Faith is still the warp and weft of our society
David Johnson considers how the legacy of religion still affects our lives in many ways
During a recent visit to Canterbury I saw Antony Gormley's new sculpture, Transport. Shaped in the form of a human body, it is made entirely of old nails removed from the cathedral roof during restoration.
Suspended in the crypt over the site of Thomas Becket's first tomb, Gormley's "body" represents a transitory place briefly housing the spirit for the duration of earthly life. For me it made an optimistic statement, looking both backwards to the many lives the cathedral has touched over 1,000 years, and forwards to life in another place.
It is just one modern example of religion's influence upon society over 2,000 years. Just think how Christianity has shaped the English language and literary heritage, our artistic, architectural and musical treasures. The church was promoting education, social well-being and charitable endeavour long before the welfare state, and the interplay between church and people has in large part created our national identity.
Of course over the centuries religion has had its less glorious moments. But the role of faith changes with time. So the Queen has chosen to interpret her role in the 21st century as not merely head of a sectarian Church of England, but to promote tolerance as protector of the free expression of all faiths in Britain.
To appreciate this you don't have to be a practising member of a faith. But there is danger in enjoying the fruit without looking after the roots. For if you do abandon the rituals, ceremonies and prayers, then where do you find inspiration or moral guidance? The secularists and atheists too often adopt an illiberal and negative stance. It is easy to destroy what is precious, but hard to replace it.
As Gormley says of his new sculpture: "We are all the temporary inhabitants of a body. It is our house, instrument and medium. Through it, all impressions of the world come and from it all our acts, thoughts and feelings are communicated." It is a reminder that there is more to life than just us.
And while I hold no particular brief for prayers before council meetings, I can think of nothing so sublime as attending cathedral evensong where voices, organ and prayer mingle together amid the soaring arches and pillars. This outpouring of devotion happens daily in cathedrals up and down the country; attendance is free, requires no participation and is massively under-appreciated. Yet it is invariably an uplifting and mystical experience. It may not be heaven in a literal sense, but for me it is very close nonetheless.
David Johnson is an honorary fellow of the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester