Religion is one of those subjects that conjurs up many emotions and reactions in people; many humans tend to be devout one way or the other, and when you’re dealing with a major focus in people’s lives, opinions often fly from lips without too much thought. But without wanting to debate the ins-and-outs of belief structures, I thought I’d share my experiences with the greater powers that be, entirely from my own perspective and most definitely without wanting to cause offense.
My first introduction with a church came when I was young – I must have been about five, maybe six years old. My parents would allow me to stay with my grandma in Brighton for a week or so over the summer and while my folks aren’t religious and were careful to raise me without pushing any belief structure, my mother’s mother wasn’t so diplomatic. Every Sunday morning I spent in Brighton involved a short walk to the Connaught Christian Fellowship on Lewis Road. All I can really remember of my time spent in the seemingly non-church-like building was singing, reading and being given a few coins to put in the collection as it was passed around. I was too young to understand what was going on, but being a well-behaved child, I sat peacefully, sung on command and tried not to fidget too much.
One memory that really stands out is a ceremony that involved my two older brothers and myself. We had to stand at the front of the small hall and were each presented with a Good News Bible, all three containing labels on the inside stating who owned it and the church that had presented it. I think I cried, a lot, but that was probably just because everyone was looking at me and, as usual, I had no idea what was going on. A couple of years later my grandma changed her place of worship to St. Martin’s; a larger, grander building just over the road. I believe there may have been a falling out of some description with the Connaught, the net result likely being something similar to a protest.
St. Martin’s (CofE) is a pretty imposing building on Lewis Road, rising higher than its neighbours and looking very much out of place. I believe I only visited this church twice; the first occasion I was offered the chance to be with the other children at Sunday School, but I refused and sat with my grandma during the service. The sermons were quite different and the only way I could describe the difference from a child’s point of view is “they were more boring/serious”. The second occasion, the last if my memory serves me correct, I went to the Sunday School and talked/listened about the bible and its teachings. And as usual, I duly put a couple of coins in the collection basket. Looking back on the experience from the now grand and cynical age of 27, I can see they get at your wallet, even when you’re young!
As I grew older I visited my grandma less and less, but this didn’t end my church-going experiences. At aged eight I was initiated into the Cub Scouts and at the time, had to promise my allegiance to the Queen and to God. I believe this part of investiture has now changed, but back in the late-eighties people weren’t so knowledgable/understanding of the wider world, its people and their beliefs. However, the Scouting Movement was, for whatever reason, associated with the church and one Sunday in every month, we would have to congregate on the village green and march a short distance up the road to Holy Trinity Church. Known as Church Parade, I doubt this still happens, but the services we attended were aimed at younger people – the church website describes them as “Lively”.
Being a little older though, now aged somewhere between eight and fourteen, I began to understand what was happening. I began to develop a curiosity into the background of the building, what happened inside, and what the various words that were thrown at me meant. And whilst I still maintained my good behaviour and respectful nature, I started to resent having to go to church. I realised I didn’t really believe in the reasons for the building’s purpose.
By the time I was at college, aged sixteen, Scouting was a memory, as were the church parades. I believe I performed at the Remembrance Parade in November ’97 – I was the guy who played Last Post and Reveille (oddly, in that order) – but that was it. I had started to mature and give my life direction through studies and other activities. I was slowly leaving the nest and although my grandma and the Scouting movement had played an important and enjoyable part in my raising, it didn’t even occur to me at the time that I would likely never go inside a church again. To best describe it as an angst-ridden sixteen year old, “I didn’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo”.
Nothing much happened after that for a few years. In my first year of university I was living with a muslim, a christian and someone who now describes himself on Facebook as “Agnostic, who knows?”. We used to spend hours in the kitchen of our Halls of Residence debating from evening into the early morning on various topics relating to religion. It was fun for me because I would sit and listen to two people – one a relatively-devout muslim, the other a son of a priest/vicar* – argue it out while in my mind, I could see they were both arguing from the same viewpoint on many occasions.
So now you have a rather detailed account of my experiences with religion while growing up, I guess I should actually post what I wanted to post about in the first place; fascination vs. disbelief. I’m not torn with religion as the title would suggest. There is no element of me (that I have found thus far in my life) that will accept the belief of creationism, religion or such-like. I do not believe in a god, higher power or the literal accounts of the bible and other books of worship. Of course, I believe in the underlying concept of doing good, but I do not need to read that from a script. I believe I have an open mind and am perfectly happy listening to someone talk to me about faith and religion, but only if they are willing to listen to me in equal measure. Listening, I believe, commands respect.
So, why is it that, as an adult who has a structure of belief (if you can call it that), I have visited more churches, chapels, cathedrals and basilicas than I ever did as a child? Well, this is where the fascination part comes in. To put it in its simplest form, I am often awe-struck at these places of worship. The intricate detail, the monolithic size, the incredible placing in society, past and present. The peacefulness, tranquility, but overbearing stature of them; churches can easily take the breath from my lungs.
I’ve travelled relatively extensively around Italy and have visited more basilicas than you can shake a stick at. In all shapes and sizes (well okay, just sizes then) they are wondrous feats of engineering and passion. From the tiny Capuchin Crypt in Rome to the utterly dominating basilica in Milan; they shape the community that surrounds them and provide a central pillar for people to visit and worship. They also provide tourists with ways to spend their money and Americans the opportunity to embarrass a hundred people in one fell swoop.
What? Well, the fact she was American had no real bearing on the event, but her accent only added to the tuts of condemnation following the debacle in Duomo di Siena. As is the usual when visiting a place of worship in the deeply religious country of Italy, one has to cover much of the skin. I do not really know why, but am respectful of others wishes. For reference, your shoulders and knees should be covered (and everything in between). Failure to adhere will mean you have to purchase a cape for a couple of Euros. In Siena, this cape was bright red and made of very cheap tissue paper. This is perhaps not the wisest of materials to use in a building full of naked flames, and the American lady I spoke of earlier proved this adequately. Shouting at the top of your voice “Oh my fucking god” in a deathly quiet, undeniably religious and acoustically-brilliant building is not the best way to deal with a scorched cape. Or the religious officials whom you hope will help you.
I digress… You see, I am absolutely fascinated with the physical buildings. I like to learn how they were built, how they are still being built, their place in history and relevance to the local surrounds. The materials used, where the materials came from and of course, what’s inside them. Many of the greatest works of art, particularly from the Renaissance period were and are housed in basilicas all around Italy. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel anyone? And while I disagree with the portrayed scene in many of these paintings or sculptures, one cannot simply dismiss their integral part in the shaping of a nation, nay, world. It’s also inside these places of beauty that many of the world’s foremost intellects of their field are buried. It may come as a surprise to learn that Galileo Galilei was laid to rest in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Admittedly, Galileo’s initial resting place was not in the main body of the church, but he was later moved after his scientific works became more widely accepted.
I have spoken previously about my experiences of walking around basilicas (sadly, no longer available), and the same can be said for smaller churches in and around the UK, just on a slightly smaller scale. The previously-mentioned Holy Trinity in Claygate is a fine building and as with many places of worship, the acoustics inside are incredible. But as with all these buildings, I simply cannot agree with the purpose for which they were built and used for. Or at least, I couldn’t.
Affirmation of Architectural Belief
Last year I visited Barcelona, a relatively large and popular city on the south coast of Spain. Barcelona has been a home to many authoritative people through the course of its history, but one man still shapes the skyline of the fashionable Catalan capital: Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet, or Antonio Gaudi to call him by the Spanish (and more popular) translation of his name. Among many inspiring buildings within the city that are proud to have the designed by Gaudi mark is the Sagrada Familia.
Words simply cannot descibe the half-built temple to not only god, but also to the architect and his dream. The basilica was not Gaudi’s idea, and the famed constructor only joined the project partway through. But what Gaudi did to the original design blew people away. In fact, to this very day it blows the minds of those who visit. A building site inside, the cathedral is not finished by any measure, but charitable work and kind donations of those who visit and spend a good two hours dragging their jaw around allow the construction to continue. And I can include myself in the long list of those who have given.
Having been given a few coppers each Sunday by my grandma to place in the collection, to growing up in defense of my pragmatic and scientific ‘beliefs’, to once again getting my wallet out and donating to a church; life can be funny sometimes. But I affirm, I did not donate to the idea of religion. I donated to an incredible building that defies belief and staggers the mind. I donated to science.
*Apologies, I’m not sure of the correct term/title.
Mostly from Wikipedia.