The Non-Believer and the Church

St Mary’s Church, Thirsk

I am currently on a mini-break with my wife to East Yorkshire, having visited Beverley today and staying in the quaint little village of South Dalton tonight. It has been a lazy, relaxing day, mostly involving moving from coffee shop to pub, with a trip to the bookshop in between. In short, a perfect way to while away an misty winter’s day.

One of the attractions of Beverley, for those who have not visited, includes two churches; the imposing Beverley Minster, and the smaller but no less impressive St Mary’s Church. Unfortunately, the Minster was closed, apparently for filming of some secret TV or movie project, so we could not go inside, but we were able to wander around the outside, while St Mary’s was still open for visitors. Further, on the drive into South Dalton we spotted the impressive spire of the local church and have planned to visit tomorrow after breakfast.

Visiting (at least in part) three churches in two days has got me thinking a little about why I find churches so interesting. I know my wife finds it unusual, as I am not a believer in any religion, and yet when we are travelling and the place we are visiting includes a church, I will often make a point to visit. My wife, being the wonderful person that she is, trudges along after me to view the stained glass and altars and pipe organs, but more often than not she asks me why I like to visit them. Today was no exception.

As I have thought about this more, I realise the church building, more so than the church as an organisation, plays a part in my view of the world. In my debut novel Free City, a church building and a priest play important roles in the story development, and I have to admit until today I have given little thought as to why I chose to do this in the story. It just seemed right at the time. Churches and those who frequent them are a part of my life, even though I do not share the beliefs which drive them, and I thought it might be interesting to explore a little more of why that remains so.

Part of my childhood

Stained glass window in St Mary’s Church, Beverley

It is fair to say I was raised a Catholic. I was baptised as a baby, took communion, served as an altar boy for several years, and attended three Catholic schools and colleges from the ages of 4-18. With my mum and brother, I would attend mass every Sunday morning, as well as holy days such as Good Friday and Christmas Eve, at St Mary’s Church in Rothwell, Leeds (I know, there are a lot of St Mary’s in this post). This is the church my mum still attends, and served as the inspiration for Mary Magdalen Church in my book Free City. In fact, I would hope anyone who has read the book and visits the church would find them strikingly similar.

I know I believed in the idea of god and christianity as a child. I can remember listening to the readings and parables and believing them to be true, and I was sure when someone died they would find themselves in heaven (I never found the idea of hell convincing, I think because I always wanted to see the good in people). The church, as institution and as building, was a part of my childhood, and I am fortunate to say my childhood was a happy one.

I lost my faith as a teenager. It began I am sure as typical teenage rebellion, no longer wanting to spend my Sunday morning in church, but where some people will eventually regain their belief, for me it weakened more and more, until at some point in my late teens it was lost altogether. You might be expecting this to be a source of sadness for me, especially as I have described a happy childhood with the church an integral part of it. But this could not be further from the truth. Losing my faith is not something I am either sad or bitter about. I can look back fondly on my childhood, even the time I was forced to perform in the church pantomime with a real and very smelly mink stole around my neck, while at the same time being a well adjusted adult with no faith at all.

I suspect then, that part of my love of church buildings is nostalgia, remembering the happy childhood I had, and finding happy memories even in church buildings I have only visited as an adult.

Part of our heritage

The family chapel at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

There can be no denying the influence the church as an institution has had on European culture. From the language we use, to the calendar we follow, the church through the centuries has had a significant impact upon European life. Even just a hundred years ago, the church would form the focal point of a person’s life, and while this is not necessarily so for many people today, the influence, for good and for ill, still reverberates.

Personally, I do not think you can begin to understand the world we have today without considering the church. Take a simple example such as shops opening on a Sunday. In the UK, supermarkets of a certain size can only open a maximum of six hours on a Sunday, a through back to a more religious time when most places would shut entirely. If I am honest, I quite like the idea of Sunday trading times. I can see the creep of people working more and more hours, and I am a firm believer we should do all we can to preserve at least one day a week when most of the population can have a day of to spend with family and friends.

So when I visit a church, yes I am looking at the building and the furnishings, but I am also seeing a part of our cultural history which continues to have a significant impact on the world today. Visit a castle or stately home and you are learning about a particular time in history. If you think about it a little more, you might consider how those buildings and the people who lived in them shape the world today, and I believe a church building can be treated much the same.

Art and architecture

A ceiling fresco of the former chapel at Cusworth Hall, Doncaster

Church buildings are often beautiful. Whether they are gothic, neoclassical or even modernist offerings, church designs and decoration can be some of the most magnificent buildings you can visit.

As you will probably see from the pictures I have included in this post, I am drawn towards older churches, with arches, stained glass and pillars making what is for me the typical church design.

Clearly, access to money has been a deciding factor in how elaborate or not a church is. In years gone by people would give significant percentages of their income to the church, and it was used in part to build and decorate the buildings we see today. Money can be less forthcoming today, and this can be reflected in the church decor. The church my mum attends was built in the 1960s, and while it has maintained the classic church layout of nave and chancel, it is rather simply furnished, with white walls, the twelve stations of the cross, and a wooden altar piece. It has a certain simplistic beauty to it, but I must admit it is the bombastic and gaudy church which more readily draws my eye. St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is a particularly good example of this, with elaborate artworks, memorials and statues galore.

There is something to be said for the more simplistic design however, with Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland being a particularly surprising interior. From the outside, the church is architecturally striking, yet inside it is rather plainly decorated, almost to the point it is not decorated at all.

And I think this might be another part of what I love about exploring churches. While I love seeing buildings which are richly decorated, you are sometimes surprised by the simplicity of a interior, and that is OK too.

Places of calm and relaxation

Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds

I am a fan of quiet and calm places. Give me a choice between a library and a concert, and I will choose the library every time. That is not to say I cannot visit places which are loud and bustling, but I much prefer the calm and serene if given a choice.

Most churches, at least those following Catholic and Anglican traditions, are places which are calm and quiet. People instinctively whisper in a church, I find myself altering my walk to make as little noise as possible, and if you were to make a loud noise, whether accidentally or not, you will quickly find yourself on the wrong end of a telling off.

Even when I visit as a tourist, I find the quiet calming. I appreciate some people find the atmosphere overbearing, even intimidating, but for me it is quite the opposite, and wandering amongst the pews is a form of meditation for me which I can find in few other venues.

A church-filled future

Churches are never going to be a space which everyone feels comfortable within, and even the most open and welcoming parish can be a place of dread for some. For me, despite not believing in anything written in the texts or spoken at the lectern, I still find them an interesting and calming place to visit, and providing I can remain in my wife’s good books, they shall be places I will continue to visit long into the future.

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