Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

To the Father, the Son, and the Holy Offering Dish

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

Closed. Come 6:00 PM on a Sunday evening and this sign is sure to greet you wherever you go in London. As I’m from small town Ohio, closing around this time on a Sunday is nothing new to me. When my classmates pointed out their frustrations about this pattern, I just shrugged it off. After all, it’s Sunday and everyone is taking the day to go to church and be with family right? Maybe the later half but definitely not the former in regards to life here in London. Everyone will take the day off to be with family and go to the pubs. So, I guess I should revise my opening sentence. Everything other than pubs closes in London at 6:00 PM on a Sunday. What an interesting situation though. A city that boasts St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey as two of its most important attractions, London on the surface seems to be quite proud of its church-respecting and outwardly seeming church-going nature. Upon further reflection, however, the churches in London seem to be used for everything but that.

Upon entering Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, two magnanimous symbols of the city of London, the agnostic tourist or devout Anglican alike are necessarily awe-struck – indeed, that was the effect intended by these buildings’ creators. Perhaps what is more staggering to the visitor than the architecture or sheer size of these spaces is the opulence of the details which adorn them. The ceiling of St. Paul’s cathedral glitters with thousands of gilt mosaic tiles; In Westminster Abbey, the spires, cornices, corbels and tiny arches build into a gilded backdrop to the altar is transformed into a miniature castle by the noonday sun; In both venues, the admirer can surely imagine just how many painstaking hours went into the woodcarving of furniture, panels and memorials.

It is this opulence which both infatuates and disturbs me. “How many mouths could all of this have fed?” I must ask myself upon entering a space like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. Do the benefits – if one considers drawing people to an already corrupt church a benefit – of building such an extravagant structure outweigh the drawbacks, namely profligacy? Why are there dress codes? Didn’t Jesus Christ, the core of the Anglican religion, say “come as you are?” Why are there no homeless or down-trodden seen around these churches? It would be logical to assume that they are shooed away and out of sight, because, surely, tourists don’t want some anonymous, starving, sunken-eyed man blocking their shot of the beautiful gothic architectural detailing. This contrasts starkly with Luke 9:48: “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” And the hypocrisy can still be seen today…

…The primary functions of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral are no longer to serve as places of worship, but rather, to serve as tourist destinations and symbols of the city of London. It is ironic that the modernized and secularized London should chose religious institutions as their symbols. However, it could be argued that the Londoner no longer looks at these spaces as sacred – indeed, Londoners have bastardized them by building cafes, bookstores and giftshops within the cathedral walls – but rather, as opportunities for profit, an idea which will be more fully developed later.

As demonstrated above, churches today seem to be used for the revenue they can bring in- they seem to be machines for monetary gain. That isn’t to say that all churches fit this classification though. Smaller churches that hold much more modest services seem to still operate with their main goal being to act as a place of worship. It’s important to note here that these churches are not only few and far between but also are in need of some of the monetary attention given to the other more commodified ones.

The difference in monetary prominence and traditional religious practices between the iconic churches of London and the smaller churches can be easily seen in comparing St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey with St. George the Martyr Church in the Bloomsbury area. The later like the other two does have a claim to fame in pop culture: Sylvia Plath was married there. Despite this rather important event in its history, the church continues on as a ‘normal’ one in that it holds modest services throughout the week and has open doors for anyone who would like to pray or worship on their own during non-service times. The walls are chipping, the ceiling is in need of repair, a few light bulbs could use replacing- the church isn’t a collection of bedazzling and impressive sights; quite the contrary, its simplicity characterizes it most thoroughly. The staff welcomes you with smiling faces to come in and have a look around but they don’t fuss over you at all. They don’t try to make you feel overly comfortable, they don’t make sure that you only look at the pretty parts of the church, they don’t make sure you have the most delightful visit of all time so that you’ll come back and bring all your friends. They do welcome you, allow you to experience the church on your own, and they leave the decision of whether you want to come back or not as completely yours. What I’m trying to get at but not saying incredibly directly is that they don’t try to butter you up to both take your money and have you spend some at the gift shop too. They don’t even have a gift shop. They have a place of worship to which they would love for you to come back on Sunday at 9 to join in their services.

We can’t make a generalization of how this pattern in churches speaks to the religious piety of the city nor is that something we want to even try to do. Mosques, gurdwaras, synagogues, many other places of worship are quite present in London. Our experiences with the churches of the city though have shown us that this type of presence alone doesn’t necessarily correlate to any felt sense of spirituality. We’re not here to analyze whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We are here to observe this and begin to process how this helps us examine the rather complicated London identity.

Tags: Anya · Audrey · Churches and Cathedrals