Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as 'Churches and Cathedrals'

Common threads: similarities and differences between places of worship in London

September 21st, 2010 · No Comments

One commonality connecting our visits to diverse religious institutions was a certain level of decorum expected of visitors, which was of course implicitly observed by worshippers. In each of these places, visitors could not take any pictures, but there were many other customs which we were asked to observe in respect to each of these places of worship.

For example, in both the Mandir and the Mosque, visitors were expected to take off their shoes before passing beyond the entrance of each of the respective buildings. I feel like I should have asked about this custom while at the Mandir; I understand the justification for this observance of this custom at the Mosque exists because Islamic culture values emphasizing cleanliness. Is it the same justification at the Mandir? And of course, we were expected to not eat pork or smoke before going to the Mosque or Synagogue, due to the respective dietary laws of Islam and Judaism.

It was very interesting to hear about the application of Sharia law in the UK. Most of the Sharia, although observed by faithful Muslims, is not legally codified in the UK. The parts which are legally binding mostly involve marital contracts and business contracts between consenting parties. So, like Christians and Jews (whose religious marriages are recognised by the state), Muslims are allowed to enter these contracts at their behest. It is always interesting to hear the argument that Sharia law should not be allowed in the Western world, despite the fact that these obligations don’t impact anyone except the Muslims who are parties to them. Maybe, if they don’t like Islamic culture being practiced in the West, they should give up other customs which were imported from the Islamic world after the Crusades. Like bathing.

Back what was supposed to be the topic of this blogpost. One major difference between St. Paul’s cathedral and Westminster Abbey on one hand, and the Mandir, Mosque, and Synagogue on the other hand, was that there were burial tombs and cryps in each of the Anglican sites of worship, but none in the Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish sites. But, after thinking about it more, this has to do more with the age of the buildings; the Anglican sites were hundreds of years older than the Muslim, Jewish or Hindu sites.

Tags: 2010 Tyler · Churches and Cathedrals · Uncategorized

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

Religion? What Religion?

September 20th, 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.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Churches and Cathedrals

Paradise on Earth

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

One of the things that has truly surprised me during our time in London and in our readings over the summer was the lack of a widespread religious sentiment and a growing secular way of thinking. Visiting the different places of worship for me has been very enriching. I sincerely enjoyed hearing about the way different roles of various institutions in their communities. Despite this growing secular sentiment, it was evident to me that faith is still an important key to Englishness. Sure, we may not have had the same treatment at the Christian institutions we visited, but we weren’t at the parish church where they would have stressed the other parts of Christianity outside of the famous dead people.

At the mandir, mosque, and synagogue, I did learn something about other faith communities, all of which I wasn’t that familiar with. Familiar with Christian outreach, it was interesting to hear the way other faiths volunteer and conduct outreach. I was also intrigued by the amount of history each guide mentioned; at the mandir, there was a specific exhibit to help you understand the history and beliefs of Hinduism. At the mosque, the guide spent more time on the basic principles, whereas at the synagogue it was much more history heavy, which I enjoyed (despite the slight mix up with who declared the crusades and who ordered Richard’s). Yet, they all stressed the importance of the community and what they did for the community. At the end of each tour, I felt that I had been where a faith was active and thriving- counteracting the general arguments we had encountered.

Before I talk about my favorite experience, I’m going to go off on a bit of rant/tangent. (Nothing unusual, you’re probably thinking.) While Christianity is undeniably not as much on the forefront as it once was (I sometimes forget I’m not in the Middle Ages where the church was as influential as those in political power and grotesques littered the cathedral for unknown reasons), it is still playing an important role in England. How? Most noticeably, the concerts we’ve attended. Sure, they haven’t been lectures in Christianity, but they have brought people into a church where they were witnessing a faith community. You don’t necessarily have to have a lecture about the religion’s history when you are there in order to spark an interest. Sometimes a few trips for concerts or to be a tourist will spark an interest and prompt someone to ask a question that leads to a serious discussion. Yes, it would have been nice to have left any of the churches/cathedrals with a pamphlet on basic Christianity, but because those audiences (presumably) weren’t there to learn about Christianity, a pamphlet may have been more alienating than encouraging.

Okay, so my favorite experience and what it taught me. Hands down, my favorite has been (no surprises) Westminster Abbey. (This may change as I’m hoping to get over to St. Bartholomew the Great tomorrow; it’s a medieval parish church.) Why when it didn’t actually teach me about Christianity or the abbey that I didn’t know? One, because it inspired my faith through the sweeping architecture and stained glass. For me, those are more impressive and awe-inspiring than St. Paul’s (in its present Wren-wrecked – okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh-state) could ever dare to be. Two, because as a medievalist, I was able to participate in a long-standing tradition: the pilgrimage. Throughout history, people have visited sites throughout the world for many reasons. At Westminster Abbey, everything I love was combined into one place: my faith, grotesques, cosmati, saints, Chaucer, Gothic architecture, etc. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. True I wasn’t there to pay my respects to Edward per se, but I can’t deny seeing the tomb of such an important figure didn’t give me chills (even though it’s been really messed up and reassembled incorrectly). I didn’t necessarily have to learn anything about Christianity to have an incredible experience. Yet, to say I didn’t learn anything is mistaken. I did, but I learned more about the position of the Church of England. It is clearly in decline, but the abbey is doing what it can given its monumental dual-purpose (protect priceless art and architecture while spreading its Christian message).

Westminster Abbey Cloister

I’m sure some of us would argue that it is up to these major institutions to take the lead in revitalizing Anglicanism, and to some extent Christianity, in England. However, because Westminster Abbey stands for so much more than just Christianity (whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate), it is important for some of the parish churches to be more vocal on these issues. For Westminster Abbey (and to some extent St. Paul’s) to take a major stand is a conflict of interests, a problem that lays at the heart of its problems rises: should it risk alienating the audience that helps it survive in order to promote its beliefs? It shouldn’t compromise its faith (and I don’t think it does; it does remain closed for services on Sundays as well as hosts small prayers and services throughout the day/week) in order to protect its architecture, nor should it compromise its architecture to protect its faith. They go hand-in-hand in many regards. Without either, you lose part of the abbey. If there was ever a lose-lose, impossible to win situation, double-edged sword, etc, this was it!

I’m hoping as I visit other major medieval cathedrals, a solution to the Christianity vs. tourism problem will become evident, but for now Westminster Abbey will have to be simply (as its Cloister represented for its medieval monks) my paradise on earth.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · 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

Churches in London: Just show me the famous dead people

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

As a firm agnostic, I know I visited all the different religious sites (the churches, the mandir, the mosque, and the synagogue) with different feelings and expectations than many of my colleagues. While I found our visits to the non Judeo-Christian places particularly informative, I felt the same apathy during those visits that I felt at the other places of worship. We’ve been told over and over again that Britain is a secular country and, for me, that works out just fine. Understanding this, it should be no surprise that my two favorite buildings to visit were Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, locations that I have heard many bemoan as having become too much like tourist attractions rather than churches.

I could have happily wandered about Westminster Abbey a whole day (so long as I could avoid the tourists with the bloody audio guides who were walking about like zombies!), visiting the different tombs and reading all the different plaques and memorials. The sheer amount of history in that building is staggering. Despite my lack of religion, walking around the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I was a profoundly moving, almost spiritual, experience. It was if the gap between the past and the present could be breached by the closeness of that past’s remnants.

Me in front of Westminster Abbey

At St. Paul’s, I didn’t feel the tug of history quite as strongly but I was perhaps even more impressed with the artistic aspects of the building, particularly the interiors. Knowing my own limits (stupid asthma), I decided not to ascend the stairs to see the top and, instead, spent a long time looking at the different gorgeous paintings and mosaics, particularly those adorning the ceiling.

The entrance to St Paul’s.

Something I noticed at both St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey was the moment of silence/prayer that occurred during our visits. I applaud this attempt to remind visitors where they were but think it fell flat both times, as many tourists (particularly the children) ignored the announcement and continued on their merry way, many obviously still zoned out and intent on their audio guides. I think that the historic houses of worship in England need to make up their minds one way or another: do they want to remain religious buildings or give over entirely to tourism? This indecision has the buildings in an odd sort of limbo- not entirely sacred, but not secular either.

Tags: 2010 Elizabeth · Churches and Cathedrals

Catholicism in England: Tough Break 0’10

September 14th, 2010 · 4 Comments

The other day I went with a few others to the Newman House up the road from Arran House to attend Catholic mass. On the whole I think we all enjoyed the experience and actually gained a lot from it. For me, it was a relief to finally hear a native Englishman discuss the role of Catholicism in England, a topic I’ve been curious about even before coming to London.

Briefly looking around at the number of university students congregated in the small chapel, the priest quickly recognized that most were foreign to England. I could not tell whether or not his decision to touch on prominent hot button religious issues was planned. Regardless, the priest took advantage of preaching to the variety of students about contraceptives, abortion, homosexuality, and the global fear of Catholicism. Obviously they’re quite heavy, controversial issues to discuss in just a twenty-minute sermon.

Although the priest’s explanation of the Catholic Church’s view regarding homosexuality was particularly intriguing—and positive—, I was most interested in his discussion regarding the presence of Catholicism in England. He described the underlying sense of fear of Catholicism and the Papacy among the English. The priest made comments alluding to the English people’s standoffishness toward practicing Catholics and the Church on the whole. The discord among Anglicans and English Catholics apparent today may be incomparable to the country’s history but the unease among the English is still faintly visible. The priest at one point joked that the English fear the Papacy in Rome and devout Spanish Catholics will some day return to England to convert everyone back to Catholicism.

From my experience touring Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, a Hindu mandir, Jewish synagogue, and Islamic mosque, and attending Catholic mass in a small university chapel, I have realized a subtle controversial religious dialogue materializing in London. England has an established church but their reaction to religious diversity is much different from America’s where no church is established. There is a fear of Catholics worldwide, but where I live the religion is thriving and accepted (again, that could easily be just because of my location in the northeast). I think religion is part of an American’s cultural identity but also one’s spiritual faith is more strongly expressed, whereas in England, Anglicanism easily becomes just a label. As Kate Fox described: a child once asked their parent what their religious background was, and the parent told the child to mark Anglican. When the child questioned this decision, the parent stated that that’s just what one was supposed to put. Furthermore, as the gentleman at the synagogue explained today, it would be unwise for a candidate for Prime Minister to publically share their religious beliefs, whereas in the United States, a politician’s religious devotion is widely broadcast. Although both nations continue to struggle with religious tolerance and freedom, I would say I feel more comfortable as Catholic in America than in England. I receive opposition in America, but I also feel free to defend my beliefs. Here in England, even people’s spiritual devotion to the established church is diminishing; completely ignoring the fact that Catholicism’s presence is seemingly minimal. Although my experience at the Newman House was most definitely positive, I look forward to finding a larger community of Catholic students at UEA in Norwich (hopefully).

Tags: 2010 Mary · Churches and Cathedrals

Religious Tolerance – A Refreshing Realization

September 14th, 2010 · 5 Comments

As someone who is fairly religious I have spent a large amount of time in London contemplating religion – something that I think many of us have done and which is a large theme in our course.  Thus far I have been to the building of or attended a religious service in a mandir, a mosque, a Catholic mass, evensong at St. Paul’s, and after today, a synagogue.  As a practicing Catholic, I expected to feel very at home at both the Catholic service I attended and evensong (given how many similarities there are between Anglicanism and Catholicism).  However, even sitting through a mass that I have sat through every Sunday for the last 20 years I felt completely alien.  While the format of mass was the same and prayers were the same, the level of participation and tone of the homily were unlike anything I had ever experienced.

On Sunday, when Mary, Mary Kate, Jamie, and I walked two blocks to the Newman House I had pretty low expectations as to what mass would be like.  The mass put on at Dickinson every weekend is quick, easy, and low on congregational participation.  Back home in California, my church puts a large focus on intellectual exploration of scriptures and does not discuss controversial issues.  Instead, on Sunday I attended a service where everyone was active and where I heard an extremely rousing and inspiring homily.  The priest completely ignored the gospel for the day (which was the famous tale of the prodigal son) and discussed the upcoming papal visit, general English views of Catholicism, homosexuality, and the previous mistakes made by the Catholic Church.   The priest discussed the lack of positive press about the Catholic Church in England and tied that to the English fear of popery – he even made continual jokes about how the English still see the Spanish armada sailing across the Channel to turn them all back to Catholicism.  He then spent a long time discussing homosexuality – a topic that never EVER came up in my more conservative Church (which is ironically enough considered very liberal among Catholics in the area).  He said that it was unacceptable and sin to denounce anyone, including members of the LGBT community.  He argued that just because we are Catholic we are not allowed to hate or discriminate.  He stemmed his next point off of this idea – he said that we should not look at the Catholic Church as infallible.  He made the point that we cannot pretend that the priest abuse scandal didn’t happen and that we must admit that the Catholic Church mishandled the debacle.  His over reaching message, however, was tolerance, acceptance, and education about Catholicism.

The idea of education leading to tolerance and acceptance has been the general message of most of our visits to religious institutions.  Both the mandir and the mosque were exercises in religious education and both of our guides spent a lot of time discussing religious doctrine and the need for understanding about different religions.  In the face of all the religious discrimination and controversy surrounding both the building of a mosque near where the Twin Towers once stood and the minister threatening to burn Korans in Florida in the United States, its refreshing and reassuring to know that somewhere in the world there is religious dialogue occurring and several different faiths are trying to bridge gaps and end violence and discrimination.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Churches and Cathedrals

The Least Religious Church on Earth

September 7th, 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.

Tags: 2010 MaryKate · Churches and Cathedrals

The Final Countdown

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

Like many of my classmates I decided it would be worthwhile to summarize all of my discoveries this month in London. During this post I will focus on six main themes found within London: Parks, Churches, Pubs, Other Religious Institutions, Theatre and Museums. 


Each park that I visited had its own distinct characteristics that separated it from any other. Green Park was the first I visited and after perusing a few others, I realized there was nothing that exciting about it. Located right across from Buckingham Palace, Green Park certainly provides a good place to go and take a break from the busy atmosphere of the area. Besides this however there is not much going on and I would recommend that potential park goers walk the extra distance over to St. James Park.

In addition to the large number of waterfowl heckling people for food which offers consistent entertainment St. James offers some picturesque  flower beds throughout and various monuments along the way. It has the relaxing atmosphere of Green Park with a bit more excitement sprinkled in.

Regents Park offers a completely different feel from Green or St. James. Located in a separate area of London, Regents Park has a history of being used by a higher end crowd. I could tell this immediately from the feel of the park. The decorative shrubbery and elegant architecture throughout gave me a feeling that Regents is not as well used as other parks.

Since I was one of the members of the Parks group that gave a walking tour of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens I could go into a lot more detail about these two green spaces but I will choose not to in an effort to be concise. In summary Hyde Park is the largest green space in London and is often used for larger events such as concerts, festivals etc. It also contains a large number of monuments throughout including the 7/7 memorial and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Kensington Gardens is home to a variety of key monuments but is not as well trodden as Hyde. Overall it makes for a quieter atmosphere, more conducive fo reading or “snogging”.

Regents Park were my two favorite green spaces in London. Regents, is both beautiful, and extremely large and I continually felt the need to go back and explore. Kensington Gardens appealed to me in that it was quainter than Hyde Park but contained a like amount of history and monuments throughout. Although I would be content spending a length of time in any London green space Regents and Kensington would be my top choices.


Overall I enjoyed going to the theatre on so many occasions. What better place to do so than in London after all? Here I will discuss my favorite performances and theatre venues.

All in all I enjoyed all but two of the performances we saw. The two Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theatre were fantastic. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading Troilus and Cressida it made a huge difference to be there so close to the actors. The fantastic drum chorus at the end really sealed the deal. As You Like It was probably my favorite show I saw here in London. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays the actors really made it jump off the page. Being down it the pit was fantastic because of all the ad-libbing and constant interaction with the crowd. I even felt traces of Touchstone’s saliva on my arm at one point.

The other Shakespeare performance I saw, All’s Well That Ends Well, was lackluster. Although the Olivier was my favorite performing venue (this is what an auditorium style theatre should be like…why can’t Dickinson have something like this?) the play itself was odd and ended on an abrupt and odd note.

The other play we saw at the National Theatre, The Pitmen Painters, was fantastic. Although I was dozing a bit because of the Benadryl I took right before the show, the actors kept my attention and I appreciated that the play was based off of a true story. 

Easily the oddest play we saw was Arcadia. An extremely intelligent performance the play juxtaposed two different periods in time and created a singular storyline in which the plot was based. Overall it was an entertaining performance that made me think early and often.

Finally there was Blood Brothers. The lone musical I saw produced feelings of disbelief, anguish and held back laughter. The ridiculous 80’s sound track and creepy narrator just didn’t do it for me. I think it’s safe to say that I was not the only one from Humanities 309 who was a bit surprised to see just about everyone in the audience give it a standing ovation.

I had a very positive experience with the theatre here. I would go back to the globe again and again. I loved being that close to the action. I would also enjoy seeing another show in the Olivier. There really is so much to choose from here. It’s simply a matter of figuring out your tastes and saving your money so you can see a lot of performances.


From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral we saw most of the major churches/cathedrals during our month in London. St. Paul’s was easily my favorite. From the fantastic crypt to the hundreds of stairs up to the tower it had so much to offer in the way of history and mystique. Westminster Abbey fascinated me primarily because of all the literary figures that had been buried inside as well as the room that was dedicated to “The Order of the Bath”. Other churches that I really enjoyed taking a look at were: “St. Martin in the Fields” which sits just outside Trafalgar Square and Nicholas Hawkesmoore’s “Christ’s Church” which is located in very close proximity to Brick Lane.

Other Religious Institutions

Overall the Sikh Gurdwara was my favorite place that we visited. I appreciated the simplicity of the religious doctrine as well as the conviction and honesty with which our tour guide, Mr. Singh spoke. The morning was capped off with a fantastic sit down meal together in which everyone was served the same food and drink.

I had different feelings about the Hindu Mandir. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the Hindu religion is not nearly as modest as Sikhism nor are they trying to be. From the extremely decorative prayer room, to the museum located right in the center of the Mandir I never felt particularly comfortable inside.

The only religious institution I wish we had gotten a chance to visit is a Mosque. I had been to one many years ago but I did not remember a whole lot from my experience. I wonder how much more lively the East End, and all parts of London would be if Ramadan were not taking place during our time here. 


I could go on and on about museums so I will attempt to stay as concise as possible.

The British Museum was massive, convenient since it was so close to the Arran House but a little one dimensional at times.  One of my favorite exhibits at the British Museum was a special exhibit on Living and Dying that drew information from all different time periods and cultures.

The National Gallery was fantastic. Although I have a hard time appreciating some visual art the gallery kept my attention for a number of hours. Seeing so many famous works of art was phenomenal. 

The Tate Modern was my least favorite museum here. Although I am trying I have a hard time understanding modern art. After about 45 minutes in this museum it ended up being too much for me.

The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum were two of my favorites. The realization that I was standing in one of the most important places in World War II history was unbelievable. The War Rooms felt so authentic. I really felt as though I had been taken back in time to the 1940’s while inside.

The Victoria and Albert was easily my favorite museum in London. There was so much variety inside and so much to see. I could have easily spent a few days inside. Two of my favorite exhibits were the silver and jewelry exhibits. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person but I found it unbelievable that individuals could even own such treasures. I also enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the V&A staff. At most of the other museums I visited I felt like I was doing them a disservice simply by being there. Although I understand that taking pictures of an object in a museum doesn’t do it  justice I like to be able to have the option of doing so.

The Sir John Soane museum interested me but it wasn’t really my cup of tea in the end. It also had a stuffy atmosphere to it that I didn’t really appreciate. 

One thing I can draw from my experience at museums here is that each and every one has something that distinguishes it. With so many museums I thought that it would be impossible to avoid some overlap but I never really felt that. Cheers to London and its museums.


Finally we have pubs. What would London be without it’s public houses? In some cases pubs are the true museums of London, designating what an area was like in the past and what type of clientele it attracted. During my month here I had a chance to visit a few pubs and get a general sense of what some possible differences could be. It is clear to me that each pub brings something different and unique to the table. The Marlborough Arms was convenient being so close to the Arran House and was a great place to enjoy a pint over a meal with friends. The Court was conducive to socializing in a different way. The music was louder, the people louder and the drinks cheaper. Other places I visited offered other things that made them stand out as well. One thing that i’ve learned about pubs is that it’s hard for one to please everyone. Since everyone has different tastes and desires when it comes to pubs you are better off going to one with a small cohesive group.

To conclude this novel I would just like to say that I think we saw a lot of different faces of London this month. I realize there is much more to see here but between walking tours throughout the city, trips to major monuments and museums and individual exploration I have learned a ton about London, it’s history and where it is going. I look forward to more London explorations in the future but for now, ON TO NORWICH!

Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Henry · Pubs · Theatre