Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Why is the Church of England dying?

September 14, 2010 · 5 Comments

So far we’ve visited several cathedrals and chapels of the Church of England, a Hindu temple, a Sunni mosque, and a synagogue, and as far as I can tell, Christianity seems to be the only dying religion in England. To be fair, I’ve only visited really famous cathedrals and they’re bound to be turned into museums because of their history, but regardless, church attendance in England, belief in a God: way down. I’ve been racking my brain to figure out why, and I think the best I can do is work through a few of the commonalities among all the holy places I’ve seen.

The temple, the mosque, and the synagogue all emphasized their connections to the community and the multi-functionality of their buildings when we visited. In fact, at the mosque, the man we spoke to said “children come to play and then to pray,” suggesting that a multi-purpose building keeps the religion thriving. But at St. Paul’s our tour guide said that prior to the Great Fire, church had become “run down” because it was being used for multiple purposes (markets, dentist, etc), so the argument works in both directions and doesn’t really get us anywhere.

The temple, the mosque, and the synagogue speakers also took extreme pains to emphasize the bridging of religions, especially to Christianity. All three mentioned their interfaith programs between different religions, including the cathedrals (even though none of the chapels or cathedrals made any mention of the other faiths they were connected to and working with). The non-Christian religions also made special efforts to explain their religions in relation to Christianity, in some cases understating differences in favor of finding common ground. I know some people felt this was a defensive move and a watering down, but I understood it as an emphasis on bridging differences. The speakers expected a Christian audience, and each one mentioned Jesus as an important figure, even from Hinduism, which is a non-Abrahamic religion (it doesn’t come from the same branch as the other three). The best explanation I can think of for this is that Christianity, as the official dominant religion, even if it’s unofficially dying, can take itself for granted because of its connection to imperialism. All other faiths must places themselves in coordination with the colonizer, but the Church of England, as an official religion does not have a stake in getting along. It belongs here and need not please anyone else. (I’m speaking in terms of practicality. There are plenty of other more altruistic reasons for getting along.)

All four faiths also emphasize the importance of their religious history, the history of their specific holy building, and their place in it. Weirdly, this seemed to strengthen identity for some, and weaken it for others. Jewish history, as a group in diaspora, is such a uniting force that it allows for an entire Jewish culture and identity that complements the religion. Christian history seems to obscure it. Instead of learning about Christianity at the chapels and cathedrals, we treated it like a museum, viewing artifacts. I again want to attribute this to imperialism. Groups who live under the threat of obliteration hold their roots tighter. Even though the Protestants and Catholics have been intermittently persecuted, Christianity has been associated with England for quite a while, and England is not in danger of going anywhere.

I also noticed that all the non-Christian faiths emphasized the fact that they were not evangelical. While they aim to teach others about their faith, they do not actively convert, while active evangelism is an important part of Christianity (most orthodox sects). It seems like an interesting coincidence that England, an imperial nation that converts other nations to Englishness, would be attracted to a religion that converts followers (Ironically, the opposite seems to be happening). Christianity can easily be transformed into a tool for imperialism. Maybe that perversion coupled with the expectation that it will just always be there is what has caused its downfall.

Categories: 2010 Jesse
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5 responses so far ↓

  •   hollymb // Sep 14th 2010 at 18:21

    I really like your point about the uniting or weakening power of a religion’s history, Jesse. I think that Christian history is interesting because Christians have been persecuted in the past, but they have also been responsible for a great deal of persecution toward others (The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, etc…). We’ve mentioned the sort of pretty, imperial view that we get of Britian in terms of museums, and the seeming unwillingness to engage the uglier parts of the country’s past. I wonder if this influences the view of the Christian churches that we’ve been presented with, as well?

  •   stepheniem // Sep 14th 2010 at 18:46

    I like your points, but I wonder if it is Christianity in general or the Church of England that is suffering the most. It seems that Catholicism is also struggling, but I still wonder if we were to go to a couple parish churches (perhaps one Catholic and one CoE- both in fairly similar neighborhoods) vs the famous cathedral & abbey we’ve visited if we would be more likely to get a different sense of Christianity in England. I have a feeling we would because our guides wouldn’t have the structural history to contend with.

  •   battilaj // Sep 14th 2010 at 19:47

    Yeah, Steph, like I said, we’ve only visited really famous churches with a ton of history. But that church attendance is still way down nad the census we saw says that many English Christians don’t believe in God. I would talk to Mary, MK, Jamie, or Amy for a different perspective though. I knnow they had a fantastic experience at a smaller church last week. There is blog a few posts down about it.

  •   emilym // Sep 15th 2010 at 14:56

    I like the point that you made about the parallel between the Christian value of converting followers and England’s imperialism. The reverse is also true for both: aspects of other cultures add to and transform Englishness in the way that Christianity takes on a different cultural personality depending on where in the world (and by who) it is practiced.

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 22:19

    Emily, I think that’s a really good point. Salaam Brick Lane had a whole section about the English tendency to adopt another culture’s customs and then “English them.” Christianity adopted pagan rituals to absorb it into the Christian faith. It’s a brilliant imperial tool because it naturally assimilates other groups by creating less culture shock.

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