haven’t really decided whether or not this is a good thing, but I certainly enjoy being able to visit these places without feeling like I have to pretend to be religious while I’m there.

Categories: 2010 MatthewM · Churches and Cathedrals

1 response so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 20th 2010 at 10:50

    Although I agree that England is much more secular, I would like to see how you believe the government has “squeezed the life out of religion.” Is this something the government has done, or it has occurred organically? If the former, I would be curious to know how this was done.

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