I did something very unusual for me last Sunday: I went to church.
I didn’t go to just any church; I went to an evensong service in Worcester’s magnificent cathedral, located at a site where Christian worship has been taking place since 680 CE. The structure I visited is the new cathedral; construction on it began in 1084, and took several centuries to complete. From the outside it is an imposing structure, with ornate Gothic spires, and a 62 meter high tower that dominates to town skyline.
The interior is even more awe-inspiring; its huge size and lofty ceiling made me feel small and insignificant as I sat waiting for the service to start (and even smaller and more insignificant when I noticed that I was sitting couple of meters away from the tomb of King John, who died in 1216.) Then came the music: how could anyone not be humbled and moved by the sounds of this huge pipe-organ and voices of the Cathedral choir in a place as beautiful as this?
Despite the magnificence of the Evensong service, I counted fewer than fifty people in the congregation, huddled together on a few pews in chancel of the vast building; at 55 years of age, I was certainly among the younger members of the group. There is reason to believe that what I saw in Worcester is fairly typical; a 2008 survey by the Church of England (to which most English Christians belong) showed that attendance at its Sunday services had dropped to only 960,000, a small fraction of the 44 million people in the United Kingdom who identify as Christian. Other research has shown that the total number of churchgoers (of all denominations) dropped by about forty percent between 1980 and 2005 (see the chart below,) and that only about a third of British people say that religion place a very important role in their lives.
A week after my Worcester Evensong I was in Paris, where a young Parisian recommended that I go to a public square near Sorbonne University to watch people dancing after Mass as a local Catholic church. “Their are not very many of them,” he told me, “and they are quite old.” Statistics bear this out: only eleven percent of French people claim that religion is very important in their lives; I would imagine that members of France’s 5 million Muslims make up a significant part of this small minority, so that doesn’t leave too many churchgoing Christian
As I walked around Paris during my brief visit, I came across a number of church buildings that had been converted to other non-religious uses; the buildings remain, but they are no longer needed as houses of worship for the declining Christian population. This is a problem all over Europe: some of the region’s greatest architectural treasures were created for Christian worship and for the greater glory of God; many are as large and lavish and their church’s very deep coffers could afford at the time of their construction. Today, many cost a good deal more to keep open and standing than their diminished congregations can afford. This means that, unless your visit comes during the relatively small windows of time when formal services are held, going to go to an English cathedral is to subject oneself to frequent requests for donations, or seeing signs urging a visit to the cathedral coffee shop, restaurant, or gift shop. As I wandered around Worcester Cathedral the day before the Evensong service, looking at and photographing its tombs and monuments, a priest in red vestments came over to talk to me. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he whispered to me, “But I just wanted to make sure that you bought a photography permit.” Visitors to the Cathedral are welcome to take photographs, but only after paying £3 for permission, good for the whole day.
I am not a religious person at all. Despite twelve years of attending services six days a week at my Anglican church school in Johannesburg, and notwithstanding the valiant efforts of the school priests, I never got the religion thing. Although I found wisdom in some of the moral teachings of the church, the God part never made sense to me.
Views like mine are still outside the mainstream in the United States; a country where in a recent poll only 5 percent of respondents said that they do not believe in ‘God or a universal spirit,’ whereas 78 percent identified themselves as Christian. In a 2011 survey 67 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable with an atheist as president (ahead of the 64 percent would would not wish to have a Muslim lead the country.)
My religious views would, however, put me well within the mainstream in much of Europe . In the Czech Republic, 75 percent of the population have no religious affiliation at all, and in Estonia the figure is 60 percent. In France and the United Kingdom, more than 6 out of every ten people are nominally Christian but, as the graph on the right shows, very few of them think of religion as being important in their lives; it is part of their heritage and ancestry rather than their personal belief system. Moreover, there is evidence both in Europe and in other parts of the developed world that the proportion of people without any religion is rising; in Australia, for example, their numbers increased from 15 percent of the population in 2011 to 22 percent in 2012. In most of the developed world (including the U.S.) the average age of believers in increasing and younger people are less likely to be religious; a sign that religious adherence will almost certainly continue to decline.
American views on religion and its role in public life are very different from those of most Europeans, and this is something I had not thought about much until I traveled in Europe. In the United States, a written constitution makes the separation of church and state explicit and unambiguous, and guarantees citizens the right to practice any religion of their choosing. Yet candidates for political office frequently talk about their own religious beliefs, swear oaths of office on a religious book, and their deliberations open with a prayer. Paradoxically, just about every European country has a history of close connections between church and state, and some still do, at least theoretically; Queen Elizabeth II, for example, is head of the Church of England today, just as Queen Elizabeth I was more than five hundred years ago. Despite this religion has a much lower profile in European affairs than it used to or than this U.S. does today, and most European states avowedly secular.
This difference is important and I think it is interesting because it affects the way Europeans and Americans see the world, and how they view one another. As geographers, and as people trying to understand what makes regions different from or similar to one another, I think that it is unhelpful to leap to judgement on which perspective we find ‘better.’ Such judgements obscure our understanding of other places and cultures rather than clarifying it. Far more useful – and interesting – is to try to figure out why these differences exist, and how or whether they matter.