Lambeth Palace from the south. Circa 1685. Wikicommons/ Anonymous - A picture from the collection of the Museum of London. To the north, many of the riverside buildings off of Whitehall and the Strand may be seen. Some rights reserved.
A lot depends on where you come from. It affects your way of seeing.
Arriving from the India of the eighties, it seemed only normal to hear the Dalai Lama addressing a congregation in a Christian church in London. Coming from India in 2018, one gets anxious hearing Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi chants in a Brighton church. Some fanatic Christians may come and disrupt the well-advertised multi-faith event. They may be provoked further by the weekly prayer meeting being held in the neighbouring Bahai Centre. Nothing of the sort happens. No one arrives to protest.
Multi-faith prayers mark the Brighton church’s reopening as Saint Augustine’s Centre for the Arts, Spirituality and Wellbeing! The church building fell into disrepair as the number of worshippers dwindled and it remained disused for 10 years. A real estate developer made the church appear in its new avatar! He bought the building, renovated it and rechristened it. The reincarnation of this Brighton church is not a miracle. Such incidents keep happening in Britain.
The new owner is a Christian with an interest in other faiths. He looks enchanted by the Sufi prayers. This writer is unable to concentrate on the words of faith. He is distracted by thoughts of religion-politics interactions in Britain and in India. The new owner is a Christian with an interest in other faiths. He looks enchanted by the Sufi prayers.
Inside the reopened church, the Gothic architectural setting flaunts contemporary furniture. Modern lights illuminate the high ceiling and walls. The Lady Chapel area is offered as an “unusual setting for boardroom meetings”. Sixty people can be seated for theatre-style talks or 20 people can sit around a large board room table. The Alter area is “an exciting space for powerful business presentations” as well as “a space for spiritual enlightenment”. For 36 pounds an hour, the corporates can invite guests to take their seats. The café and the holistic therapy centre are in business.
Gothic interior. Author's photograph.While cafés pop up in church buildings across the UK, a village pub has started holding a regular church service in its precincts. There is no opposition. The pub-owner says Christianity does not disapprove of drinking.
Once upon a time
The Hindu-Buddhist-Sufi prayers being held in a Christian church building reaffirm inter-faith harmony that was once generally valued in India. In the eighties, one had come to the UK from an India where devout Hindus passing by a mosque or a church bowed their heads.
During a visit to Britain in 1955, writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri went to the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge on Easter Sunday. Moved by the service, he wrote: “I said to myself that if anywhere I, a Hindu, could think of becoming a Christian it was in such a place.”
Brighton renovated church building.In an Indian town in the late fifties, a bearded old man used to stand for hours on a street corner talking of Jesus Christ. A respected Sanskrit-knowing Hindu was safely invited to address the evening prayer meeting in a local mosque. India is dotted with places of worship visited by devotees belonging to different faiths.
Of course, India was never free of sectarian clashes, but respected community leaders always moved fast to restore normalcy. The participants in violence would later show remorse. Mutual hatred did not last long. Usually, all was forgotten and forgiven. In normal times, Hindu and Muslim neighbours live peacefully, the two telling each other: “You do your things, we do ours”. The majority community did not display triumphalism. That was the India that was. “You do your things, we do ours”. The majority community did not display triumphalism. That was the India that was.
Mental pollution wins elections
Today a politically promoted religious resurgence seems to be transforming India. A thick layer of mental pollution shrouds the nation. Bigoted political leaders spew sectarian hatred and get away with it. They are encouraged and helped by the print and audio-visual media and even more by social media.
Newspaper headlines tell a depressing story. A Hindu-Muslim wedding is disrupted by goons. An inter-faith couple in a public garden is thrashed by a group screaming “love jihad”. Journalists who do not promote sectarianism are threatened. The principle of secularism is attacked openly. The secular people are called “sickular”. A religious minority is threatened. At times their place of worship is vandalised.
It is not a genuine religious resurgence. All this is done to polarise voters. Religion is deployed blatantly to win every electoral battle. Sectarian strife disturbs social harmony. But it helps a Hindu nationalist party whose electoral strategy involves religion-inspired aggressive political mobilisation. This strategy calls for generating sectarian tensions in the run up to elections. Attacking a religious minority in election speeches helps in the consolidation of Hindu votes.
Religion has become central to politics as some poll campaigns in India indicate. The behaviour pattern of Hindus has helped. They prostrate themselves before the gods as well as before their mortal heroes. Nirad C. Chaudhuri points out that “between the secular prostrations and prostrations before the gods there is only a difference of degree and not of kind, because in India the most powerful political leadership is itself quasi-religious.”
Niradbabu did not live on to see an Indian temple with the idol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his supporters being called “devotees”. This aspect of Hindu behaviour makes Indian democracy vulnerable to religious frenzy.
Some other features of the Hindu tradition are designed to sustain and enrich democracy. Hinduism features millions of gods and goddesses constituting a grand Divine Parliament! What could be more diverse and multi-cultural? Hinduism has no single Book nor a central religious authority. It embraces even non-believers in its fold. It has varied philosophical schools and a long tradition of scepticism, argumentation and disbelief. Scholarly debates once prevailed over theological divisions.
Notwithstanding this glorious legacy, the faith tradition has been hijacked for narrow ends and is used as an effective tool for political mobilisation. Even the complex caste system and the multiplicity of gods and goddesses do not always frustrate a plan to rally a majority of Hindus behind one political banner.
A political formation organises communal display of faith and taps it for electoral gains. Increased intolerance and violence mark the process as fiery rhetoric incites religious passion. That is why coming from the India of 2018, one feared trouble outside that Christian church in Brighton on that sunny afternoon.
Religious nationalism anywhere is always aggressive. True religion could not be read on the faces of the Hindus mobilised by a political party to demolish a mosque in India. According to Steve Bruce, who has written extensively on sociology of religion, the most violent individuals were usually the least personally religious. He also notes that many of the churches played a key role in encouraging reconciliation. In India religious leaders do little to bring about reconciliation between clashing faith groups. Some NGOs and secular and leftist parties make heroic efforts to counter hate and violence.
India’s present ruling party says it is committed to “Hindu nationalism” – a mixed-up concept based on imported ideas. Leaving aside the party’s Fascist tendencies, it is to be noted that “Nationalism” was borrowed from Europe. And temple politics, through which nationalism is promoted, has no place in the original Hindu faith tradition. Temple cults were borrowed from western Asia. Even after their adoption by Hindus, these retained the features they had in their homelands. Christianity had fought and triumphed over these very cults.
Christianity was a violent religion in the era of the Crusades of the 11th century. However, to see Britain as an image of contemporary India where nationalism needs to be clothed in religious idiom, one has to go back to the 16th and 17th centuries that saw constant sectarian strife. Religion was nationalism then. In fact, religion was a 16th century word for nationalism. Over the centuries, English nationalism discarded its religious garb. And in the last few decades, religion itself became a spent force. Over the centuries, English nationalism discarded its religious garb. And… religion itself became a spent force.
Today no Protestant group displays a messianic fervour. No one retaliates or feels hurt if a church is converted into a multi-faith institution. Different faith groups co-exist in peace and even intermingle on special occasions.
Surprisingly in Britain the rise of militant Islam has not led to a major spurt in Christian militancy. Attacks on mosques and Sikh temples have increased but these are not politically motivated, and the criminals do not enjoy political patronage. And there is no religious inspiration behind these. And all hate crimes are taken seriously by the police and politicians.
The two major parties in Britain have regular internal debates to scrutinise if any of their members has been affected by the virus of Islamophobia or anti-Semitism. Racial prejudice is sought to be curbed and not encouraged with a view to winning votes. In the current situation marked by Islamic militancy, the election of a Muslim as the Mayor of London and the appointment of a Muslim as the UK’s Home Secretary cannot be dismissed as token gestures.
Hate speech has no place in Britain’s political culture. Fifty years ago, senior Conservative leader Enoch Powell made a speech in an attempt to instil the fear of immigrants. That one statement ended his political career. A few weeks ago, a Tory councillor in Britain was suspended for Islamophobic comments on social media. Some Labour Party leaders have faced disciplinary action because their statements were considered anti-Semitic.
The US and the UK
The political scene in the US is different. There a Charlottesville Hate Marcher belonging to a pro-White group recently got elected to a Republican Party post. Britain does not witness the US-style culture wars. In America, a Christian group may indulge in competitive communalism, raise anti-Islam slogans and behave violently.
In America Islamic militancy has given rise to Christian militancy. Bigoted pastors issue fiery statements and campaign for their chosen political leader. A special breed of American voters called “evangelical voters” command considerable political influence in selected areas.
President Donald Trump banks on bigoted pastors one of whom was chosen for giving the controversial benediction at the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. This fanatic has a record of inciting against religious minorities including Mormons, Catholics, Jews and Muslims. This pastor supported Trump during the election and blamed President Obama for paving the way for the Antichrist! Britain does not produce such priests.
President George Bush had a direct line to God who presumably asked him to invade Iraq. Bush was never shy of making a reference to his proximity to God. In Britain, even a practising Christian among its political leaders does not wear his faith on his sleeves. If a politician professes his Christian faith too much, journalists start pelting him with hostile questions.
British Prime Minister Theresa May offered an Easter message in which she spoke of herself as a vicar’s daughter. But she takes care to say that “we don’t flaunt our faith.” Her approach has been described as “a very English form of understated belief”.
Margaret Thatcher opposed the national lottery because she was a Methodist. She did not hesitate to discuss religion and was not amused by the Archbishop of Canterbury and some bishops talking of the inner cities and the Falklands War. Tony Blair converted to Catholicism only after leaving the Prime Minister’s office.
In Britain, the demand for restricting the number of immigrants is driven by economic reasons rather than religious prejudice. Many Christians seem to have drawn a different lesson from Islamic militancy. They perhaps link violence to religions in general rather than to one particular religion. They have become more indifferent to religion.
Of course, Britain remains a predominantly Christian country. It has a long history of close interaction between the church and the state. Royal occasions provide an opportunity for the two institutions to display their bond. The monarchy as well as political institutions such as Parliament are associated with faith and religious rituals. The formal links have not been snapped despite official secularisation and the social trend of moving away from religion.
The Archbishop of Canterbury lives in a mansion far grander than the modest abode of the Prime Minister and gets as much publicity as the Prime Minister. However, as a historian points out, “the effect of the Church upon the day-to-day lives of its supposed members had long since been subordinated to a variety of secular influences”. The Archbishop of Canterbury lives in a mansion far grander than the modest abode of the Prime Minister and gets as much publicity as the Prime Minister.
The British clergy’s conduct also discourages the political leaders from thinking of misusing religion. In some countries, men of religion keep quiet when their faith is hijacked by the ruling party. Some willingly get enlisted by politicians to incite sectarian passions.
When social harmony is disturbed, a minority religious leader has to be careful in what he says. In India, a letter of instruction from the Archbishop of the Delhi Diocese to its churches to pray for the nation was construed as an attack on the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister! Because of that innocuous letter, the Archbishop got mauled in social media by the devotees of the powerful political leader. Those benefiting from mixing religion with politics start warning others against mixing the two.
Speaking truth to power
The clergymen of Britain can and do speak truth to power. They often condemn the Government’s anti-poor policies and cuts in the welfare budget. The Church comes out with reports on the plight of the poor. It has contributed a great deal to creating the impression that Thatcherism was to blame for growing spiritual and economic poverty of the inner cities.
Senior clergymen oppose the Government’s “immoral” move even if it seeks to enhance British power. For example, Anglican Clergyman Canon John Collins, along with philosopher Bertrand Russel, led the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. A clergyman was the vice-president of the CND for years. A few church leaders oppose Britain waging wars, though the Government always ignores their view. Politicians know that they can afford to ignore the church leaders. After all, how many Brigades does the Pope have?
Some politicians resent those in dog collars campaigning against welfare reform. The churches bypass the official structures providing food banks and housing and employment advice. All religions talk of love, compassion and service. Churches in Britain, like in other countries, implement the message by running educational institutions and by collecting money for providing relief and deploying volunteers to help the poor, homeless and starved. One Archbishop hoped that the Church will fill the void left by a failing state. He saw the mood generated by economic problems as “the greatest opportunity” for the Church.
(Part II follows)
All the photographs were taken by the author.
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