Sunday, May 31, 2009

For Whom the Bells toll

This week we take a look at religion and church-going in our host countries:


It is a well-known irony that, in Britain—where they have an official religion and the monarch is also the head of the church—that religion is barely noticeable, whereas in the US—a rabidly church and state separated nation—religion thrums constantly in the background.

The household I grew up in was not particularly religious, yet at various times of my life I have been a Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and a disciple of a charismatic, fundamentalist cult. In addition to those active memberships, I have attended Baptist, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, Catholic, Episcopalian and Unitarian services; just think where I'd be if my family had been religious.

While visiting the States, my wife, who maintains a British view of religion, was quite alarmed when friends spontaneously began praying over us—asking God to give us a safe trip home—in a pub. And I, myself, am surprised at the number of people who, when we visit, say grace over the meal.

England and America treat their religion like their patriotism, which is why it is bold and brash and ready to give you a great big, bear-hug in the States, and is sort of quiet and apologetic here in Britain (unless, of course, you happen to be a Catholic who wanders into a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast).

I don't mean to portray the British as non-religious. After all, they were responsible for our Puritan forefathers and enthusiastically burned, beheaded and otherwise made life unpleasant for whichever religion didn't happen to be in power at the time. It's just that, as with much about their lives, they simply prefer to keep it to themselves. (Besides, since the outlawing of overt persecution and public executions, religion just isn't as much fun as it used to be.)

It is, however, an established fact that church attendance is falling off, and I have yet to encounter anyone standing on a street corner trying to save my soul, so I think it's safe to say that, religion-wise, the US wins hands down, or hands up, depending on what sort of church you belong to.

Personally, I prefer it this way. As a comedian pointed out on the telly not long ago, "Religion is like a big dog; when it's yours, it a comfort and a companion, but when it's someone else's, it's frightening." But most of all, it eases my mind to know I don't have to worry about people impulsively praying over me in the pub.


Any British expat here will probably agree that the USA is a far “holier” place than the UK. Not that we’re surrounded by saintly people, but a large percentage of the population go to church. On a regular basis. And do more than stand at the back and mumble along with the service.

I was raised Catholic, but we won’t go into that since I’m now what you’d call “lapsed”. When I first moved to the States I lived in Dallas, which can generally be regarded as part of the “deep south” when we’re talking religion. Large families saying Grace before meals at the local International House of Pancakes was commonplace, and more than a few parties started with a group prayer, holding hands with complete strangers and asking the Lord to ensure we had a good time. And there are some fairly extreme forms of religion, such as not touching alcohol, (extreme in my books anyway), speaking in tongues and snake-handling, which is done mainly in the south eastern states. I have to emphasize that they are not mainline church groups and are generally looked on as crazy by most people here too. In fact, since 75 people have been killed by snakes in the last 80 years, most states have banned or restricted snake-handling, except West Virginia.

The other thing that surprised me about Americans is that they talk openly about their church. Not that it was a huge secret when I grew up, just that we didn’t mention church really. At my Catholic school, obviously everyone went to church but we didn’t really talk about it. Had any member of my family suggested grace before meals, I would have first assumed it was a joke, and then promptly died of embarrassment, even though we said it every day at school.

The thing that bugs me slightly in the US is the “separation of Church and State” stipulation, and the fact that it’s pretty much ignored. I resent being told, say in North Carolina, that I can’t have a beer or a glass of wine with my meal just because it’s Sunday; it annoys me that in states like Colorado and Utah (or large parts thereof) you can only buy alcohol at the state rune liquor stores, and that in my local supermarket I can't buy wine till 11am on Sundays. Are they hoping that more people will hang out in churches until the wine aisle opens? (I know there are restrictions in the UK, but nobody’s pretending that it’s not a church-based country. The Queen is the titular Head of the Church of England too.)

If anyone moved here genuinely thinking, as in the olden days, that they would be free of religious persecution, they’ll be somewhat taken aback. Not that anyone’s going to throw big heavy stones at them, but there are a lot of laws that are unabashedly based solidly on religion.

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  1. Interestingly, the place with the highest church attendance in the UK is one of the islands near Scotland (Lewis and Harris).

  2. I'm just glad that I live in San Francisco! Not that we don't have religious people or churches here, anything goes, but attitudes to religion are decidedly more European. When most of my friends say they have been to "Church" they mean a Sunday dance party in the Castro.

  3. I can't buy wine in my local UK grocery store before 11 am on Sundays--the Sunday restricted trading laws here mean that nothing is open until 11 or noon and when they do open, it's only for a few hours. I quite miss the US and the stores being open on Sundays. Historically this still has to do with religion in the UK, and I hear that it was not so long ago that nothing was open on Sundays (even though no one goes to church any more)...

    I'm surprised the non-denominational megachurches did not get a mention, that's the aspect of American religion that seems to be the most "foreign" to a European.

  4. Notfromaroundhere- You're right. When I was in the UK the only thing open on Sunday was church and the pub after 11 a.m., and that was only for lunch. During the week, everything shut down after 5 p.m. except for pubs and restaurants. I remember having to drive 30 miles in the middle of the night to the only 24 hr petrol station in the area just to get aspirin. But saying all that, here in P.A., you cannot buy alcohol on a Sunday. All the off-licenses are closed. Nor can you buy it in the supermarket, which is something I could do in WV. So if you lived in P.A. on a Sunday, you would have to wait for the closest bar to open and buy your alcohol there.

  5. If I remember, the alcohol laws in England (which used to be far more restrictive) were based more on keeping the factory workers out of the pubs than on religion.
    When I grew up shops everywhere were closed on Wednesday afternoons, which wasn't religious; the Sunday closing obviously is, but my point is that no one pretended it wasn't. England's Queen is Head of the C of E. I just find it exasperating that other people force their religion on me here, when they're not supposed to.

  6. I heard some statistic years ago that 2% of the UK population attend a Christian church, but that is a very devout 2% and something like 80% of the US pop attend a Christian church but don't 'feel' especially Christian. Committing statistic crimes all over the show here, as I have no accurate numbers or sources apart from a vague memory! But I could easily believe these numbers.

    When I visit my sis in Dallas and see all the MASSIVE buildings built for the Love of God, my jaw drops. She describes it as a club. People pay to belong and then they feel part of something. She has to drive to another county to get booze during some hours. And when she first joined a local video rental place they wouldn't let her get a family membership because she and her husband had different last names. 'What if I bring in a marriage certificate?' she asked. The manager was summoned. He also declined her membership. 'It's not something we can do,' he explained. I know, I know, Texas is not representative of the rest of the Lower 48 but worth a mention as they do have US citizenship!

    I love the ironic religious freedom of Britain! My daughter attends a catholic school (as a non catholic) where the majority are 'Protestant' or 'Other'. No one minds.

  7. HUGE intake of breath here - I went throught the Catholic school system in England and if you didn't go to church every Sunday you were shamed and shunned. The Catholic schools weren't fee-paying as in the States, but were government subsidised. That meant that every penny on the collection plate went to pay the bills of the big old priests' houses. People who didn't go to church therefore weren't contributing.
    When I moved here, I didn't realise that you actually had to "join" a church, ie, put your name down and pay lots of money. Not that it mattered to me but it was an interesting difference. I have Jewish friends who send their kids to Catholic schools and also get them exempted from the religious parts. Huh?

  8. When I first moved to America I was asked by a group of school mums what church I attended. Innocently, I answered "I dont go to church, I'm an atheist". Their faces froze and I immediately realised something was seriously wrong - but I didnt realise how wrong until my children both had all their play-dates cancelled and were told by their erstwhile new friends that they weren't allowed to play with them any more as they were Christ haters. They were ostracised at school from that day on, and their teacher's reaction was that people had a perfect right not to have their children corrupted (this by 5 and 7 year olds!)Luckily, we were only in the States for 6 months, but I cant tell you how relieved I was to get home to Britain where (NI and redneck parts of Glasgow excepted) no-one knows or cares what religion or lack of it you profess.

  9. Expat mum is right - the licensing laws have nothing to do with religion - blanket restrictions were applied throughout the U.K. during World War One (The Defence of the Realm Act, 1914)to hamper soldiers and munitions workers from get overly merry, thus enhancing their working performance and contributing to the war effort, and were simply never repealed at the end of the war.
    New laws came into force in 2003 which are often refereed to as '24 hour drinking laws', under which a pub, club, restaurant, supermarket or off-licence can apply for extensions to its opening hours. A licence can then be granted for an establishment to open for any period of time during a 24 hour period, provided they close for a minimum of one hour to clean their premises. In reality, of course, very few establishments opt to open for very long hours – the new laws merely allow for more flexibility than the previous laws did.
    I personally have never had a pressing need to buy wine before 11am on a sunday morning - but chacun à son goût!

  10. Rimfire - with three kids, I shop when I can!

  11. Umm I think suggesting that the inclusion of licensing laws and the weakening of alcohol in the Defence of the Realm Act had nothing to do with religion is a bit of creative history or at least a really amazing coincidence. It was a bit of a kitchen sink law so it got a bit of everything and it was passed at the height of the anglosphere wide temperance movement. Not a group often accused of being completely secular. Besides which laws were kept when the
    Kaiser was beaten back, not the one about not feeding the ducks bread.

  12. Oddly, for someone with no religious beliefs, I find it comforting that the stores are closed on Sunday (or at least for part of the day). It makes a nice seam between the end of one week and the beginning of the next.

  13. A quote from Spartacus Educational "The British government became concerned about the consumption of alcohol during the First World War. They feared that war production was being hampered by drunkenness. Other governments involved in the conflict were also worried about this problem. In August 1914 Russia outlawed the production and sale of vodka. This measure was a complete failure, as people, unable to buy vodka, produced their own. The Russian government also suffered a 30% reduction in its tax revenue.

    Attempts to reduce alcohol consumption during the war were also made in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy. In Britain, David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the campaign against alcohol. In January 1915, Lloyd George claimed that Britain was "fighting German's, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink."

    Lloyd George started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol during the war. In April 1915 King George V supported the campaign when he promised that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over.

    The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men but 1,946 women.

    In October 1915 the British government announced several measures they believed would reduce alcohol consumption. A No Treating Order laid down that people could not buy alcoholic drinks for other people. Public House opening times were also reduced to 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. Before the law was changed, public houses could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night."

    So, nothing to do with religion (or 'creative history')there! I am always delighted to take a negative view of religion, but feel that this is one issue where, in Britain at least, the devout can plead not guilty.

  14. All very interesting and I have certainly seen a huge difference in church attendance here in the mid-west 'bible belt', when compared to the back home.

    At first I found the less 'intense' church and warm, carpeted churches eher refreshing. But I have to say I am now at the point where my beliefs are atill in place but my loyalty has waivered. I just see so many examples of people not living in line with their so called beliefs, that it makes you cynical!

    Right now we are on a 'break' from church attendance, in part due to health issues but also due to me just not 'feeling' the need to publicly display my beliefs every Sunday.

    But you are undoubtedly eyed with doubt and mistrust if you aren't a church attendee here and that freedom I miss about the UK.

  15. When we sit in our cool and comfortable (summertime) or cozy and comfortable (wintertime)American church pew, I often contrast it in my mind with the chilly and uncomfortable pew we sit in at St Mary's, the 12th C. church in the small English town we visit every year.

    Actually I have no preference between the two, each has its own assets and drawbacks, but what strikes overwhelmingly is the vast difference between them.

    Our American church is large (but not mega) enough to have to hire local law enforcement at Easter to direct traffic in and out of the parking lots. Yes, that's LOTS, as in plural, it's a big church.

    It was built in 1952 and added on to in every decade since, the latest additions being an enclosed basket ball court, a restaurant-standard kitchen and dining room for Wednesday Night Suppers, a theatre and new adult Sunday School rooms.

    I should point out that there was already a fellowship hall as well as a large, well-equiped kitchen and myriad Sunday School rooms.

    Korean and Japanese language services are now conducted in these rooms at the same time Traditonal Worship is going on in the main Sanctuary (11 o'clock).

    In the theatre at 11 o'clock Contemporary Worship is held, complete with drums and guitars.

    Audio-visual is a given in at least one of these services, the pastor on mic.

    During the week classes and activities of every sort and kind are held all over the building, from Yoga to the Young Singles Cafe, Recently Divorced or Recently Bereaved groups, Choir practice (ten diffferent choirs) and Dance Worship. This doesn't include the daily Pre-School, Nursery School and Kindergarten classes.

    In contrast at St Mary's, where we have attended often enough for my husband to have become one of the lay readers, there are roughly two dozen graying heads at worship along with a choir of about a dozen more.

    Other than a Mothering Sunday service we attended one year, when the church was full of children and young mothers (fathers notably absent) sitting with grandparents, I can't remember seeing anyone who appeared younger than 50 at regular service.

    The stained glass window at the back of the Communion rail is dedicated to the Earl of Hereford, dated 1855. Modern by British standards but very old to Americans.

    A painted effigy of Mary holding Baby Jesus, candles burning at her feet, stands in majesty below the delicately carved Victorian stone pulpit.

    A haze of smoky incense fills the unheated church during worship, causing my eyes to water.

    But nothing is more moving than approaching the rail, the two sides of the choir singing sweetly to us as we pass.

    Once my husband was allowed to ring the noonday bells--actually pull the ropes!-- while Father recited the traditional prayer. A thrilling honour.

    The hymn books have no musical notes, there is no bulletin with weekly announcements and the order of service, the benches are hard and hit the backs of worshipers in a particularly uncomfortable spot.

    But the old stone interior, restored in the 1820s, is deeply touching, lovely and mellow, something that could never be said of our American church.

    Lose this loveliness and traditon at your peril, Brits. Its priceless beauty is something worth holding on to.

  16. Thinking about it now, (prompted by the comments above) it's a much better deal being a Catholic in England now than it was when I grew up. I vaguely remember attending Latin mass, complete with incense that made me sneeze; children were seen and not heard and certainly not allowed to be children; there was no singing and no "Peace be with You". These days you can have priests being funny up there, guitars twanging away (which I'm still not comfortable with if I ever go) "quiet" rooms full of crying babies, where the mums can receive communion and the old biddies aren't disturbed. NO tension at all!
    My best experience however, was in the Florida Keys about 10 years ago. The priest seemed to look a bit like Elvis, and lo and behold, at the end of the mass he held out his arms and did quite a good rensition of :Love Me Tender". My mother's still talking about it!

  17. I've been thinking a lot about this post, and apart from the obvious, which is that there is are a lot more believers in the States than in Britain, the example from the top is very different too. All the recent American presidents I can think of were strongly and openly religious, while Tony Blair was told by his advisors to keep very quiet on "the God thing" or people would think he was mad and not vote for him. David Cameron (the next Prime Minister) has been quoted as saying "I believe in God and I try to get to church more than Christmas and Easter, but perhaps not as often as I should, and I don't feel I have a direct line." Not exactly a ringing endorsement! Churchill was an atheist, as were Antony Eden and Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher, a outwardly dutiful Methodist, almost certainly believes that she could do a better job than God! Disraeli, although outwardly Anglican, was born Jewish and was probably agnostic. Could an atheist be elected President in the US, or (for example), an George Bush style Christian in Britain?

  18. Rimfire: I think if a Presidential candidate stood up and declared himself (or herself) an atheist, they would certainly loose the election.

  19. Mmm, interesting question Rimfire. I dont think the Brits would elect a very religious Prime Minister - they would think he was odd, or likely to hear voices. For some reason Brits think religion is something people should keep private. The more Tony Blair talked about religion, the more people distrusted him.

  20. I agree - and that's definitely a good thing. Religion should be private, and I hate the way that all American presidential candidates have to talk about God and church all the time in order to get elected.


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