Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Least Religious Church on Earth

September 7, 2010 · 7 Comments

Kate Fox told us that “the Church of England is the least religious church on earth” (354). I didn’t really understand how any organized church could fail to be religious until our visit to Westminster Abbey.

I mean, it’s incredible that most important aspects of English history and culture have fit into one beautiful building, dead bodies and all, from martyrs to scientists to poets to monarchs to the Unknown Warrior (which, just to say it, is the most beautiful monument I’ve ever seen). I’m impressed by Westminster Abbey. But I’ve never felt God more minimized. Other than a bland and generic “prayer” every once in a while, and the odd miniature stone saint or cross, the focus of Westminster Abbey is much more King and Country than God. I always thought Church of England was another way of saying Church in England; nope, this Church really is all about worshipping itself. Westminster Abbey is ground hallowed by history and culture, art and architecture, not by faith. I see why England wants to share this heritage with the world, but make no mistake about it – their concern is preservation of culture, not preservation of faith.

Westminster Abbey. Beautiful? Yes. Reverent? No. (personal photo)

You might respond to this criticism by saying that without opening the Abbey as a tourist attraction, we’d be denying visitors an important experience in English culture. You might also say that if the Abbey wasn’t so accessible to tourists, it would be difficult to raise the funds to keep it open and maintained at all (this may apply less to Westminster and more to other churches and cathedrals around England – Bath Abbey, for example, or Southwark Cathedral, which are less centrally located and famous).

Bath Abbey (personal photo)

I understand those points, but I have to wonder if, in this case, the chicken or the egg came first. Would parishoners be more prone to attend church as serious worshippers if the site wasn’t so wholly reduced to a tourist attraction or a history museum? I’m not an anthropologist or a religion major, but I don’t see how people can be expected to take their faith seriously if the church to which they belong doesn’t even take it seriously. Religion is part of culture, but to believers it’s much, much more than culture alone. To a believer, faith in God is literally a matter of life and death (and afterlife) in ways that food, clothing, music, and other aspects of culture can never be. The Church of England doesn’t seem to make any demands on visitors to its hallowed places – Bath and Westminster Abbeys spring to mind. (Any demands, that is, except incessant reminders that donations would be welcome.)

I’d like to contrast the Christian cathedrals we’ve seen so far with our visit to the Hindu temple today. This temple welcomes interfaith visitors, but only on its own terms, with the understanding that preservation of the Hindu faith and reverence for God are a prerequisite. The result was a moving religious ceremony to which I think we were all attentive, and a deeply reverent tribute to the Hindu faith, culture and history in the exhibition hall. I think if the temple let tourists wander in and out freely, messing with their audio guides, joking around, texting, taking pictures of the ceremony, what have you, the Hindu temple would be reduced to a cultural tourist attraction to check off a list rather than a spiritual experience. Also significantly, tourists like ourselves would feel like outsiders peeking in on someone else’s faith. Today, I felt like I was actively participating in a faith community. I felt like an insider rather than a voyeur. I think preserving this sense of reverence works out for the best for both visitors and believers, and I’d like to see more of it from the Church of England.

Categories: 2010 MaryKate · Churches and Cathedrals

7 responses so far ↓

  •   stepheniem // Sep 7th 2010 at 17:23

    I think it is belittling the church to call its hourly prayers “generic,” nor do I think that Westminster Abbey is lacking in religious significance and power. For me, seeing St. Edward’s tomb (which, if you didn’t know that was behind the tombs which crowd around it, obscuring its view or if you aren’t familiar with his life, then it probably doesn’t have a similar impact) was an amazing experience. Not far from me was a saint I admire for many reasons, least of all because he happens to be buried in what has become a tourist location. As we went through, recognizing the Christian symbolism that was inherent in every part of the abbey was incredible. (Perhaps I have a leg-up here having studied it and therefore was actively looking for it…)

    Furthermore, when Westminster Abbey was being built, the focus would have necessarily been on king and country in order to prove a king’s divine right to rule. By aligning themselves with a religious institution, such as the abbey, a king could more easily (in some ways) consolidate his power. Coming from a more secular background in terms of government, it is sometimes hard to pull back from our world to understand why a king’s iconography would take such a prominent position in a religious institution. If one is to fully understand the abbey and its position, one cannot discount this important fact or opinions and impressions could be skewed. The ground has become “hallowed” by the tourist because it was first hallowed by faith. (Look at London’s other medieval structures. Wait, that might be difficult as there are very few left. Why? They weren’t deemed important or, if they were lucky enough to survive into the 17th century, they were destroyed by the 1666 fire. We can have this debate about the abbey precisely because its connection to the Christian faith, and therefore the ruling class, is what has saved it. The lack of medieval structures also contributes to the abbey’s popularity because it is simultaneously a rare survivor of Medieval London and an outstanding example of Gothic architecture.)

    I admit, going to the abbey as a student-tourist (which is what we were) does not offer the same experience that the temple does. However, the Mandir (not to belittle it) does not have the history that the abbey does and in many ways it attracts a different audience. The abbey’s general audience is there for the history and to (hopefully) pay their respects to various figures who are entombed or commemorated there. The Mandir’s audience is more likely to be curious about Hinduism and need more information on it to enjoy and understand what they are seeing. Because England is predominantly Christian, one assumes (nonetheless at their own risk) that an exhibition that explains the Christian faith is unnecessary to understand the abbey. Throughout the abbey, there are people who could (and would) answer any questions about Christianity if someone were to have one. Seeing the abbey at another time of day, Evensong for example, would have provided a different view of the abbey’s activities.

    At St Paul’s the experience was more of a worshiper than that of an observer because we were there during a religious ritual. I can guarantee the experience on our next visit to the cathedral will be quite different. Had we not seen the ritual at the Mandir today, would your views would be different? Or, if we had been led through the abbey by a member of the church on a tour designed to introduce one to a Christian holy place and not by a tourist guide (not to belittle John here- he did a good job) would they also be different? We do not know what the audio guide tells the average visitor about the abbey and therefore cannot definitely say that more parts of the Christian faith are not explained. Furthermore, what “demands” would you have the church make on its visitors? To attend a service while there? We were lucky in the temple that we were able to do this- it wasn’t a requirement. I think it is interesting to note that at both Westminster and the Mandir, interior photographs were not allowed, thereby adding to the sense of reverence I felt in both places.

    I also think that whether a church or cathedral is a tourist attraction has little to do with service attendance. St. Paul’s was not as heavily attended as I would have expected. (I imagine the majority of those present were of the tourist type- whether or not they were Christian.) At the Mandir today the audience was dominated by tourists and curious people. (True, the balance was tipped by our group, but would attendance really have been comparatively different there than at St Paul’s if we were to subtract the purely touristy visitors?)

    I think, given the circumstances, the Church of England is trying its hardest to preserve the abbey for its visitors and believers and doing a fairly decent job of it without compromising its dual mission. For me, as a Medievalist and Christian, the two missions are intertwined and both sets of my needs can be met there.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 7th 2010 at 17:56

    I really like your point about the insider v. voyeur. I completely agree, and think it will be interesting to see whether the Hindi temple loses personality and its real-church quality if it becomes a national icon similar to that of Westminster (although this is quite unlikely). I also think that the purpose of the respective abbey’s have morphed a bit over time, less as a place of worship and more as museum.

  •   Young Dennis // Sep 7th 2010 at 18:00

    I would also add this, MK: who is anyone to complain about how anyone’s faith is set up? In my opinion, you get to complain about one faith, your own. Maybe two if you live in Northern Ireland or Israel, but that’s pushing it.

    Sorry if this comment comes off as flippant or aggressive. But it seems clear that the English are not a religious people, which is wholly their right. Westminster Abbey seems very much in line with that.

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 8th 2010 at 03:30

    I’ll start by responding to Dennis: I’m not complaining about how C of E is set up. In fact, there’s a lot I admire about the Anglican faith, especially considering the similarities to my own faith. My issue is that we don’t see or experience enough of the faith when we visit these churches and cathedrals. I also agree that Westminster Abbey is in line with English secularism – I just think it’s a shame that no one in C of E seems to think it should be preserved as anything more than a museum. Westminster Abbey doesn’t have to be a monument to English culture; it can be preserved as a monument to faith. It just hasn’t been.
    Stephenie: sorry to have offended you. When I say a prayer is “generic,” I mean it could be said in any church, temple, mosque, or synagogue in the world. At Westminster, the prayer (was it just me, or was that a recording?) basically said, “Thanks for this day, please bless us and everyone else, too.” There’s nothing specifically Anglican about that prayer – and I know there are prayers in the Anglican rite that reflect Anglicanism much more deeply and clearly.
    From what you’re saying, Westminster Abbey sounds more secular than ever. Used to consolidate the divine right to rule? I think we know from American politics it takes no faith whatsoever to use religion for political purposes. That doesn’t make Westminster feel any more holy to me – in fact, it feels less holy. I’ve never denied Christianity’s (or the Abbey’s) historical significance in England. I’m questioning the Abbey’s commitment to Christianity’s continued relevance.
    I agree that an exhibition like the Mandir Temple’s might be a little unnecessary in England. If Westminster wanted to be educational, they might make their prayer more Anglican, or ask us to observe silence, or a certain dress code, while we’re in the church. I’m not coming out of left field on this one – Catholic churches all over Italy have done the same. (Also, my understanding about the cameras at Westminster was that the flash would harm the art – just like a museum. At Mandir, it was about respect and reverence. Correct me if I’m wrong.)
    I’m sympathetic to your point about Evensong, but I have to say, from the perspective of a believer – Evensong felt more like a concert than a service to me. It was a beautiful concert, for sure. And I can’t argue against anyone else’s spiritual experience – I don’t know what you guys felt, I just know what I felt. So I’m not personally convinced by the Evensong argument, Stephenie, but that may be just me. And, of course, I would never deny that you had a spiritual experience or felt God’s presence while you were in Westminster Abbey. I’m just suggesting that’s the exception, not the rule. And I have to point out – if nothing else, Christianity is an egalitarian faith. If the Christian symbols and icons are so well integrated in Westminster Abbey that only MEMS majors can find them, if they’re not prominent and proud – more prominent and proud than the shrines to monarchs who persecuted other faiths – then I don’t see how the symbolism can transform the Abbey into a more spiritual place. Christianity now seems more marginalized than ever in one of its own churches.
    In the end, the Abbey can’t do much about the fact that the figures entombed and enshrined there are not spiritual leaders. There’s a certain sense of reverence that comes along with seeing the resting place of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin or Elizabeth I, sure. There’s a certain sense of reverence that comes from seeing a president or the Rosetta Stone or da Vinci’s notebook or the Houses of Parliament, too. Just because it’s awesome and impressive and beautiful doesn’t mean it’s religious or spiritual. From a Christian perspective, the English monarchs and scientists and poets and politicians are just people. Monuments to them just don’t compare, spiritually, to holy shrines to God. It’s practically apples and oranges.
    I really don’t have a central thesis about the Abbey – what it should be or how it should get there. I agree with Dennis here – it would be out of place for me, as a Catholic, to tell the Anglicans what to do. What I was hoping to relate with my post is that I was disappointed with the spiritual atmosphere there, and thrilled with the spiritual atmosphere in the much smaller, newer and comparatively more humble Mandir Temple.

  •   Karl // Sep 8th 2010 at 04:57

    Just a few points of information:
    The audio guides at Westminster say next to nothing about Christianity and even less about C of E (remember that it wasn’t started as a C of E church). I think that MK has a point about educating one’s audience. Given that many visitors are not Christian (and certainly not C of E) and that most Brits are secular, both the foreign and homegrown visitor could use some educating as they do at the Mandir.
    We will see many more churches and cathedrals this year, so watch this space.

  •   battilaj // Sep 9th 2010 at 08:27

    I’m with MK on this one. Most of the cathedrals I’ve seen have seemed really areligious. They have gift shops. I’m not complaining, but I don’t think it would hurt tourism to at least include a small exhibit that explains the doctrines of the Church of England. But I think it might be ommited because England has a history of Christianity so there’s an expectation that people understand it even if they don’t practice it anymore.

  •   guya // Sep 9th 2010 at 12:04

    I agree that many of the churches we have seen have become more tourist attractions than places of religious worship. St. Paul’s, while less touristy than Westminster Abbey, still doesn’t feel entirely like a church.

    I think Jesse brings up an intersting point concerning expectations about Christianity. As Kate Fox pointed out, a large majority of Englanders call themselves Christian despite a lack of belief in God or church attendance. It seems to me that Christianity is almost a default faith to have in the UK if one is not particuarly convicted. Since so many people claim that they are Christian, even without any knowledge or concern about faith, places like the Abbey think everyone is coming into the building with an understanding of Christianity that was probably more common a few decades ago. It’s this complancency in being the religious majority(and the national religion) that, in my observation, have probably led to a lot of the patterns we’ve been seeing in churches in London.

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